Let’s not talk about Tim Hunt.
(Okay, a little: He’s the Nobel laureate who told the World Conference of Science Journalists, “Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. Three things happen when they are in the lab: you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them, they cry.”)
Instead, let’s talk about the invisible sexism and gender inequality pervasive in graduate school and industry, emphasized the panelists for the Graduate Women in Science’s Fall Career Development Panel, and let’s figure out how to effect meaningful change in the workplace.
On October 20, Dr. Donna Bickford, Associate Director of the Office of Undergraduate Research at UNC, Dr. Katherine Bruce, Assistant Professor at Salem College, and Dr. Martha Reiskind, Research Assistant Professor at NC State, hosted an honest conversation about microaggressions, social gender norms, and general advice for dealing with a hostile work environment.
Though the panelists and the attending graduate students were loath to talk about one individual’s aggression, they looked incredibly favorably upon the social media movement, #DistractinglySexy, which resulted from Hunt’s comments.
The hashtag movement declares that, “You can be feminine, and you can be a scientist,” said Dr. Bruce, a sociologist. It breaks from reactionary notions that women must adopt masculine behavior in order to excel in their professions, as well as fosters a larger support community for women who may often feel isolated as the only female in their lab.
The biggest disappointment of the #DistractinglySexy campaign though, was the lack of genuine conversation that followed. Dr. Bickford, an English professor, said that many men agreed with the sentiment of the movement but dismissed further concerns of daily sexism in the workplace, citing men like Hunt as anomalies and the sole perpetrators: “There are a few dinosaurs, but they’re dying.”
The panelists addressed the difficult question of how a woman ought to stand up to offending men in the workplace. “You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t… How do you blow the whistle without being betrayed?” asked Dr. Reiskind, who addresses issues of sexism in her lab. Especially in situations where the perpetrator is in a position of power, calling out sexist behavior carries the risk of being perceived as a “baying witch,” while remaining silent condemns one to perpetual harassment.
On the question of inaction from women, Dr. Reiskind described the utter disbelief, echoed by the other panelists, that often strikes when assault or harassment has occurred– the bizarre nature of the situation may prevent women from speaking up in the immediate moment where action may be conducive to behavior remediation.
Ultimately, this panel set out to solve problems. While no legislation was passed or cases resolved, holding honest, open conversations to more deeply understand issues is the first step in creating gender-equal workplaces.