Thursday, November 09, 2017

some thoughts on #metoo and women

Like everyone I've seen the feeds of #meetoo on social media. I didn't want to add myself in the mix while I was thinking. Mainly because I thought it was fairly common knowledge that women are being harassed, partly because I am private about "what happened to me" since it's private. Yes, this would be one of the issues that make the harassment difficult to stop, the shame and non-privacy aspect.

Anyway, after these more than two weeks since it broke a few things stand out to me.

First, it's been a huge thing in Sweden where equality work and feminism is on the active political agenda (two of the political parties have very clear wording on what they would like to accomplish in terms of future society, and almost all party leaders call themselves feminists). It's been a drive to "stop this culture of harassment now!" and demonstrations and now the latest the secretary of arts becoming involved with the national dramatic scene since 456 actresses published an article today telling their stories of harassment and sexual abuse in their work spaces (theatre and movie industry as well).

Second, the comments from not just one man but several in my vicinity where they've opened with various comments as "I just don't understand, those allegations refer to something that happened years ago" and "really, it's just a comment - it's not that bad", not to mention "Do you really think all these women have had something happened to them, maybe just someone calling them cute in the workplace, that's really not harassment". And of course, with utmost sincerity "well, it hasn't happened to you right - so not all women" and the subsequent shock when I had to reply to them "It's happened to me, several time and degrees. I don't think I know any of my female friends over 25 who hasn't had an inappropriate come on from a coworker/manager, and let's not even go into the bar scene where everyone I know have had a least one man grabbing their boobs or butt" (I tend to separate the drunken incidents from the general discussion since I have noticed that "I was drunk" is a common point of excuse and takes the focus out of the actual problem - the touching/harassment.)

Third, the subdiscussion coming out of this where a bunch of men, and women, start yelling and talking about "this makes it impossible to joke at the workplace" and "all these women turning into victims and this isn't helping women's image as strong at all". It's been a surge in the "let¨s all do the Mike Pence way and not be alone with a woman if you are a man" thinking. Not as much discussion about what kind of jokes are you really throwing around in a workplace? It's not your home you know.

To me the obvious faulty step with the third point is that it really says "a man can not be left alone with a woman since then he will assault her because he can't control himself". I call BS on that. Most men I know have no issue being alone with a woman and nothing goes out of hand. Some men are bullies(opportunist/sociopaths/harassers/bad people). These people are always going to use a one-on-one situation to their advantage. For the life of me I can't understand why not more men are raising to the occasion and saying "I don't want to be associated with those men, therefore I will not be the silent witness around".  Not to mention that the idea that a man can't control their behaviour around a women when opportunity arises to be doing something alone seems to me to be.... let's say very animalistic and basic, not really civilized and being in control of your own body and mind. Something similar to the argument that a woman can't be president because we don't know what will happen when her ovaries gives her PMS and she has access to the nukes. Yes, BS.

If we bring it back to the science scene, rather than the acting scene since I'm a trained scientist and have spent more than two decades in academia and pharma. Science and art have similar feature when it comes to perpetuating the genius image. You know the "he is so talented and successful, super special" feature. The golden lab with the associations. The PI who gets all the grants, the PR and the glory. The lab where you go and then you get invitation letters to the ball with the keys to the kingdom after a successful grad studies/post doc/first appointment.

And when genius is involved, a lot of things slide. Same with money, when money gets involved - a lot of things are overlooked. You want to keep the golden ticket and be associated with the gold and the glitter. Especially if you have invested in them. The higher up, the more protection. Nothing new about that.

I'm missing the biggest discussion I have had though. I touch on it in the second comment above. "It doesn't seem so bad that someone would lose their job now 15 years later" - mentioned in context about "he touched her thigh under the dinner table at a state dinner" and "he talked about oral sex in front of me when I thought we were going to talk about work". I had to get into the nitty gritty details and explain the surrounding extra things that to my surprise was not on the radar of the person I was speaking to. Then again, while talking I remember again that the perception of "threat" is very different when you are a tall man compared to a average woman. Not to mention that if you go to a state dinner to discuss affairs of the state, is it a positive to realize that the man next to wants to touch and grab you, rather than respecting you to know your thoughts and politics about the issues at hand?

Long story short, the upsetting (and unacceptable) part in these stories are when you as a woman have to encounter sexual advances from men while you think that you are discussing work, while they are not remotely interested in you as a contributor to the science, but rather to make them feel good and feel manly and in control. Every such encounter adds to your archive of incidents and after a few years, you start seeing these (what some people call) small incidents as the start of something bigger. It's the "feeler/grooming" territory. It's about not respecting your boundaries since they are not even a part of the conversation. It's also simply about power and a little help from their friends.

It's been said SO many times, most of these men know exactly what they are doing. They are not behaving like this with everyone. They do it when they know they have the power. And maybe most galling, the do it when they know that the other (powerful) men around them will not do anything against them.

I wrote on twitter awhile back "Do they behave in this way in front of their wife or daughter?". If they do, they fall into a very clear abuser definition since they are very entitled. A lot of them do not though. They know where the line is when other people whom they need to maintain a good character in front of are watching. After a dinner at a conference where they are in control is not one of those times.

A friend and I talked about the age old "professor sleeps with student" scenario that seems to be so  difficult to get understanding that it is not appropriate and never excusable. Never mind the post-doc/grad student in a relationship with PI. The latter is especially galling to me since I've heard the excuse so many times "she is a grown woman and can choose what she wants. You don't know thtat the PI inserted influence and there was anything inappropriate going on". (I say her since it's mainly female post-doc/grad student with male PI). Never mind the whole structure in science that we know that if your post-doc PI doesn't support your future career in science, it's going to be very hard for you to get the keys to get invited. And IF your PI opens the door to inappropriate behaviour, how difficult is it to reject the advances without hurting that precious position? And especially if you know that your institution nor the other PIs/people in power doesn't have the best track record of helping you/the non faculty. So WHY would the PI want to risk their reputation on this? (Because they don't risk that much, that would be my short answer).

When I started in science I naively thought that the employee handbook - where it clearly states "no person can have a relationship with someone who is their direct report" - was a rule. My friend works in a place where they have the same rule. I saw that Berkley, San Diego and the other universities that have been in the news for their disgraced PIs lately have similar writings. Yet, when it comes to geniuses, or people who has secured a lot of grant funding, these rules are just not as easy. And most often it's the "oh, would you really want to ruin his life and lab, it was just a little touching, or a late night text. Surely you can take the compliment and not make a fuzz." The colleagues to the person stepping over the line silently distancing themselves doesn't help either.

The long and short of this rant is this:
To me it's obvious what a lot of this confusion is about when it come to "why such a big deal". It's that specific feeling of being regarded as meat, as someone's pleasure, regardless if you have a will of your own since their will overrides everything else. You should be happy that this genius is interested in you - not your mind though - but wanting to be with you. You should thankful that they deem you interesting enough to care about them. I guess they think that the shine will rub off once they sully your body with their hands or their thoughts about what they can do to you.

I don't think they have ever considered how impersonal it is to be viewed only as a piece of meat (boobs, butt or other parts) that makes them feel happy and aroused. Because really, isn't that what being a woman should be all about? Being admired and wanted for our looks. We all apparently want to be Helen of Troy, not Morgaine Le Fay.

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