The Frontal Cortex

Men Behaving Badly

Rebecca Solnit, author of some wonderful books, astutely describes one of the worst side-effects of testosterone:

We were preparing to leave [a party in Aspen] when our host said, “No, stay a little longer so I can talk to you.” He was an imposing man who’d made a lot of money in advertising or something like that.

He kept us waiting while the other guests drifted out into the summer night, and then sat us down at his grainy wood table and said to me, “So? I hear you’ve written a couple of books.”

I replied, “Several, actually.”

He said, in the way you encourage your friend’s 7-year-old to describe flute practice, “And what are they about?”

They were actually about quite a few different things, the six or seven out by then, but I began to speak only of the most recent on that summer day in 2003, my book on Eadweard Muybridge, the annihilation of time and space and the industrialization of everyday life.

He cut me off soon after I mentioned Muybridge. “And have you heard about the very important Muybridge book that came out this year?”

So caught up was I in my assigned role as ingenue that I was perfectly willing to entertain the possibility that another book on the same subject had come out simultaneously and I’d somehow missed it. He was already telling me about the very important book — with that smug look I know so well in a man holding forth, eyes fixed on the fuzzy far horizon of his own authority.

So, Mr. Very Important was going on smugly about this book I should have known when Sallie interrupted him to say, “That’s her book.” Or tried to interrupt him anyway.

But he just continued on his way.

I sometimes wonder if such assholery is a particular problem in the hard sciences. This isn’t sexism in the traditional sense: it’s more like an extreme form of condescension, where it’s automatically assumed that the female grad student will need more hand-holding/reassurance/coddling/etc. Is this a problem? Ladies, please share your stories in the comments section.


  1. #1 Amy
    April 24, 2008

    I was once at a lab meeting where the PI continually interrupted a female post-doc and told her that she should do this one experiment before letting her finish her presentation. When she finished her presentation it turned out that she had actually done that experiment and gotten results, but that she just hadnt had the chance to finish talking yet. It wasn’t anything too offensive, but I’m sure it wouldn’t have happened if the post-doc had been a man.

    I personally thinka bigger problem is the whole pregnancy issue. PI’s don’t want to hire a post-doc who will be “distracted” by things like “kids”.

  2. #2 Steve Higgins
    April 24, 2008

    Uhhh… I’ve seen plenty of women who do the same types of things. What evidence at all is there that this is male specific. I find suggestions like this just as sexist.

  3. #3 Lab Cat
    April 24, 2008

    I’ve had similar experiences at conferences. I would be chatting knowledgeably to a company rep or a colleague who would then turn to me and say something like “that is very interesting, I must talk to your advisor”. As if I could not know enough to continue the discussion. And as for the idea that I might be PI (which I am) in my own right. I was not keen to buy from that company in the future.

    Both men and women have done it to me. But do they do it to men?

  4. #4 A
    April 24, 2008

    Although the linked article gives a bit more reason to attribute this to sexism (the whole ‘ashen-faced’ part), I still agree with Steve. Frankly, if I was caught out talking about a book & not realizing that I was talking to the authour, I’d go ashen-faced too. Out of embarrassment.

    Furthermore, I’m not so sure about “Men explain things to me, and to other women, whether or not they know what they’re talking about. I do this. Well, if you add in “and to other men” in the middle. Sometimes people just enjoy hearing their own voices, it doesn’t have to have anything to do with sexism.

    (Of course, I would like to think that I’m not such a jerk when blathering, but that’s not the point)

  5. #5 T
    April 24, 2008

    I wouldn’t read this as sexism, the condescension doesn’t necessarily come from a feeling of male superiority over women. I’d read it as a guy trying to pick up, especially in the way he asked her to stay later. (Human, not sexist).
    He’s attracted to her, and probably attracted to intelligent women. So, the guy’s trying to get laid and wants to flatter her with intelligent conversation on something she’s interested in. Her whole book thing is embarrassing but for a moment she was intrigued by the possibility of an alternative work.

    Also, she writes him up as Mr. VIP and describes him as smug etc, which is a reverse type of condescension. I’m not trusting this is a fair reportage. She wasn’t attracted to him, and wasn’t impressed that he hadn’t her of her. This is just a clash of two self-important people.

  6. #6 Gelf
    April 24, 2008

    I agree that it is learned behaviour that all genders display. The mindset is old and we all do out parts to educate and help each other be rid of it, but we have a lot of ground to cover.

    My best first hand example was the (female) sales rep at some specialty chemical supplier who asked me to “ask my chemist” if substitute compounds for something backordered would be useful. I emailed back and said something to the effect that since i was the one doing the chemistry, my boss didn’t really have an opinion on the matter, though the rep was free to contact HER if she wanted. I was firm but not overly snarky.

  7. #7 Mike P
    April 24, 2008

    Steve Higgins & A,

    It may or it may not have something to do with sexism, and that sexism may or may not be implicit and unrecognized. That’s why this is a discussion, not a pronouncement.

    That’s the nasty thing about sexism. Sex roles are so ingrained that we hardly notice the subtle sleights experienced by women that happen as a matter of course. If they identify something they perceive to be a sleight, then I think it’s only right we have a discussion about whether that is or isn’t related to sexism.

    Inequality of the sexes is still very much a reality. Until that’s not the case, do be careful with your allegations of “reverse-sexism,” because it’s only through conscientious consideration of claims of sexism that we can make strides toward eliminating it.

  8. #8 RMR
    April 24, 2008

    What’s worse is the pressure put on budding female scientists by senior female researchers. While debating whether to continue animal research versus moving into human research (the former considered to be more badass by some) as an undergrad, I was told by another – almost apologetic – female grad student that “at the very least… we could always use another woman.” I have also witnessed a female mentor trashing another pregnant PhD student: “Have you seen that ring? Her husband is so loaded of COURSE she can afford to teach, research, AND have another kid. And did you know her thesis was only [blahblahblah] pages? Hmmm….” I was enrolled in a couple courses taught by said pregnant PhD student… she was brilliant, fyi.

    Of course, this is easily interpreted as some sort of “necessary” adaptation in response to sexism in the hard sciences. Must women become more like men (or at least front a man’s attitude) in order to succeed?

  9. #9 Jonah
    April 24, 2008

    Thanks so much for all your comments! People are obviously going to disagree about the topic, but I appreciate the civil tone.

  10. #10 agnostic
    April 24, 2008

    It wasn’t anything too offensive, but I’m sure it wouldn’t have happened if the post-doc had been a man.

    That’s because the average male student has higher testosterone and therefore won’t let others cut him off or speak condescendingly toward him as easily.

    It doesn’t have to get heated, like a gym monkey going on roid rage — just a simple, “Well, just let me finish my sentence and your question will be answered.” In a sober academic setting, that still sounds like, “I’m-a beat yo ass if you don’t shut yo mouth.”

    Both men and women have done it to me. But do they do it to men?

    Probably less so, for the same reason. If a female really makes it in academia, she’s no wimp and will try to push around inferiors just like male academics do (same for any career: law, business, etc.). Students — both male and female — haven’t gone through as skull-stomping of a selection process as profs have, so they are easier to push around than their prof counterparts.

    Male students may be lower in T than profs on average, but the lower value doesn’t lie below a threshold. When you go from female prof to female student, though, you cross a threshold and it becomes much easier to cut them off and talk down to them.

  11. #11 agnostic
    April 24, 2008

    And I second the observation that academics *try* to do this to males too, with equal probability of trying the tactic on a female. It is really a clash between superior and inferior — or at least that’s what the supposedly superior person is testing.

    It’s like when you physically push someone around and see how much they’ll take. That gives you a very good idea of your relative spots in the pecking order.

    I mean, isn’t everyone always complaining about how men in all variety of careers waste time engaging in “pointless dick-swinging contests” with other men? How do you reconcile that with the complaint that men unfairly target women, are more likely to leave men alone, etc.? Let’s get real: men love competing against other men.

  12. #12 Emily
    April 24, 2008

    I found that (as a woman) particularly early in my graduate career that in lab meetings when I offered published data that was in contradiction to what presented my PI would almost always look to the male postdoc in the room for affirmation. I was never believed to have understood or known the literature completely. This IS hard to say if it’s a sexist thing however since the male postdoc was no longer a student as I was.

  13. #13 Jeff
    April 24, 2008

    I agree with Mike P. wholeheartedly. His comments brought me back to my gender and women’s studies classes at Berkeley– classes that are coming in handy living with oft-backwards ways of thinking here in Houston. (Backwards isn’t the best descriptor; less progressed is maybe more accurate.)

    T- While sexual desire may be “human”, letting those desires control all aspects of behavior is more animalistic. If he was really trying to get her in bed, he should have used more of his frontal lobe and planned a better strategy than cutting her off and dismissing her success.

  14. #14 Aerik
    April 24, 2008

    But it is sexism in the traditional sense, Jonah. It’s an age-old tactic to assume women are bimbos or babies until proven otherwise.

    Seems like a real ‘duh’ situation to me.

  15. #15 Eve
    April 24, 2008

    I’ve worked in both an astrophysics dept and a psychology dept, and I have never experienced sexism in either one. Granted, psychology tends to have a more females in it than astro, but even in astro there was no question of my intelligence or the intelligence of any other woman in my program. The undergrad humour paper, however…

  16. #16 MattXIV
    April 28, 2008

    Sorry to jump in late, but am I the only one who noticed this story doesn’t make sense. Presumably, if he was going on at length about the book, he’d have seen the author’s name at some point, and since Rebecca isn’t exactly a gender-ambigious name, he’d have known that he was talking about a book by a female author to her. It sounds like the guy likes the sound of his own voice and was trying overly hard to impress her, but it seems implausible that he assumed that she wasn’t the author because of her gender.

  17. #17 Ali
    April 29, 2008

    Of course it’s not a simple either/or variable for gender or power. It’s both. And of course women do it, too. But particularly in the sciences, where men overwhelmingly out-rank women in position, prestige, and power — and sheer numbers! — you’re going to find high status men who use their privileges to take up space. We tend to think this kind of behavior is benign, annoying at worst, but it’s so much more than that. The sociological definition of sexual harassment includes creating a hostile work environment, which means you are consistently made uncomfortable, undervalued, and unheard. Being silenced means not being heard. So simple, but so important. I have yet to meet a women in academia who does not have one of these stories, whereas sometimes I meet men who do, and sometimes I don’t. Not exactly quantitative certainty, but some measure of consistency…

  18. #18 Rachael
    June 5, 2008

    Somehow I missed this on my RSS feed…

    I’ve had a few experiences, some positive and some negative. The negative. My general experience has been that female faculty are aggressive towards other women in the department in obvious ways: talking behind peoples’ backs, being overly critical during presentations, critical/mean of their own students, etc. And I have watched a female faculty member be extremely passive aggressive/difficult with her pregnant post doc, to the point where they did not discuss the post doc’s contract renewal and maternity leave until 3 weeks before her due date. The post doc attempted on at least 6, well-defined occasions to make appointments or engage her adviser in conversation, but the faculty member continued to make excuses and ignore her.

    I also have to take a moment to voice my biggest pet peeve. I am young and I look even younger and of course I’m female. I couldn’t tell you how many times I have stood in line, waiting to talk to a seminar speaker or someone “important”, only to be completely ignored by other people wishing to talk to the same person. It is extremely insulting.

    The good? I happen to work for one of few outspoken male feminists; he is also the department chair. He heavily recruits women and minorities. Sometimes I feel like post docs come to his lab specifically to have children… for example, the other day in lab meeting he offered to babysit for a post doc “anytime”, and he means it. He is accommodating and quite flexible/creative about helping women find good career options. Sometimes these ideas are unconventional: for example, a female post doc didn’t think she wanted to stay in academia; he offers her a two-year, fully funded research associate position during which she can write grants and find students. At the end of the two years, she becomes a faculty member. The lab is a very female-friendly environment as a result of his forward policies. There is hope.

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