“Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.” -John Stuart Mill
No one becomes a master overnight, and practically no one does it without the outside help and support of not just a mentor, but of a number of peers, advisors and other allies along the way. At least, that was my story.
I remember being an undergraduate. I remember the combined struggles of rigorous academics, self-confidence crises, trying to figure myself out as a person, and trying to make friends and forge relationships all at the same time. It was my first foray into the beginnings of adulthood, and I remember being thankful for a number of things.
That there was a group of my peers who I’d work with as we struggled through the problems.
That I had a large number of quality professors and teaching assistants who’d take the time to explain what they knew in a variety of ways.
And that there were a number of professors that I trusted to advise me — both academic and in terms of life lessons — to the best of their knowledge and ability. Whether a professor gave me a good grade, a bad grade, praise or criticism, a recommendation or a refusal, I took for granted that it was based on, if not my actual merits in every case, at least their perception of my merits. I didn’t think about it too much at the time, but not once did I ever have to worry that any one of them was spending their time and effort with me trying to get something from me.
But I was aware that others did. The professor who leaned in just a little too-close-for-comfort, not to everyone, but to one girl in particular. The student invited to an event one evening, only to find out that her lecturer viewed it as a date. And the one professor who always looked me (and the other young men) right in the eye when we spoke, but whose gaze always drifted downward when he spoke with the young women. At first, these weren’t things I noticed, as I was (especially my freshman year) far too wrapped up in my own issues, but as college wore on, I started to recognize that on top of all the things I had to face as an undergraduate majoring in physics, women majoring in physics had one more thing to deal with, too.
Then there was graduate school. There were many of the same struggles to face: significantly more rigorous academics, more nuanced personal and interpersonal struggles, and again the occasional life crisis. But I was better prepared to deal with it; I was older, I had seen more, traveled more, lived more, and become a stronger person. I had spent a year in the (non-academic) “real world,” and was a more seasoned individual. And I was ready to work harder than I’d ever worked in my life to learn what I was most passionate about.
Professors’ doors were always open, and they were always happy to discuss the areas of their profession (and the courses they were teaching) that they were most excited about. If the conversation ever veered in another direction, it was almost always mutual, and it was never inappropriate or unprofessional, at least to me. But I started noticing things I hadn’t noticed before, even as an undergraduate.
The professor who’d talk to a student professionally and politely, then stare at her rear end while she walked away.
The graded assignments that would have flirty little comments and smiley faces, only for the female students.
Gossipy conversations — about other people in the department, obviously — that would mysteriously fall silent whenever certain women walked by (but never the men).
And the way word choice would change ever-so-subtly — like how remarks were “ejaculated” instead of “uttered” — in the presence of certain people.
Now here’s the thing that gets to me: these were only the things I noticed, and I was never the target of these comments, nor did I personally have to deal with any of the ramifications. (And I’m not even a particularly observant person, to be frank.) But it was no longer a wonder to me why there was a gender imbalance at the professorial level in my field; it was a wonder to me that there were as many women who put up with that level of institutionalized sexism.
It’s been more than seven years since I finished graduate school, and now many of my peers are filling the ranks of the professoriate. I’ve seen lots of young men and women come through a few different departments, each going through their own journey of internal and external discovery. Many of them are attractive, interesting, amazing people. That thing you strove for, that journey you took, that support you had (or wish you had) has all gotten you to where you are now, and this is your chance to make it right, once and for all. The institutionalized sexism — or a “socially acceptable” form of sexual harassment — abounds, if only you pay attention and keep your eye out for it.
It’s one thing to say don’t do that. Well, duh. That’s not even advice I need to give to most of you; most of us have more sense than that. Most of us are feminists in exactly the way that Rebecca West meant for us to be, subscribing to “the radical notion that women are people.” Most authority figures in my field aren’t sexist, aren’t sexually harassing anybody, and treat everyone based on their own merits as people. But if we want to really change the culture of our field — if anyone in any field wants to change their field’s culture — we have to call people out on their behavior.
Talk to me about how awesome a student is at their studies: wonderful! Tell me what you’d do to her if you were a little younger? Not okay. Talk to students one-on-one about their work? Perfect. Talk to them one-on-one about their personal lives at their instigation? That’s fine too. Talk to them about either one of your personal lives at your instigation? Dealing with your issues is not their responsibility. Worship how smart and amazing Feynman was for his contributions to quantum field theory? I’m in awe, too. Trying to be like Feynman in all ways, including the overt misogyny and objectification of women? Not in my house; not in my department.
Look, I’m not perfect, and I’ve never expected anyone else to be. I’m not telling you not to forge a connection with your students, and I’m not even saying that no one is ever allowed to find love in this weird, taboo place. I’m saying that you have a responsibility to treat every person that comes through with kindness and respect. Not with kindness and respect as they relate to you, but as people with their own hopes, dreams, fears, demons, abilities and minds. You are to be their resource and their ally. And you are to stand up for them whenever another authority figure steps out of line.
And if every man in science reads this and commits to building this world we want to live in, we can put an end to institutionalized sexism and harassment like this. And men and women both can take their rightful places in this world: as people.