Friday, October 21, 2011

Revenge

I am going to to participate in a discussion about women in academia, organized by the group "Feminists at Brown", but do not have much to say about discrimination against women in academia. I am not aware of having experienced it.

However, once, when I was a beginning researcher, I gave a talk at a Dimacs workshop. After the talk, a senior researcher came to me. I waited for him to speak up, eager to hear what he thought of my work and of my talk. He opened his mouth and said: "I liked your talk. You have a nice shirt." I stared at him blankly, too disconcerted to know what to say. In that context, it was quite an offensive comment.

Many years passed before I took my revenge. A couple of years ago I heard Costis Daskalakis, then a beginning researcher, give a talk at a conference. Afterwards, we happened to take the elevator together. I turned to him, smiled and said sweetly: "I liked your talk. You have a nice shirt." He stared at me blankly, disconcerted, not knowing what to say.

How satisfying it is to be mean sometimes. Now there is one more man in the world who has experienced how things are sometimes for women. Sweet is revenge!

29 comments:

  1. But... but... I *do* have a nice shirt.

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  2. Hi Claire,

    In what way (besides not engaging your topic) is complementing your shirt (I assume it was not a see through blouse) offensive? It is because it was a non sequitur (would "You have a nicely shaped head" be more or less offensive since ideas come out of the encephalon? ). Was the tone lecherous?
    I am not a woman but I get compliments about my dress shirts after talks ever so often (I wear hand tailored one with exotic colors)

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  3. Because the implication is that my scientific work or my efforts at communication have no value. The comment meant: "I liked your talk because I liked your shirt and for that reason only". From there it is not much of a stretch to understand the implication: "I don't care what you said. I don't care that we are in a professional setting. You're a woman, so your work has no value. The only thing that matters is how you look."

    It could have been fine if that had been mixed in with other comments instead if being the only comment he made about my talk.

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  4. Next time, you may want to get even with the guy who offended you instead ;-)

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  5. When I was a phd student a professor I knew previously suggested that I should wear tighter trousers and do up my eyebrows because "in a few years it's all over".

    I'm no longer in academia.

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  6. When I was a PhD student a professor suggested me to continue my involvement in semi-professional sports because "in a few years it's all over".

    I'm still in academia.

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  7. Hi Claire,

    In general, I agree with your posts, and I think your interpretation is conceivable (maybe even true). But there are several equally likely explanations. For example, maybe you gave such a clear talk that the senior guy understood everything and had no real comments or questions. In particular, he did like your talk (the first sentence he said), but had nothing to say beyond it. Not to have an awkward silence, he thought of complimenting you, and not knowing much about you (=junior researcher at the time), he complimented your wardrobe. In fact, he might have thought "I am glad she is a woman, because if she was a man I would not know what to say at all. And this way I made a nice compliment. Nice job!"

    What makes you think this was not the case? (Maybe it was not, but from your description looks very plausible.)

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  8. Another possible explanation is that maybe your result was really not that great. Not BECAUSE you are a woman, but as independent event (many men have uninteresting results). So, not wanting to lie (by giving fake compliments to the result he did not like) or offend you (by saying the result was crap), and being compelled to say something (as you expected the feedback), he made you what he thought was a compliment.

    If this is the case, you had the right to be slightly offended, but NOT BECAUSE YOU WERE A WOMAN. Is this a possibility?

    PS. I am aware that all feminists will jump up and say that all men think they have different intentions and can find plausible explanations to their "offensive" behavior, such as above. Unfortunately, these feminists do not explain why they are so CONVINCED that the explanations are fake, taking it as an "axiom" that they are right.

    PPS. While nobody complimented my shirt so far, I often get "compliments" like "really funny animations". I never took offense to it (or, worse, attributed it to me being a man), but perhaps I should :).

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  9. Some lucky woman is going to get a compliment from Costis...

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  10. Hi Claire,

    You say:
    ---------------------------
    The comment meant: "I liked your talk because I liked your shirt and for that reason only". From there it is not much of a stretch to understand the implication: "I don't care what you said. I don't care that we are in a professional setting. You're a woman, so your work has no value. The only thing that matters is how you look."
    ---------------------------

    Never mind that your premise "for that reason only" is a bit of a stretch given what you tell us( in my opinion), but why is it "not too much of a stretch to understand..."? To me seems like it is as big of a stretch as one can make. Where is the "woman" part coming from? And just because he did not care about your specific talk (if we go with your hypothesis which contradicts his first sentence), why generalize to entire professional setting?

    I suspect there is more to the story you are not telling us, like some prior history?

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  11. Sorry, I just lost all my respect for you.

    1. A lot of people have disliked something I did and/or said something offensive to me. Do I pick an arbitrary group they belong to and go about offending completely arbitrary members from that group? I think this is exactly the kind of sentiment that leads to evils like terrorism when blown out of proportion.

    2. We should ask Costis Daskalakis about the incident several years from now. I am fairly certain that he would be using up exactly zero brain cells to remember anything about it. I can't imagine any normal person making such a big deal about a fairly innocuous or at most slightly mischievous remark.

    3. Women who don't get attention from guys because of their looks often convince themselves that getting attention from guys is immoral anyway. I am afraid you might have a similar issue. Someone who was proud of her good looks would never complain about this.

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  12. Let me turn this thread in a positive direction. Even giving the benefit of the doubt to the senior researcher that he may not have meant to be condescending, a simple fact is that social mores, and what words are acceptable, change over time (even if the intention is very good, words that may have been considered appropriate in the past may not be, now). It is best to change with the times and be sensitive to what the current mores are. BTW, contrary to what some outside the US think, I don't think this country is constricted by "PC language". I welcome many of the new mores, e.g., the words we now use when it comes to physical disabilities.

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  13. Though the senior researcher may never have meant to imply anything about women, by making a comment about Claire's appearance while simultaneously showing his disinterest in the talk, he implicitly tied together the fact that she was a woman (no man will ever get comments about his attire, unless it's particularly unusual), and the fact that her talk was not interesting. Or at least, I can understand how a young female scientist might feel that way -- young researchers will place a lot of weight in the words of those already established (perhaps too much, but who can fault them).

    Now, though he most likely did this unintentionally, we should ask ourselves why this particular compliment came to his mind. When he said those sentences, did he subconsciously register the same information that Claire did about her being a woman and giving an uninteresting talk being related? Or did he already have that thought, even if unaware, which is why he subconsciously made that choice of compliment?

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  14. This controversial post is impeccably timed -- merely a day before FOCS in palm springs!

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  15. Claire, you rock! Hope you treat this anonymous cyberbullying with the contempt it deserves...

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  16. This was too funny!

    Perhaps the anonymous commenter who "lost all [their (presumably his)] respect for you" had based this respect on something frivolous, like your shirt.

    I, for one, respect you because of your fascinating work and your sometimes unorthodox style (as evidenced by posts such as this one). I hope you keep both up!

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  17. @A guy -

    Are you trying to say that you also lost some respect, but since you had some respect already, you still have some left?

    By the way, on an unrelated note, when was the last time you got laid?

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  18. Noblesse oblige. Being a senior researcher requires care and sensitivity towards young researchers of all genders.

    PS: Even lesser privileges, like being able to write parsable sentences, come with lesser obligations (such as, not being anonymously insulting like the unfortunate @A guy above...).

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  19. Anonymous 10:11am: I agree.
    Anonymous 11:21am: now, THAT was truly inappropriate. What a way to create a welcoming atmosphere for women in the field!
    Anonymous 12:51, 1:07, 5:42pm: maybe, maybe. Regardless of what the man may have been thinking at the time, it was a distinctly unpleasant moment.
    Anonymous 1:38: LOL
    Anonymous 3:12: no, no prior history. I don't even remember who that guy was.
    Anonymous 3:55: if you knew me in person, I suspect that you would have lost respect for me a long time ago. Now at least you know that I am not a saint.
    Aravind: thanks for the intervention! I owe you a drink.
    Anonymous 6:35: What a funny coincidence, isn't it?
    Anonymous 6:49, 7:23: Thanks for the support!

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  20. It is an interesting anecdote because relations between men and women are complicated by the fact that attraction is a natural thing. So, I think it was not unusual for a senior researcher to have some reaction to your femaleness and what you were wearing. I think what would have been wrong would have been if these were his only thoughts during the talk. And like others mentioned, voicing these thoughts violated the social mores of the context.

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  21. Claire, that was quite a pathetic way to avoid the real issues. Of course, lack of saintliness is not what disturbs me. I have mentioned 3 different problems with your reaction in my comment. Surprisingly, no one seems to address any of them.

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  22. This is such a hilarious story! I wonder what Costis Daskalakis has to say about this incident. :-)

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  23. Anonymous 11:41, you need to first identify yourself if you want me to engage you with any seriousness.

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  24. Claire, you should be ashamed of yourself, terrorizing young researchers in the way that you have. Dude, two wrongs doesn't make a right!

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  25. Excellent blog entry. I really liked the design and fonts of the blog entry. --Sariel

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  26. Sariel, that is too subtle for me. I can't bring myself to be offended by your comment!

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  27. It is nice to see that you are unaware of any discrimination you have experienced as a CS prof. Unfortunately, many women are not as lucky as you. For many, being a female CS professor, graduate student, or undergraduate is often like walking in a minefield of obvious and subversive discrimination.

    As for some of the other comments on this thread: can you (the posters) please check your privilege at the door? If she said it was offensive, it was offensive.

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  28. I just read this post today, and was reminded of some of the comments here.

    Thanks for your interesting blog!

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