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Sexual Harassment Isn’t Funny, and it’s Time We Shut it Down

Recently, I was sitting in a local coffee shop grading papers, trying to mind my own business. Two young women were working behind the counter of this intimate little shop, and I couldn’t help but overhear their conversation. It began with casual talk of guys—cute guys, flirting with guys, which guys had hit on them recently, and what Halloween costumes they wanted to wear when they went out partying with guys (Sexy Baseball Player was mentioned). It was innocent enough, just two young women sharing their thoughts about the attention they were getting, or wanted to get, from men.  But then the conversation, while remaining light hearted and full of giggles, took a turn I never expected.

They started telling tales of sexual harassment they had experienced at work.

I grew furious-not at them, but at the realization that for all the advancements women have made, some things still haven’t changed.

Like women being sexually harassed at work and standing for it.

This was a public establishment, and these women had to know their words would reach the patrons’ ears. But they didn’t seem to mind. In fact, their tone did not change—the exchange did not become conspiratorial, their voices didn’t become hushed. They spoke about it as if it were completely normal, completely acceptable, and maybe even welcomed. They joked about it as if their shared experience was nothing but harmless workplace antics. I was confused, and my heart was breaking.

It started with the recounting of something the manager had said to one of them: “You know, you shouldn’t come to work so clean, it makes me want to taste you.”

“Oh my God, he said that?” responded the other woman, with a hearty laugh.

They laughed together. My stomach dropped.

And then: “Remember that time he had me pinned up against the register? It was all I could do not to gag and push him off of me.” The laughter continued, no trace of them being indignant.  I kept waiting for them to begin a discussion about what they were going to do to address the unwelcome and inappropriate behavior.

They didn’t.

I was completely distracted, torn between angry disbelief at their acceptance of this behavior, and the protective instinct to tell them it wasn’t their fault. I wanted to say, “You know, you don’t have to put up with that kind of treatment. You don’t deserve that.”

No woman does.

But I kept quiet. What if they enjoy it, I wondered. Maybe I am taking this too seriously. Maybe they encourage these advances and I should just keep my nose out of their business.

But here’s the thing: convincing ourselves that it is no big deal allows men to think they can behave this way. It is what leads to pussy grabbing and forced kisses and uninvited groping and comments about our bodies.

It’s what leads to sexual assault.

I don’t think there is a woman alive who hasn’t experienced this in some form. In 1989, I worked with a man who was flirtatious. He was more than twice my age. He fed me tidbits about his sex life, and sometimes asked me questions about mine. I was fifteen, I had no sex life, and I didn’t know that I was being harassed. I enjoyed this attention from an older man. It made me feel grown up. He never touched me and I never spoke up. But looking back, I know that it was harassment, and he should have known better.

Has nothing changed in twenty-seven years?

Women, young or old, should never have to accept harassment. So why did the young baristas laugh it off? Maybe their laughter was a way for them to cope with an infuriating situation without the risk of losing their jobs. Maybe their shared laughter was a way of saying, “I hear you.” Maybe it is because it is still so pervasive and so acceptable to treat women this way that we don’t even see it when it is happening to us. Maybe it’s simply easier to convince ourselves that it isn’t a big deal.

It is a big deal.

As women, we have a responsibility to say no to this nonsense.  It devalues us as equal human beings. We cannot make light of it anymore. As a mother of boys, I will work tirelessly to teach my sons to respect women, but it’s not enough. We all need to empower our daughters to reject harassment. In a time when our country is on the brink of a women’s revolution we, as women, have a critical role to play. We have to demonstrate to our daughters what we will and won’t stand for. We have to say enough is enough.

Sexual harassment isn’t funny.  It isn’t cute.  It isn’t something we can afford to be quiet about any longer.  If we want to be valued as equal creatures to men, and we want to be paid equally for equal work, we cannot simply laugh it off when we are treated as objects to be toyed with.

We have to take control of our own worth, and set the bar for how we expect to be treated.

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Phashionable PhDs

Today a student in my class came to my office to turn in a homework assignment. Out of the blue she said to me, “This has nothing to do with the class, but can I just say I really like the way you dress!” It got me thinking about all of the attention being paid lately to how appearance affects being a female academic. First, it was the sexy PhD Halloween costume and associated comments by actual women PhDs. Have you seen this costume? I am a woman with a PhD and I can say with complete confidence, women with PhDs, even sexy ones, wouldn’t wear that. And why does the costume look like a bad high school graduation robe? When you get a PhD you are regaled with a hood – where’s the hood?

Next came the piece on theguardian.com by Francesca Stavrakopoulou entitled Female Academics: Don’t power dress, forget heels – and no flowing hair allowed. In the piece Francesca, who is a female academic, discusses how female academics get more attention paid to their appearance than male academics, and that dressing too feminine can be thought to detract from the likelihood that people will take you seriously. My question is this: why do we take male academics who don’t brush their hair, have questionable hygiene habits, and wear mismatched clothing from 1989 seriously but have trouble taking a woman in a fashionable dress and heels seriously? Francesca says another female academic once told her that she shouldn’t wear her hair down, but should tie it back so people could concentrate better on what she was saying. As if by wearing your hair down, as a woman, you are inviting people to ignore your scientific contribution, check out of the conversation, and instead blankly stare at your silky mane admiringly. How lame does this woman think academics are that they would be distracted from science by a woman’s hair? The same guys who cannot be bothered to find a pair of socks that match, or buy a new and stylish jacket once in a while, or clean the egg yolk off their ties, are somehow completely incapacitated intellectually by a lady’s long locks? Wow. That is some bullshit right there. Francesca, you keep right on being your beautiful self.  Those who care about your work will pay attention, regardless of the length of your hair or the height of your heels.

I, for one, believe everyone should be able to dress in a way that makes them feel comfortable, confident, and attractive, and that depends on the individual’s idea of what is comfortable and what looks good on them. We don’t all agree on what looks best, which is why it is so wonderful that in this country we are free to choose what we want to wear and shop for our own clothes. But the idea that there is a right or a wrong way to dress as a female academic, with no such boundary conditions for men, is ludicrous. (I do think there are inappropriate clothing choices for the workplace that everyone should avoid, such as ultra miniskirts, tube tops, and sheer blouses without proper undergarments – apparently Kim Kardashian didn’t get the memo…oh wait…she doesn’t have a job).

My point is that, just like my uterus, my birth control method, and whether or not I want to get married and have kids, what I wear is MY choice, and personally I dress in a way that reflects my individual style. I wear what I like to wear. I like to look put together. I enjoy following fashion trends and trying the latest styles. I like getting my hair did and having a pretty mani/pedi once in a while. This doesn’t make me less of a scientist, or a professional. It is just part of who I am. A part that I suppressed for a long time because I thought geologists didn’t dress girly.

Last week I found an adorable navy blue, scallop edged romper at TJMaxx for twenty bucks. I tried it on and it fit perfectly. It was comfortable and cute, and could be dressed up for work or down for weekend. I loved it, and snapped it up, imagining which shoes I would pair it with for work the following week. The day I decided to wear it, I put it on with a fitted black blazer, sapphire studs, and leopard print pumps. It was a great little outfit and I felt pretty amazing in it. As I was walking out of my closet I stopped in front of my full-length mirror one more time and actually had a moment when I thought, “Should I be wearing this to work? Is it too girly? Is it too casual?” I stood in front of that mirror, wasting time worrying about what someone at work might think about the outfit. I actually took it off for a few minutes, throwing on a more conservative, mid-calf length dress instead. Then I got pissed. Why was I even worrying about this? It wasn’t like I had on a slutty, inappropriate outfit. And casual…half the men in my department wear a uniform of jeans and Tevas to work.  I looked polished and professional, even if I was wearing a romper. It wasn’t neon pink or made out of crushed velvet.  It wasn’t low cut, my ass cheeks weren’t hanging out, and it wasn’t too tight. What the fuck was I worried about?

In the end I put that cute little romper back on, with my leopard heels and black blazer, and strutted (oh yes, one must strut in such a get up) out my front door feeling like a million bucks. And here’s the reality – my clothing choices should be the least of anyone’s concerns, and nobody I know really gives a flying fuck what I wear except me. So I better choose something that makes me feel good.

Incidentally, I got more compliments from female students and friends that day than I had in a long time. The outfit was a hit! And you know what? I LOVE that. First, it feels great to have someone tell you that you look adorable (especially at 40, am I right?). Second, if I can garner some attention from young women who might see me, a female scientist, looking stylish and think that is cool, then I am all for it. Maybe as more women become confident in dressing how they choose, young women will start to realize hey, I can be girly and stylish and pay attention to my appearance and STILL be a professional and a scientist. The image of the female scientist will change, and it must change. Girls want to be girls, and that shouldn’t stop them from wanting to be a scientist, or from believing they will be taken seriously in a male dominated field. I shouldn’t be an anomaly, an oddity, or someone who even gets any attention for her appearance. Women dressing like women shouldn’t be cause for concern. It should be celebrated!

And now it is time to plan tomorrow’s outfit. Skinnies and tall boots? A flowy dress and chunky sandals? No matter what I choose, I will feel great, and get a ton of kick ass science done, too.