Ignoring it won’t make it go away

Someone who blogs at the CHE under the title “Female Science Professor” ruminates on how to respond to sexist comments.

The incidents themselves are not what generates the debate on my blog. Instead, the sometimes-heated discussion focuses on how I have chosen to respond to such slights: that is, my tendency to react in a calm, polite way, perhaps with a bit of humor or gentle sarcasm. Except in extreme cases, I prefer not to respond to insulting remarks with anger, and I try to move on with the research, teaching, or service task at hand.

No wonder there’s debate.

Granted, it’s sensible to respond calmly and politely, in a professional setting. You don’t want to turn purple in the face and shout a string of oaths. I understand that. But without anger?


No, and no, and no again.

Anger can be calm and polite. Be as icily calm and polite as Rex Harrison on a very cold day, but still be it with anger.

I’ll give you an example of one of these incidents: Not long ago, during a meeting of a somewhat prestigious committee, I openly disagreed with another committee member. He responded by noting that I was there only because “we needed a woman on the committee”—unlike the men, all of whom were apparently invited to serve because of their superior talents, wisdom, and experience.

He was trying to undermine me, and, therefore, my argument. My response was to ignore his statement entirely and continue to make a case for my opposing view. By remaining calm and professional, with a focus on the topic at hand, I think I was more effective than if I had acted defensively, traded insults, or walked out of the room in anger.

Yes but those three items don’t exhaust the possibilities. FSP could also have calmly but firmly pointed out the sexist nature of that remark before going on to make a case for her opposing view. (I couldn’t do that, in such a situation; I would instantly turn purple in the face and shout a string of oaths; but FSP sounds like the kind of person who could simply make the factual statement without flooding her system with adrenalin.)

I think it’s a mistake to ignore overt sexism. The more I see of it, the more I think it’s a mistake to ignore it.

H/t to Christopher Moyer for the link.



  1. fastlane says

    If I were in the room when something like that happened, I’d like to think I would have told the misogynistic asshole to make use of a rusty porcupine.

    That kind of behavior would not fly in any company I’ve ever worked for. Why is it considered ok in an ‘academic’ environment? Do universities not have something equivalent to an HR office?

  2. daveau says

    Maybe it could be handled without anger, but it should be addressed immediately, regardless. If you let it slide, it won’t stop.

  3. San Ban says

    I agree with daveau. I also agree that anger can be expressed without engaging in a screaming match. She might have asked the sexist pr*** if he had also been chosen for his sexual characteristics and what was the required ratio of penises to vaginas on this committee.

  4. says

    I agree, but I don’t think she’s wrong in that she would have paid a price for pointing it out. Bit of a collective action problem really.

  5. says

    True. She doesn’t mention anyone else saying “Oi, how dare you say a thing like that at a professional meeting?!” so it probably didn’t happen. She apparently has sucky colleagues.

  6. trianglethief says

    The purple-faced oathy screaming is why I go the humour/ignore route. There is no version of myself that is taken less seriously than the one that gets ‘all worked up’ over ‘nothing’, no matter how ‘icy’ my anger it is always interpreted as hysterical rage. In fact, come to think of it, the accusations of anger come up even when I express no anger at all. Fuck, even in conversations where I am not angry and have expressed no anger at all and am LAUGHING AS I SPEAK, I’ve had people react as if I’d just tried to brain them with a wordbat.

    I mean, except on the internet, of course. Because then I can scream epithets at my monitor while constructing an icily-calm and polite takedown and no one will ever know. Except, they will now but whatever.

    Anyway, there are about six thousand viable tactics for dealing with sexist bullshit and I think the decision as to which to use tends to rest heavily on exactly how much of the rest of your day you are willing to devote to it, regardless of the tactic employed.

    I know that personally I sometimes use up all the energy I have for the fight by the time I’ve reached the end of a cost/benefit analysis.

    Perhaps if someone could design an app for this?

  7. Aquaria says

    He responded by noting that I was there only because “we needed a woman on the committee”

    The response that comes to mind for me is, “If you need me here, then act like it, champ.”

    I’d find a way to get even with him later. And, lo, there are so many delicious ways to do that, anywhere one works.

  8. julian says

    Speaking as someone from a culture that’s very ok with bullying, the signal I got was that you could say or do whatever you wanted to FSP and she’d never fight back. She’d take it and pretend it never happened.

    Not the message I’d want to send in that situation and not surprised to see her colleagues said nothing about it. After all, she’s obviously fine with it so why should they?

  9. william says

    Someone who blogs at the CHE under the title “Female Science Professor”

    I’m pretty sure the Female Science Professor at CHE is THE Female Science Professor, who’s been blogging prolifically since 2006.

  10. Blueaussi says

    In a face to face meeting like that, I think laughing is the most devastating thing that can be done. It’s one of the hardest things to do, but it immediately puts sexist pig man on the defensive and undermines his attempt to denigrate his colleague.

    Seriously, it’s very hard to learn to laugh, and I don’t always manage it. Sometimes I still get red-faced with anger when someone is insulting, but I’m getting better at it.

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