OK guys, time to listen to ourselves. I can’t count the times I’ve been among a bunch of males in the workplace when someone made a lustful comment about a female coworker.
The social/peer pressure is to laugh along, and those made uncomfortable by it will change the subject.
When I was a sailor in the US Navy, I’d often start such comments. When in college I began to feel uncomfortable, perhaps due to my being a 24 year old freshman surrounded by 18 year olds. When I entered the workforce, I finally decided I’d had enough of that crap. But the genesis of my intolerance started back in college.
I had the privilege to be employed by the university as an assistant to support the undergraduate physics lab classes. Many students struggled, this being the first hands-on lab experience for most of them. Most needed only a gently leading Socratic dialog to get on-track.
But some clearly lacked familiarity with the underlying concepts: The physics wasn’t making sense to them, largely because they hadn’t had many, if any, STEM classes in high school.
This group was overwhelmingly female. Many were taking physics as part of a broad-based set of general ed. requirements on their path to a liberal arts degree. Others were taking physics because of parents who insisted they get a degree that was “worth something” in the job market.
Our school was highly ranked and extremely competitive: Failing freshman physics is a thing that Must Not Happen. These students weren’t just confused by the material: They were scared silly by the possibility of failing both the main physics class and a lowly lab class. Welcome to the hazards of the freshman year.
Of all the lab assistants, I was the one this group turned to most for tutoring. I was a horny 24 year old ex-sailor surrounded by young women who needed help.
I immediately realized this was going to be a problem for me. As an employee of the university, it was important that it not become a problem for anyone else!
Fortunately, our school had an office staffed by experienced educators and psychologists whose main task was to help new professors and grad students become effective instructors and TAs. I walked in and was given a ton of support, primarily to help me focus in the presence of distractions, and secondarily to monitor my own state and better control my speech and actions.
Once I got going, I had great results. Every one of my students passed both the physics main class and the lab with at least a C, though most earned higher grades. Several found a true love for physics, but most simply realized they could cope with it.
My most memorable student, pressured to get a “useful” degree, aced both classes then told her parents she was changing her major to acting (our school had a great MFA program in addition to world-class engineering and science programs). Then, after obtaining her parent’s reluctant blessing to switch to acting, she added an astrophysics minor. After finishing her MFA (a 5-year program at our school), she then pursued a cosmology PhD and an academic career, though she also has maintained a very active acting career in local theater.
I got to be part of these young women’s lives in ways that went far beyond the physics issues at hand. For perhaps the first time in my life I also had to become a Fully Responsible Adult.
But there is one special thing that happened to me as a result of a year spent tutoring young women: I became huggable, safely and wonderfully huggable. I can’t list all the things that changed in me; I wish I could! But ever since then I’ve tended to have many more female friends than male.
When I graduated and entered the workforce, I found myself in a group of folks very much like me: White males. As our group grew, we’d interview folks of all genders and colors and many cultures, but it seemed only white males got hired. My coworkers were all talented folks free of any hint of outward racism or sexism, yet, somehow, only white males got hired.
As a junior team member, I asked my managers about this, and was given a talk about “team cohesion” and “minimizing barriers” and “reducing differences”, which I heard as “groupthink” and “preserving the status quo”. It turned out our hiring practices had an implicit “blackball” quality, where a single down-vote could eliminate an otherwise suitable candidate. We worked to change this, but I moved on to another company before the process was completed.
Since then I’ve been very vocal about interviewing candidates on more than mere technical competence, but also to also reflect upon how a candidate could contribute to the dynamics of our team as a whole.
At my second employer we hired a woman engineer who was, by far, a better “people person” than any of us had worked with before: It was clear our group needed this kind of dynamism. Not only was she talented technically, but she also had leadership skills that were not revealed during the interview process. Within three years she was the de facto head of our group, and by the fourth year she became our leader in fact. Best Boss EVER.
I should mention some chronology: I attended college from 1981–1986. My Naval service was from 1975–1981, a time when the military was working hard to recover from Viet Nam and the drug abuse and racism all too common in the 1970s. The US Navy was only just starting to accept women in significant numbers, and while sexism was definitely an issue, I didn’t personally serve with any women while I was on active duty.
Yes, I’m 60. I’ve often been called “too Politically Correct” when I advocated for diversity in our teams. While I’m proud of my successes in this area (especially as I’ve been a beneficiary of them), as I approach the end of my engineering career it grieves me to see how much work remains to be done.
These days, when I hear a comment or observe a behavior that is disparaging of, or detrimental to, any colleague I don’t ask folks to avoid sexism or racism or their implicit biases: I instead ask them if it was a kind thing to say or do. Simple kindness goes a long way. Because kindness is also a fundamental form of respect.
Looking back, the greatest changes I underwent as a tutor may have been to become a kinder, more considerate, more respectful person, perhaps also more emphatic.
Maybe we each should seek our own growth in these areas.