It is infuriating that in 2017 misogyny is still insidious in the science and technology world. I read the recent story in The New York Times on the misogyny women in the tech industry face with a sense of recognition. To wit, see these personal e-mails I received from fellow scientists while I was an editor at a biomedical research publication:
“Dear Ush, The pleasure was all mine. You are a delight. Funny, smart but not self-important. It is a shame I am old enough to be your dad (I would have been 17 at hypothetical conception).”
“Dear beautiful Ushma, You can be assured that your charms had a big effect on me. If your sweetheart ever turns sour, we should elope…. Seriously, I am not in love with my wife, and would rather you took her place.”
Both of these came in reply to post-conference networking e-mails that I sent to scientists working at the vanguard of their fields, hoping they would remember the journal I was representing when considering where to publish their next important study. It is enraging that they never considered these words to be inappropriate. Nor did they consider how it made me feel to know that the entire time I was befriending these scientists and discussing science with them, their thoughts were veering in other directions.
This next e-mail started promisingly, but I later discovered a carbon copy without the PS was also sent to a female editor friend of mine at another journal who attended the same conference:
“It was a great pleasure to meet you and discuss with you in Denver. I learned a lot from our discussion. As promised, I send you my recent review. I hope that you like it. Please absolutely let me know if you show up in New Orleans.
I know where we should go in New Orleans for an outstanding meal.
Take care. Warm regards.
PS I have to tell you that you are one of the most beautiful and feminine intellectual women I have ever known.”
Sigh. I fully recognize that there are gender differences in the way men and women speak and communicate about science and in life in general. But I would wager that few if any male editors have received such e-mails. I have never received anything of this nature from the many female scientists I met over the years.
For many years I harbored a lot of self-doubt. Did I bring this on myself? Do I come across as overly flirtatious? If so, do I do that on purpose? But after 50 of these e-mails had arrived in my in-box, I stopped doubting myself and understood that something about me, or being a woman for that matter, makes these messages seem permissible. But should I change my behavior? In the interest of full disclosure: I have been known to tell a dirty joke (or three). I have been known to hang out in the bar with the rest of the conference attendees. I have been known to wear what I think is fashion-forward (but professional) clothing. In the 21st century, however, should these characteristics be considered invitations to solicit more than professional friendship? These e-mails were certainly not solicited:
Was hoping to have a chance to say bye but couldn’t find you on the final day. Did you skip off early? I hope we get a chance to meet up again. To be honest, I’m something of an outsider in the…field, and I’m not sure if I’ll make too many such meetings in the future. On the other hand, if it means getting to see you again, I might well be tempted to switch fields! I'm sorry if that’s too forward, it’s just I really like you and don’t want to miss the chance (again) to say so. I imagine you may have picked that up anyway. If I’ve got the wrong end of the stick and that’s not where you’re coming from, please don’t be embarrassed—I’ll be happy to be a friend and colleague. If on the other hand you feel something more, well we’d only need to work out how to contend with the Atlantic Ocean!”
Ominous silence suggests I really did get the wrong end of the stick! Sorry for any offence caused. Truth is, as I said I had one of those (bio)chemical reactions in Keystone and thought (hoped) there was some reciprocation. I also wanted you to know, so you don’t think too badly of me, that I don’t play games or muck about. I'm fundamentally an honest person and happen to be unattached at this point in my life.”
These are just a selection among many. Nor am I alone among female scientists (or editors) in receiving these unwanted advances (see numerous articles online or plenty of twitter conversations about the topic). But I do not want to make it seem like academic scientists are an unrepentantly horny lot, as the overwhelmingly vast majority of e-mails I received are professional. Some, even funny:
“You actually reached official designation from meeting as ‘Favorite New Person.’”
“Dear Ushma, it was great to see you. You always light up a room.”
And, after an entertaining incident captured on film with that same author at a conference, his original e-mail was later followed up two years later when the journal I was working with transitioned to a different editor in chief—the Howard he refers to:
“You are the evil seed.... I don’t think Howard has any idea of what he is getting into. As Mr. T said in one of the Rocky movies, ‘I pity the foo.’”
“We would certainly be a great political team, but I don’t think America is quite ready for a Jewish president and an Indian-American-Vegetarian vice president.”
And when it was revealed to a colleague that I was moving on from my editorial role:
“Congrats—very happy for you. Although this gets you off the hook on many things, I still plan on making you watch me eat meat at various restaurants in NYC....”
I kept these e-mails because they make me happy. I kept the earlier ones because they made me sad. I’m not asking anyone to weigh every word before speaking (or writing). But need I really make an argument for caring for another person’s feelings when considering what to say in conversation? Basic common decency and humanity demand that we account for the other person’s perspective.
Merging the funny and the complimentary with the professional is not a difficult balance to achieve. Female scientists appreciate a joke; they also appreciate equal respect. I herein propose an modern update to the golden rule: If you don’t want what you’ve written to be published; sent to your daughter, sister or wife; or turned around and said to you, don’t write it.