It's conference season and a time when scientists scurry around the globe to talk to other scientists and present what they've been up to. I look forward to having a chance to chat with people face-to-face that I email all the time, or get updates from those I only talked to the previous year. I find that the older I get, the more time I spend discussing science and the less time I spend in the presented talks. These are productive times for me, hashing out ideas and planting seeds of collaboration. I make a concerted effort to spend social time with people in small groups when I have some specific I want to discuss, and larger groups when I want to meet new people and pick their brains a bit.
But this year I've been thinking about things a little differently. That's because last year I was at a conference with a couple of good friends who I like to hang out with socially. We had done so that week, but a larger group was gathering and I thought it would be fun to join them. I asked one of my female colleagues if she wanted to come and she declined. Curious whether there was someone going who she didn't like, I asked why she wasn't interested. Her response was honest and something I completely take for granted.
"I'm tired of wondering when the switch will get flipped and I'll go from being 'the colleague with interesting ideas' to 'the potential bed partner'. I'm tired of not being able to unknow things about some of my male colleagues. I'm tired of needing an exit strategy and being worried about missing my window to escape. So I stick with small groups of people I know well and lose out on some opportunities to get to know others. But it's worth it."
Then she told me a few stories. Some were about people I knew through the literature and others were about people I knew personally. Some where shocking. But as we've discussed before, when a victim has nothing to gain by making up these stories there's a damn good chance they aren't.
At a recent conference I kept my eyes out for this in a big way, and it will surprise no woman that as some evenings wore on it wasn't hard to pick out a couple of instances. Some things were overt and some less so, but there sprang an undercurrent that I had not fully appreciated. I have no problem with conference goers finding situations mutual interest, should they be in the personal circumstances to act on them, but that's a small minority of the interactions that occur.
So dudes, pull this apart a little bit. First off, the frequency with which inappropriate advances occur is causing some women to avoid after hours social events. Not only does that have consequences, but that very fact in itself should bother you. Also consider that even consensual sexyfuntimes have very different career implications for men versus women. These communities are small and things get around. Finally, are you going to be That Guy who women are warned against being around alone? Do you want the dumb things you say when you're out late to be the reason a woman leaves the field or is uncomfortable attending social events? Consider that maybe your work colleagues are not the best target audience for your affections.
If nothing else this conference season, just ask yourself what type of culture you are supporting for the women in your field.