Girls just don't wanna have fun at conferences

Jun 19 2014 Published by under [Education&Careers]

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.

121 responses so far

  • anon says:

    Amen. I remember talking with a colleague at a conference. He said some pretty nice things about my research and suggested some potential collaborations, then he started complimenting my personality and my body. As I left, he tried to get me to accompany him to his hotel. I realized how naive I'd been--I really thought he just wanted to talk science over a beer. I now worry like your friend does.

    Those proposed collaborations, of course, never materialized. We actual do really complementary things, and I occasionally think about the kinds of projects we could tackle if he could keep it in his pants. (This was not an isolated incident.) I now avoid him. As your friend said, it makes me wonder who views me as a legit scientist v. potential bed partner and the motivation behind any praise or interest.

    A final note to men who do things like this: News will get around. It doesn't help you.

  • @Mtomasson says:

    Thank you for this post. For years I have been so focussed on my own inner world at conferences...where to do, what to say, how am I perceived...this dynamic sailed over my head. I credit my friends on social media for the slap on the head I needed. Now more aware...hopefully we can mold a different science culture going forward..

  • joe says:

    This is terrible.

    We were discussing the issue of inappropriate sexual advances at conferences yesterday at a meeting of British science journalists. I was thinking that maybe this could be a problem with science rather than just science journalism.

    Of course there are a lot of stereotypically sexist behaviours within journalism, but maybe the notion of meeting "potential partners" at a conference away from home draws (in particular) female science journalists into the sexist science culture rather than anything else.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Joe, I don't think this is unique to ANY one profession. My hope is that there's some momentum to change among scientists and education is the critical piece.

  • Anon says:

    When is an advance inappropriate? Always, if it is at a conference? Always, when the man is further along in his career? Always, when you have met the person in only the last few days?

    When is it appropriate?

    Please take this as a sincere question, the answer to which is not obvious to most men.

  • anon2 says:

    I thankfully feel like I have a good group to travel/hang with now during conferences because of an event that happened to me that they witnessed.

    A few years back I was introduced to someone at a meeting that was working on a project I was interested in applying to my own work. After about an hour it quickly digressed to him blatantly hitting on me and repeatedly asking to take me back to his room even after stopping talking to him. It was so bad I went to another colleague's room that night because I didn't want this guy to know what room I was in. Sure enough creeper guy followed us to that room.

    He continued to follow me around for the next two days even at locations away from the conference (the hotel gave him information) and constantly asking me to "socialize" with him. It was so bad, someone else filed a report with title IX dept. before I had a chance to. The colleague who initially introduced us was mortified.

    I also noticed it made a change in the way the males in the group act now. They seem to check in more to make sure I and others are ok especially if they see a guy getting "close". I don't know if that is the right behavior either, but they are at least more aware of what's happening to the females around them.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Here's an alternative question, Anon. What are the consequences of making an advance in different environments? Especially if it's an unwanted advance.

    In a work environment, I would argue, that has far more persistent consequences than when you're on personal time. Add in the dynamics of career stage and you have to ask yourself whether the potential cost is worth it.

    As they say, don't shit where you eat.

  • Chris says:

    Wow, interesting post. I have been fortunate not to have been harassed or hit upon by colleagues at conferences. Whether this is because I've got a great group of colleagues (which I do!), give off a strong "leave me alone" vibe, or have just been lucky, I don't know. I've rarely been to conferences where I don't have a strong cohort of friends, though, and spend most of my time socializing with them. And I was married before I started grad school so most of my colleagues have met my husband. I'm sure that doesn't hurt.

    Thanks for the reminder to keep an eye out for others, especially junior colleagues whose career trajectories might be influenced by bad experiences at conferences.

    To Anon's question - I'll back up PLS's suggestion that the safest bet is to keep things professional. But where is a busy scientist to meet a potential partner if not at work? If you are extremely interested in a person at a conference, perhaps a respectful advance could be in order. BUT, if they say no (just once!), that needs to be the end of it. And you'll have to appreciate that your advance will forever change the dynamic between the two of you. (Back to the question about consequences, both for you and for the other person.)

  • mytchondria says:

    Fuck yeah, PLS. All this.
    Ask any woman who her "help me escape from the harassing dudes" wing-man is at any event and she will have one.

  • @NeedhiBhalla says:


    I would argue that it is always inappropriate...a conference is a professional working environment and all attendees, no matter their seniority or lack thereof, are participating for professional reasons. Yes there might be drinking and socializing but these are in professional contexts. I strongly ascribe to a modified version of Isis's advice: "Do not try to get with me while I am at work and I will not try to get with you while you are at work." Because a conference is WORK...

  • Anon says:


    While the Socratic method is often helpful, please believe me that it is not so here. Your answer assumes that we men should really be able to figure this out if we just turned our minds to it. Well, to be clear, we can't. We are, as a gender, oblivious. We are seeking guidance.

    I would speculate that more than half of all dating/relationships/marriages take place among work colleagues, do a blanket DSWYE injunction cannot be right.

  • anon3 says:

    Anon - here's a sincere attempt to answer your question. Others may have different answers.

    If you meet someone at a conference and you genuinely feel (after a prolonged discussion, perhaps) that you have a *real* connection with them, there are perhaps appropriate ways to raise the question. For example, I (a woman) would not be offended if someone said something like 'I'm having so much fun chatting with you. Would you be interested in meeting up for coffee/lunch/etc. tomorrow to talk more?' I think a comment like that 1) provides a lot of immediate outs if I'm not interested (no, sorry, I'll be attending lectures/my flight is in the morning/I've got to brush my teeth) and 2) also offers me a chance to reschedule if I genuinely have a conflict but am interested (I have to brush my teeth, but maybe later in the afternoon?) and 3) is a sincere compliment without being too aggressive/lecherous. If they do not say yes, it's not necessary to immediately run away from the conversation, but do not ask again (that night or later in the conference). Do not follow them around. Do not 'accidentally' bump into them. Do not wait outside the lunch room 3 days in a row to be sure you sit with them (yes, these things and more have all happened to me). Be cool. Talk to other people.

    However! I would say it's inappropriate to ask this of someone you're discussing a new collaboration with or establishing some other important professional contact, and the other factors you mention (disparity in seniority particularly resonates) definitely should be considered. It's also inappropriate if your real intention is just to have sexyfuntimes, as PLS said - deal with that back on your own time. Also, if you're feeling 'real connections' with more than ~1 person per conference, you need to dial down the hormones.

    Hope that helps?

  • Anon says:

    Anon3: Thanks, very helpful.

  • proflikesubstance says:


    you're only as oblivious as you allow yourself to be.

  • AnotherAnon says:

    If you're looking for iron clad rules to guide you, you're not going to find them. Frustrating I know. I used to think just finding some rules would make things easier. That is not the case. The best I can give you is the general guideline is that work conferences are generally not a good place to find romance. I'm sure everyone knows some story of some happily ever after couple that met at a conference, so all I can say is *generally*. It's far too much like a work environment. Even the social events are half work. Everyone staying briefly in hotel rooms ads to the context. My advice to men is to make no moves unless the other person makes clear moves such there is established mutual interest. If you don't feel ok with that or feel the need to practice initiating, find a different context than a work conference. If the conference is in a city probably there is a "singles bar" someplace nearby.

  • That "we as a gender are oblivious" nonsense is fuckery at its best. You're not oblivious. Men just don't like being told where they shouldn't try to get their cocks wet.

  • Anon says:

    Isis: I understand that you do not believe me. I am sincere, although I am not sure that there is any way to convince you. I can only quote Hanlon's law: "Never attribute to malice what can adequately be explained by stupidity".

    AnotherAnon: Thanks.

  • Anon says:

    Anyone who wants a sense of what it feels like on the other side should read Norah Vincent's "Self-Made Man"

  • vb13 says:

    comments above of peoples' experiences have two threads: shop talk used as a front for sexual advances, and not taking no for an answer. it is not difficult to see why these are inappropriate. if you do not understand this, it is not because of your gender.

  • AbrashTX says:

    Hey look, it's another dude who shows up and demands that women educate him. Let me get my bingo card.

  • Alex says:

    If I were single and became interested in somebody in my profession, I would not jump directly from shop talk to asking somebody out. I'd probably segue the conversation to non-work but not-too-heavy things and see if that segue in conversation felt comfortable. If things kind of got less interesting after moving from science to [whatever], maybe that's an indicator that I should just keep it professional. OTOH, if it felt good talking non-science stuff with them, I might try to talk to them again, but probably not later that night in the hotel bar. Maybe the next day. If that felt comfortable, maybe send them a friendly email joking about non-work stuff, or ask them if they wanna grab a bite after the conference is over. And see how that conversation goes. And then talk again. And then, if there is a pattern of relaxed interactions with a vibe that feels a bit different from normal friends, see if it make sense to approach them from a romantic angle. Preferably after the conference.

    You know, go slow. It's one thing to have a blanket rule of "You should not do like half the world and date somebody you met through work", which is a problem in a world where professionals frequently spend an enormous amount of time on work. (Not to mention that every time we talk about accommodating two-body academic couples we're effectively endorsing a relationship with a work tie-in.) It's quite another thing to go directly from "Let's talk shop" to "Let's talk about sex baby, let's talk about you and me, let's talk about all the good things and the bad things that could be."

    Put it this way: Back in my single days I had a "48 hour rule." I meet somebody, I chat with them, I get their number. I waited 48 hours to call. (This was before texting.) I'm a married man today because of the 48 hour rule. If you meet somebody at a conference, try the "Has the plane landed in their home city?" rule.

  • Anon says:

    I did not demand, but asked. I apologize if it appeared otherwise. I also apologize in advance if this response itself is on your asshole-bingo card.

    Respectfully, your first example assumes that all conversations that end with an advance started with that intent. Is it impossible to believe that a conversation about shared work/interests could lead to a man finding a woman attractive? It seems, to me, to be very likely. How the man acts on it (ignoring relative power, inappropriate suggestions, not respecting signals) is the issue.

  • David Hughes says:

    So, such conference shennanigans are wrong because it is generally older, powerful male PI's who are married using their power to get 'sexyfuntimes' as PLS says (nice phrase). I dont discount that people can meet and nice relationships start but if that is your goal conferences are a stupid place for it as you can be guaranteed the person you meet lives very far away.
    I would say it is just the older guys getting the opportunity because they are away from the homes, the have a nice room and they are drinking- and they have power. Going to a singles bar wouldnt work as they wouldnt have the power there. Again, exceptions exist.
    We male PIs need to create a great environment when young scientists people can share cool science stories and get insights and help their career etc.

    Very important post by PLS and we need to be very attentive to all this and make sure those guys doing it are not tolerated.

  • Hermitage says:

    Dude demands when he can and can not try to get it in, argues with answers he receives.

    Your dick is not more important than women's ability to socialize/network without fear. If you can't figure it out without someone writing out a freaking SOP for you, how about you sit at the bar like a nice human being until the woman hits on you?

    Phenomenal that people can post about how they fucking stalked by weirdo creeps at professional functions but your primary concern is 'but I wanna hit on the ladyeez because I'm too lazy to meet them in a non-work context'.

  • Anon says:

    Hermitage: Thank you for your thoughtful, measured response.

  • Chris says:

    You know, I think we're talking about two different things here. On the one hand, we have a single scientist looking for a possible relationship. In this scenario, sure, why not chat up other single scientists, look for connections, form relationships (with proper power balances of course). This sort of relationship building takes time and will evolve slowly, perhaps some of the commenters here met their significant others in this way. Alex's 48 hour rule (or "has the plane landed at home" rule) is a good one.

    On the other hand, we have people looking for a quick hook up in an exotic conference locale. This is where the creepy comes out all over the place. Just don't do it, people! Take the advice of Isis and Hermitage and @NB, etc. Leave your inner creepy stalker at home and resign yourself to a week of sleeping alone.

    As an aside, I discovered recently (at a conference, no less) that the creepiest professor I knew as a grad student had become very kind and respectful of women since he married and had a daughter. Perhaps the clueless who are reading this thread can make this transition earlier in life.

  • EMoon says:


    You want a rule? Here's the rule. Don't do it. Never hit on women at a conference of any kind, or in a workplace of any kind, or at any function associated in any way with work, or at any function not associated in any way with work. Don't make suggestive comments on their appearance, either to them or to other men with the intent that they will overhear. Don't wink at them. Don't stare at their bodies. Don't stand too close. Don't touch. Don't pat them, hug them, drape an arm around their shoulders, or--should you necessarily be in a picture with them (an award ceremony or the like) decide to put an arm around them with that excuse. Don't follow them around. Never hang around in the hotel hall outside their rooms, or outside the women's toilet. Don't do it. ANY of it. And don't think it's not noticed if you do. We have all had at least one uncomfortable experience or worse--we know the tricks.

    There is no wiggle room in this rule. There is no reason to come back with "Yes, but." Your rank doesn't matter. Your "sincerity" doesn't matter. Your skills in the sack do not matter. Your need and your desire do not matter. The rule is the rule. Don't do it.

    Your persistence in this conversation suggests that you're one of the creepers--the ones who will never understand and will always ask for more information on the rules just to find a loophole you can claim makes what you do OK. It's not OK. It's never OK. The rule is simple and inflexible: Don't do it, any of it. Don't be the embarrassing dog that's always humping a leg.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Anon, I'm not sure you want to go down the tone police path. You've already painted a tight enough corner.

  • Mytchondria says:

    Know this day some smart blogger is going to call an end to trying to drill this through your colleagues skulls. And they are going to start a list. A public list. And on that list women will add the names of sexyfuntime science guys whose actions and words made them feel sexually uncomfortable in a professional meeting. And they will add stories where names are named. I promise, it will happen.

  • Anon says:


    If I read you correctly, you are saying that no man should approach a woman. Ever. Or perhaps you just meant me.

    Thank you, therefore, for highlighting exactly my point:
    - How can men know how to behave when any behavior has the potential to be a transgression in someone's mind?
    - How can men know how to behave when asking the question is a transgression?

    Changing any societal behavior involves two strategies: shaming the assholes and giving some set of standards to those who, more or less, mean well. If you want change, calling every man an asshole is ineffective, even if you think that is the case. And I assume you want to be effective, no?

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Putting the onus on the victims to "set a standard"? Are you reading from the douche handbook?

    Take some responsibility for educating yourself before you continue to embarrass yourself. If you can't figure out what is decent and what is creepy, then perhaps you should just avoid it all together.

  • Claudia says:

    If I was at a conference and saw, noticed or was told about harassment going on, especially if it was persistent and involved a big power / career differential, I would intervene. I would let the offending party know, firmly and politely, that their behavior is not appropriate, and to cut it out, thank you. Everybody is noticing and it is just really starting to stink up the room.

    You would think that could be the end of it and we could all move on with our lives.
    You would think.

    In reality, my penchant to step in and stop an injustice or something morally/ethically wrong made me totally unsuitable for a career in academia. It took me six years to figure it out, but it was either have the semblance of a respectful career or continue to speak out against harassment, sexism, and -isms of any kind. But not both. I was raised in a different culture, in a different country. I was raised not to look the other way, to at least attempt to make a difference for the better, if I can. The reason I am still speaking as frankly as I am is because I left academia last century and never looked back.

    I still go to conferences and I still call out the bullshit because I can without consequences. And that is the way I like it.

    Yeah, I wasn't very popular with the men in academia and a lot of the women tried to harness my in inability to put up with the relics of American patriarchy for their own causes. I really didn't look to join in any causes. I just wanted to do science. That's tough enough without all the incidental fuckery.

    I have lived in different countries throughout my life, acculturated into several, including the US. When you're an expat thrown into a new, different culture with a whole new language and whole new set of socio-cultural rules, you will, at times, find yourself stepping on somebody's toes or behave inappropriately. I have certainly been alerted by natives I wasn't getting some cultural clues unknown to me. While this is humbling, embarrassing and you really don't want it to happen, I have always been grateful to the person clueing me in, even if they weren't really nice about it. We live in a global world with vast diversity. Trying on somebody else's culture for a while without rancor can be eye-opening.

    After all, if you're an American visiting Germany, wouldn't you want to be told that in a fancy Italian restaurant in Germany, you eat pizza with a knife and fork, not your hands, ever? Unless you want find out what it's like to be shamed by a bunch of Germans in a fancy restaurant. (Believe me, you don't want to find out.)

    So when I started to notice the rampant sexism in a US institution I was planning to join for life, I said something, more than once. It looked like a cultural issue to me. Men and women as distinct cultures fraught with all the perils and missteps than can occur when cultures mingle, meet, interact and do science together. I naively thought that the male academics I let know that their behavior was inappropriate would react with a smidgen of gratitude for the insider tip. Instead, I became a target. It ended with a professor trying to extort sex from me in order to approve my dissertation topic. That was the day I quit.

    I've said it before and I'll say it again: I don't think US academia in its current incarnation is fixable. Best to scrap the whole thing and start all over, this time with all adults, who can tell the difference between what is professionally appropriate and what is not without being total dickheads about it.

    So, enjoy your Ivory Tower.

    I'm over here by the pool.

    Someday, that pool will be on Mars.

  • AnotherAnon says:

    How can men know how to behave when any behavior has the potential to be a transgression in someone's mind

    You can't with any absolute certainty. That's why I said before you have to let go of the idea of absolute rules. It's a messy world out there are there is much more going on than just your intentions. There's no magic way to assure positive responses from women. Let go of that fantasy. No one is saying no man can ever initiate a personal conversation with a woman. Just that some contexts are better than others. Work conferences are really bad. People are there to work, make *work* connections, maybe catch up with an old friend. Very few are there for the random hookup. You're far better off tabling the idea of such things at conferences and just working in regular non-romance socializing.

  • Ento says:

    I was happy to see that at least one major society, the entomological society of America has on official code of conduct that address such issues

  • roflmao says:

    hahahahahhahaha....hitting on girls at conferences is how I met my wife. If I listened to this circle jerk I would never have met the love of my life and had kids

  • proflikesubstance says:

    And since we all know that a single exception immediately nullifies the experience of thousands, I guess we can all go home.

  • […] just in time for summer conference season, ProfLikeSubstance has a post reminding us of one of the undesirable aspects of conferences – namely, that women often feel the need to be on the alert for inappropriate advances, to the […]

  • Busy says:

    I've been hit at a conference four times all of which were Ok since they happened pretty much like Anon3 said. Very polite, very tentatively, and when the answer was no, that was the end of that. One of the four developed into a longer term relationship, two others (which were declined) developed into long term friendships.

    p.s. I'm a male and I was being hit on by female colleagues.

  • Busy says:

    p.p.s. the point I'm trying to make is that if people did not behave like creeps about it and it happened rarely, it wouldn't be a problem. Sadly, this is not the case today. Some people treat conferences like a dating website, which is wholly inappropriate, as the many anecdotes here illustrate.

  • roflmao says:

    "thousands and thousands" I guess this is your data backing up your few anecdotes. Get a life. 5$ says you are the one that either did not get hit on, or only got hit on by bottom of the barrel guys.

  • geekGoddess says:

    Don't "hit on" your female colleagues, or women you meet at professional conferences. They are not there to be leered at, followed, flirted with, monopolized, or for scoring as a one-night hook-up. Assume this and you won't go wrong. You don't need any other rules. If you have to ask what is appropriate, I just told you. If you don't need to ask, this isn't for you.

    However, it is perfectly OK to make friends with females at conferences, that may or may not later turn into deeper friendships or romantic relationships.

  • anon says:

    Unfortunately this sort of behavior isn't unique to conferences.

  • Nezua says:

    Men always show their asses on these threads. It's like a knee jerk reflex tapped by a hammer. Showing up talking intellectual rapistry. Do you think you can outlogix the wimmenz with dry-dicked didactic finesse? You are laughable. Just read and learn. You can even disagree with some points--in your mind. Nobody needs to be pummeled with tired & formulaic denials.

    I know when someone is interested in that way. You do, too. If not, you are dull and out of touch with your natural-born sensitivities and intuition. Unsexy trait, that.

  • Horace Boothroyd III says:

    As long as there are women who use sexuality to get ahead, there will be men willing to take them up on the offer. Don't try to pretend that this is a one sided oppression deal, for that will get you only well deserved laughter and derision.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Thanks for keeping this focused on the real issue, Horace.

  • dr2chase says:

    Anon - if you ask a question and then argue with the answers, you're not really asking a question, you're picking a fight and disingenuously pushing a point of view you're too chicken to state plainly. EMoon's advice is spot on. If you care, you should take it.

    If you need advice on how to meet women other than hitting on them at conferences, I can only suggest trying to have a social life. Try taking classes, try joining organizations that do interesting things, a church, whatever the heck works for you. They're not all going to work. You could try personals, too -- I know at least two couples that met and married that way.

    Be aware of your persistent flaws, and try to stifle them somewhat. For example, it's likely that you suffer from either Male Answer Syndrome, or its more obnoxious form, Mansplaining (you're male, right? "Hello, my name is David, and I have Male Answer Syndrome."). Pay attention to how often you interrupt people in a conversation, if it's a lot, train yourself to wait, maybe your point isn't always necessary anyhow.

  • Kevin says:

    Sexual advances are the worst of it, of course, but certainly not the only misogyny at these conferences. I speak from the IT world, not the academic world, but I'm guessing the realities are much the same at both.

    One incident in particular occurred at a recent conference that I attended with a female coworker. (I'm male.) We were sitting down together having breakfast before the keynote speech, when this guy sits down next to me and starts trying to have a conversation with me. Every time my coworker starts to contribute something, he cuts her off and asks me another question. After he did this two or three times I tried making it clear that I was more interested in what she had to say than what he did, but he just didn't get it. We both just quickly finished our breakfast and walked away from him.

    I commented as we were leaving about how awful he was, and she just kind of chuckled and said that it wasn't the worst she'd experienced at conferences.

  • Hunt says:

    Sexual advances are not misogyny. Sexual advances are sexual advances. The problem with comment threads like this...well, let's put it this paraphrase that movie, "so much stupid, so few bullets."

  • jblumenfeld says:

    To the "I am oblivious and need guidance" crowd: If you're so oblivious, just assume that your advance is unwanted and treat conferences as serious workplaces instead of potential places to get laid.

  • AndyG says:


    If you really can't figure out how to behave decently at a conference, then don't go. If you insist on going to a conference and you're not sure that a woman will appreciate your advances, then give her the benefit of the doubt and leave her the hell alone. Like others in this thread, I am saddened that you can read accounts of women being harassed and made to feel uncomfortable and then decide it's all about you.

  • BoiJustWantsToHaveFun says:


    Is it conceivable that maybe there are other conference attendees out there that DO just want to have fun?

    As a gay man, and regular science conference attendee since I started graduate school in the Pleistocene, I've been on both ends of the borderline-inappropriate sexual advances. And although I was sometimes displeased with the attention, that was usually because the interest was not mutual, not because I felt like a poster session was a no-go zone for flirting. And, almost always, a clear signal that I was not interested was all that it took to get unwelcome flirting to stop.

    On the other hand, I have also had lots of 'sexy fun times' while at conferences - both when I was a young and powerless grad student, and when I was an omnipotent PI - and I believe that every time both parties left the experience without regrets. Indeed, one of the nice things about meeting people at a conference is that you're more likely to meet someone with whom you share a connection beyond the mutual desire to jump in the sack.

    And although I will be the first to say that, as a gay man, I live in a different universe than the rest of you (thank God), it is also conceivable to me that there might be straight people (and yes, even straight women) out there that share the perspective that short-term relationship with someone that has a shared intellectual interest could be rewarding.

  • ShamanSciences says:

    Here is a novel idea, Anon (and anyone else who needs "rules"): forget sex. Seriously, when attending a conference, consider your need/desire/longing/whatever to find a romantic partner, or pursue what you interpret as an opportunity for a sexual relationship as one of those items you leave at home. Attend a conference with the intent of meeting like-minded, interesting people (men and women) with whom you might develop a friendship. Not one of those creepy "I'll start off as their friend and it will lead to happyfuntimes" scenarios, but real friendship, without the idea of sex as the end game. You'll make far fewer people uncomfortable, and if there is one lesson to be learned from this post and the bulk of the comments, it's that people using the captive audience of conference attendees as a singles bar makes others very uneasy, uncomfortable, and unsafe.

  • (1) If you are socially inept, can't read signals, and are therefore unable to determine how to flirt in a fun and non-threatening way that is appropriately cognizant of both power hierarchies and other people's personal boundaries, then the responsibility is yours to NOT ATTEMPT TO FLIRT. It is selfish pigge behavior to expect other people to suffer for your social ineptness, and that expectation itself is exactly a symptom of what ails you.

    What you need to do is step completely away from the idea that you should be attempting to flirt, look within yourself (with professional help, if necessary), figure out why you are socially inept, why you can't read signals, and why you can't express romantic interest in someone without setting off their creep alarm. And then work on those things, and only return to attempting to flirt when you can do it in a way that is safe and comfortable for others.

    (2) If you are an intentional harrasser, then you are not flirting, and are only using flirting as cover for being a harrassing pigge. So fucke you: stop being a harrassing pigge.

    (3) If you are one of the people who is posting here all about how you are a charismatic flirter who hooks up/met your husband-wife/everyone loves at conferences and who makes no one uncomfortable because you are such an adept and subtle flirter: THIS POST IS NOT ABOUT YOU. No one is trying to stop you from flirting in an appropriate manner, if you are not making other people uncomfortable. Although if you are so fucken defensive about this topic, there is probably a decent chance that you *are* making people uncomfortable, and are delusional about your flirting skills, in which case see #1.

  • K says:

    Are we underdiagnosing autism in the American population, especially in light of Physioproffe's point #1?

    'specially because people like to call it 'extreme male brain' (as stupid as that concept is) and it occurs eight times more often in males.

    I wonder if a couple of the whiners in this thread aren't a bit autisticky.

  • AMM says:

    "Are we underdiagnosing autism in the American population, especially in light of Physioproffe's point #1?"

    Short answer: no.

    Long answer: This meme has been debunked in numerous places. Pretending that creepy behavior is due to autism is an insult to people who actually are on the autistic spectrum. The creepers have excellent social skills, that's how they know what they can and cannot get away with when they creep on people.

    It's pretty obvious when some instance of inappropriate behavior is due to poor social skills and when it's creepiness: when the perpetrator is called on his behavior, the poor-social-skills person will stop doing it and avoid doing anything like it. The creeper will make excuses and try to find some way to keep doing it.

  • aner says:

    The people saying that you should never hit on someone at anything related to work are clearly not people whose entire lives revolve around work, and happen to be single. Or people who would much rather meet someone who shares their intellectual interests than some rando at a bar. Making comments about a woman's body or winking in a work context is disgusting. But some harmless flirting is fine, as long as it is (1) at an after-hours social event, NOT at a talk, and (2) made very clear that it is light-hearted, and the man genuinely respects the woman as a professional peer. (I'm female, and some of my very good friends and professional colleagues have flirted with me in non-creepy ways at conferences.)

  • Hunt says:

    I have a feeling the problem here is 80% alcohol and 20% men's mesmerizing sayxual desaiyaaaaaaaaa. Cut the booze, and you can discuss science til the dawn. Until then, I actually do think this is a "get out of the kitchen" situation. "Social event," booze, men, women, "evening wears on"... please, give me a break. Tell your friend to bring some knitting yarn and needles and stay in her hotel room until the debauchery is over. If the vapors are too overwhelming I suggest she take refuge in the Mormon Bible.

    Remember, feminism: the radical notion that women are adults.

  • K says:

    "t's pretty obvious when some instance of inappropriate behavior is due to poor social skills and when it's creepiness: when the perpetrator is called on his behavior, the poor-social-skills person will stop doing it and avoid doing anything like it. The creeper will make excuses and try to find some way to keep doing it."

    Yes, but if they are actively creeping people out, would that not be considered a form of poor social skills?

  • FS says:

    The problem here is that women and men are not treated equally. If women had equal power with men then this would work like the one comment by the gay male.

    Also "not all women" are the same. Some women do go to conferences and even out of town business meetings looking for sexyfuntimes on the side and some don't.

    Assault is wrong always; as is persistent efforts to wear the other side down. Asking a simple question? Well some resipiants will be ok with it and others won't be. Life isn't risk free or simple. It's complicated and fraught with risk.

  • Nathanael says:

    Regarding romantic/sexual advances, for any man (or woman, for that matter) who is too ignorant to have figured this out already: you only get to ask once. Politely. If you get turned down, you don't get to ask again, and you need to behave entirely professionally. If the target of your advance changes her mind, *she* will ask *you*.

    This is a gender-neutral rule, but I had to use a pronoun. Also, this is a *general rule* regarding hitting on people, it's not specific to conferences.

    There's a reason "sexual harassment" is called "HARASSMENT". It's because it is actually a type of harassment. Harassment is repeatedly bothering someone (or a group!) who's told you to stop bothering them. You shouldn't engage in any form of harassment. When you hear "no thanks" or anything remotely like it, that should be the end of it.

    Did you (the hypothetical ignorant man reading this) notice how many of the examples given emphasize that these were not isolated incidents, but a case of the same thing repeatedly?

    Repeating something which you have been asked not to do, repatedly == harassment, period, actually pretty much regardless of what the activity is. Honestly, it can be completely non-sexual AND IT'S STILL HARASSMENT if you don't cut it out when you're asked to stop it.

    It's that simple.

    Actually, if a man reacts appropriately to "no thanks" or "please stop doing that", the woman hit on may be completely astounded, because most of the times they've been hit on, it's been by men who wouldn't take no for an answer. Which says something sad about our culture.

    I think I have some clues as to why so many men (other than the predators themselves) have trouble understanding this. They've been harassed (maybe not *sexually* harassed, but harassed) growing up, and told that it was acceptable and even encouraged behavior. Boys were actively encouraged (by the adults!!!) to harass one another in school for a startlingly long period, and this is probably still going on, at least in some places. Also, parents are given carte blanche to harass children.

    If you've been taught that your boundaries don't matter and it's OK for other people to harass you... you're going to have really messed up standards. And make no mistake, society *did this to boys routinely*, with adults even allowing them to be beaten up to "get tougher". (Society did similarly awful things to girls, of course.)

    ...and this is even before talking about older men and men from other countries who were taught that the only way to approach women was to harass them. This social attitude is something I only really know well from watching old movies and TV and reading old books, but it seems to have been endemic before the 1970s. And that's before you add intentional dimunition of judgment by such idiotic choices as getting drunk.

    The serious predators try to encourage these twisted social norms in order to make their behavior seem normal. Of course, the predators know exactly what they're doing. They honestly don't do it if they think they're being watched by someone who might punish them. They get very angry if they realize that social standards are changing so that they can't blend in any more.

    But I think the first issue which needs to be dealt with is not the incurable predators themselves; they're a minority, though large enough to cause a great deal of trouble. (Judging by Meet the Predators at the serial rapists are about 4% of the male population. The serial harassers who aren't rapists are probably another group, but I'd still expect it to be a small number.)

    The first issue is the way they manage to get other men (and some women) to act as if their behavior is acceptable, and the way they convince other men to copy their behavior. The predators have to be de-normalized. I think we're finally beginning to make some progress on this, now that the generation raised by the second wave feminists is having their own kids.

  • AndyG says:

    "Yes, but if they are actively creeping people out, would that not be considered a form of poor social skills?"

    Only if you consider being a sociopath to be the same as having poor social skills.

    As a number of commenters have said already, the majority of people in threads like these who innocently ask for advice on how to approach women in a non-creepy way are being disingenuous. Their aim to to be able to say "if you can't quantify it to 2 decimal places, I won't know how to go up to your arbitrary limit, and then you will designate me a creeper through no fault of my own".

    I would echo AMM's point above - anecdotally, I have known one or two genuinely socially awkward people who would stare at women they worked with. In each instance, when the woman concerned gently told them to stop, they stopped, end of story.

  • AA says:

    Jesus Christ, I have to chime in from the guy's perspective. I just wonder why some women always like make the fuss about the smallest stuff and expect the world to revolve around them.

    If I were a woman, and a guy advances on me, isn't that a great networking opportunity? Follow him a bit, get to know his other guy friends. And if it's just harmless flirting, you can use that opportunity to dig out "intel" about your field from a person who is very willing to talk. For god's sake a guy flirting with you is NOT harassment, if it were, then every guy would be in jail by now.

    I'm just saying, use the situation to your advantage instead of bitching and whining about it...

  • AndyG says:

    "If I were a woman, and a guy advances on me, isn't that a great networking opportunity? "

    Depends, doesn't it? What if he is the editor of a journal you publish or papers in? Or the chair of a study section you might submit your grants to?Or the chair of your department? Or any other position in which the power dynamics are weighted against the woman in question? What if it's the fourth time he has advanced on you? What if he makes you feel uncomfortable by the way that he looks at you, making it clear that networking is far less on his mind than having sex with you? What if he makes it clear that his sexual interest is linked to your career?

    This is just a tired variation on the standard line from privileged men "I would LOVE it if I got hit on by women". The difference between men and women that this ignores is that men aren't conditioned from their pre-teens to be the object of sexual interest, men aren't subjected to constant unsolicited remarks about their appearance, physical attributes or dress, men aren't told to smile more, men aren't asked for sex and then receive vile comments back when they refuse. I could go on. And on.

    Get a clue.

  • ShamanSciences says:

    AndyG: Spot on!

    Let's say that a woman in question does use AA's patronizing advice and takes a sexual advance as a career "opportunity". That woman's work is now colored with comments of "she slept her way to the top" or "she only got that grant because she let Dr. AA grab her tits at the conference social." If you bring attention to bad behavior, you are told to stop whining and bitching. If you acquiesce, your following successes are painted with the sexually manipulative brush. Stop trying to justify bad behavior, AA. You've just insulted the men in my field who do not behave like this, and have obtusely demonstrated that the ones who do act like this have no respect for their fellow colleagues if they think their harassment is providing special opportunities for women.

    I can't understand how anyone who has read any comments or stories about how uncomfortable and disrespected these types of advances make many conference goers feel would try to paint this unwanted attention as a special opportunity. Submitting to harassment is not networking. Hitting on someone who is clearly uninterested, uncomfortable, or just outright physically grabbing them in a sexual manner is not networking. It is also not a compliment. On the receiving end, if feels like being bullied:

  • Acclimatrix says:

    I think this Paging Dr. NerdLove article is apropos of some of the comments on guys being clueless and needing a break :

    AA, that is a pretty fucked up attitude right there. Because you know what? Ignoring the very real physical risks, let's say for a second that I did do what you suggest -- I used my sexual wiles to get ahead in my career. How do you think I'd be perceived? There's a name for people like that, and it's not complimentary. It never has been. So how about YOU do some fucking work instead of thinking the whole world revolves around you, and bitching whenever someone reminds you that it isn't?

  • Origami Isopod says:

    Jesus Christ, I have to chime in from the guy's perspective.

    Which we never, EVER hear, ever, anywhere. /snark

  • koi says:

    I'd say the responses here say as much about the responders as they do about the topic at hand. In a nutshell, they reflect the American female paranoia when it comes to good-natured flirting. My sweet dahlings - flirting is NOT sex. It is an art form that many of you might want to learn and enjoy - perhaps at conferences to France, Italy, Spain or Brazil.

    Flirting is an art - an expression of intelligence designed to make everyone feel better. It does not ask for anything; if it does, then we can relegate it to the primate zoo. What I see in the US is this rigid, stiff, unhumorous equating of an innate human social trait into the shackles of the sexual encounter.

    Folks - relax. It is not the end of the world if you sense someone finds you attractive or vice versa.

  • AnonPhD says:

    I completely understand that women hate being hit on all the time. I get it, and I personally would hate it too, because I am by nature a distanced person.

    However, as a mid-thirty single man in academia far from home and working way too much (as everybody) my ONLY social contacts are at work and at conferences. And I know many who are in the same situation.

    Of course, it's not okay to sexually harass people. Ever. And I hope I did never say or did something that was received as that.

    But if my very careful try to get a little flirty (again, I am NOT a 'predator'... or even an extrovert) is responded by immediately being ignored for the rest of my life with a face like I was a fucking rapist, then that hurts too. I hate that, too. You want to only be professional. Okay. I don't.

    So, yeah, stay away from social events, please, if you hate it so much. Because I hate being treated like a perverted dirty bastard on the few days I get to know interesting new people and dare to be not *only* a scientist.

  • AndyG says:

    "But if my very careful try to get a little flirty (again, I am NOT a 'predator'... or even an extrovert) is responded by immediately being ignored for the rest of my life with a face like I was a fucking rapist, then that hurts too. I hate that, too. You want to only be professional. Okay. I don't."

    Straw man, oblivious to the comments already posted and wrong.


  • AnonPhD says:

    You call my personal experience wrong, then go fuck yourself.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    AnonPhD, read CPP's comment above. This post isn't about respectful behavior. At all.

  • AnonPhD says:

    I apologize. I didn't find AndyG's response very respectful either.

    However, it is true that I didn't read all the comments, because I have read hundreds of such comments and the horror stories make me sick. I am not 'oblivious' just fed up. It is my serious advice to indeed do the buddy system thing or just not go, if one feels uncomfortable. I myself often don't go to social events for lesser reasons.

    Nothing I wrote is wrong, though, it was my personal experience.

    Only whether it's okay to be a social human being on a conference social and not just the trainee/mentor/scientist/expert seems to be an ongoing debate. Me, however, I hate that. 'socials are work', I don't think so. To me, socials are socials. Work is the rest of the conference.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    I'm not asking you to apologize, simply pointing out that I think respectful behavior between adults, even if it cross the line into flirty, is okay as long as both parties are on the same page. If dudes can't figure out if women are on the same page as they are, that's a whole different issue.

  • AnonPhD says:

    I still wanted to apologize for telling someone to go fuck himself on your platform.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Haha, no worries there.

  • Hi AnonPhD--

    I get it. It's hard to find people to talk to when you are really that busy-- let alone a *girl* of the "female species". Many of the conferences I have gone to; I am the *only* girl in the room. And defiantly the only gal that goes out with the Associate Professors of Physical Chemistry on a pub crawl after hours. (I'm a weird combo of physical chemist and cancer researcher.) In fact, my boyfriend- an Irish theoretical physicist who does computational quantum for a living- was about to leave Germany because he wasn't meeting girls he could even talk to. (We met in a pub, randomly, and I totally jumped him. I know what I like in a guy: know more quantum than me. Also, get all my Monty Python jokes; and be within the specified Age Range.)

    Trying to find a mate is hard for everyone, and it can get really bad for us scientists. If you're doing it at conferences, with gals *at your level* (NOT STUDENTS), try to remember how much she likely gets hit on every single day, by guys just like you. I personally do *not* date within my field; and I suspect a lot of gals have similar rules. Try to remember, however, that girls tend to know *other* girls-- if you can convince one gal you are a Decent Human Being, perhaps she'll introduce you to her friends.

  • AnonPhD says:

    I sympathize with the problem of being under-represented. I do know some women.

    I guess my real complaint was that I was being treated like one of 'those guys' and not even given the chance to show I am decent. Something I can not really blame somebody for, I guess. Other than stupid gender roles and uninhibited guys.

    Oh, and I don't hit on students. I am too old for that. It's hard, though, to find someone who is not a puppy and also not a toddler-mom. I seem to have missed that narrow window.

  • "Oh, and I don't hit on students"

    O good. I've seen a fair amount of that, across many fields. Been warning my gal students about it.

    "I seem to have missed that narrow window."

    There is a narrow window, and it get harder to hit when you're required to be totally and completely obsessed with work. I suspect this is a systemic problem in the physical sciences: you spend your youth in a dark cave- practically required to not interact with anyone- right at the time (your mid to late 20s) when most humans find a partner. May require a significant cultural change wrt how we see and pay for scientific labor on a social level.

  • bethb says:

    Bad things are done and stereotypes created. When a middle-aged male walks into a room of middle-aged academic females he can feel their dislike and scorn before a word is said. Long gone is the time when all these unattractive, emotionally scarred and cranky people (male and female) were young and unencumbered.

  • anonymous500 says:

    What i hope someone might take from this post is that saying "no" at a bar to a stranger, and saying "no" at a bar to a colleague are two different things.

    When I go out at a conference, I am going out to meet people in my field. You find out a lot about a person when you determine their interests and the root of their passion for their field of study. This will allow you to develop a feel for how someone might communicate in a collaboration, possibly. Sometimes you want to learn about something you know nothing about in a more casual setting (I'm definitely not going to walk up to someone's statistics-heavy poster on a method to resolve bacterial species phylogeny in instances of high horizontal gene transfer and ask them how to make a phylogenetic tree).

    I go to a conference with the expectation that regardless of the setting, if I am with people who are involved in the same line of work as me, it is business.

    We are aware of a conscious subset of people being out with us when we go out after a conference. This subset of people includes colleagues, superiors, potential superiors, and all of these people are possible players in our financial and professional future. Even a grad student I meet at a conference (as a grad student) could be on a hiring board five years in the future. That "no, I am not interested " at a bar could come back to haunt you later. So yes, being hit on at a scientific conference, regardless of the setting, is inappropriate.

    We're all adults. Please, act like it. If you have to involve heavy flirting to have fun, I'd ask that YOU be the one to stay home. Don't make females sit on the sidelines because of inappropriate behavior.

  • a reader says:

    Working long hours is not an excuse to be socially lazy and only pursue interactions with other ppl at work and work events. Especially with meetup andthe like it cannot be that difficult to find some outlet for socialization.

    I am really tired of ppl's inability to compartmentalize their lives appropriately and engage with others with class. I am also disgusted with the lack of empathy in these creepers and perverts. That person could be your child, cousin, sibling, or any other type of close relationship and you would be aghast if you witnessed them being harracssed...ergo, think twice before you try to enter someone's personal hula hoop.

  • AnotherAnon says:

    "I guess my real complaint was that I was being treated like one of 'those guys' and not even given the chance to show I am decent. Something I can not really blame somebody for, I guess."

    That's just it. You can't blame women for feeling alienated when they deal with 'those guys' constantly. Don't take it personally, but you're not entitled to a chance. You're not entitled to anything but professionalism.

  • AA says:

    To all "AA haters" let's put it this way:

    Scenario 1:
    You flirt but you don't go to bed. Practice your skills on how to keep the guys at the door. You still get a leg up in terms of network and people who are willing to talk, and maybe some favors along the way. As a guy, I admit that if I am asked for a favor between a man and a woman (and assuming both people are at the same "level" of friendship and all else being equal), I can tell you that I am inclined to help out the woman, and it's often because she's attractive or nice or . In fact, if you read up on the social science literature there is some evidence that suggests that attractive (but not slutty/whorish) women get out ahead in the game. And no, I do not expect sex for payment. Can't you see this is something that you can use?

    Scenario 2:
    You flirt and to go to bed (for a good reason). You get branded and some talk goes around, fair enough. So make it count. Perhaps this guy is one of the editors on Nature. And that gets you a Nature paper eventually, or several in the long run for your warm and friendly relationship. This is a high return for your "risk", but you score big time. Sure, maybe your other guy colleagues will have Nature envy, badmouthing you, but who gets the Nature paper? Who wins?

    Sure, I agree that the dynamics between male and female interactions is a bit convoluted, and maybe it is slanted towards the guy ends. But successful women will find a way to use the system to help them, instead of bitching and moaning about it, how unfair it is, etc...

    Can you please explain or justify why being a women makes you so entitled that things should change to suit you? Hey, short guys have been demonstrated to earn less money, get less attractive partners, and suffer from a bunch of socialeconomic disadvantages. I'm short, should I complain about it? Setup a blog and start bitching about how the whole unfairly treats short guys, and come up with a list of things that should "stop"?

    Finally, you need to distinguish between flirting and overtly friendly behavior and outright harassment. Completing you on your address may be inappropriate but it is not sexual harassment. Grabbing your breasts is sexual harassment. There's nothing wrong with the former, in fact women can get out ahead. When the guy is thinking with his balls, you are thinking with your brains, and you can get more out of such an encounter. As for the latter, the same standards should apply everywhere including academia.

  • AA says:

    "Complementing you on your dress" not "Completing you on your address". Sorry typo.

  • anonymous500 says:

    Hello AA,

    Your argument implies that women are inherently manipulating, which makes you a sexist. You villainize women for the way that you assume some of them respond to being hit on. Don't justify your sexism with social science studies. You work in academia. Learn to treat women with respect. Social science also proves that there is a gender gap. Work to fix it instead of justify it with your sexist comments.

    In all your scenarios, you just assume that a woman needs to flirt/sleep with someone to get ahead. It is insulting. Is this how you think of all of the women you work with? The next time a woman publishes a nature paper, will you not look at her merit?

    There is a proven confidence gap between women and men in all fields of work. After hard work at a conference, a women being hit on at a social event may begin to wonder if the person who was really interested in their work before was just interested because they wanted to hit on them. This isn't a 'hypothetical scenario'. This is truth. This happens, to me and almost all of my female colleagues.

    You are missing the point. These advances, the ones in this post, the ones that women scientists are taking themselves out of the equation for, are from male scientists. Male scientists are instigating them. This means that a man takes an action that a woman is obligated to respond to. I'm not sure why your comment is appropriate here. Bottom line, its not about how a woman responds at a a conference related event. Its the fact that she has to find a delicate way to respond at all.

    It may not be sexual harassment, but it is inappropriate. If you want to hit on women at a conference, go out to a bar by yourself where there won't be conference people. If your intent was to get lucky, and you are such a bold flirter, this shouldn't be an issue.

    I don't speak for every woman, but I would ask, as a woman, that you curb your sexual advances. This does not mean leave your penis at home, because I seem to keep my vagina with me at all times, and remain civil (I know, crazy right?).

  • AnotherAnon says:

    "Can you please explain or justify why being a women makes you so entitled that things should change to suit you?"

    Um, can you? Is coming on to women at professional events, like, necessary to your survival or something?

  • AndyG says:


    Here's a thought experiment for you. I am loath to go down this road, and I admit the scenario is very unlikely and unrealistic, but I have a small hope that it will serve a purpose:

    You are a straight male postdoc or a junior faculty member at a conference. An older man starts to make advances on you because he clearly finds you attractive. You are not attracted to him. Do you follow you own advice above?

    How would you feel if you declined his advances and he persisted? What would you do?

  • dsks says:

    "Is coming on to women at professional events, like, necessary to your survival or something?"

    This isn't so much about the fun of flirting (a highly subjective thing) so much as it's about power; and some guys have a real problem giving up the social "freedom" (subjective) to hit one women. If it was simply a matter of satisfying primitive urges, the answer to your question would be a simple "No", because this is so easily taken care of the Vincent Vega way. So it isn't that, it's just ego.

    For me, the decision not to cruise at conferences is built on the simple fact that the probability and emotional cost of directly or indirectly poisoning the atmosphere for my female colleagues far outweighs the probability and biological satisfaction of getting laid. It's not a terribly complicated mental calculation, particularly in light of the multitude of women coming out and telling their stories of late. Compare this with the deafening silence from women with positive stories of how they were propositioned/felt-up/elevator ambushed by handsome charismatic men that went on to become their wonderful husbands/long-term boyfriends or Greatest One-night Stand Evah.

  • Michelle says:

    As a woman, I have an incredibly high tolerance for shenanigans. I have been goosed, I have been solicited, and just generally hit on. Luckily, in all cases a death stare or a sharp reprimand is all that is needed. I have never felt my safety at stake. And while it gets tiresome, I continue to attend these conferences and their late night beer sessions because I have gotten 1 collaboration and one job out of it.

    The problem for me is not the being hit on, it is the not being taken seriously after you have been hit on. @AA may not realize that if you sleep with that Nature guy, that Nature guy will guarantee not to accept your paper, because being a sexual object changes his perspective of you away from being a scientist. Flirting etc. would be fine if it would not diminish the respect given as to a scientist, who just happens to be female too. So I completely, understand why my sister scientists avoid these hours.

  • AnonLady says:


    I like that you brought up that these after conference socializations are a big part of networking at conferences. In some labs, it's more or less optional, but in the lab I'm in, it's encouraged and part of the lab culture to go out. There's a woman who'll be coming as a visiting prof and that's partly because she demonstrated that she was a good fit within our group.

  • AA says:

    This is a common he's sexist strawman. Let's see

    "Your argument implies that women are inherently manipulating, which makes you a sexist. You villainize women for the way that you assume some of them respond to being hit on. Don't justify your sexism with social science studies. You work in academia. Learn to treat women with respect. Social science also proves that there is a gender gap. Work to fix it instead of justify it with your sexist comments."

    Where did I make the claim that women are inherently manipulating? The most I did was suggest that was an option that women can (and rationally should) use. You don't want to be seen as manipulative, fine, that that's your choice, so stop blaming the world when you clearly had the choice. You want gender balance? I'll give you an example. Guy gets into the sports that Mr Nature Editor like and gets to be his best buddy, giving him gifts every year, to get a favorable situation when the time comes.

    As for social science research on gender gap, when you control for variables like "kids vs no kids" (which most studies don't sadly) the gap quickly shrinks. Don't blame others for your lifestyle choice. If you want to have kids, you know it's going to be a disadvantage. You have a PhD, you can make an informed choice. Yes, kids are career killer for women, but agnostic for men. I know it's not fair, but lots of things in life are. I'm sorry, that's a societal problem, talk to society and your husband about that. It's not just an academia-only problem.

    "In all your scenarios, you just assume that a woman needs to flirt/sleep with someone to get ahead. It is insulting. Is this how you think of all of the women you work with? The next time a woman publishes a nature paper, will you not look at her merit?"

    Because this entire discussion has been about women being unhappy of being flirted with during conferences. The title of this post is "Girls just don't wanna have fun at conference".

    "There is a proven confidence gap between women and men in all fields of work. After hard work at a conference, a women being hit on at a social event may begin to wonder if the person who was really interested in their work before was just interested because they wanted to hit on them. This isn't a 'hypothetical scenario'. This is truth. This happens, to me and almost all of my female colleagues."

    That's your problem, learn to fix it. Learn to stop doubting yourself and telling yourself "he's interested only in me and not my work". It seems like a variation of impostor syndrome. We all get it, get over it.

    "You are missing the point. These advances, the ones in this post, the ones that women scientists are taking themselves out of the equation for, are from male scientists. Male scientists are instigating them. This means that a man takes an action that a woman is obligated to respond to. I'm not sure why your comment is appropriate here. Bottom line, its not about how a woman responds at a a conference related event. Its the fact that she has to find a delicate way to respond at all."

    True, I acknowledge that is a tacky situation. As another person has posted, if an old powerful white gay dude were to hit on me, I would be very uncomfortable. But as long as we don't get too personal (all touchy feely), no harm is done. Would I whine and moan that I hate all gay guys no. Of course, if it descends into harassment I would not like that, and the same would apply for women as well, which leads me too...

    "I don't speak for every woman, but I would ask, as a woman, that you curb your sexual advances. This does not mean leave your penis at home, because I seem to keep my vagina with me at all times, and remain civil (I know, crazy right?)."

    Overtly friendly =/ Flirt =/ Sex. You missed my earlier point that some women can't seem to tell the difference. If I it was obvious, when it becomes real harassment, it is not acceptable.

  • AA says:

    From the guy's perspective, here's some ways women get ahead (not only during conferences):

    Being a women at a conference most likely means that you stand out. One of my female friends has a very good network, is known by the greybeards. Why? She's a girl... No sexual reference here, and she does not sleep around. Who would you recall at a conference? Some random guy out of 100, or the only girl who presented a poster?

    Easier to get talks. No offence, but I've been to conferences like the Gordon ones where there is a serious over-representation of female speakers relative to the ratio present. As a junior guy, it is damn tough to get a talk at these conferences. I guess this is part of the women affirmative action. As a guy I do feel disadvantaged.

    At least in my university, there are special women funds for TT job search. That means besides the usual shortlisted candidate, the best women candidate gets flown down for the interview, even though she was not shortlisted. This is a HUGE advantage. I'll give my left nut for this advantage.

    Almost every conference I've been too has a special conference fellowship/travel grant for women. What about short ugly men who have been proven to suffer from several socioeconomic disadvantages? Not a cent...

    Women-only networking opportunities and clubs, for some reason I get their mailing list sometimes. Where's the exclusive club for mentoring short ugly guys?

    Sometimes I wonder, at the higher level how much more affirmative action do we give women, all for the sake of being inclusive and politically correct? Maybe invite a few women to the editorial board of the journal because there are too many guys?

    I'm not saying all is fair in this world when it comes to women in academia, but seriously... look harder, there are advantages and you can make this work for you.

    *** And the WORST part *** (drumrolls), when I started out in academia I did not know any about this. But these days sometimes when I am passed over, I do wonder, did she get it because she is a woman? This is like the extreme IRONY of things, all these affirmative action for women in science is just reinforcing the stereotype in the next generation of junior scientists. I used to attribute a woman's accomplishment to her skills and talents, but after seeing so much women affirmative action in science, sometimes I do wonder.

    Let me just end by saying, by segregating yourselves as different from the rest, you are in the long-run reinforcing those differences.

  • ShamanSciences says:

    Ah, that was a rousing game of derailment bingo. I'm sure we have a full card by now. AA, your topic train is now so far off the track that we'd have to call in several disaster relief funds to clean up the mess and relocate several communities of thought just so that they avoid any toxic exposure.

    Just in case you needed reminding, the topic is calling out and putting a stop to lewd behavior at conference socials. Also, just in case you didn't quite understand the theme of several comments, it is that women want to be treated like scientists while at conferences, not as the targets of sexual advances.

    AA: "Guy gets into the sports that Mr Nature Editor like and gets to be his best buddy, giving him gifts every year, to get a favorable situation when the time comes."

    Not the same scenario at all. If you can't tell a friendship based on mutual interest from someone trying to get his freak on with a female colleague or student at a professional meeting, you need to do some serious thinking. These are only equivalent if Mr. Editor also invites Guy up to his room for special drinks, and starts grabbing Guy's thigh, or petting his hair, or caressing his arm, or draping an arm around a shoulder and "accidentally" grabbing a chest feel, or grabbing his ass as he walks by...the list of infractions goes on.

    AA: "Let me just end by saying, by segregating yourselves as different from the rest, you are in the long-run reinforcing those differences."

    By not wanting to be treated like petting zoos at conference socials is segregating ourselves? I've been to several conferences, and have not once seen the male researchers treat one another like pretty ponies that need to be touched. I do not see most male scientists trying to flirt with their male colleagues or young male students.

    Of course this doesn't matter, since now you wonder if that female researcher is really at the conference because she is a good scientist, or just because she's a woman. It's hard to respect a person when you blame their successes for your perceived lack of success. Underrepresented groups have it oh-so-easy by your logic. It is refreshing to see someone admit that they believe unrepresented groups succeed in sciences because of special treatment that is denied to you. Bravo. You have argued your case so well. *slow clap*

  • Hunt says:

    There's a lot of strawmanning, derailment and outright trolling all around here, AA is just one case among many. I'm sure some people think I'm doing same, so in for a penny, in for a pound, I'll just reiterate my opinion, and by the way, I am very impressed with the level of tolerance allowed in this discussion. Very often, comments like mine, or AA's are simply deleted on blog posts of this nature.

    For me, the question here is to what extent the extra-judicial rules of conference harassment policy, etc. should be allowed in the "extracurricular" events of a conference. It's almost as if the trend is that conference goers will soon be required to sign a special waiver altering the normal boundary of civil rights to be expired upon conference termination. Even within a bar, off-property, the restricted civil rights of conference rules will still be in effect and a person will be liable to expulsion from a conference at any time for the duration of a conference. (Actually, I believe this is already true for some conferences.) Yes, I completely realize that this isn't the expressed topic of this blog post; however, it's the unmentioned terminus of this discussion, whether it's the real topic or not. To what extent should behavioral restrictions be placed on conference goers at non-academic (and essentially non-conference) events during the span of a conference.

  • OldWoman says:

    Here's an idea, which acknowledges that people often meet their future partners at work;

    How about, if you (male *or* female) definitely don't want to be hit on by anyone under any circumstances, you wear a ring on the 4th finger of your left hand. If you meet someone you actually really like and change your mind, you can always slip that ring off surreptitiously.

    If you're not sure if hitting on someone would be inappropriate, check the left hand.

    It's a technique that has worked for centuries!

  • dsks says:

    "Yes, I completely realize that this isn't the expressed topic of this blog post; however, it's the unmentioned terminus of this discussion"

    Slippery slope fallacy. Most would agree that it's polite to hold a door open for someone following one at a conference, but there are no rules to mandate this are there? Restrictions on male liberty are not remotely inevitable in the wake of an earnest conversation about social etiquette (and I know of no such examples at any of the meetings I have attended). This post merely appeals to we and our male colleagues to perhaps consider the atmosphere we contribute to through our actions at meetings. That is all. At the very least, we should do well to consider the sanctity of other people's freedom as equal to our own. There seem to be some here who are very passionate about their own liberty, but less than empathetic to that of their female colleagues.

  • KP says:

    I seriously doubt any conference will institute a, "no asking each other out" policy, despite the influx of codes of conduct and anti-harassment policies. But even if a conference *does* institute such a policy, you are welcome to, as many other commenters suggested, hit up a local singles bar to get your social fix, or avoid the conference altogether. You choose whether or not to attend the conference, and you can make that decision based on what you think of the policies. You can write a strongly-worded letter to the organizers about your disapproval of their policies. Go for it. Your freedom of speech is in no way hampered.

    If, however, it would damage your career prospects to avoid the conference and/or the social events at a conference--well, I suppose you can relate to the dilemma women are currently in.

    Women have civil liberties, too--i.e., the liberties to get on the internet and say, "Hey gentlemen, we actually do not go to work-related conferences to find dates. We don't want you to ask us for dates. We don't want to flirt with you. We want to network and get work done. It's frustrating and exhausting and sometimes career-damaging for us to have to slog through this, so kindly knock it off."

    Yes, it stinks that the minority* of men who are predatory, vengeful, and otherwise skeezy have poisoned the cultural atmosphere to turn every flirtation into a situation where a woman has to assess her risk. It's hardly surprising many women choose to forego the ordeal entirely. It would be nice if everyone was friendly and cordial. It would be nice if an invitation to drinks later could be a simple, baggage-free question.

    While that would be nice, that's not our current reality.

    If women shut down their intuition and nicely play along with flirtation, it will do precisely nothing to change that reality. Sure, it might result in some pleasant dates, but it will also mean that more women will get preyed on by those men who are all too willing to manipulate them.

    The problem is not that women are too paranoid or sensitive. The problem is that there is a real, pronounced risk for women--personally and professionally--by men who charge past their boundaries at conferences. Until that stops being a widespread problem, it *is not safe* for women to be totally cool with getting hit on by any man who feels like it. Men risk a missed connection by not flirting; women risk a ruined career *by* flirting. If, knowing this, men insist on hitting on women at conferences anyway, they are declaring that their right to seek a bit of companionship trumps women's desire to feel like they are being taken seriously as professionals. Is it any wonder women don't respond favorably to that?

    *By "minority" I don't mean "one or two men in her lifetime", but "most likely, at least one or two men she will interact with at every conference she goes to". It's not *all* men, it's not even *most* men, but it's *enough* men to warrant her caution.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    AA, your latest rant sounds strangely like that of members from white dude protectionist groups who feel like minorities and women are oppressing white males. "It's SO easy for women to get conference speaking slots, but woe unto me!" Yet I would bet the farm that every conference you attend has a majority of its slots tied up by white dudes. Your skewed perspective plays to your insecurity while ignore reality.

    As for my comments policy, I like to ensure that they full range of perspectives are heard because it reflects what is actually out there. As long as you're only making an ass of yourself, I'll give you all the rope you need. I have my limits, but this thread hasn't tested them.

  • Anon says:


    I am the Anon who posted fifth here, asking the question that got things rolling. I was, to some degree, disingenuous. Everyone (including me) knows what pressing and persistent asshole behavior looks like. Everyone (including me) knows that there can never be bright line rules. I was interested, however, in whether anyone could at least describe how to think about the edge cases.

    I am very impressed by the conversation that followed. I don't think that I have ever seen a thread with this many divergent opinions (often held by some very angry people) that actually worked in creating and sustaining an exchange of views. You may have been pruning judiciously in the background, or you may just have a more thoughtful following. Kudos either way.

  • AndyG says:

    Just to be clear, you finished your first comment with "Please take this as a sincere question, the answer to which is not obvious to most men."

    So now we know you are a patronising troll as well as a disingenuous troll. Thanks for sharing......

  • Anon says:


    I have not been patronizing. Let me show you patronizing.

    I am not sure whether it it thickness or indifference to the truth that is driving you. I was very clear that I was and continue to be very interested in the answer of how to think through the edge cases. That is to say, the non-obvious area about which there has been some significant debate. I am not sure how clearer I could have been. Indeed, Andy, if I explained it any slower to you I would have to talk backwards.

    It seems obvious that you have just arrived here from the Stygian depths of some Youtube comment pages. At this point one of your options is to scurry back there. Alternatively, you could shut up, stick around and hope to be able to ape you betters at some point in the distant future.

    In closing, want to endorse AnonPhd's comment to you. And the horse you rode in on.

  • KP says:

    What do you define as an "edge case", Anon?

    As has been stated in the article and echoed in the comments, most women do not want to be approached romantically at a work-related conference, not even during the scheduled social times. Women attending a conference in a professional capacity want to be treated like peers in the field, not like Bachelorette #2. That doesn't leave much in the way of edges.

  • Anon says:

    Thanks for the question.

    I know what the article says. The postings from women here seem to show a range of opinion. I submit that the post from anon3 above represents the middle of the range..

    I am now going to offer my grand unified theory. For the most part what happens at conferences is a distilled version of what happens everywhere else.

    Think of any class of evenly mixed sexes you have taken. Over the course of the year, a small portion of the males have made suggestions of varying degrees of coolness to a few females. Occasionally the suggestions go the other way. Nothing is rushed, because if you like someone you have all term to approach him/her.

    This is the way social interaction works. No one says school is just for learning, not for hitting on women.

    Now, change a few variables. The male-female ratio is now 90-10. The same proportion of males still make suggestions, but the rate per female has gone up 9 fold. Add in a shorter timeframe. You like someone, and this may be the only chance to indicate that. Add power dynamics, which make some approaches problematic.

    The result is that males behave exactly as they do elsewhere, and females feel harassed.

  • ShamanSciences says:

    "The result is that males behave exactly as they do elsewhere, and females feel harassed."

    Anon, your self-perceived great insight is neither "grand" nor a "theory": it's just a rewording of the tired "boys will be boys" rationalization that gets trotted out by entitled dudes when women point out that a certain behavior is making them uncomfortable. The only way you could be trotting out this old chestnut in this comment feed is if you are deliberately ignoring those who are clearly saying that women at conferences want to be approached as colleagues and collegial friends, not as potential dateable items of sexual interest.

    If you really want to offer fresh insights to the conversation, join your male colleagues who have actually listened to their female colleagues and also feel this behavior is unacceptable, and work to improve the atmosphere of conferences and conference socials.

  • KP says:

    If we assume your theory to be true, it still holds that men behaving "exactly as they do elsewhere" *does* result in women being harassed (not insignficantly because men harass women in plenty of other contexts as well). It's not just a feeling. It's what happens. Unifying theory or no, the current arrangement is unfriendly to women.

    So again, if we assume your theory to be correct, we can assume that women, being in the minority, are being intentionally harassed by creepy men more often than normal. They are being romantically approached by well-meaning men more often then normal. Both of these things are emotionally taxing. By being in the minority, particularly if they are also young and/or new to the field, power dynamics come into play with most romantic approaches. The women may not be single, they may not be straight, they may just generally be uninterested. The chances that any given man, a new acquaintance, will shine through that fog as the one Mr. Right who made all of their headaches worthwhile, are slim.

    And none of this changes the fact that *women are there to work*. No, this doesn't make it impossible that a connection can be made, but it means it is presumptuous to try and intrude into that work space with non-work propositions.

    For instance, imagine if you were attending a conference, and a large number of your fellow attendees just so happened to moonlight as Fruit of the Month club representatives. They are all working independently of one another and are unaware of anyone else's attempts to sell memberships.

    Now imagine that every day, multiple people corner you. "Hey, I liked the question you raised to the panel. Can I interest you in a Fruit of the Month club membership?" Fifteen minutes later, "Hey, friend, you look like someone who likes fruit." At the banquet that evening, "Oh, you're in [field]? How interesting. Say, what is your opinion on fruit?" In the middle of you pitching your latest project, "Hey, I just thought of something; what if I showed you my fruit catalog later?" In the hallways, "Seriously, I could show you pomegranates like you wouldn' t believe." Maybe one or two of these salespeople find you repeatedly and ask you over and over, because they have just got it in their head that they can persuade you to give their Fruit of the Month club a chance. It can't hurt to ask, right?

    It happens in the line for lunch. It happens on the elevator. It happens while you're actively trying to work. It happens while you're actively trying to network with potential collaborators. It happens while you're shuffling back to your hotel room after a long day. It happens when you're relaxing in the lounge. People just won't. stop. asking.

    After days on end of multiple people per day wanting the same thing from you, something that had absolutely nothing to do with your profession or your purpose for attending the conference, I'd wager a guess that you would be pretty freaking tired about hearing sales pitches for the Fruit of the Month club. You would probably wish people would shut up about the club altogether.

    Is it on you to be less annoyed at people just innocently trying to make an extra buck? Or is it on them to listen to you when you say "I am not here to buy fruit. If I was interested in buying fruit, I would go downtown to the fruit market. Please talk to me about work or leave me alone"? Isn't it their job to respect that, and not to not say, "But why can't I just ask you about my Fruit of the Month club? Do you hate fruit?" or, "But my friend Barry got a new Fruit of the Month club client at a conference six years ago," or "Well it's not like we can't do *other things too* at the conference, right"?

    And this is a scenario that includes no significant physical risks to your person, and no significant risk to your career. If you shut the salesperson down mid-pitch, passers-by will be on your side and won't chastise you for being too uptight. If you blog about all the annoying people trying to sell fruit to you, people will comment, "Wow, what weirdos", and won't ask you if it would have killed you to at least take a few fliers. If you actually decide you're interested and buy the fruit, your peers won't raise their eyebrows at you forever as that unprincipled fruit-buyer. Change all of those factors, and we're starting to vaguely approach the kind of frustration women deal with.

    If conference-goers are super interested in hooking up on the side, they can always get Tinder. The most reasonable assumption is that the vast majority of women attending a conference are there to *attend the conference* and *network*, and flirtation is very, very likely to only get in their way.

  • Anon says:


    So I should just STFU, absorb your wisdom and then agree with you? That is an excellent description of shaman "science" but not a good description of science. "Fresh insights" are one you didn't have already, not just new ways to agree with yourself.

    Now, let me address your (what I will charitably call) argument:

    - There is no evidence that women are being "approached" as "dateable items". I assert that most men who make any sort of overture toward a woman get interested after they are intellectually engaged by them. Guys are not hunting for women, but rather are attracted to women who are engaged in the same topics. Don't believe me? Ask a man. Of course, you won't because you don't talk to men about stuff like this. And you value shaman wisdom over data.

    - I am not deliberately ignoring women who say they are uncomfortable. I believe them. I am offering an explain action of why this occurs at conferences. If you had stopped to think about it, you would appreciate that this leads toward the answer you are advocating. Men should throttle back their normal (socially approved) behavior at conferences .

    One way to disprove my hypothesis would be to say that the same thing goes on at more sex-balanced conferences, or at longer off-sites. But that is not the case, right?

    Let's do some science, then. The null hypothesis is that the behavior of most men at scientific conferences is identical to their socially approved behavior elsewhere. Take your best shot.

    (Thanks, BTW, for your so clever response to my phrase "grand unified theory". Talk about old chestnuts. Holy Roman Empire, anyone?)

  • Anon says:


    Thanks for the thoughtful response.

    Look at the fourth para of my mulching of Shaman "science" above. You will see that I agree with you, more or less. While the context amplifies villainy, I speculate that most of the problem is caused by normal behavior concentrated.

    So, stop telling men they are all pigs. We aren't, and it marginalizes you. (The rhetorical "you", not you). If you want to be effective, point out the math. These are science conferences, after all.

  • ShamanSciences says:


    Ah, the defensive reaction. Much like the "guy's perspective," that has never shown up in this kind of conversation before.

    You must not read your own posts. You have an interesting set of contradictory statements:

    "There is no evidence that women are being 'approached' as 'dateable items'," followed in your next paragraph by

    "I am not deliberately ignoring women who say they are uncomfortable. I believe them."

    This rings high on the BS-O-Meter. The data are there in the situations you hear about of women being targeted with a type of attention that their male colleagues do not have to deal with at conferences. I guarantee that if you tried to force that kind of attention on one of your male colleagues, even to try to strike up a friendship, it would be equally unappreciated. The incidents are the data points. It does not matter the intention of the incident, it is the consequences that matter. It is the consequence here is that women are being made to feel uncomfortable by not all men, not most men, but by enough men who want to push this issue. If you do not like the data as they exist, by all means conduct your own survey and get more. Actually talk to women from different fields and listen to their conference experiences. Talk to the men that have been uncomfortably pursued by women at conferences.

    The explanation, as stated clearly by KP, is that "... if we assume your theory to be correct, we can assume that women, being in the minority, are being intentionally harassed by creepy men more often than normal. They are being romantically approached by well-meaning men more often then normal. Both of these things are emotionally taxing. "

    This is about respecting boundaries, and respecting colleagues as colleagues.

  • Anon says:


    Defensive reaction? Not at all. That was a studiously offensive reaction. I started out quite polite here, but have now decided to tone-match. It's much more fun.

    Let's leave aside the true bad actors who use power to coerce. That is in no way defensible or excusable. Those guys need to be pointed out and pilloried. We are talking about normal guys expressing polite interest. The kind of conduct would be perfectly normal in many social interactions become offensive in aggregate when it happens 9x more often.

    Men do not have to deal with that attention at conferences, agreed. But if the conference proportions were reversed, things might be a little different. Not to the same degree, of course,because the societal norm is still that men initiate. Again, it is about numbers, not premeditated misconduct.

    And of course intent matters, in a whole variety of ways. Most importantly, it matters in forming a strategy to change things. Characterizing a polite approach as forcing attention or targeting (as you did above) makes you sound like a member of the junior antisex league. Explaining how the ratios are concentrating normal social inter course into an offensive environment is a compelling,reasonable argument. I think KP's "Fruit of the Month Club" illustration is a perfect way to change minds and behavior.

    So, it comes down to a choice, in my view. Do you want to be umbrageous and ineffective, or do you want change? The first is much more fun, but you claim to be interested in consequences.

  • ShamanSciences says:

    "Defensive reaction? Not at all. That was a studiously offensive reaction. I started out quite polite here, but have now decided to tone-match. It's much more fun."
    Actually, you started out playing the "I'm looking for guidance" card and then switched to "Nope, had an agenda all along!", and you were called out on it by AndyG. You don't get to play tone police when you say you are looking for advice, argue with said advice, and then state you were disingenuous when asking for said advice.

    "Characterizing a polite approach as forcing attention or targeting (as you did above) makes you sound like a member of the junior antisex league."
    Many on this post, and others on similar posts, consider even "polite" approaches inappropriate, as one of the consequences of so many polite approaches to young researchers is #ripplesofdoubt. Regardless of the intent, the outcome is discouraging, emotionally draining, and creating negative experiences. One person's "polite" is another person's "ffs, enough already, I just came here to talk cool science over a beer."

    " I think KP's "Fruit of the Month Club" illustration is a perfect way to change minds and behavior."
    Excellent! Yes! Great! Fantastic! Finally! Now, go forth and use this elegant analogy to spread this awareness to anyone attending a conference this year and be part of the solution! I hope you spread it as far and as wide as your platform allows. Quote it on your blog. Share it in a pre-conference lab meeting. Hold a seminar at your home institution.

  • KP says:

    Anon: You said, "So, stop telling men they are all pigs. We aren't, and it marginalizes you."

    Who has claimed this? Where has this been a key point in either the article or comments?

    Most men don't act like pigs. But those non-piglike men engaging in otherwise socially acceptable behavior *can still negatively affect women*, despite the utter absence of piglike motives. (Not to mention that a handful of men do, without remorse, act like pigs, and women have to deal with them at conferences, too.)

    The argument is not that all men are pigs. The argument is not that all romantic overtures signify objectification (although, make no mistake: a number of them do). The argument is about context, and that scientific conferences are not a good context for men to flirt with women who are there in a professional capacity.

    That's part of my point for the "Fruit of the Month" club illustration. If I am at a shopping mall, or a farmer's market, or the county fair, etc., I won't be that bothered by the fact that someone might try to sell me fruit there. Maybe I'll even bump into more than one Fruit of the Month representative, which might be a bit annoying, but I'll shrug it off.

    But if people are trying to sell fruit at the scientific conference, that's weird and obnoxious. Even though selling fruit is a perfectly innocuous act in and of itself, there are contexts where it's not appropriate, or at least confusing and unhelpful, to do it. Compound a number of these unwanted, out-of-place sales pitches on top of each other, and it's obvious why the people being repeatedly approached would be frustrated.

    That's all that the article is saying. That's all that the commenters (so far as I can tell) are saying. Women, on the whole, don't go to scientific conferences in the hopes of hooking up. No matter how civil or kind-hearted the approach, they don't want to have to deal with it during those few days. That's not what they're there for. That's not what the conference is there for. It's off-putting at its mildest, and detrimental to their jobs at its worst.

    Men's motives don't have to be bad for them to be causing women headaches. Men's actions don't need to be objectively immoral for them to be inappropriate in a professional context, particularly when lots of women are coming forward and requesting that such behavior stop.

    If we are indeed agreed upon that much, I don't understand what you are arguing about.

  • Anon says:


    Let's start with the premise that virtually every single guy on occasion makes a polite suggestion to a female he finds attractive. (gays and celebate clergy excepted). This is normal, societally-approved behavior My thesis is that this becomes toxic to women in a science conference because the ratios of the sexes means they are getting suggestions at multiples of the normal rate. But the guys are just behaving in the way society requires them to behave in virtually all other contexts.

    With that in mind, reread some of this comment thread relating to normal, polite approaches. "Men don't like being told where to get their cocks wet" says Isis. "Shop talk used as a front for sexual advances" says vb13. Hermitage says "your dick is not more important that women's ability to network without fear." Any approach to a woman is misogyny, says Kevin.

    I am not sure any of these posters actually said "all men are pigs", but I suspect that was because they thought it was unfair to the pigs.

    My point is that these kind of attempts to shame men for normal, societally-approved behavior will not be effective. You have to explain how that behavior in this context is experienced by women.

  • KP says:

    Isis was objecting to the claim that men are clueless on when it is and isn't appropriate to hit on women. This is the opposite of calling men pigs. It banks on the intellectual and social capacity that men do, in fact, have. Isis argued that whoever insists that they don't know better--despite posts like this one all over the internet, despite the reported discomfort of women, despite abundant anti-harassment policies--such people probably just don't like the answer they're given. It's really not that hard to leave other human beings alone, particularly when they *ask* to be left alone. Plenty of men do successfully avoid harassing women their entire life, and plenty of men know better than to hit on their fellow professionals at a conference. Isis' statement has more to do with challenging a claim of ignorance (especially if the person proceeds to argue with, rather than listen to, the answers) than it does with addressing men as a whole.

    vb13 specifically denied the idea that the male sex drive was the problem, pointing out that the wrong behavior described in the actual post did indeed involve "shop talk used as a front". This is again a critique on an entitled attitude that some men have, not on the entire sex. As I said in my posts, it's not even that *most* men engage in this, but *some* men do, and there are enough of them that it presents a consistent hassle (and, at times, a real threat) to women.

    Hermitage's statement may have been terse, but it is nothing if not true, and it was not directed to all men everywhere. I suppose you could argue whether or not it was an adequate answer to the question being discussed, but nobody--male or female--gets to prioritize their own sexual desires above the autonomy and boundaries of another human being. In real life, this sort of harassment is almost unilaterally directed from men to women, and that is the way Hermitage framed it.

    None of those statements even approach calling men pigs. It sounds like you took a few trigger words as evidence of an anti-male attitude, and did not absorb the actual arguments being made in those posts.

    You wrote, "You have to explain how that this context is experienced by women." But that is precisely what the original post did. That is what several commenters, including ones you have criticized and argued with through this thread, have done. To dismiss their answers really comes across as a show of poor faith.

    The volume of flirtation women are subjected to at these conferences is the easiest part of this problem to quantify, but it is not the only reason it's problematic. I find it somewhat alarming that women have to resort to a mathematical proof that this behavior is unpleasant in order to be taken seriously about it. "We don't like it; please stop", is a boundary to be respected, not a thesis statement to be deconstructed and debated. It's fine to ask why women feel this way, but no matter if you think the reasons are good or bad, they still have the right to ask men to stop flirting with them. That, at the core, is the issue.

  • Anon says:


    Thanks again for a thoughtful reply.

    I had some great BBQ last night, and so am very aware that the concept of "pig" can be sliced a large number of ways. You say that "Isis was objecting to the claim that men are clueless on when it is and isn't appropriate to hit on women." Ironing that statement out, Isis is saying that men actually do know what they are doing is wrong, and are doing it anyway. That fits my definition of "calling all men pigs".

    My point is that the harm is happening, but the scienter is not there for most men. Men are behaving the way they do in other circumstances -- i.e. making occasional polite inquiries of women to whom they are attracted. In most other circumstances this is what society requires for straight men to find partners. An avalanche of these polite inquiries, however, becomes toxic at a conference with 90% men. This is not obvious from the male side.

    This distinction is not just splitting hairs. It is important in crafting an effective strategy for change. In particular, vilification will not have much effect. It may be just in a way (because men should have figured this out). It is certainly satisfying. Dworkinesque anger is not, however, going to get you from A to B as easily as simply pointing out what is happening to men.

    To be specific, "stop flirting" will not work because any guy who did that as a general rule would be edited out of the gene pool in short order. "Don't shit where you eat" is silly because so many people meet their partners at work. Characterizing a polite approach as "unwanted advance" does not work either. Even the most tuned in, thoughtful guy is shot down 50% of the time.

    Better: "Throttle back at conferences because women are overwhelmed. What is normally innocent flirting becomes creepy when women are being approached 10x more often. Now that you know, don't be an asshole"

    If this is the message, you will make women's lives easier by immediately changing the conduct of most men. The remaining bad actors can then be dealt with using harsher means.

    But don't take my word for it. Ask a straight guy, other than Kevin (shameless panderer) or AndyG (lives under a bridge, asks three questions of knights who want to cross).

  • KP says:

    Even better: "Women have asked men not to flirt with them when they are attending a conference in a professional capacity. Now that you know, don't be an asshole by ignoring their request."

    "Throttle back" is problematic, because that means "do less of it", not "stop doing it". Of course, no one is asking men to stop flirting with women entirely, but simply to stop flirting with women *in a specific context*, that only comprises a tiny part of a man's total lifespan.

    "Throttle back because there are too many men trying to do it" is problematic, because it makes the acquiescence to women's request contingent on external circumstances. Do women still have the right to say, "Please don't approach us now" in conferences that have a more even gender split? Is "Women don't like this" not a good reason to stop?

    You wrote:

    To be specific, "stop flirting" will not work because any guy who did that as a general rule would be edited out of the gene pool in short order. "Don't shit where you eat" is silly because so many people meet their partners at work. Characterizing a polite approach as "unwanted advance" does not work either. Even the most tuned in, thoughtful guy is shot down 50% of the time.

    No one is asking guys to "stop flirting as a general rule", but to respect that a professional woman attending a conference in her field is not there to pick up a date, and doesn't appreciate it when she is treated like that's what she's there to do. This article is simply establishing "At a conference, as a professional" as a context in which it is not appropriate to flirt. That can be filed away with the dozens of culturally-understood places where flirtation is inappropriate. If a particular guy is prioritizing his own place in the gene pool over women's request to back off for just a few days, that doesn't speak highly of his character.

    Many people do meet their partners at work. But that does not change the fact that, *at conferences*, where women have limited time and energy to get work done and meet people who are interested in them for reasons other than their contribution to the gene pool, they do not want to be approached.

    Even the most polite approach is an unwanted advance *if the advance is unwanted.* Now, of course men can't read women's minds as to whether or not an advance will be welcomed, but, good news! A lot of women are saying (in writing, no less!) that romantic advances are unwanted in that specific context. So the guesswork has gone out of the equation.

    It seems like we're going in circles at this point, so I'm going to bow out here. But I think it's seriously important that "Women have asked us not to flirt at them at conferences" should be a good enough reason for men to honor that request.

  • Anon says:

    I agree that the topic is exhausted. Thanks for your thoughtful responses.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Appreciate the conversation, folks.

  • […] lawsuit are not completely foreign to me. I think many women will recognize the large grey area of things that happen for example at meetings that are uncomfortable but perhaps not bad enough to speak up about. Because I also understand very […]

  • Leylia Wolfe says:

    I'm an undergraduate and encountered this at my first conference just this past week. Several of my female friend had to fend off advances at after hour gatherings and I had a frustrating conflict during my Poster Presentation with a male student who had approached me multiple times during the conference under a professional guise.

    He listened to my research talk, asked questions, and seemed interested in my school for grad school. I even gave him my contact information thinking he was professionally interested. Next thing I knew he was commenting on my body and appearance, and using my phone number to send unsolicited and inappropriate text messages while watching me from his table during the awards ceremony.

  • I'm sorry you had to deal with that.

  • StillAProblem says:

    It's 2017 as I write this - clearly, this is still a problem. I just returned home from my first conference as a professional (non-student). Though I am a researcher in the humanities, emerging digital technologies are central to my methodology. There are far more women in my discipline then men, but researchers interested in tech solutions to humanities problems still are overwhelmingly male. So, I found myself excitedly explaining my own work to a (male) department head at another institution who was potentially hiring, only to be asked to casually interview AND go on a date with the department head's friend, who is also a well-established scholar at the intersection of tech and humanities. I tried to laugh off the date part, and said I would be happy to discuss research and shared interests with the friend and nothing more. I don't mind socially interacting with people that happen to be attracted to my gender so long as boundaries are respected, so I did meet up with the department head's friend. However, he insisted on turning the conversation away from research to my marriage and his failed relationships. He ended our meal together by saying something like "If this was an alternate universe, I would ask you to come back to my hotel with me and have a night cap." Again, I want to reiterate that I am open to friendships with people attracted to my gender, and that I was genuinely interested in this person's work and continuously attempted to turn the conversation to work-related topics throughout this interaction.

    The power dynamic is what made this particularly inappropriate - I am a young emerging scholar and this proposition initially came from a well-established scholar seeking a new hire and involved another professional whose work I admire and wish to learn from. I worried that if I completely turned down the friend, I would no longer have a chance at a life-changing opportunity.

    I am married. I proudly wear my wedding ring. I did not misrepresent my goals or intentions in these interactions, yet I am now left feeling that my research was never interesting or important to these people, and they only talked to me because they thought I might sleep with one of them.

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