Talking About the Taboos: My Journey to being an ‘Obstinate Headstrong Girl’ Whilst Working in Science

I’ve had a few encounters recently that have led me to write this blog. I’m not writing it as an expert; This isn’t anywhere near my field. I’m writing to share my experiences and learning in case it helps others. Apologies, as it’s not a short read.

I’m challenged by some people I that I’m too worried about raising the profile of women in science, of talking too much about ‘female’ issues, and of challenging my colleagues too frequently. A really respected mentor once said to me that he didn’t think actions against women in the workplace still happened. I shared some stories and pointed out that they still did, they just didn’t happen to him, where he could see them or when he was paying attention to them. I count myself lucky that nothing really serious has ever happened to me at work, but I shouldn’t have to count myself as lucky: they just shouldn’t happen.

I have another post brewing about everyday sexism in the workplace, but this one is different. This one is about why I set out becoming the ‘obstinate head strong girl’ that I aspire to be!

I finished my undergraduate degree in 2002 and spent a year working before returning to undertake an MRes. This was my first experience of full-time ‘proper’ work. I took a six month temp contract for a council, working in their business development office. It was a mostly male floor, supported by myself, two other part time admin staff (both female students) and a lovely older lady who managed the team. My job was to support the officers in tasks such as typing up letters. Yes, they wrote by hand as some of them still didn’t know how to use a computer; I also ran reception, took minutes, that kind of thing.

The Problem is that You are Too Friendly

I’d been there about a month when I was in the post/stationary room stamping that day’s mail. One of my older male colleagues came up behind me and stuck his erection in my back and grabbed my breasts. I stood there, stock still, in complete shock. I didn’t know what to do. These things didn’t happen to me: I was the nerdy girl not the pretty girl, I had no experience of how to handle this kind of breach (I am not implying that pretty girls should know, or have to put up with this either). After what felt like hours (but was more likely a few minutes) where he spoke to me about what we should do next, I shoved him away and ran out of the room.

I went to my boss, the person responsible for me, and told her what had happened. She said she would speak to her boss, who also happened to be the boss of everyone on the floor. I recovered from my shock and got angry whilst I waited, but I was sure there would be censure and we could all put this behind us. She came back and we talked. She explained to me that I was overtly-smiley and chatty with my colleagues. This could be misconstrued and, in future, I should probably just take steps to not be alone with the man that had done it. That was it. The married man with multiple children could do what he wished as it was my friendly demeanour that was the issue.

I spent the next four months being hyper-aware of when I could go into rooms on my own, to be friendly, but not too friendly. As my contract end-date rolled up, I experienced a similar repeat performance from the same individual. It wasn’t as bad this time as I had learned from the first event, but I just couldn’t let it go. What if he went further with someone else, what if he did it to someone else who wasn’t in the privileged position I was in to ‘let it go’. On my last week with the council I emailed HR directly to express my sadness over the way the situation had been handled. They told me to get a cab down and speak to them. I did. I recounted the event, the way it had been handled, the way I felt. The guy got suspended on full pay whilst an investigation was undertaken. I was called back in to repeatedly account for the event and my actions. It was determined that as it was my word against his nothing could be done. I learnt early that even when people listen, accountability is not always the result. No policy was changed. At least the guy had a note on his record in case he did it again so that it was no longer the ‘future girls’ word against his.

I’m ‘lucky’: that was the worse thing in a workplace that has ever happened to me. We all the know of the labs where you wouldn’t apply to work at because of the way the PI behaves, or the ‘expectations’ placed on the post docs if they want to advance. It didn’t interfere with my progression. It did, however, teach me an important lesson about the importance of bystanders. However annoying the bad behaviour of the individual was, the worse thing for me was that the people I trusted and who held responsibility for my safety at work chose to make it about me being too smiley, rather than address the action of the person who had breached barriers and made me feel unsafe. I swore that I would never be that bystander and I would support others so they would not feel as alone as I did in that workplace.

The Problem is that You Are Not Friendly Enough

Roll on some years and I’m now working as a scientist with a part-time academic contract. I’ve learnt the lesson taught to me about not being too friendly, about boundaries at work, about always keeping it professional so my actions couldn’t be used against me. I’m working as the only microbiologist on a research project. The PI on the grant begins to spend a lot of time with the other female researcher. Late night drinks, wine in the office, that kind of thing. I stick to my guns about being valued for what I can add to a project: that doesn’t require me to be available to have drinks with the boss at 9pm. Suddenly, protocols are written that are not technically appropriate, papers are written without a standard authorship order, and presentations and conference trips are handed on the basis of time spent with the PI. When queries and issues are raised, I’m now told that I’m not committed enough, not friendly enough, I’ve not invested enough in building relationships outside of work structures. Unlike before, my future is impacted because I have not walked the tightrope of being approachable well enough. The difference this time is that, although I cried, I simultaneously empowered myself to leave by looking for funding to support an exit. Again, I was fortunate enough to have a way out, to be a clinical academic rather than academia being my only option. I had also started to learn the power of finding my tribe, and making sure that I always had support from other embedded around me. This enabled constructive challenge of my perceptions, but also assurance when things went awry.

Why are you Reacting to Such Little Things? It’s only people being friendly/joking

I’ve now been working as a scientist for 17 years. Issues crop up less frequently the higher you climb up the ladder. However, when they do they always feel like high stakes. I’m no longer in a position where I could easily find another post, co-applicants on grants are harder to switch around as the world we inhabit is small, and relationship building is a key part of my role. So do things still happen?

Sadly, the answer is yes. The thing that makes the incidents happening now worse, in many ways, is that they get laughed off as being linked to me being overly sensitive. I still try to embody the friendly girl I was at 22 without opening myself up to unwelcome physical acts at work. I have, however, on 3 occasions being kissed full on on the mouth in unsolicited encounters with male members of staff. None of it threatening, like when I was in my first job, but still unwelcome. Blocked doorways that, as you’ve tried to go through, have resulted in a facial assault because ‘its Christmas’ or because it’s someone’s ‘last day and they just want to say thank you’. I’m by no means prudish but the only person who gets to kiss me on the mouth is my husband! Uninvited physical intimacy is just not OK. It always comes as a shock and it always takes me back to being a 20 year old with no coping mechanisms standing in a post room.

What happens most frequently however are the comments. Just before the pandemic I was in Paris at an academic meeting. The organiser forgot to book my second night in the hotel. I’m sitting there in a room full of senior male academics at the dinner when the organiser came through and said I had no room. The most senior man in the room responded by saying ‘don’t worry about booking her in the extra night, we’re in Paris, there are more than enough brothels where she could go and work in’. Every man in that room laughed. No one called him out, no one indicated that the comment was humiliating and inappropriate. I didn’t know what to say and so sat there in silence as they laughed away. This isn’t a one-off event. The ‘little ladies’, ‘sweethearts’ etc. may feel innocuous enough but are too frequently used in conversations to undermine women in the room. That’s not to say I’m anti-endearment. I have plenty of colleagues where we have built up relationships over the time where I welcome this reinforcement of our relationship. It is different to do it when your relationship capital doesn’t justify it, or when you are doing it in order to enforce power or hierarchy.

So why have I written this post? I want to let people know that these behaviours happen. It’s unwelcome and it’s not up to the women involved to modify who they are in order to not tempt others to behave badly.

Here, therefore, are a few of my thoughts about how we can all act differently:

  • Don’t be a bystander! Know that if you are in the room you have a duty to act as the impacted individual may not be in a position to do so.
  • Find your tribe so you have support for when (and hopefully if) these events occur.
  • Talk about your experiences so that we can raise awareness, share learning, lead improvements and, most importantly, so others don’t feel alone.
  • Know that you have more power than you feel like you do. There are people out there who are ready, willing, and able to support you.
  • If someone comes to you with their story remember that you have a duty of care. Don’t brush things under the carpet because it is easier to do nothing than deal with a situation.

Finally, to all my obstinate headstrong women out there who are standing up and challenging, I applaud you. I appreciate all you are doing now, I appreciate the fact that you are leading the way and that you are members of my tribe. To all those who consider me difficult for calling out these situations when I see them, I understand why I make you uncomfortable, but I have no plans to change. In fact I plan to grow into this role more. In my opinion we could all do with a channelling a little Elizabeth Bennett from time to time.

All opinions in this blog are my own

One thought on “Talking About the Taboos: My Journey to being an ‘Obstinate Headstrong Girl’ Whilst Working in Science

  1. I am burning with righteous anger right now. Especially on the last one. 10 years ago it was bad enough but just despicable nowadays

    Liked by 1 person

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