Three wise monkeys

It’s time to blow up the gender paradigm

In the past I had planted a firm, and unapologetic, flag on the subject of women’s equality and rights, and I also made my position clear on the quintessential role of diversity in the workplace.


Equal protections and rights for half of the world’s population should not be an aspiration but a given. ‘Feminism’ shouldn’t be a dirty word. Until equal protections and rights are achieved for women, feminism is a human rights and social justice imperative.

Any argument that attempts to rely on the concepts of cultural tradition or religious freedom to explain or justify the subjugation of women is intellectually and morally bankrupt. ‘Cultural tradition’ and ‘freedom of religion’ end where human dignity begins.

Trying to argue ‘cultural relativism’ in a fundamental human rights context, to avoid ‘offence’ to cultural and religious beliefs, in relation to the protections and rights of women, children or the LGBTI community, is cowardice. Holding different races to different standards of behaviour under the guise of ‘cultural relativism’ is racist capitulation to unacceptable and inhumane cultural and religious practices.

To end domestic and sexual violence against girls and women, societies must undergo a complete cultural transformation. Women must be seen as equals and religions must end their millenniums of demonisation of women and portraying them as nothing more than sexual temptation to avert, segregate or subjugate.

Societies must put an end to a toxic global culture that reduces women to the mere sum of their reproductive organs and sexuality.

The Vue Post, 6 March 2015

Women in scienceI raise the issue again to discuss two recent events whereby highly educated, eminent women advised young women to just ‘put up’ with sexual harassment in highly intellectual and professional careers. Predictably, public outrage followed on both occasions, and rightly so. However, the faux public outrage must not be the end of these stories.

Without tangible follow-up action, and fundamental global cultural change, the public outrages involved are the height of hypocrisy.

The first of these two outrages was caused by eminent vascular surgeon Dr Gabrielle McMullin, in March this year. Speaking to a gathering at the NSW Parliament House in Sydney, and later to AM on ABC Radio, she acknowledged publicly that sexual harassment in hospitals is rife. She went on to advise young women planning to enter the profession that submitting to sexual harassment is an easier path than pursuing the perpetrators, given the entrenched sexism among many male surgeons. Oh snap!

On ABC Radio she went on to tell the story of a young trainee who always wanted to be a neurosurgeon. One night she was sexually assaulted by a senior surgeon. And the story only got worse from there, as the ABC interview revealed:

GABRIELLE MCMULLIN: And he kept asking her back to his rooms after hours. But after this one particularly long session, she felt it was rude to refuse and they ended up back in his rooms, where, of course, it was dark and there was nobody else around, and he sexually assaulted her.

She was horrified. She ran out of the office. She didn’t tell anyone.

ALICE MATTHEWS: The surgeon began to give Caroline bad reports and, faced with the prospect of failing after years of hard work, Caroline finally complained.

After a long and gruelling legal process, she won her case.

GABRIELLE MCMULLIN: However, despite that victory, she has never been appointed to a public position in a hospital in Australasia. Her career was ruined by this one guy asking for sex on this night.

And realistically, she would have been much better to have given him a blow-job on that night.

What I tell my trainees is that, if you are approached for sex, probably the safest thing to do in terms of your career is to comply with the request. The worst thing you could possibly do is to complain to the supervising body, because then, as in Caroline’s position, you can be sure that you will never be appointed to a major public hospital.

The next eminent woman to upset the apple cart was Dr Alice Huang. Dr Huang is a pioneering researcher in molecular animal virology, and trained at Wellesley College and Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. She is an educator, and throughout her career she advocated for women in science. She has been honored for her advocacy, as well for her research accomplishments.

Earlier this month she penned a response to a young woman in the journal of Science Careers. The young woman is completing her second postdoctoral under the guidance of a senior male adviser and asked for advice because:

Whenever we meet in his office, I catch him trying to look down my shirt. Not that this matters, but he’s married.

What should I do?

Dr Huang responded with an advice which since has been taken down by the journal, because it did not meet the ‘editorial standards’ of the journal and it ‘was inconsistent with [their] extensive institutional efforts to promote the role of women in science’:

Imagine what life would be like if there were no individuals of the opposite—or preferred—sex. It would be pretty dull, eh? Well, like it or not, the workplace is a part of life.

It’s true that, in principle, we’re all supposed to be asexual while working. But the kind of behavior you mention is common in the workplace. Once, a friend told me that he was so distracted by an attractive visiting professor that he could not concentrate on a word of her seminar. Your adviser may not even be aware of what he is doing.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines unlawful sexual harassment as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.” It goes on to say that “harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision (such as the victim being fired or demoted).” I’m not an attorney, but to me the behavior you’re describing doesn’t seem unlawful by this standard.

Some definitions of sexual harassment do include inappropriate looking or staring, especially when it’s repeated to the point where the workplace becomes inhospitable. Has it reached that point? I don’t mean to suggest that leering is appropriate workplace behavior—it isn’t—but it is human and up to a point, I think, forgivable. Certainly there are worse things, including the unlawful behaviors described by the EEOC. No one should ever use a position of authority to take sexual advantage of another.

As long as your adviser does not move on to other advances, I suggest you put up with it, with good humor if you can. Just make sure that he is listening to you and your ideas, taking in the results you are presenting, and taking your science seriously. His attention on your chest may be unwelcome, but you need his attention on your science and his best advice.

Frank? Yes!

Inappropriate? Yes!

An utter reflection of reality? Yes!

Cue the outrage

So why would two eminent women give such morally abhorrent advice that belongs in the realm of TV shows, such as Mad Men? In my view there are two possible and reasonably palatable explanations.

First, these women are scientists and deal in observable facts. Arguably, what they expressed is just that: observable facts. Whether we like it or not, and despite laws and protestations, sexism, misogyny, and sexual harassment exist, and continue to flourish everywhere.

We don’t have to like it. In fact most of us abhor it. But we must accept it as reality, and an observable fact, that these behaviours continue to exist, even in progressive, liberal democracies, and the most hallowed of professions. This later aspect can be particularly disturbing to some, as society often likes to believe social ills, such as sexism, misogyny, racism, homophobia, or domestic violence are far more prevalent in less-educated, lower socioeconomic groups – not so.

The real question is, what are we going to do about it? Shooting the messengers, and publicly vilifying the women who simply state the reality of their everyday life, is certainly not going to achieve anything.

Second, the women involved are extremely intelligent and eminent minds. Surely they were aware their public comments are likely to cause significant ripples in the media. Nothing seems to rile public outrage more than a dose of reality about an inconvenient truth we all seemingly ‘agreed’ not to mention. Rocking the boat by breaking the social conspiracy of silence, by presenting an utterly unpalatable and often silent social ill as an everyday reality, upsets the social convention of our much-loved societal three-monkeys routine. Especially when it comes to issues we prefer to leave in the proverbial ‘too hard basket’.

I disagree strongly with the views expressed, but I can also understand how the frustration with institutional sexism and misogyny could lead these two incredible women to use the sad reality as a timely reminder that sexism and misogyny are very much alive. Even if we would prefer not to acknowledge it publicly. On the other hand, we are more than happy to pile on the women who dared to highlight the issue, to our great discomfort.

Should you be outraged? Of course!

But don’t aim your rage at these two women. Focus your rage on the society that allows such a culture to fester, and take steps to bring that culture down. These women have already done more than most by breaking down barriers in science, and now by putting themselves on the line by bringing attention to the unacceptable behaviour that surrounds them.

If sexism and misogyny really upset you, it’s time to blow up the gender paradigm.

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