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Monday Minute

March 21, 2011

New research on women in science shows that even a single “objectifying gaze” can affect a woman’s subsequent performance on mathematical tasks.

“The results suggest that seemingly innocent overtures – checking women out or complimenting them on their appearance – have remarkably negative effects on women,” Gervais said. “Identifying the adverse consequences of the objectifying gaze is a first step toward creating interventions that can reduce its effects.”

You know, at first I scoffed at this article — and then I remembered just two of my own experiences with this over the years.

The first was a fellow graduate student who was “handsy” during E&M lectures, who distracted me so much (as I repeatedly changed seats, moving away from him as he tried to grope me throughout the class period, whenever the professor turned toward the blackboard) that I lost confidence in my ability to do E&M, even though I had no problem with the work in all my other classes.

The second instance was a colleague at NASA who was hired about the same time I was. Every morning, he’d look me up and down and compliment me on my suit or skirt. It seemed innocent enough, and I just said thank you and moved on, but it unnerved me that he noticed. It unnerved me a lot, actually, and eventually I left that job to join a different group (Yay, Planetary!) just to be able to focus on the work without dealing with a potential harasser every day. And yes, I said harasser. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, this same employee went on to repeat this behavior — and worse — with two other young female employees who followed me. Both left NASA, and NASA is the worse for it.

What do you think? Has receiving an “objectifying gaze” ever made you less confident? What did you do about it, or what would you recommend young women in science do about it today?

Read the rest of the article here:

Later this week on Women in Planetary Science: two new feature articles of women working in planetary science and a report from a CalTech study of the careers of over 200 alumni.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. Denise Pouchet permalink
    March 27, 2011 12:44 pm

    This topic is more and more interesting as I think of it and many-sided.

    There are women within the fields of physics and mathematics coming from cultures which do not perceive unwanted male attention as objectifying.

    Hard to fathom for many North Americans, true none the less.

    I’ve had the pleasure to work with some incredibly competent, intelligent and unbelievably gorgeous young women (ah how I age myself with that description!) from Columbia who reveled in male attention – and female attention for that matter. They dressed in a manner that highlighted their figures without reservations or apologies. Bully for them!

    A brilliant PhD friend works in the field of Aerospace Medicine hailing from Florida by way of family from Mexico and Africa. She wears clothing many North American women would find somewhat uncomfortable within the business or science environment. She bravely makes no apologies for her style, and certainly suffers no comments silently! She is brilliant in her work, although that has not stopped the occasional male from making sophomoric remarks – once.

    And yet? The folks who comment the most harshly sometimes to her face and often behind her back, those who glare disapprovingly the most frequently are her fellow female colleagues. Sad. What a very sad comment about our insecurities with our female form.

    I admit *I* was once one of the women who condemn others for not following a certain wardrobe, make-up, hair and comportment protocol. That was years ago I’m pleased to say, but seeing the pain in my now good friend’s eyes after a female colleague at a NASA conference cut her down with a cruel gaze and off-handed remark I realized that I had inflicted that same pain onto other women years before. I’m ashamed to admit it, but it is true.

    Most of us have our youth and beauty for a few decades at best. So there are some or even many who think beauty and a pleasing female form cannot be combined with intelligence or competence. That’s *their* hang-up. Why do we feel the need to hide ourselves and feed into their issues? Why can we not enjoy our femininity, whatever our age or size without fear of seeming unprofessional?

    Why should we feel one iota of insecurity about our forms or faces whatever they may be?

    For some to wish their body away is a tragedy. When we feel the need to be any less than who we are – be it our intelligence, our gender, our religion, sexual preference, race or our very bodies we lose something truly precious – our authentic spirit. That is too high a price to pay.

    This is a most interesting topic and not nearly as simple as one study or summation would make it out to be. This thread is quite the clarion call. Thanks for the opportunity to reflect upon a complex topic.

  2. Denise Pouchet permalink
    March 27, 2011 12:05 pm

    It’s an interesting problem, isn’t it? Were it not for the attention of the opposite sex our species would have likely ended long ago. Sometimes, rather ironically, it can be the nicest guys who are oblivious to the effect of their comments or gazes.

    Whatever the motivation or lack thereof in the end, at least amongst adults, it is up to each of us to respond and clarify what the problem is as we see it. How empowering is that? Incredibly! We’re not victims, we’re grown women who can claim for ourselves what is and is not acceptable.

    Awkward? Sure, sometimes it’s as pleasant to respond to the more Neanderthal amongst us than to hear the scrape of fingernails on chalkboards. Is it more awkward or difficult than standing up for your work when another wishes to claim credit or when asking for a well-deserved and repeatedly overlooked raise? Not so much.

    Women do not have to bear unwanted attention or comments in silence. It is no longer the job of our gender to keep social occasions or business discourse fluid as sadly it once was.

    If there are awkward moments in social or business interaction due to inappropriate or ill-considered comments fantastic! Let the person making those comments (male or female) bear the consequences of his or her remarks. Without consequences unwanted comments do not stand apart from desired ones.

    A simple and direct statement in response to unwanted remarks or attention can be most effective, humor works, a witty rejoinder often hits the mark. There are many, many ways to make your point. Go with your preferred communication style and if that doesn’t work try another. Then another. Sometimes the socially obtuse require frequent reminders.

    If your attempts meet a brick wall, perhaps a private lunch or Starbucks break away from the fray will get your concerns across to the person in question.

    If none of the above work, and certainly if there is willful harassment involved then it’s time to bring in the HR department and pronto. There is no place in our world for harassment, period.

    It is the 21st century and the women of this website skew to rather accomplished and intelligent members of our gender. Surely we can own our lives by responding frankly about what pleases or displeases us.

    It is our right, and it is our responsibility.

    • julie permalink
      March 27, 2011 7:14 pm

      Hi, in general I agree with your take on the topic. Responding to unwanted comments appears easier when those come from colleagues from about the same age group or younger. However I would feel extremely uncomfortable to tell senior scientists XY that his comment on my hair is uncalled for (not that I’ve ever had to complain about senior scientists discussing my hairdo 🙂 Thus yep, standing up against that type of behavior is most appropriate, but this may appear unaccessible when the person behind the unwanted remarks is a supervisor/mentor/manager.

      Any ideas and recommendations for junior scientists about how to approach that type of situation? Thanks!

      • Denise Pouchet permalink
        March 28, 2011 12:33 am

        I do have specific suggestions. I’m working a detailed (read long) response to our query. I expect to post it about midday tomorrow.

        More soon,

      • Denise Pouchet permalink
        March 29, 2011 6:13 am

        I do have suggestions for your predicament. I’ll offer a general overview and then some specific suggestions. Understand I have no idea about whom I am writing. Variables unknown to me will determine your opportune approach.

        Let me identify myself more thoroughly so it doesn’t seem I am simply talking out of my hat!

        Well my name is up there for all to see, Denise Pouchet. I began as an Astrophysics major at Washington State University. My passion was space and physics, specifically quantum physics. I knew I had a preference for life’s “shiny” things and recognized I was a rather social, talkative gal. This is going back to 1980 mind you, the industry has changed considerably with many opportunities for women that simply did not exist at that time.

        After considering my options, I chose space as an avocation, pursued Communications as my vocation, and traveled to Los Angeles upon graduation in 1985.

        Why is that relevant? If anyone has to endure inappropriate or ill-considered comments, gazes, gestures, and propositions [many of which are outright illegal] it is a person making his or her way up the Hollywood ladder. This is a freelance profession and those who offend you the most (and frequently with great pleasure) are your immediate supervisors and those for whom you must work in order to have a career at all, let alone progress in one.

        While my circumstances were different from yours and the dynamic much more, let us say intense, it was fraught with the same complication: how do I stand up for myself when the person I must confront is the person upon whom my career depends?

        As regards my passion for space now: Happily in 2006 my career brought me back into the world of space, specifically NewSpace. I worked for the X PRIZE Foundation on the first X PRIZE Cup in Las Cruces. Armadillo Aerospace almost won the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge that year, and Masten Space Systems was only able to display hardware rather than fly it. How times have changed! As I’m sure all here know, Masten Space Systems won the million dollar First prize of the NGLL Challenge. Currently, in addition to working as a Producer for independent features, commercials, interstitials and corporate branding, I am Co-Founder of Aluminumhat, the Perception Engineers for Rocket Engineers.TM

        With all that said, back to your dilemma.

        If the supervisor/mentor/manager in question is not intentionally seeking to distress you, is merely obtuse or socially awkward, or perhaps so caught up in passion for the work his or her listening skills languish in a distant last place, you will want to carefully proceed by giving that person a “Graceful Out”.

        It does not mean you pretend a comment did not happen, it means you address that comment (gaze, inappropriate gesture, etc.) as an inadvertent mistake about which the instigator could not possibly have been aware. You bring this issue to the fore inherently allowing an “out” so that no blame is assessed, a critical point in this type of dialogue.

        What might that look like? Depending on the person in question and the nature of your relationship, it could be a series of quiet, steady comments such as…

        “Say Bob, may I have a word with you?”

        “I know you’d never intentionally upset our relationship, but I’ve noticed a pattern of comments about my (hair, clothes, make-up, pet dolphin, insert as needed) which are increasingly uncomfortable for me.”

        “In future I’d appreciate it if you refrained from comments about X”

        Example of the response we hope this elicits…

        “Veronica Marie, I’m sorry. I had no idea my comments came across that way! Thanks for bringing this to my attention.”

        Example of a less than optimal response…

        “What on Earth are you talking about?! I’m merely being cordial. If these comments bother you in the slightest, you must simply be far too sensitive.”

        Ah yes, the old “If-Then” scenario with the “you’re too sensitive” chaser! A very popular first line of defense. This is exactly what you want to avoid, the other person feeling he must defend his position, behavior or innocence. What you want is a meeting of the minds without any implication of accusation or blame.

        In this type of conversation you are in the unique position of educating someone. Not about how he or she must act or think in general, but how he or she can best interact with you. And guess what? You have every right to do this.

        You want the person to understand that the behavior in question does not lead to his or her intended outcome, and a more successful behavior in a working relationship with you would be “X” or, the cessation of “X”.

        In most circumstances outside the creative industries I’d suggest beginning with the calm, quiet approach as above. After all if your relationship were a chummy one then you’d have already said “Hey Bob, how’s about you KNOCK THE HELL OFF with the remarks about my hair already?!” and the situation would be well in hand.

        But let us say you’ve tried the calm approach a few times [thrice is nice is a good motto for communication] and this got you nowhere fast. Now you have to broaden your approach. Here is where knowing your audience makes all the difference.

        Is the person in question uninterested in listening? Incapable? Of a generation or culture that would not readily understand your perspective? Perhaps this person is completely disinterested in your concerns regardless of ability to comprehend them?

        Depending on the nature of audience, you choose your respective approach.

        Let me know make this clear, there is no *wrong* approach per se. Whatever technique gets your point across without damaging your self-respect or the relationship is the right one for you.

        Now might be the time for a more pointed, direct comment. A firm remark clearly indicating that the matter is not for discussion or review.

        It is critical that you enter this conversation believing this next point to be true: While you and your supervisor/mentor/manager may not have equal status in your respective careers, you are beyond question equal in your value as a person!

        An example of a more pointed remark which is best delivered calmly and with deadly confidence is…

        “Perhaps you didn’t hear me, Bob… (Powerful Short Pause) …Your comments about X are unwelcome, and interfere with our work. It’s time for them to stop. Thank you.”

        Depending on your comfort level and the nature of your audience, you might try humorous hyperbole. An outrageous chide with enough levity to provoke a smile and still encourage thoughtful consideration of your point.

        “That’s right Bob, I come from a long line of overly sensitive people. We “insert surname” have for centuries resisted all comments about our hair. Our family motto is ‘To Hair or Not is not the question – the question is how long you’ll live after you comment on my hair’!”

        Some are great at witty sarcasm. This promotes your intelligence via a brilliant zinger. This approach is most effective with a bone-dry delivery. If this is your forte, you deflect the sting of your confrontation by the audience’s appreciation of your cleverness.

        “Well, Bob, if by ‘overly-sensitive’ you mean that I do not care for ill-considered, unrelenting, uncalled for personal remarks about my hair, then Yes. Yes, I am overly sensitive.”

        You’ll note I refer to your “audience”. I do this for two reasons. First, thinking of your supervisor/mentor/manager as your audience allows some emotional distance. This is extremely helpful when communicating about awkward subjects.

        Secondly, make no mistake about it, while the purpose of your response is to create a meaningful dialogue leading to a better working relationship, you are doing nothing so much as *performing*.

        Why do I say this? Responding to the circumstances you’ve described is not currently your strong suit, if it was you’d have already done it. In time you will handle these types of conflicts with aplomb without a moment’s hesitation. For now, thinking of your responses as those of a performer will help you build the necessary confidence and nonchalance.

        Once you’ve chosen an approach (preferably with a plan B follow-up) it would be good to practice your delivery with the aid of a close friend. You might want to record your practice and review how you come across. Does you tone match your stance and gestures? Do your words sound convincing?

        Likely it will feel awkward the first few times you try a new approach. If you practice your remarks much as you would a white paper presentation, the words will come out of their own accord. With any luck at all, your efforts will result in improved communication, a more authentic working relationship, and well-deserved self-confidence.

        And if Nothing works…
        If the person in question is still rather a dim bulb regarding your concerns you may need to consider some hard choices. Let the matter go (if you can) and complete your work with this person as best you are able and as quickly as possible. Consider finding a trustworthy, more powerful colleague to intercede on your behalf. Find another project you’d prefer and remove yourself from this one. Imagine poking this person in the eyes and honking his or her nose like a big ol’ horn ala the Three Stooges. Hey, visualization can work wonders for stress relief!

        But above all else, please think about what is most beneficial for you. This is your life. Your one and only life. Prolonged stress kills and when it doesn’t kill it takes one helluva toll on your life and your health. What seems of the utmost importance now looks rather insignificant 6 months hence in the ER with your heartbeat elevated to unhealthy levels, or when the 50 pounds you’ve gained depress you so much you never leave home but to go to the very office you now despise.

        And lastly, not to sound like the proverbial broken record – get yourself to HR or to an attorney fast if this is or becomes harassment. No one should be harassed at work. Ever.

        I didn’t expect my response be quite so long, but I wanted to be as thorough as possible. I’ve been in your shoes, and I know it’s extremely unpleasant to say the least. Me thinks I will now turn this into one of my blog posts or submit it to one of my magazine clients for publication! ☺

        I hope my long reply will be of some use to you and I wish you great success now and in the future.


        Denise Pouchet

  3. Myriam Telus permalink
    March 24, 2011 2:42 am

    Does anyone have a clue about how to deal with this stuff? Things like this happen alot at LPSC, especially when people are tipsy during and after poster session… I guess we are suppose to just ignore it and move on. Any other ideas?

  4. Anon permalink
    March 22, 2011 12:32 pm

    How timely this post is! At this past LPSC, a male coworker of mine made repeated, negative comments about my hair to the point where I was infuriated. He did this for days (even soliciting other peoples’ opinions!) until I told him to stop commenting on my appearance. He seemed surprised but continued to make comments, only now they were positive. He completely missed the point–it didn’t bother me because it was negative, it bothered me because he was making my appearance a primary topic of conversation. I came away completely flabbergasted that in this day and age, I can go to a scientific meeting and find myself defending my haircut more than my research. My coworker and I have since discussed the situation, and he believes I’m being “sensitive.” ARG. I don’t think this experience is going to drive me from the field, but it certainly makes me want to kick him in the shins. Hard.

  5. Sarah permalink
    March 22, 2011 6:38 am

    “Weathering is the only option” – probably true.

    Wasn’t there some news blip recently about how looking at a woman’s chest was good for a man’s health? I can’t remember where I saw that, but it would be interesting to comment on that. I have no idea if it was legit research or not.

    I agree that feeling objectified is a terrible distraction. I think that’s just one of the reasons I gravitated to a career among mostly women. The men who also worked in that environment knew never to look at a woman’s chest while talking to her. I couldn’t respect them if they did. I used to be big-breasted. I got older and gained weight and experienced one of the liberating factors of middle age! I could walk around town without cat calls and have more conversations with my face. Sad though. When I got cancer I deliberately reconstructed to a smaller size.

    This is a ridiculous, unfair, but real issue – it’s about objectifying other human beings. I don’t care if there’s biological programming, by the time we’re in the adult workforce we should be able to control our words and behavior, including where our eyes go. I’m glad to hear about this study. As to why subjects sought out more contact with their gazing interviewer, how old were they? College students looking for dates? It would be interesting to replicate this with different ages, see what dynamics change, if any.

  6. a nonny mousse permalink
    March 21, 2011 9:51 pm


    i’m very shy astrophysics student, and have very large breasts, which attracts a lot of the wrong kind of attention. no matter how many layers of clothing i wear. i do not enjoy it. at all. whenever i’m asked to do math or physics on the spot (tutorials, labs, etc), one look at my chest can throw me and i lose the ability to do the problem at hand, as it makes me uncomfortable, and when you suddenly feel uncomfortable, that negatively affects what you’re doing even if it’s unrelated.

    especially if you know that you’re in the minority, and can’t really do anything about it. trust me if i said something everytime my chest got looked at, i’d never have time to pursue anything else.

    it makes me want to have them hacked down so that they’re not so noticeable. i’ve taken to dressing as frumpily as possible. it still hasn’t helped.

    i love maths and physics, and i’m damn good at both. but the distractions of this kind are debilitating. it embarasses me and puts me right off kilter and unfortunately it flows into my ability to practice science.

    it’s at the stage now where i seem to have subconsciously decided that the only place i can do the work is in my room alone. this will not stand me in good stead when i enter the workforce.

    most men are utterly oblivious to just how much damage their gawking does. some don’t care. i think they’re indifferent about it because astrophysics is so male dominated, the problem appears insignificant, as it only affect a small amount people… namely the odd female.

    i think the only way this will ever change is if more and more women keep becoming scientists, until one day, it won’t be affecting such a small amount of people and will have to be changed. i’m doing my part but i sure don’t think we’ll see any kind of a stop to this for atleast another century. it’s a tough mountain to move and weathering is the only option.

    we’re strong enough to hang in there, even if most of us find it difficult to excel under those cirumstances, it’s our increasing presence that will ultimately change things.

  7. Anonymous permalink
    March 21, 2011 3:33 pm

    Unfortunately, this has happened to me, although it took me a while to realize it was a problem. Moments before my oral comprehensive exam, a committee member said to me: “Don’t think we’re going to pass you today just because you look cute.” He said it jokingly, with a smile, and I decided to laugh at the comment in effort to steer away the awkwardness. His comment didn’t make me less confident that day or have a negative effect on my exam (I passed!), but it certainly made me self-conscious about my appearance in the future. I still wonder to myself every time I interact with him: is he noticing me as a scientist or me as a cute face? I will probably always wonder if he takes me seriously.

  8. Anonymous permalink
    March 21, 2011 1:34 pm

    I absolutely think this can be a problem. Honestly, I sometimes think I gained weight over the years as some kind of subconscious self-protection. It sounds crazy, and I by no means want to imply I was a guy-magnet in my younger years. However, there were times, like in a Chemistry course where my professor asked me what I was doing that evening in a creepily suggestive way, where fight or flight kicked in and the urge to run away regardless of the cost to my future was overwhelming. Its hard as hell to focus on any subject when that sick objectified feeling is coursing through you. Some people might deal with it better than others, but I think its a very real problem for many. Now that I am older, married, and more secure in my experience in the field I think it would not be as disastrous, but I have also been fortunate that every interaction I’ve had in planetary felt very clearly like a scientist to scientist interaction and nothing more.


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