Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Social awkwardness… or how not to interact with your female colleagues

My field is pretty male dominated. I'd estimate that the percentage of women in accelerator physics must be about 10% or less. Most of the time it's no problem… the vast majority of my male colleagues are great - sociable, friendly, communicative, and great to work with. For the sake of argument I'm going to liken that type of colleague to Leonard from the Big Bang Theory.

Howard, Leonard, Penny, Sheldon & Raj from the Big Bang Theory (from Wikimedia)

Just occasionally I run into the socially awkward ones with a superiority complex (Sheldon), the ones who don't know how to speak to women at all so avoid them (Raj) or even the ones who speak to women inappropriately (Howard).

In reality many scientists I've met lie somewhere on the spectrum between the four Big Bang Theory boys. Now, we can't change the behaviour of other people, we can only change ourselves. Realistically this means dealing with issues when and if they arise.

Sometimes though, I wish I could smack 'em round the head and tell them how to behave (are we sensing a streak of Penny, here?). So I thought I'd share with you, from personal experience, a few tips of things to avoid when dealing with your female colleagues, neatly labelled with S (Sheldon), R (Raj) or H (Howard) stereotypes for your social-awkwardness-correcting pleasure. (You're welcome)

Feel free to share your own rather tongue-in-cheek advice as comments!

Here goes:

Just because of my gender, I am not equivalent to the tea lady until proven otherwise. When discussing science with me, don't act like I have to prove to you that I am competent. If you wouldn't say it to a man, don't say it to a woman. Don't automatically assume I have a lower level of knowledge than my male colleagues - if I don't know what you're talking about, I'll tell you. (S, H)

Do not come to my office and attempt to give me little unprompted 'tutorials' on things you somehow feel I should know. I will feel intimidated if you put me in that situation without warning and I am made to feel like an idiot. I won't learn anything, trust me. (S)

When questioning me about my results, methods, and so on, if I seem to go on the defensive it's because I feel you're attacking me. Do not simply increase the pressure until I 'crack'. Learn to be empathetic. (S)

Don't hire me, help me or even talk to me if you're only doing it because you feel you 'should' as I'm the only woman. (H)

Please try to contain your nervous laughter when you talk to me. I'm not funny. The presence of a woman is not funny. Most likely, I will feel like you're laughing at me for some reason and get defensive (or start looking for something caught between my teeth)… rather than whatever the hell reason you're actually laughing. (R, but also H, S & L)

Don't express your shock and awe at my existence. Don't spend dinner asking me how old I am in front of my colleagues. Don't send me inappropriate messages ending with kisses (this is just normal sms etiquette!!) and please, please don't try to hit on me in a professional situation. (H)

(Just for the record I have no female colleagues like Leslie Winkle or those other grad students who always seem to hanker after Sheldon, in case you were about to ask for her number…) (H)

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