“I don’t see gender. I don’t think men and women should be viewed separately. I also don’t see color. I don’t distinguish between black and white. I see people. That’s what I do – I see people. When you separate genders and races, you run into trouble. That’s where problems can begin. You know, so many women in this country think they are oppressed. They are not! They are not oppressed in this country like women in other countries are. And don’t even get me started on the gender wage gap. It is simply untrue. It does not exist. Women in the US are not oppressed and they get paid the same as men!!!”
I sat in my senior colleague’s office in the upper management position in my company listening to a rather heated response to my “oh you’re wearing a red shirt, is that for Women’s Day (March 8th)? I didn’t know you were such a feminist.” Perhaps I should’ve been more careful than to imply that he may be wearing a color in solidarity of celebrating International Women’s Day. And no, he does not celebrate Women’s Day as it turned out. In fact, he appeared to express strong feelings not only about celebrating the day, but also about women’s “oppression complaints.” I couldn’t quite process that at the time – having just attended a weekend-long very intensive conference on neurological consequences of inflammation and recovering from a rather ill-timed stomach flu my children generously shared with me the moment I stepped off the plane – my own brain was probably succumbing to an inflammatory cytokine storm of my own. No, I did not respond. I sat speechless. Incapacitated.
That night and the following day, I couldn’t get my colleague’s remarks out of my head. Having just attended an amazing conference, where PhDs, MDs and NDs got together to discuss global disease patterns; I, on the one hand, was reveling in the fact how amazing that I get to go to conferences of such nature with incredibly motivated, intelligent scientists and clinicians… And on the other hand… Well, let me take you back to the conference.
I encountered a Santa-looking older MD at this conference who attended a talk of mine last December. He asked so many thoughtful questions in December, that I sought his attention at this conference, and started chatting with him. The conversation, at first, so inspiring and exciting, turned a more… interesting (troubling? creepy?) direction. After probing me for “are you married/do you have kids/how old are you” sort of questions, he steered the conversation into the realm “whoa, your husband is so lucky to have you. How did he get you? Did you have a lot of boyfriends before him?”
Um. Excuse me? What did you just ask me? And when did it become ok to ask these questions? Remember, we were just talking about adrenal health. Not my, what was it, personal life. WHICH IS NONE OF YOUR FUCKING BUSINESS!!!
I excused myself. Told him I was getting tired and needed some rest before the next day’s talks started.
The next morning, I felt bad (why? what is wrong with me?) – I didn’t want him to think that I was rude or short or whatever else that women are taught not to do or be. I came up to him in the morning (short break = can’t stay too long to chat) and followed up on a question he asked me the night before. A scientific question. Not a personal creepy one. I sat next to him in a char. I was dressed down. My feet hurt from the night before. I wore keds, khakis and a sweater. He was staring at me while I talked. Then he placed his hand on my shoulder (personal space, dude!) and said that I looked so lovely “dressed down.” He kept saying that. Over and over. He also told me he “had a very nice time chatting with me last night.” Ok. It was time to go. So I wrapped up. But before I sprinted back to my seat, he told me how beautiful my hands were. And that I “must take very good care of them.” My hands thanked him. And my hands and I bolted.
Needless to say I avoided eye contact with him for the rest of the conference.
You know, when these things happen, I am always caught off guard. I think “they can’t possibly mean what they are saying/doing.” I try to make excuses – they are socially awkward, etc. etc. But in reality, there are not excuses. This was my third conference I attended, representing my company. This is the third time an older MD dude asked me exactly “how old I was.” This is the first time, however, someone went as far as to ask me very prying details of my personal life, touched me by my shoulder, commented on my hands. It is probably not the last.
So what I have to say is this – no, I do not feel oppressed. But the gender gap is more real than ever in the professional world. I would’ve liked to see the look on my colleague’s face when someone started prying into his life, asked him how old he was, and violated his personal space. Perhaps it is not only relevant but also very important that we understand gender differences. And celebrate them. We can then move on from what a stereotypically “smart” and respectable clinician or scientist ought to look like. And if a professional does not fit the stereotype, it does not mean there is an invitation to be asshole. Ever!
What frustrates me the most is not what is said. It is how I react or rather don’t react while I’m in this situation. Where exactly do I take a class on how to tell a jerk to go fuck himself in a polite, respectable manner?