Over the years, I have had experiences at some conferences where more senior faculty members have been—shall we say—less than appropriate to women in the field. The same can be said about colleagues being heterosexist and/or racist, but I digress. Sometimes, these are isolated incidents and I didn’t feel comfortable having the confrontation at that point in my career so I let it slide. I am in a field that has a serious gender inequity problem and I am a junior member of the field.

Flash forward a few years and a colleague (of the gender/race/sexuality that the other person disparaged) is going to a conference with the same person. In my field, the conferences are small, so there's little chance they will not interact.

Does one forewarn one’s colleague about such a faculty member? Part of me desires to forewarn, but part of me worries that it will just add drama to the community, preconceived notions to the colleague's experience in the conference, and possibly unnecessary dread during the time interacting with the faculty member. What if the faculty member has gotten better about this? What if it gets back to the faculty member that I’ve said that they’re sexist?

If one doesn’t tell a colleague and then experiences said sexism, then does one confirm their experience about that faculty member to help one’s colleague process that experience?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – eykanal Aug 24 '16 at 14:59
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    ... and comments cannot be moved to chat more than once, so further discussion in comments is subject to deletion instead. – ff524 Aug 24 '16 at 16:26
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    A lot of the answers try to branch on the possible kinds of behavior you might be talking about. Could you add more detail about the problematic behavior you've witnessed? – user18072 Aug 25 '16 at 1:05

11 Answers 11


If this person is "merely" boorish, I think you're best off letting your colleague experience and handle the situation themselves. Presumably they're also professional adults who can take care of themselves, and as you said, it's possible the other person has gotten better about it, so maybe it's a non-issue. But more importantly, since you're all in the same field (which you suggested was small), being the one to spread the word like this (even if it's justified) can have repercussions for you. Whether you want to take that on probably depends on just how bad the person is and on how comfortable you are with your position within the field.

On the other hand, if you think this other faculty actually rises to the level of a danger - anything from sabotaging your colleagues work or relations, to not being safe to have drinks around - you should absolutely warn this person.

Obviously there's a judgment call here. @whrrgarbl suggested it depends on how friendly you are with your colleague too, and I think that's true around the margins of this question. In a totally general way though, I think when you're contemplating meddling in affairs between two other people that the default answer should be no. Especially in a professional setting.

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Regarding "Should I warn colleagues of another colleague's sexism?"

I think the question is ill-defined, given that "sexism" is both a broad term and is (at least partly) subject to interpretation, i.e.,

  • there are some cases in which (nearly) everyone agrees that something is sexist,
  • there are cases that depend on interpretation, in part based on personal perspective and context (or even cultural aspects like self-deprecating humor),
  • and there are instances in which only people looking through a particular lens see something as sexist.

To make matters worse, some people really want to point out "-ist" behavior. Ostensibly to fight for people who cannot fight for themselves (which is a bit condescending when they do it for adults), more likely to feel moral by (publicly) caring for others. Thanks to these concern trolls and "social justice warriors", terms like "sexist" or "racist" have lost nearly all meaning.

So if someone told me a person is "sexist" without any context, I would be very skeptical.

Thus my first advice would be to avoid terms like "sexist" or "racist". If you address something you see as an important issue, I would recommend to use an as objective as possible description of the behavior that concerns you. Give people a neutral description of the situation and let them judge for themselves. And remember it is still influenced by your interpretation.

In general, I also think the people whom you should talk to are not your colleagues, but the people who did show the "sexist" behavior. It's better to go after the actual cause. If there were misunderstandings (always possible in social situations), going in inquisitively ("I noticed you did behavior x ... why?") will clear them up.

I would also strongly recommend to never say anything behind a person's back that you would not say to this person's face. And ideally, you should say it to their face first.

Regarding: "having to help a female colleague extract herself from unwanted sexual advances from another conference goer when he would not take no for an answer"

Your comment puts a different spin on the question. First off, how is this behavior sexist (i.e., prejudice/stereotyping/discrimination based on sex)? It might be the dance of ambiguity which protects both parties, it might be harmless stupidity, it might be obnoxious social inept behavior, and it even might be a criminal act.

And if this really was a case of sexual harassment or assault, the people to inform are (were) not your colleagues but the police. However, the person to do so would be the colleague who was harassed/assaulted. She would have to see the event as serious enough.

(Again: Social behavior is rarely clear cut. Much depends on an individual's perspective, their personality, etc. What people say and what they feel does not always match.)

As to whether to inform your colleague about that person's behavior — here: ostensibly not accepting no — personally, I see nothing wrong in informing a colleague that you personally do not like the person because of situation x you have witnessed. However, it is hard to say whether that behavior generalizes. Also, the warning might imply that you think that your colleague is also not capable of saying no and needs help/rescuing.

Frankly, if I were you I would contact the colleague whom you did "have to help". And ask her what she thinks you should do.

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    Thank you for your response. The fact that there's a spectrum is what makes it very difficult. There's people I know who have done things ranging from overt things like clear sexual harassment to subtle things like being aggressive as a questioner disproportionately when women speak. There's other faculty members who have gone from offering visiting positions to a researcher to virtual silence after hearing that said researcher is gay. I tried to use all the -ists to make the question more broad than just an example. I hope to find a rule on when to not say anything and when to say something. – T K Aug 22 '16 at 19:16
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    This is a good answer, but I object to labeling anyone who looks to point out bad behavior as "concern trolls and SJWs". Such broad strokes and name-calling are better left to reddit in my opinion. – user58748 Aug 24 '16 at 15:56
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    Downvoted for trolling. – user18072 Aug 25 '16 at 1:03
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    I agree with @DoritoStyle, you go out of your way to say that sexist behavior is very relative term (even going so far as putting quotes around that word) but forego all that carefulness when talking about a group of people who are more sensitive to such behavior than you. In your comment you make this worse. Shame as it gives a very different view of your, overall, interesting answer. This answer would be much stronger without that paragraph. – Roy T. Aug 25 '16 at 8:48
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    I question the motifs (not sensitivity) of a specific group of people. I think SJWs exploit actual issues for their own purposes. And I do not agree that these people should set the standards of human interaction — I think it would be bad, esp. on campus (eg theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/09/… ). I could have called them cultural authoritarians, but SJWs fits — but I suspect we have different definitions of the term. Again, context — I do not say that all people who care about sexism are SJWs, but SJWs have ruined the term "sexism". – Daniel Wessel Aug 25 '16 at 9:05

You describe someone's behavior as "less than appropriate, shall we say," but one approach to consider here is to be much more specific when you talk to your colleague. You are worried about being accused of mis-labelling someone, so don't label or explicitly warn anyone. You have a right to your experiences, and you have the right to tell people about them. Say what happened, say how it made you feel, have a conversation, and let the other person draw conclusions.

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    You can still say what happened if it happened to someone else, and you can still give a factual account of what you've observed or heard. – Ben Millwood Aug 23 '16 at 15:03
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    As I wrote before, this answer has possibly misunderstood the OP. It assumes by mistake that the OP was harassed herself, hence it writes: "Say what happened, say how it made you feel", while this does not seem to be the case. – Dilworth Aug 23 '16 at 19:01
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    @Dilworth I imagine seeing someone else harassed also caused emotions in this non-robot. – DCShannon Aug 24 '16 at 1:00
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    Great Answer! There is nothing wrong with a factual account of what you experienced at a conference. If someone acted very inappropriate in a public setting, it's his own fault. @Dilworth I think the answer is entirely correct, regardless of the OP being harassed herself or experiencing the harassment of a college, whom she had to rescue. – Falco Aug 24 '16 at 12:57
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    Many of the commenters here assume that the OP is female, when there is nothing to indicate that. – Patrick Sanan Aug 25 '16 at 9:23

Here's the thing. Perception of sexism tends to vary widely by gender. I'm not surprised to see that some of the responses appear kind of reluctant to believe that something is sexist. In general, you really should address this behavior through the administration. Don't assume that anyone else has noticed anything - especially if most of your colleagues are male. There was a guy on one of my teams who was totally toxic and sexist and I thought that it was obvious to everyone (dude literally told me that I belonged at home with a baby once) but it turned out that only the people in his immediate vicinity were aware of it, and because they were not the subject of said sexism never really felt like it was their place to address it.

The issue here is that when things like this go unaddressed, they are given validation and the person who is doing these things will not only keep doing them, but think that they are absolutely right in continuing to do them. If this person is exhibiting sexist behavior to the point where you even feel like you might need to warn someone, it needs to be addressed. Use the structures set in place to protect your rights. Go through the administration. Do not address this person alone. In all honesty I wouldn't even be anywhere near this guy alone.

The truth is that for something to be sexist, all it has to do is make you uncomfortable and for there to be a gender association involved, which it already obviously is. There should never be a situation where you say "I feel that this is sexist and it makes me deeply uncomfortable" and the response should begin with "but..."

Good luck with this - I'm kind of having slightly PTSD thoughts about my own battles with sexism now. For what it's worth, I went through the appropriate channels to deal with my own tormentor, and while most of my team hadn't been aware of the problem, as soon as they found out about it they immediately agreed that the behavior was unacceptable and would not be allowed to continue. I never thought that I would have had so much support from them.

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    This conversation, too, has been moved to chat. Please continue to discuss in that chat room. Not in comments. – ff524 Aug 25 '16 at 2:48

I commented on this question but I decided to put my thoughts into an answer.

If you're friendly with the colleague -- enough to know that they won't feel "unnecessary dread", or gossip about what you said -- I would say it is fine to tell them what you saw, as a friendly warning. If nothing comes of it, that's great news, and you can rest easier knowing the faculty member has apparently gotten better about it. If the faculty member is still bad about it, hopefully your heads-up gave your friend more time to mentally prepare.

Based on your question, I'm guessing that's not the case, which makes it more difficult.

Feel free to offer your support against sexism in general (even a casual "I went to that conference a few years ago and was one of only x women, it was a little awkward! Let me know how it goes for you!") -- but I would be extremely hesitant to say anything specific in advance, for the reasons you listed in the question -- especially since it sounds like you don't know the colleague well and haven't interacted with the faculty member recently.

One thing you could do is try to address the issue indirectly. For instance, do you know of any "good eggs" going to the conference that you could suggest your colleague meet up (and be safe hanging out) with? Ultimately, you have to recognize that your colleague is an independent adult who has probably dealt with sexism before, especially if they're in a very imbalanced field as you've described. It is unpleasant, but if it's not someone you know well, you have to trust that they can handle themselves.

As for your last question:

If one doesn't tell a colleague and then experiences said sexism, then does one confirm their experience about that faculty member to help one's colleague process that experience?

If you are both comfortable with such a discussion, this would certainly be appropriate. If something bad does happen, perhaps you can find strength in numbers to report the offenses to the appropriate people, or at least come up with a plan to make things better next time around.

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    +1. Of all the answers this seems the best balance of practical advice, without feeling the need to doubt or probe the OP's assessment and description of the situation – Yemon Choi Aug 24 '16 at 2:20

Be wary of self-fulfilling prophecy.

If you tell person X that person Y is sexist, X will expect Y to be sexist, will look for sexism and will tend to interpret Y's actions as sexist even if they are only bordering and would pass unnoticed otherwise.

I am not going to tell that you are wrong on Y being sexist. But other people may have thicker skin than yours and just don't care enough about the issue. They may interact with Y without even thinking about sexism.

Your warning would be much more justified if the situation would be long-term and/or of great consequences, eg. your friend was considering a job supervised by Y. But with something as brief as a conference I advise you let your friend make own opinion about Y.

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Are we talking about sexist behavior/comments ("women shouldn't be president, they'd let their hormones make all the decisions") or sexual harassment (e.g., unwanted sexual advances, showing/giving sexual photos to you)? The latter is a Title IX violation and you are required to report it to the administration.

You might also consider about reporting this behavior to the Chair or Dean, especially if you have tenure. You state that you are in a field with serious gender inequity. Administrators cannot address the problem of sexist colleagues if they don't know about it.

Imagine if you had a number of female students in your introductory courses, but noted that most of them dropped out before continuing on to the major. You bump into them in the hallway and ask why they didn't continue. They chime in with comments like "I felt like I didn't belong", "I didn't feel like my professors respect me", "a professor kept making inappropriate comments in class, and I felt very uncomfortable". Would you immediately know who they were referring to?

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    It's title IX violation in the US, but notice that the OP doesn't specify the country. – Massimo Ortolano Aug 22 '16 at 19:55
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    Alas, Title IX only works inside the same university. Conferences have a whole other set of problems and includes a global arena. – T K Aug 23 '16 at 12:58

Given the comments which include lots of different aspects (some very different scenarios and motivations were addressed), another — sorry, rather long — take on the question.

What to do when you see sexism everywhere and want to do something against it?

There is a basic psychological process called confirmation bias. People usually look for information confirming their beliefs. This heuristic makes sense in everyday life, but is bad for getting an objective picture of a given situation. Regarding the current topic, it's actually very easy to see sexism everywhere — the hammer-and-nail thing. We have pretty much built science to combat that tendency.

So if you work in Academia, do better. Act like an empirical scientist. Do not let fears/wishes/expectations determine your perception, but gather actual data. Try to be objective and protect yourself against your confirmation bias. This means that the stronger you believe something, the more strongly you have to be wary of being influenced by your expectations.

For example, when it comes to interruptions, count the number of times it happens, and also count the number of times women interrupt (no matter how well it was 'justified') and how often (usually low-status) men are interrupted. I am pretty sure it's a status thing, not a sex thing.

Same with criticism. There is the soft bigotry of low expectations and there is benevolent sexism in the sense that women "have to be protected" — which might lead some people to see criticism as more harsh when it is directed at women. However, harsh criticism is just normal in science. And yeah, sometimes unfortunately. But it is also very much needed. We need bullshit detectors — and the ability of science to cull bad ideas is what makes science great. Feedback that addresses the quality of the work is great — no matter the motivation. It's the only way to improve.

So, when it comes to instances of perceived sexism, an empirical scientific mindset is helpful: Question, gather data, then judge. Social interactions are fraught with misunderstandings. Yes, sometimes one person is at fault, but usually both contribute to the situation. In general, use the principle of charity. Assume an honest misunderstanding (or fuck up, humans are not machines, and even those have glitches) — not evil intent.

Also, with few exceptions (which are cases for the police), "The person felt it so it must be true" is very bad reasoning. I've encountered too many people — men and women — who take any criticism of their ideas as an attack on themselves as a human being. That's a bad way to live and makes it impossible to do science.

And above all, deal with potential situations individually, not collectively. Treat people as individuals, not as members of groups. If you really think specific groups (like old white male academics) are a problem think about what this makes you. Don't use individual cases to vent your frustration about perceived general injustice. Displaced aggression helps no one.

Also don't focus on exaggerated cases or cases where you'd need a magnifying glass to see the sexism. That hurts the fight against actual sexists. And let's face it, there are some — both men and women — who are sexist against men or women. And yeah, in science, the quality of the work, the strength of the evidence and arguments should matter, not the sex of the person who does science.

And although it's hard, don't take the cases personally. Try to maintain some distance. Humor is great for this. There is a reason for gallows humor.

And above all, don't instrumentalize other people (usually women) as victims you have to fight for in order to feel moral. Cases of sexism are not there to make you feel morally good.

If sexism happens to you, address it with the person who acts sexist. Again, question, don't immediately assume the worst. If you always assume the worst, you will confirm your belief, and while you might feel righteous, you will never be happy. The world we need is one in which when one person fucks up, others give feedback and the issue is resolved without a fuss. And a competent human being has to deal with problems in human interaction.

If you perceive a person encountering sexism, then stop. Is the situation really as you perceive it? Do you really have a clear grasp what people actually feel (quite a degree of empathy needed) and think (hello mind-reading)? Do you really have all the facts (e.g., other factors that might influence a course of events)? Consider that post hoc ergo propter hoc is a fallacy, no matter how true it feels. There might be other reasons for a strange turn of events. So by all means, question. A university where you cannot question is a strange place.

And if it is really sexism, does the "victim" really not have the ability to deal with the situation on his/her own? Don't remove the perceived victims agency — their ability to learn to deal with these situations or demonstrate their ability to do so. It's very condescending and disempowering. Consider that helping in the short run might impede the person's ability to deal with other situations in the long run. Almost all people want to do good. But wanting to do good and doing good aren't necessarily the same.

Again, we should strive for competent individuals. Not only when it comes to sexism, but also when it comes to speaking truth to power. After all, a university is the one place that looks for truth (without ever finding it). It requires a professional environment in which merit counts and all other aspects (e.g., sex, race, etc.) are neither a positive nor a negative. And to actually go looking for the truth without being influenced by political or social opinion does require strength. And you don't gain strength by being protected all the time.

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    Fun fact: there has been research showing that men interrupt women more often. I like this Language Log post which has some observations and links to academic studies. I'd add that good scientists do their literature reviews before starting out into a new topic :) – user812786 Aug 24 '16 at 21:53
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    Great example. If you enter a situation with this expectation, you are prone to confirm it even if it is not present. Well, unless you carefully log the behavior objectively and try to falsify it. After all, the findings might not hold true for the current situation (author mentioned status, women interrupting each other; there is also usually overlap between groups, cf. average height). Hmmm, or would you see men and women as members of their group and treat them differently from the start (e.g., men must be "muzzled", women encouraged)? – Daniel Wessel Aug 25 '16 at 8:09
  • Yes, be critical of potential bias and limitations, in both previous work and your own! I mentioned lit review since I often see people argue passionately about something but neglect to gain even a basic background first - thinking they're very clever with "what-about-X", without realizing that X has been studied at length by experts. It's certainly fine to criticize the studies, but you have to know about them first! Otherwise.. the phrase "beating a dead horse" comes to mind. – user812786 Aug 25 '16 at 15:01
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    best answer I have read on this site for a long while. – chris Aug 27 '16 at 7:45

There is an old saying in French that goes like that "On lave toujours son linge sale en famille", which can either means we always clean our dirty laundry between ourselves (e.g not with strangers) or we keep it quiet between ourselves.

There are a few things I would take into consideration before acting:

  • If the person you want to help, is facing grave danger, then you should alert that person. Except than that , do you know enough about the person you are trying to help? Will that person be trustworthy of your confidence or not?
  • If it backfires, how will the person who is making disparage comment will react?
  • Academia is a very very small world: If the first two points mentioned above happen (the person you are trying to help stab you and the person who is disparaging you, holds a grudge against you), will you garner enough support to not lose your position and still be able to become a senior researcher (if you want to carry on in this field)?

Unless you want to definitely leave your current field or until you have discretionary power to change things, sometimes no approach is the best approach.

Update: My answer may seem based on self conservation and mild paranoia about others and it is. Probably because I learnt the hard way that being idealistic and jumping into helping without understanding the context ,can backfire. Nevertheless, if you want to induce change and as Daniel mentioned accurately in his second answer, sometimes you need other people to experience it too and not act is still the best answer, for the person to learn something and say enough is enough. The more people will react, sooner sexist attitudes will stop.

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A simpler approach that encompasses various concerns:

  • Make a general statement to the colleague: explaining what he/she should know about general attitudes prevalent among old-timers in the field, and to let you know if it happens with anyone in particular at the conference.

  • As a bonus: explain you have some people (or someone) in mind, but don't want to fan the fires unless it continues. Keep it confidential for now.

  • Your colleague will simply go with a general sense of caution, which helps if things escalate, and can always go and see you afterwards. You don't need to discuss the person in advance, but you can also fulfill your duty of warning people about potential trouble.

Next problem?

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Does your school have something like an Office of Equal Opportunity, which would be responsible for enforcing policies regarding affirmative action, non-discrimination / anti-harassment, and accommodations for employees with disabilities? If so, you could consider consulting with the people there for advice.

If such an office exists at your school, you'll very likely also be able to call in your concerns anonymously

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