Flirt with extreme caution #AAS223

by Kelle on January 2, 2014

At all conferences, the boundary between professional and social interactions can be very blurred. While one of the best things about conferences like the AAS Meeting is hanging out with friends and meeting new people, we all need to remember that these are still primarily professional relationships and we need be very conscious about socially acceptable behavior which in a professional context, can make many people uncomfortable and have unintended consequences.

Excerpt from the full AAS anti-harrassement policy:

Behavior and language that are welcome/acceptable to one person many be unwelcome/offensive to another. Consequently, individuals must use discretion to ensure that their words and actions communicate respect for others. This is especially important for those in positions of authority since individuals with lower rank or status may be reluctant to express their objections or discomfort regarding unwelcome behavior.

And a description of what types of socially acceptable behaviors which should be used with extreme caution (emphasis mine):

The following are examples of behavior that, when unwelcome, may constitute sexual harassment: sexual flirtations, advances, or propositions; verbal comments or physical actions of a sexual nature; sexually degrading words used to describe an individual; a display of sexually suggestive objects or pictures; sexually explicit jokes; unnecessary touching.

Last week, John Johnson ran an anonymous guest post on this very topic, Closing time at the “Astronomy Nightclub”. Here’s some of that excellent advice for how we, both men and women, can look out for each other at conferences to minimize the negative impacts of these type of unwelcome behaviors:

  • Pay attention to body language when you see a one-on-one conversation from afar. Have you noticed F leaning away from M? Did M put his hands or arms on F and she flinched? Don’t ignore your instincts when observing such a situation!
  • If you do observe warning signs…you can just invite F to join your group, providing her with numbers and safety. If M wants to come along, it’s ok because there are now numbers and you have an eye on him. Whatever you do, please don’t make a scene since this could potentially hurt F’s career. And, of course, if she says she’s fine with the conversation, you can just walk away.
  • Is the conference in a remote place where it gets dark at night, such as Aspen? make sure F has a safe way to return to her room after dinner. Again, provide a group to walk back to the dorm. Safety in numbers!
  • If you know a serial harasser in the conference, please make sure he is not alone with any younger women. We older scientists know who these people are, and the younger generation is [still] figuring it out, no matter how clever they think they are. Even if these offenders make it difficult to articulate their specific actions, we know, and we should make sure our younger colleagues are never alone with them.

Also relevant are the major results from this Survey of Perceptions of Appropriate Behavior Between Students and Advisors in Astronomy (Burgasser & Faherty 2009):

  1. Perceptions of appropriateness vary considerably in the astronomical community at all levels, even for situations that might be deemed “obvious”.
  2. Perceptions of appropriateness vary with age and professional status, with younger astronomers and those at earlier stages in their careers (students, postdocs) typically viewing behaviors as more appropriate. In particular, there were frequently differences in perceptions of appropriateness between students and advisors.
  3. On average, scenarios were seen as more inappropriate for student/advisor pairs with different genders than pairs with the same genders. Given that female students are less likely to have a same-gender advisor than male students (see Demographics), this trend may have a negative affect on young women’s student/advisor relationships.
  4. Our survey attracted a small fraction (8%) of highly negative and fearful criticism, overwhelmingly from men. There unfortunately appears to be continued resistance to open discussion of appropriate behaviors between students and advisors.

Let’s all have fun but we must also keep in mind that there are blurred lines and it is both your responsibility as an individual, and ours as a community, to keep them from being crossed.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Kelsi Singer January 3, 2014 at 10:10 am

Christina Richey gave a good summary of anti-harassment policies at the 2012 Division of Planetary Sciences Meeting – both NASA and AAS/DPS policies.


2 Lynn Cominsky January 8, 2014 at 5:03 pm

I am wondering if I am oversensitive, but the APS has a button that is supposed to be funny that says:
“Flirt harder, I’m a physicist”
and I don’t think it is very funny. I guess it is supposed to be a reference to men like Sheldon Cooper in the Big Bang Theory television show, and although I enjoy the show, I often cringe at the stereotypes on it for both men and women.


3 Kelle January 8, 2014 at 5:11 pm

You are not overly sensitive. I don’t think that is an appropriate message for a professional society to be advocating. The physics culture is, IMO, so bad it’s not worth spending any energy on improving…I think it will be a losing battle for the next decade or so.

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