Dealing with inappropriate behavior

Some things to look out for during conferences and network events for scientists (or any other fields really) that are, no matter your gender or identity, NOT OKAY.

1. Accidental touching: e.g. a rub of the arm on your bum (passing you by), their arm that’s close to the side of your breast, the squeeze or poke in your abdomen or back, touching of hair, hand or legs.

2. Asking for your private or specific information (e.g. none work email/phone number, which hotel room are you in?)

3. Compliments that appear nice but that could be out of line. “Everyone would want to work with you”; “must be lots of late nights together in the lab?”

4. Comments that belittle, discredit or are simply not true. “You cannot have done this by yourself”; “that can’t be right”.

These are perhaps the most prevalent, but the list can go on.

No matter the person, with its reputation, is worth your dignity. You always deserve to be treated with respect. Allowing/tolerating this behavior in order to have some kind of work relationship is most likely not worth it: if they don’t respect you now or see you professionally, will they be in your future collaboration?

What best to do? Of course, things can happen by accident or are never intended, be mindful that the person does not want to harm you, and it was a mistake. In doubt? Just acknowledge that you feel uncomfortable with the contact you are having and ask someone to stand with you or change the subject. Consider social/cultural customs could be at play innocent or something evoked then (alcohol, clothing: still no excuse). Also, observe whether the person does this to others as well, otherwise:

1. React by saying: ‘please do not touch me (again)’. Ask the person: ‘who are you again and what is their affiliation?’ (wait for an answer, take time to note it down) and warn ‘do not touch me again, or I will speak up about this or I will report to (find out who best to contact, e.g. supervisor, pi, university councilor, management of event etc.) The best is someone with authority that can ask the person to leave the premises. Can’t say anything? Reposition yourself in a way so that touching is no longer possible. Don’t stand next to the person but in front, or stand next to the person but at arms length distance (step away). Or just remove yourself. Ask a person you trust to keep an eye out to confirm that the touching can be avoided.

2. Give only information that is publicly available like the contact info of your university. Or it sometimes doesn’t hurt to say you in another place that doesn’t exist….:”I am in room 3b (which is the laundry hall).

3. ‘Sorry, I didn’t catch that, could you repeat?’ This makes sure the person consciously commits to the inappropriate behavior again). React by asking: This comment can be interpreted in many ways, how you do want me to interpret this? Whatever the response, you could clarify that the comment can be ‘wrong’ forgive and forget or see point 1.

4. Usually these comments overwhelm you and trigger a defense or startle response. Take a (few) deep breaths and give yourself time to respond by asking them to repeat their comment. You could react by saying, I disagree with you, and I can explain how/why. Or: ‘I did not appreciate your comment’ or just look them in the eye and say nothing: see how they respond. If you are okay with it (or open to listen to you) tell them you like to explain why. Invite someone who can attest to your situation to the conversation. But usually these people are not out there to hear you out and might not deserve your time. Remember that a lot of their ideas might be based on their biases or assumptions that are hard to change in one convo. But most importantly, enjoy the thought that they are so wrong about you.

Remember, most people are normal and respectful, but unfortunately, there are individuals ruining it for others. Always talk about what happened to someone you trust, dare to speak up (but dont public shame – stay professional so you are better than them!). Remember, some things are NOT OKAY, and change can only happen when it’s acknowledged and confronted with. Share your experiences, so others learn! Be courageous; this doesn’t make you weak; this can empower you for others to change.

Unfortunately, I have been in situations where questionable behavior was directed to me. I always gave the person the benefit of the doubt. But now, now that I feel a bit more confident about myself, I regret not confronting the person. The freeze/startle respond was because of fear. The build up of experiences are empowering me to stand up, confront. The fight respond is now because of the strength of my dignity. In the end, the questionable inappropriate behavior is not worth the worries and thoughts I had. In hindsight- I should have confronted and I have made myself the promise to change.