#495: Snarky Comebacks for Sexists in Academia

Dear Captain Awkward:

Do you have any snappy comebacks for when someone says “You only got into <insert institute of higher education here> because you’re a girl?”

I got this a lot when I got into college, and then while in college, and now in grad school.  Apparently all those lonely single dudes out there in their male-dominated labs think this is a good pick up line?  I tried vocalizing my internal rant in response, but that was a little long so I’d like some help in the brevity department.


Actually I’m Overqualified

Dear Overqualified:

The whole “you’re only here because of affirmative action” is a perfect Catch-22 of sexist and racist insults. If you argue back or try to prove that you deserve to be there, you are stepping onto their turf and lending their arguments…hrm…not legitimacy, because there is no legitimacy to be had here…but…attention? Credence? Every minute you spend arguing with sexists & racists that you do! so! deserve! to be somewhere is a minute that you’re wasting on not doing the awesome shit that you came here to do. They get to hold onto their logic that all spots everywhere are reserved for white dudes until a “deserving” woman or person of color “proves” their worthiness (& fucking basic humanity). Read the thing about the escalators if you want a more elaborate & metaphor-filled example. Or watch the cartoon for the short version – the first 15 seconds or so sums it right up.

To say a racist or sexist thing to a colleague and try to make them prove that they are one of the “deserving” few, while constantly denying that racism and sexism are factors in how resources are allocated in academia and other “elite” institutions is itself a racist and sexist act. “You’re here because special favors, I’m here because the system is fair and just and totally works!” requires a lot of cognitive dissonance and gaslighting to pull off, right? It’s a totally ridiculous assertion! By gaslighting, I mean when privileged folk constantly derail conversations to insist that nothing about sexism, racism, or the history of the colonialist slave-labor-built misogynist kleptocratic world we’ve inherited is real and really affecting real people in real time. “Greater justice and equality are TOTALLY possible, you guys….once the last white dude has been convinced that injustice and inequality actually exist beyond a reasonable doubt.” “Oh, you explained it pretty clearly, but you were angry & mean. Try again, and try to do it in a way that preserves his self-regard and feeling of innate specialness and deservitude of a place at the top of the hierarchy.” This gaslighting is a waste of our time and energy, designed to exhaust us so we’ll give up and let them have everything. Our giving up will also prove that the system is fair – we must just not have wanted it bad enough! We should negotiate more, or harder, or something.

Depending on your relationship to the person and your relative place in the hierarchy, some possible responses:

  • “Wow, that’s pretty sexist, and I don’t appreciate it. So, back to work topic….”
  • “It’s very revealing that you think that would be true. So, about work thing…”
  • “Are you sure this is an argument that you want to be making in a professional setting?” + long, awkward pause.
  • “While untrue, that’s a pretty hurtful thing to say. I’d like an apology.” + long, awkward pause.
  • “If that were true, what would it mean in terms of how we interact with each other and go about our work?” + long awkward pause. “So, it wouldn’t affect it at all? Cool. So about work thing.”

Oh, it should go without saying, document everything that’s said along these lines. Who said it, when, how you responded, if there was any retaliation or escalation afterward. A pattern of questioning a female colleague’s credentials & qualifications risks violation of university policies on harassment, hostile work environments, etc. Hopefully most people will take the hint and stop this behavior, but if they don’t, be prepared.

Don’t be a doormat, don’t just shut up and take it, demand respectful treatment as close to the moment as you can (rehearse with friends if necessary),  document everything, let your work shine, and don’t let the bastards grind you down. You are where you are so that you can do great things, so don’t let these people distract you with dick-measuring contests. The stuff they are doing is insidious, it is wrong, it hurts budding scientists & academics and it hurts the field of discovery itself. “Diversity” isn’t some stupid box you check on a stupid form. The survival of the planet pretty much depends on us knocking off this thing where we undervalue and ignore the contributions of the majority of human beings to prop up patriarchy & white supremacy.

Awkward Army, let the snappy comebacks flow!

171 thoughts on “#495: Snarky Comebacks for Sexists in Academia

  1. Something I’ve always wanted to do, and I’m not sure if it’d be possible here is to continue to ask “why” until they are forced to actually say their prejudice out loud. Sometimes when that happens, they finally realize how they sound.
    Case in point, there was a guy in a class I had a few semesters ago. I was ranting about this pedestrian from the day before who walked out in front of a car going ~40mph and just held up a hand as if that would protect her from the two ton machine.
    What actually happened:
    Guy: *looks around, whispers* it’s cuz they were black, right?
    Me: uhm? …no?
    Guy: really! Huh. …I know, that probably sounded a little racist–
    Me (and someone else in our class in tandem): yes. Because it was. Really racist.

    What I later wished had happened:
    Me: why do you say that?
    Guy: well, cuz (racist comment).
    Me: that’s odd. I’ve never heard that. Why is that? Is it something about melanin?
    Guy: well, (racist comment about cultural differences)
    Me: why?
    Guy: well, cuz…oh. uh. I guess it doesn’t make much sense.

    1. The unfortunate thing (as I can say from experience, having *used* the Socratic method, rather unwisely once before) is that what *actually* happens is that you argue in circles for a couple of minutes before the person you’re arguing with snaps at you that you’re being a pain and either leaves/asks you to leave.
      So you get the satisfaction of knowing you were right, but not of necessarily proving them right. :-/

      1. Unfortunately not. He went on to try to justify his racism by saying that he has African friends that hate black people here in the US. I told him his friends are racist. Eventually he just shrugged at me.

    2. Funny you should say this because it is something I have been fantasizing about doing recently. Another version I have thought of (largely thanks to CA) which could be useful in a situation like this one in the letter is just saying to the person in a calm and interested voice, “I would be fascinated to know why your opinion/experience should be prioritized and why you should be viewed as an authority on this topic. Please explain that to me, I really am curious.” I thought of using this one when men are telling you what you *should* do in a street harassment situation or talking over you about some such nonsense when you are sharing an experience that they have no idea about. It could be super useful in this case of the LW, too, because it sounds like these people have no idea what they’re talking about.

  2. What’s funny is that because more women apply to college these days, many institutions have been caught out recently holding male candidates to lower standards in an attempt to keep the male/female ratio close to 50/50. It’s easily googleable; so much so that “wow, you don’t read a lot of news, do you?” is my go-to response to comments like that these days – it’s both a brushoff (“citation needed, neckbeard”) or an easy opener to an explanation of the actual stats and even a discussion of how privileged dudebrah might check himself before he wrecks himself in the future, depending on the situation and how much more I want to talk about the subject.

    1. Oh man, I actually really like the idea of just saying “citation needed” after those comments and walking away.

    2. This is true for undergraduate institutions in general, however the LW also mentioned grad school, in which case the specific department and that field’s gender ratio need to be considered more than the institution overall.

  3. “Oh, no. I bribed the admissions committee. With oral sex and cold hard cash.”

    (okay, I wouldn’t probably really say that. I’d go with “wow… that was sexist.” but I would be so tempted.)

    1. Don’t say that. Some asshat would probably think you were serious, maybe even write you up or report you for bribery.

  4. [Flat stare, toneless] “Yes.”

    “[Yes I got in because I was a woman] But let me tell you, the cupcake-decorating competition for scholarships was brutal!

    I like to go for sarcastic and sugary, I think because once I let myself go into anger I’m just stuck there, and if I start crying it doesn’t matter what else happens, I won’t stop again for another thirty minutes. My tear ducts are on a timer.

    1. Bonus: At some point the guy says, “You’re one of those angry feminists, aren’t you?” and I can smile and say, “Yes! So you can see how useless having this discussion with me is, because I’ll never agree with you.”

      I may be a bitch, but I’m a bitch who doesn’t have to talk to him anymore.

      …Which may be why I’m fleeing academia at the end of my degree, actually. x_x Which makes that a little less useful for the LW.

      1. Oh my gosh I love this. Totally stealing this one for later use, because the “You’re an angry feminist,” gets tossed at me EVERYWHERE.

    2. This is brilliant. If I overheard this I would need to be this persons friend, that’s how good it is.
      I agree about staying away from angry responses – it’s not that they don’t deserve that response, but once I go there I’m not coming back for a while, and the aim of the game is for these people to account for as little of your time as possible.

  5. I’m in a female dominated field, thank heaven, but my sister is in a male dominated field getting a very difficult technical degree. 8% of students in her year are women. In 4 years, luckily she only heard the ‘you only got in because you’re a girl’ once. She replied with: ‘well at least there is some reason for me being here, I’m still trying to figure out how you got in.’ Which, apparently, shut the guy up and got a good laugh from the other students present and it was never brought up again. Not the most professional of strategies, though, and I wouldn’t really recommend it! But it’s nice to know these annoying people do sometimes get the come-back they deserve.

    I haven’t encountered this personally, but I have come across situations where people claimed I only got in a program/won a competition/etc because of my age, because I am a couple of years younger than usual and it ‘looks good in the statistics’. My response is usually to look them straight in the eye with that slightly frowny ‘seriously?’ face, then to briefly shake my head and go on with whatever I was doing. And If they push it, which fortunately seldom happens, I say: ‘Why are you so hung up about my age? It’s a bit creepy. Let’s just get back to [whatever we’re supposed to be doing].’

    1. ‘Well at least there is some reason for me being here, I’m still trying to figure out how you got in.’

      Awesome! I like this one a lot.

  6. This depends on what your boss is like, but I’d want to feign ignorance and say something like, “Gee, I don’t know. I sure hope not! Let’s go ask (boss).”

  7. ‘“Are you sure this is an argument that you want to be making in a professional setting?” + long, awkward pause.’ VERY DEFINITELY THIS ONE.

    I used to work with a girl who was fascinated with my sexuality (which I only ever discussed in very general and nonsexual and work-appropriate ways, because I’m damned if I’m going to go through my whole career twisting my sentences in knots to avoid saying the words ‘my girlfriend’ when people ask me what I’m doing this weekend) to a frankly creepy degree. She had a (thankfully short-lived) period of ambushing me when I walked around corners and saying things like, ‘Anna, do you use strap-ons in bed?’

    My go to was ‘I am amazed you think that’s an appropriate question to ask a colleague. I am not going to answer that.’ + blank stare of doom (which is terrifying if I do say so myself) + long, awkward pause.

    She got the message pretty quickly,

    1. I love your reply! It shows you taking the (rightful) moral highground, is technically polite while still being intensely withering and cedes no part of your rights to be an unharassed member of your workplace.

      Go you!

    2. I would be tempted to ask her back, “Do YOU use strap-ons in bed?” Either she realizes how inappropriate the question is when the shoe is on the other foot, or you learn that she just likes oversharing about sex with her coworkers. 😛

      1. I’d stay away from this one, because embarrassing a straight chick with something sexual in return might be ~sexual harrassment~ coming from a queer woman. Even if she doesn’t spin it that way, if it gets back to the boss, you’ll be in the wrong, too…and likely treated as the bigger bad guy (“she was just curious! You didn’t have to be so innapropriate! You should have been the bigger person!”).

        I say this as a queer woman who has experienced this kind of BS from bosses/teachers/peeps in charge. Stick to being straight up honest while taking no shit — work is not the place to get clever digs in. Save it for parties and relatives.

        1. Absolutely. I also think that responding with a sexual question legitimises the whole ‘it’s ok to talk to me about sexual issues at work, because telling you I have a girlfriend is the same as signalling that I’m very willing to talk about what I do in bed, in a way that telling you I had a boyfriend totally would not be!’ creepy vibe she quite clearly bought into.

          I think for me the optimum path is ‘terrify without engaging.’ I am not a cat. I do not have to scratch back when someone scratches at me. I am a human being. I can say, ‘Dude, you just scratched me, despite both of us being humans, and I’m going to take a moment to force you to acknowledge how FUCKING WEIRD IT IS THAT YOU JUST SCRATCHED ME’ instead.

    3. “Tell you what, let’s go into {HR director}’s office and you can ask me that again in front of her.”

  8. It strikes me that from one (perhaps slightly unusual) perspective, in a male-dominated area, it’s sort of a response to point out that – notice how everyone around is male? *He* probably just got in because he’s male – seems like in this field, that makes you an easy admit. Women actually have to be *good* to get in.

    It either starts touching on something that’s somewhat true, or it shows how ridiculous a claim like that is.

  9. I like to name the problem. “What an unprofessional remark.” “Wow. That was sexist.” “That was both false and hurtful.” “What you just said was shitty and undermining.” (Not that I advise you to swear, but I did say that last one recently, and it seemed to have the desired effect of shutting the person up.) I love MovingOn’s sister’s comeback!

    If this isn’t too off-topic, I have a related situation to ask about. I found out recently that a guy who makes vague, undercutting remarks to me has also been sending unsolicited, explicit sexual material to one of my friends since she refused to date him. I am furious. I am warning people that he is a known harasser, and he’s dis-invited from anything I have a hand in organizing. But he will be at the conference I am speaking at next month, which means I will have to give a talk while he is in the room. My plan is to interact with him as little as possible and only talk to him if he asks something in Q&A. If anybody has tips on how not to get distracted during my talk, I would appreciate it.

    1. I haven’t given a lot of speeches, but when I had to give a wedding toast it was recommended to find one or two people in the audience and sort of focus on them. Do you know anyone else at the talk that you could ask to sit up front, maybe a few people in different areas so you can look around a bit?

    2. in situations like that, I have two strategies:
      1) focus on the work. I am there to accomplish something (telling folks about my research, asking questions about how to solve this problem, etc) and I throw myself into accomplishing it regardless of what else is happening.
      2) enlist friends to come to the talk, sit in the first couple rows, and ask one question. This way I have a friendly face to look at when I look at the audience, and at least one person has my back.

    3. Thanks, Muddie Mae and shattercapital. What you say is really smart and helpful. I am going to enlist a few friends so I can focus on them (and on conveying research ideas to them). This probably won’t be the only time I have to deal with somebody I strongly dislike, so it will be good practice in future, I guess.

      1. In addition to having them in the front rows, I might suggest having one or two towards the middle and maybe one in the back. Looking for them and then making eye contact looks exactly like making eye contact with the audience the way they teach you to in public speaking classes, but they are friendly and helpful faces instead of strangers!

    4. Most conferences have a policy on sexual harassment. It may bolster your confidence to look it up before your talk and bring a copy with you (at some conferences the everyday workers won’t actually know the con’s harassment policy, so having it with you should something happen could be useful). If you know anyone in the reporting line for harassment (such as someone in the organization or security for the event), it might be helpful to proactively talk to them, with or without mentioning his name.

      1. I left this a little late (while scrambling madly to get my talk in order), but thank you very much for your good idea. Harassing guy is not here–he decided not to attend for his own reasons, so I don’t know what would have happened if he’d come here. I talked to the organizers and they seemed understanding, and now know to keep an eye out for him in future years.

        I am proud of how the talk went. I am also proud of speaking up. Now more people will know to watch him, and stop him the next time he tries anything.

  10. People actually say that? I probably shouldn’t be shocked, but I am. I have no snappy come-backs. Around here it is the usual, ‘why is this so sensitive’ stuff – to the point that I occasionally wonder when they will diagnose me with a travelling womb. To which I have no snappy come-back either.

    1. I have been given the advice to reply with “have you considered that maybe you’re just under sensitive” to the accusation of being over sensitive. Have not yet had a chance to use it though so I don’t know how it goes over.

  11. I forget which advice columnist it is who often tells people to respond to these sorts of things with, “Oh. That’s a very *interesting* assumption,” followed by a change of subject, but that seems like it could work well if delivered in the right tone of voice.

  12. Have you considered salting their fields (of research), driving their research groups before you like cattle, reveling in the burning of their dreams and the lamentations of their kept women?

    Failing that, I received pleasing results by doing this:

    1. while interviewing for a PhD position as a baby Elodie, get told that you are “too pretty” to join the laboratory, as girls who look like you consistently leave their research upon acquiring husbands, and the professor does not want to train someone who will leave halfway through. Also academic science is difficult, and since you are attractive enough to Acquire Husband, then why not just do that? Produce retort, exuent pursuing bear. Fail to get into PhD program at University of Vermont, oh well, decide to continue amazing life anyway, file microaggression away for future material.

    2. years later, add picture and synopsis to “who needs feminism” campaign

    3. the day before your first solo standup science comedy performance, find that Reddit has recently found your picture and are making comments to the effect that
    – the story never happened
    – you can tell by the picture that you are not a scientist (??)
    – you are a stupid idiot and “never got a job”
    – you are not nearly pretty enough for this story to happen to you

    4. rewrite sketch at last minute to include this

    5. perform sketch to the best of your limited but optimistic ability and look up to see



    8. A PAIR OF ADORABLE YOUNG WOMEN THAT YOU DON’T KNOW COME UP TO YOU and introduce themselves as young biochemistry students who think that this is a very inspiring way to deal with things




      These people are the past. They are not the future. Their grandchildren will be ashamed of their attitudes, if they are not too ashamed to tell their grandchildren about them in the first place.

      Your grandchildren and my grandchildren will not even believe that people ever said things like that at all.

      1. Your grandchildren and my grandchildren will not even believe that people ever said things like that at all.

        Yes! This! And so this helps me clarify something I’ve been thinking about, namely: who is it who is saying these shitty things to you, LW? You mention “lonely single dudes in their male-dominated labs,” which suggests to me that you’re less concerned with your profs than with your peers. And if so, my experience with grad students (in both the humanities and the sciences) is that they actually tend to be quite young, quite socially awkward, and quite anxious to find their place. None of which excuses ignorant sexist piles of shit. BUT what it does mean is that they might not actually be sure what the rules of engagement are, and thus more susceptible to instruction.

        I really don’t want to undermine the Captain’s point that you shouldn’t have to offer a lengthy defense to every insecure white dude in a lab coat. What I mean is that, in many grad school communities, social norms can shift rapidly, and the appearance of self-confidence goes a long way. So whatever you end up saying to shut this shit down, make it very clear that SHIT is exactly what it is. Act as though each sexist question is a social solecism that ought to be burned into the speaker’s brain for years, because dear God, that’s really embarrassing for him. Do not underestimate your power to create a new normal.

    2. > “you can tell by the picture that you are not a scientist (??)”

      lol and yet what can we tell by their comments?

      In other words, Elodie, as always, you rock. As does everyone in this bar.

    3. This story is awesome, you rock, and I only wish I had been there to witness this glorious comedy sketch.

    4. Hahaha, it sucks that this happened to you, but that response and comment is brilliant!

  13. The bit that just boggles me about that kind of stuff is that these are usually people who a) don’t objectively, if-they-think-about-it, believe all [white] [straight] [middle-class] [able-bodied] [cis] [men] are cleverer than all [brown] [queer] [working-class] [disabled] [trans] [women] b) think the system works on merit but c) somehow square that with the system overwhelmingly promoting [white] [straight] [middle-class] [able-bodied] [cis] [men].

    I usually try to attack that on the weakest point, “Really? Huh, you think that under a purely meritocratic system, 100% of the people in this room would be white boys?” … “Even if it were true that men are on average better, that’s for populations – what do you think that has to do with me as an individual?”

    Also, if you do want to get into it, stick to questions and stay polite. Don’t give your opinion, just keep asking them what they think and see what you can get them to admit. Most of the time they’ll get all huffy and start mansplaining norms and things or something (don’t know what your area is, but that could be pretty funny if stats is supposed to be part of yours and their job), and which point you can just shrug, peace out, and say, “I guess you’ll have to judge me on my work.” If you keep it fairly friendly, though, every once in a while you will see a guy have a Damascus moment in front of you and realise that OMG! The system is biased towards white guys and he’s part of that! Which is awesome and not to be missed.

    But! Peacing out from the very beginning, or sarcastic comments, or a total shut-down along the lines of “professional working environment, do you really want to be saying that?” or whatever else you want is also TOTALLY OK. The really important thing is that you should not be dealing with comments like this at all, and what level of energy you want to invest in dealing with it is totally up to you. Don’t let anyone online or in the lab tell you what you SHOULD do, because the only real answer is that you should never, ever have to hear comments like this.

  14. “Wow. I’m surprised to hear an assumption like that in an institution of higher learning.”

  15. If you’re in a male-dominated field you can respond with a sarcastic “Right! That’s why almost everyone here is a woman!”

    I also often like to just bring the subtext straight out into the text. For example if someone makes a joke about their wife being the ol’ ball and chain, haw haw haw, I’ll respond “Oh! That’s funny because women are all just joyless buzzkills who only want to stop the menfolk from having any fun.” Best to deliver this line mostly deadpan with just the barest hint of sarcasm. Basically it should sound like you’re explaining the joke, and why it ‘works’. For the “you only got in because you’re a girl” I would say, “That’s hilarious because women are all terrible at _field_ and only men could get in on their merits.” Bonus points if the other person can’t tell if you’re being sarcastic because the uncertainty will make them nervous.

    1. Vigorous nodding!

      I (when I can stay calm) like to use active listening techniques to reword what was said to me and send it right back to them. “So you’re saying that every single one of the guys in this program got in on merit, but there’s no way even a single woman can?” But I also like your technique of explaining the “joke” in plain language until it’s gotten really uncomfortable. That wins.

  16. Not a snappy comeback but something a friend of mine who was bullied a lot as a kid used: agreeing with them.

    Dude: “You only made it into this program because you’re a woman!”

    You: “Yep.”

    I don’t think this is the best solution, but it tends to throw people if they’re all set to argue you down, and then suddenly that door closes.

    1. Ha! I’ve seen a friend of mine do it this way:

      Dude: “You only made it into this program because you’re a woman!”

      Friend: “And?”

      The dude was flabbergasted. FLABBERGASTED.

  17. I think her sign off covered it. “Actually, I’m overqualified.” And then return to what she was doing. Engaging on any level legitimizes the speaker to some degree. Don’t do it. Level gaze, deadpan delivery, dismissive return to the task at hand, and refusal to engage further in the discussio,

    1. Oh, that’s a great point. I like that a lot. “Actually, I’m overqualified” in a very bored, matter-of-fact tone. Nice!

  18. [Lock eyes with sexist.] “That’s right. I actually do math with…my…vagina.”

    Obviously not one you can use in a professional setting, but man does it shut down conversation.

    1. Aaaaaaaaaaahahahaha!

      I’d be tempted to pull out the neck of my shirt, glance down it and yell “Holy shit! Boobs! WHY DID NOBODY TELL ME??”

    2. IME, grad school is sufficiently not-really-professional that you could totally get away with this. Heck as an employee in an academic/research setting, I would totally consider this if anyone gave me attitude about being a woman (which they don’t because my lab rocks)

    3. Hee! That is awesome! I almost hope that one day I get to use a programmer version of that: “That’s right. I actually code with my vagina. I recommend that you not borrow my keyboard.”

    1. Print up a thousand cards with the Wikipedia notation [citation needed] and just start handing them out.

  19. This is not exactly the same situation, but it is sexist bullshit in academia so I figured I’d share.

    When I came to visit/interview at my current graduate school, I met with the professor assigned to coordinate grad admissions for my program. He’s not in my subfield , so I knew I wouldn’t be working directly with him. I asked Admissions Prof. something like, “I’m interested in doing feminist work. I’ve been in touch with [feminist professor in department], but was wondering if there are other professors in the department doing work on gender.” His response was, “Well *I* certainly don’t study gender. *My* work is based on *evidence*.” I stared at him with a “Wow. Did you really just say that?” look for a very long awkward moment, and then said “Oh. Well. I’ll be sure to talk to [feminist professor] about it. [unrelated question about program]”

    I just decided I wasn’t going to engage with that crap. It wasn’t a witty comeback, but it did effectively shut down that line of conversation. What was weirdest about the whole thing is that he became much warmer to me after that, like I’d passed his test by refusing to feed the troll, and he’s super-nice to me around the department. Yuck.

    1. Lor: Sadly, it may indeed have been his idea of a test.

      A doctor giving an informal talk to the Medical Students’ Society at the university where I qualified mentioned in passing (I forget the context; the talk itself was meant for entertainment and was nothing to do with how to get through job interviews) that he would sometimes say to female candidates in interviews “So, just supposing I were to tell you that I didn’t think there was any place for women in medicine… what would you say?” His rationale for this was that he thought the way that women reacted to the stress of being put on the spot with this sort of question would help him predict how they’d react to the stress of being faced with an emergency situation at work. [headdesk]

      Wow. I used to wish I’d end up being interviewed by him and being asked that question just so that I could fix him with an icy glare and say in my most cutting tone, “I would say you were a complete moron who was talking nonsense. [pause] *Fortunately*, you’re obviously too intelligent to say anything so completely ridiculous, and so the problem isn’t really going to come up, is it?”

      Anyway, it strikes me as possible that that professor may actually have been using that line of reasoning – that pulling that shit and watching your reaction would actually give him some information on whether you were tough enough to handle grad school, or something. Good on you for standing up for yourself, anyway.

      1. I wish he would go talk to [feminist professor] about it! She’s a force to be reckoned with and wouldn’t put up with any shit. She’s also the chair of the department, so it would be a very different power dynamic. 🙂

        I mean, I guess it’s important as a feminist in my field (well, probably any field except, say, gender studies) to be able to put up with colleagues in the discipline who think that feminist scholarship isn’t legitimate. I somehow doubt that he actually thinks feminist scholarship is great and was just testing me for my own good, though…

  20. “If that’s true, it implies that you only got in because of the Good Ol’ Boys network.”

  21. I dated a guy who’d make the occasional racist comment (and don’t get me started about how he’d rail on feminists… which is part of the reason we are not together anymore — the guy was just so intolerant and mean). He said something about “towelheads” one time in front of his best friend. I looked at my bf and said, “Don’t display your ignorance like that” in a really sarcastic and dry tone. His best friend looked at me surprised and then just started cracking up. “Good one!” he told me.

    So this method might not work with a coworker or whomever, but sometimes it’s good as a last resort. Just point out that he/she is being ignorant and EVERYONE can see/hear that and hopefully it shames that person enough for them to shut up.

    1. I like that! I have visions of taking a guy aside and telling him that in the same way you would if his fly was open. 😀

  22. “How’s that working for you?” or “How’s that attitude working for you? Seems pretty awful to me.”

  23. I like to employ a method my mother, the Undisputed Ice Queen, uses:

    Them: stupid sexist comment, har har
    Me: “I’m sorry?” (head tilt, eyebrow lift)
    Them: repeat stupid sexist comment, har har snorf snorf
    Me: “I’m sorry?” (head tilt another 30 degrees, eyebrow meeting hairline)
    Them: …repeat…sexist…comment…? bwuh huh?
    Me: “Hmmm. That’s…interesting.” (head now at 90 degree angle to neck, eyebrow on full sarcastic-lift setting, face in just-saw-a-disgusting-bug lip wrinkle)
    Them: ….sexi…uh….oh…hm. (hasty exit)

    I just hand them the rope and let them make their own noose.

    1. The power of a raised eyebrow and a curled upper lip, when done right, is mighty indeed.

  24. I’ve been medically transitioned long enough that I don’t tend to deal directly with sexism much anymore, but I used to, as well as homophobia and transphobia (past and present). I used to think if only I could come up with The Perfect Snappy Comeback, I would be able to single-handedly slay the kyriarchy. I mean, I don’t think I CONSCIOUSLY thought that, but I’m pretty sure that idea was lurking around my subconscious.

    I still remember, when I was working a job as a cashier, and a couple brought up some merchandise while arguing about it. One of them was arguing that one of the items was “gay” while the other was arguing that it wasn’t “gay,” and my teeth were set on edge the whole time I was ringing up their purchases.

    Finally I summoned up my courage, took a deep breath, and said, “You know something? I’M gay, and I think that’s a GREAT sweater.”


    The customer who’d been arguing that the sweater was gay just looked at me in utter bafflement and said, “I mean, it’s okay sweater, but I think it’s not good for … etc., etc.”

    I think that was the day I decided I was not meant to deploy Snappy Comebacks. Which I felt guilty about for a long time, because I didn’t want bigotry to go unchallenged. I tend to think, nowadays, that if you’re (general you) not naturally inclined towards the Snappy Comeback, trying that approach will feel awkward and come across awkward and probably not accomplish what you’re intending to accomplish.

    If you want snappy comebacks, though, LW, go for it! But if you’re finding they’re not leaving you feeling satisfied or like you’d made your point, I think it’s okay to go for different approaches. Nowadays I tend to stick to simple and non-snappy, stuff like “That was not okay.” Really like all of Captain Awkward’s suggestions too. For ultimate brevity, there’s also Carolyn Hax’s suggestion of “Wow” + long, awkward pause.

    It doesn’t feel like much of a victory, I’ll admit. But even if you had the most perfect, snappiest comeback ever, the other person will never respond, “Oh, yeah! I’m being a total sexist jerk! I’m so sorry!” Sadly. The point of responding, to my mind, is to alert the other person, “I disagree with your bigotry, and I will not silently acquiesce.” Like I said, it feels a lot less like a victory, but I think it’s useful in the long-term in creating spaces where bigots don’t feel all comfy cozy to openly act bigots.

    Good luck to you, LW, and I’m so sorry you’re having to deal with all this. Ugh. Also, I know a number of the sciences (I’m not sure you’re a scientist, but you mentioned labs) have committees on the status of women in the field. Folks involved with those committees might have some useful advice on dealing with all this, too.

    1. Thank you for saying this. THANK YOU SO VERY MUCH.

      Today I (an out not-cis queer) had a discussion (with a cishet) on my dissatisfaction with the process and politics of allowing queer people to be actual human beings in my country, and how marriage equality actually means very little to my day-to-day life. They kept telling me that I should be patient with the current process, and when I kept pointing out that I don’t have to be happy with my oppression, they turned around and asked me just what it was I did, again, to fight homophobia/transphobia/binary-centrism/the cishet oppressors. (Which carries the implication that unless I’m out there with protest signs on Saturdays, I don’t deserve human rights, and my lack of protesting means my lack of human rights is my fault. Writing stories about non-binary queer characters, apparently, isn’t a political action.)

      I was gobsmacked. There’s nothing I can really say that will make the speaker understand what it feels like to hear that, and how much the hurt lies in the implication rather than the actual words. In that kind of state, I don’t have witty comebacks. I don’t have all-silencing arguments. (Nothing in this dialogue is advantageous towards me.) The only thing I could do was mumble something about oppressors being the problem, end the conversation, and take myself away from a hurtful situation to regroup before class resumed.

      So thank you, for saying this, and making me feel a whole lot better about all the blows I never could have struck because I too lack the snappy comebacks and the ability to think in the moment, and if only I said the perfect comeback, damn it, I’d magically make people stop saying hateful things. I won’t.

      The point of responding, to my mind, is to alert the other person, “I disagree with your bigotry, and I will not silently acquiesce.”

      This is beautiful.

      1. You know how they say “living well is the best revenge”? It’s true. Being able to sail on past instead of shutting up or going away because some idiot thinks you should is doing a lot, actually.

        1. Glad you found it helpful! I mean, some people totally ARE Snappy Comeback people, and I admire and salute them. I have heard some excellent Snappy Comebacks in my day. But I am not Snappy Comeback Guy, and trying to be Snappy Comeback Guy was just all kinds of not helpful.

      2. That sucks, but what you were doing, having that conversation with someone who doesn’t understand, is where the real fight is, IMHO. The answer to that horrible and demeaning question is, “I’m having this conversation with you. I want you to see me as a human being first and to have empathy towards me. Do you think changing the laws will change the hearts of everyone magically?”

        I don’t know if that would have counted as a snappy comeback or how things would turn out if you said that to them, but it’s what I believe. People who are oppressed need to talk about it and need to get those who aren’t to realize how shitty things are. By having that conversation, I think you are doing quite a bit.

    2. I used to think if only I could come up with The Perfect Snappy Comeback, I would be able to single-handedly slay the kyriarchy.

      Ah, that line of thinking sounds really familiar to be in the same sort of “I don’t consciously think this and yet also I do” way that you described. I think a lot of people are trained into thinking that wittiness is the smart character’s way of solving problems, if that makes sense, so people who are brilliantly clever in other ways can feel like they should be able to come up with witty snappy comments in the face of offensive or uncomfortable situations and cut their way through their opponent’s ignorance like Zorro.

      As you’ve said I’ve found that learning that “If you say so.” + long pause or other variants is just as valuable as being perfectly witty has been very useful in actually handling these situations, because I have a way to diffuse them and it’s not like I’m missing out on fierce witty repartees from doing it because I never actually was very good at those anyway.

    3. Sometimes when I hear “that’s so gay” I fix the offender with my best innocent gaze and say “Really? That’s funny. I’m gay and I don’t like it/it doesn’t suit me at all!”
      Or, “Really? It isn’t very happy to me… not sure where you got that idea.”

      1. My friend had a similar conversation with her brother.
        Him: Oh my god that sweater’s so gay!
        Her: *thoughtful, intrigued tone* Really? How can you tell which of the other sweaters it’s attracted to? But I suppose that’s not really gay is it, just because they’re both sweaters… Do you think it’s a boy sweater that likes other boy sweaters? Or a lesbian sweater?
        Him: oh my god you have no sense of humour *stomp stomp stomp*

      2. Sometimes, when my spoons are dwindling and somebody says some version of “that’s so gay”, I respond with an enraged “Really? Does it scissor?” By that point my face is usually red and my body is pretty visibly tensed, and the offender generally backs right off.

        1. “when my spoons are dwindling” is the loveliest metaphor I’ve read in a while. Haven’t heard this one before, and will def use in future. Thank you, UrsulaB!

    4. I’m a woman in physics and I’m also not really naturally inclined to the snappy comeback. I always think of something brilliant way after the fact. However, I’m *really* good at the freeze-out and the puzzled at why somebody would be so stupid look, though.

    5. I very much used to think along those same lines. Nowadays, I generally figure that either a) snappy comebacks just do not work in real life, or b) I am definitely terrible at them. Possibly both at the same time.

      I’ve found that what actually works for me is a slowly raised eyebrow and a dubious face, held for several seconds, after which I either continue the conversation while completely ignoring their previous comment or go back to what I was doing and ignore them entirely.

      If they keep trying to engage me? “That’s nice.” “Hm.” “I’m sure.” “I’m sorry, did you want something?” “I’m a little busy, if you don’t mind.” “I’m not really interested in talking right now.”

      Most people seem to be socially conditioned to get embarrassed when a conversational partner abruptly withdraws all attention from them, because it places the burden of the awkwardness completely on their shoulders. It makes for a good way of teaching people not to do certain things in your presence if they want your acknowledgement at all.

    6. This is a very good point! I’ve been looking at the snappy comebacks and daydreaming about situations where I intellectually slay the sexist and they see the error of their ways, but knowing that it wouldn’t go down that way. Both because they wouldn’t, and because I am not a snappy comeback person; even if I managed to come up with something in time it’d just fall flat. Similarly, I don’t think I could pull off some of the facial expression ones a la disapproving eyebrow or the like, and I’m not good at the icy calm thing.

      I think it’s important to look at a variety of options for dealing with comments like this and pick out the one that works for you. E.g. in my case, I usually end up letting awfulness slide but once managed to shut down someone making Nazi jokes and doing the salute by snapping “Could you *not* do that around a German?” (Yeah, not the only reason that isn’t okay, but it sort of boiled out of me. It did shut him up and he apologised to me later). So my best tactic would probably be something more along those lines than the snappy comeback or the disapproving eyebrow. Maybe an honest “That was a really hurtful thing to say.” Other people’s mileages may vary!

  25. I once got into a similar “argument” with a white straight cis able-bodied male student in my postdoc lab. He was trying to argue that Affirmative Action measures and special training/scholarships for women/minorities were “unfair” because he was also disadvantaged (having come from a working class scholarship) and didn’t get any “special treatment”. He of course had to do it all off of his own back.

    My response: *long pause* *blink* Didn’t you just get finished telling me about all your awesome mentors in undergrad who encouraged you to apply here, AND that you were on need-based financial aid?

    Him: Uh….yeah?

    Me: So, isn’t the need-based financial aid specifically designed to help the economicially disadvantaged? And would you really say that you got here entirely off your own back (in contrast to all those undeserving women and minorities) when you also credit your undergraduate professors with giving you a lot of (probably well-deserved) assistance? Why don’t women and minorities also deserve this kind of assistance?

    Him: Um….well…..crap! I hadn’t thought of it like that before!

    Me: Of course you haven’t.

    1. This response is too perfect as it is. Combined with your username, it has scored a critical hit for massive damage to my eloquence core. I would like to be able to say something more eloquent about it, but, y’know.

  26. One of these days I’m going to try “Ignorant sexist is really NOT a good color on you.”

  27. I’ve never done this, but it’s been a favorite daydream:

    Jerk: “You only got in because you’re a girl!”
    Me: [Ostentatiously pulls out piece of paper, writes for a bit, repeating statement out loud] “‘You…only got…in…because you’re…a girl.’ Okay, today’s date…here, can you sign this? Since you feel that way, I’m sure you’re willing to attest to it in a form I can take to HR/ombudsman/etc. Thanks!”

    The last delivered in an extremely chipper fashion, which is my preferred “I’m pissed and I’m going to destroy you artfully” demeanor.

    1. That’s actually completely brilliant!

      Also, don’t you just love how these dudes think that following the established HR procedures to report exactly this kind of harassing and/or demeaning behavior, which is the type of behavior those procedures were put in place SPECIFICALLY TO ADDRESS means that you 1) can’t take a joke 2) are a humorless feminazi 3) overreact 4) are out to destroy all menz 5) are proof positive that women can’t handle this workplace 5) insert stupid reason here?


      *Actually we can and will but it just gets so damn tiring.

  28. LW, Is there an older woman scientist in your department you can talk to? In my experience lady scientists who have made it to a faculty appointment are tough as fucking nails and can tell you who in your specific field/University is a dick, so you can find good environments or at least not get blindsided by dickery. At the very least they will have some amazing stories for you about the comebacks they’ve served up over the years.

    1. Or not. In my experience a lot of the women who got a faculty appointment did so by being willing to use and abuse people they were responsible for, and throw them under the bus if necessary, while applying copious flattery to anyone who had the capacity to help them in their career.
      The only time I got advice from a successful woman academic about sexism was during a seminar on women in science. The professor told a story about an unsuccessful bid at tenure of hers. An old professor sat down next to her, patted her on her knee and explained to her he wouldn’t vote for her because he just wasn’t comfortable with a woman as a professor. She then concluded that she got tenure the next year, and that you had to shrug off that kind of incidents.
      Not exactly helpful when you got PTSD-ish symptoms for years from the continuous sexual harassment by your PhD advisor. Not that I have a better answer than hers, but hello, denial. Or blind luck and obliviousness, I don’t know.

      1. And by “a lot of women” I obviously don’t mean *all* of them. But I think it’s important to keep in mind how competitive academia is: ruthlessness is as much an asset as hard work or dazzling intelligence. “Female professor = blind trust+instant worship” is a naive and dangerous equation.
        I would also not assume that they would talk freely about this subject – students can be blabbermouths, and male academics can get really upset if a female colleague starts spreading rumours about the beloved Pr. Gropey, who’s such an inspirational mentor and has done such good work. It’s not worth your career.

      2. I think this is really going to vary by institution. I know that many of the more well-recognized, fancy-shmancy schools in the US have systems that foster, even require, this kind of cutthroat competitiveness, but if you’re outside the US or at a school that doesn’t hire 7 junior faculty and then cruelly make them compete for a single tenure spot, it can be very different. I’ve known a lot of women faculty, post-docs, and more senior PhD students who have been fantastically kind and supportive mentors.

        1. I’ve known a lot of women faculty, post-docs, and more senior PhD students who have been fantastically kind and supportive mentors.

          Absolutely, and I try to be one myself. Now that I’m thinking about it, the abusive academics I’ve had to deal with were not numerous, but the damage that they do is so extensive that it makes you forget all the good ones.

      3. Yeah, I’ve had more than a few encounters with women who have beaten the sexist odds, and therefore have no sympathy for lesser women struggling with their stupid pathetic problems when they really just need to buck up and try harder.

        1. The worst one of these I met was when I worked for Deloitte and Touche in Australia.

          It is genuinely difficult for women to make it to partner in the professional services firms, for reasons: sexism; sexist clients who want to hold meetings in strip clubs; the big push happens during peak childbearing years; working 14 hour days indefinitely is more accepted from men than from women, etc.

          So anyway, one of the female partners who did exist took aside a number of us younger women, and told us that it was fine! We could all have kids and make it to partner, she had!

          On further examination, it turned out she’d become a partner and had her kids in South Africa, where she had 24 hour nurses who did absolutely everything for her, and waited down the hall in work to bring the babies to her to breastfeed.

          She was of course white and the nurses were black. She had then left for Australia when the end of apartheid made that sort of life harder to come by.

          So she made it to partner, at the cost of three or more other women who never had the chance to have a partner-level career, and probably had to leave their own kids with a relative to get a job looking after hers.

          She didn’t see a problem with that.

          (Note: I have met loads of awesome and supportive senior women and want to be one of them some day.)

          1. Wow. That is a beautifully clear example of a white woman climbing up on the backs of women of colour. Thanks.

          2. The stupid thing is that this doesn’t even work on its own terms.

            You only get extremely cheap, good quality childcare (or other personal services) like that if you live somewhere with extreme income inequality.

            Australia is not currently such a place, and neither is the UK, however much I fear we may be heading there.

            So if she was trying to convince us that it was possible for women to have a family and become a partner, she failed.

            (I don’t know what happened to the kids of male South African partners, but probably something similar.)

      4. In my experience a lot of the women who got a faculty appointment did so by being willing to use and abuse people they were responsible for, and throw them under the bus if necessary, while applying copious flattery to anyone who had the capacity to help them in their career.

        That pretty much describes senior academics in general. Academia really suffers from what I call ‘Ancient Vampire Syndrome’ — there are no nice old vampires, because over the centuries the evil old vampires have eaten them all.

      5. I would agree with Jake here — I think this really varies by field, institution, and even different faculties within one institution. At the school I did my bachelor’s at, there were pockets of intense competitiveness — just within the architecture department, some of the design professors played a lot of weird mindfuck games with their students, trying to squeeze unhealthy amounts of work out of them, while I found that most of the the building science professors were really, genuinely interested in helping everyone learn and grow.

        Most of my current lab is female, and while none of them are blazing feminists (so to speak), there’s sort of a tacit underlying understanding that being a woman in science can be really fucking shitty. I’ve mentioned this in other threads, but I feel like the fact that my professor has two small children of her own does make her more sympathetic to the students she advises trying to find a work-life balance.

        That being said, Marie, I think you’re right that trust is to be dispensed very warily in all academic environments. I think it’s easy to assume that academia = progressive and knowledgeable about a variety of issues, but (at least in the technical field I’m in). . . that’s not a safe assumption at all. I’m lucky not to have to deal with much sexism (overt or covert) in my lab environment, but every so often a random racist of ableist comment will catch me by surprise.

      6. Yeah, or they don’t believe there’s a problem… when I went for PhD interview, I went out for coffee with two staff members – one man, one woman – after, and the conversation reached gender disparity in our field. I ended up arguing with the woman, whose opinion was basically “if they can’t hack it, they should stay out”. The man was far more in favour of support efforts but mostly stayed quiet.

        (I viewed the fact that they still took me as a good sign for departmental equality, and indeed I haven’t faced any overt sexism there and they’ve been very good about my disability as well. \o/)

    2. I’m a lecturer in a physics department. I’ve been there 10 years now as an instructor, 6 as adjunct and 4 full time, and was a grad student in the same department for 3 years before that. Up until last week, there was one other woman in my department (we just hired another lecturer who happens to be a woman). She just got tenure a couple of years ago. In the time she’s been her, she’s barely acknowledged my existence. She talks a good game about increasing the number of women in science to other people, but she has hardly spoken more than two words to me at a time in the entire time she’s been in the department. I don’t know why this is, we don’t do research in the same subfield (I do physics education and she does astronomy research) and my position is not tenure-track. But I would never, ever, ever go to her for any kind of help because she would throw me under every bus in existence if it would help her career.

      We did have one other woman in the department, but she’s now the dean. She is completely wonderful and I wouldn’t hesitate to go to her with any issues. But not every other woman in science is going to be helpful. Some really seem to like being the only girl in the boys’ club.

  29. “Wait, what?” Repeat ad nauseam.

    “There’s a quota? Goddammit, that striptease during my interview was SO unnecessary!” Add a “typical female” gesture, like hands on your hips or stomping your foot.

    “And what’s your excuse?” Deliver ice-cold, turn around and return to work.

  30. “Wait … you mean you think that because I’m female, I can’t actually be qualified to contribute to the body of scientific knowledge?? Gosh, that never crossed my mind, and, you know, no one’s ever suggested such a thing to me before.” (Bonus points if you say it loudly enough for others to overhear.)

  31. LW, I so very much feel you. I’m a female PhD student in computer science, and yeah, as you can imagine, it’s male privilege central around here.

    One important thing to keep in mind:
    It is okay to pick your battles.

    These dudes are wrong. You know they are wrong. It’s hard to do so when you’re put on the spot, but given a little time, you could come up with a logically airtight and unassailable explanation for why exactly they are full of shit, and you got here due to your own hard work, despite the kyriarchy keeping you down, thankyouverymuch.

    But you know what? It’s okay if you don’t bother. Because even when you come up with your logically airtight, unassailable arguments, these ostensibly “evidence-based” uber-logical science dudes are, with high probability, *still* going to try to play fucking devil’s advocate with you. Many of these dudes (regardless of whether they are any good at it) LOVE to debate, and it is exhausting and not worth your time to even get started with them.

    Your job while you’re in grad school is to finish your classes and do your research. It is okay to just do that, and not add “fix sexism” to your to-do list. Those sexist dudes certainly aren’t taking on the extra burden/responsibility of making the world a better place. It’s awesome if you want to do that, and when you’re feeling up to it, it can even be rewarding to get a fellow grad student to examine and question his attitudes, but the key is, when you’re not feeling up to it, that’s okay too. You’re not letting down feminism if you just get through your day however you can.

    When I’m not feeling up to it, I favor some variation of the captain’s “That’s unprofessional,” or “That’s rude,” response with the awkward silence thrown in.
    No getting into any stupid arguments about how they’re technically not being sexist and here’s why, just call them rude, shut them down, and move on.

    Also, this wasn’t part of your question, but it is important for your grad school survival, so I will say it anyway: Find your grad school “team you.” Figure out if there are safe people in your department who will roll their eyes with you or be a sympathetic shoulder when the obnoxious sexism of the rest of your colleagues gets unbearable. (Other female grad students in your program, if there are any, are a good first resource for this. Some more social-justice oriented men in the department can be good too.) Also look for allies outside your department. The number one thing I’ve done that’s made the hugest difference to my happiness levels in school is join a campus feminist group. Oh my god is it a relief to be in a space where everyone just gets the privilege 101 stuff, and I don’t have to be on the defense about it.

  32. “You only got into because you’re a girl?”

    “Oh, did you go and check with the admissions committee?”

    Sort of a more pointed/situation-specific version of “[Citation needed]”.

  33. “Actually, I’m pretty sure [the institution or society] is structured to support white males success– you may want to question why you’re here.”

  34. One I use often:
    In a hushed, eXamine-Your-Zipper tone: “Careful, um, your sexist is showing.”
    It works for just about any racist/homophobic/any -ist comment out there.
    I usually get a dumbstruck look that lasts long enough for me to change the topic, and ta-da, awful conversation vein is dropped and we’re back to the work at hand.

    1. Also, from a CA commenter on an older post: “That was your ‘out-loud’ voice.”

  35. Any advice for comebacks to an (old)(white) professor in my department who consistently calls me “young lady”? I am a 30-year-old faculty member. He has done this in front of my students. So far, I have resisted calling him “old man.”

    1. He probably, honest to god, cannot remember your name. Which is not an excuse, but the friendliest way to correct this is to say “You can call me (My Name) instead of Young Lady. I’d appreciate it a lot, in fact.

      If you think he is being deliberately condescending (forgetting your name is also condescending, but if there is a purposeful edge to what is going on), address it more directly. “You frequently call me Young Lady, and I would like to say directly that I do not like it. My name/title is _________, and I would appreciate it if you would use that form of address from now on.”

      I had to do this with a senior supervisor who would not stop calling me Jenny despite being asked many times to stop it. Finally, fed up when he called me “Jenny” in a meeting with his boss and a client, as in, “My girl, Jenny will handle that for you, won’t you, Jenny?” I said, “Sure thing, Tommy!” and worked “Tommy” in any chance I could. He was PISSED, and I said, “Doesn’t feel good, does it.” And he said “Fair point.” We had a pretty good relationship after that.

      1. Oh, thank you. As another Jennifer who likes to use her full name, I thank you.

        Early in my working life, working in a large corporation, it took me awhile to get okay with letting some … mmm … older male co-workers use “Jenny”. Eventually I realized that those gents tended to nickname everyone, regardless of gender. I didn’t care for it, but I could interpret it as a cultural difference. But now it’s 2 decades later and men that same age are now my peers. I make a point of checking a person’s preferred name use, especially when I’m introduced by a 3rd party, and I like to think that people understand that as a sign of respect, and they show me that respect in return. I do know that anytime I’ve told a peer “Actually I prefer my full name” it’s been okay. I haven’t had to deal with that from a boss to date.

        An amusing side note: when I was 14 or so I switched from Jenny to Jennifer. I know I didn’t handle it well and I was pretty rude to friends and family members. When I hit 18 or so I chilled out about it with my mother, my grandmother, and my oldest friend who’d known me since we were 9 (but her eventual kids don’t get to use it). So Gramma called me Jenny for decades. She’s quite elderly now and a lot of her memory is shot — but she calls me by my full name every time I see her. I’m not sure what to make of that, but I suspect that she’s harkening all the way back to what my name was when she met me for the first time.

        1. I tried to make people use Jennifer for quite awhile because I didn’t like Jenny. I ended up being “Jenn” which I like even less. Jennifer is a lovely name… if only 2/3 of moms in the 70’s hadn’t named their daughters that.

          I’m okay with Jenny now, but Jenn is still sticking.

          1. I play a game where I introduce myself as Jennifer and see how long it takes for me to become “Jen” to that person. Usually…not long.

        2. I don’t use my full name, but a gender-neutral short form. And really dislike the feminine diminutives. When I lived in the Southwest, everyone called me by the wrong long form, it wasn’t just men, and despite my correcting people. It just seemed to go along with the ubiquitous iced tea, so I lived with it. And in Central America, my short form just doesn’t roll off the tongue properly in Spanish, so I was okay with people using the long form.

          The moment that really crystallized the importance of names and power dynamics for me was when I was a firefighter. Nicknames were sometimes bandied around and bestowed on people. Some people adopted them with pride, others didn’t care, others seemed to get a new nickname every season. Another woman who joined the crew first was called “Skids” after an unfortunate bathroom incident while she was staying with the second in command until she found her own place, and then later “Pipes” to mock her biceps or somehting. At one point, she started calling me by a feminine diminutive, and I requested that she call me by my preferred name as I didn’t like the one she used. She replied that she didn’t like being called “Pipes” or “Skids” (and so shit should roll downhill, I guess? Or maybe sometimes we have to put up with things we don’t like?). I pointed out that I never used those nicknames and only ever called her by her name.

          I think that ended the problem for me. She and I are still friends, though we communicate only sporadically. That was my last season on the crew, and I knew it was time to leave when I started experiencing schadenfreude at someone else getting yelled at. I learned a lot about bullying and toxic work environments and poor leadership from that job. And sexism, but it took years of reflection to really unpack that. Fell into the trap of trying to determine sexism based on intent instead of effect. And as is well known, intent is fucking magic.

          1. You are my sib by a different parent! My surname is also a gender-neutral given name, and people who are an active part of my current life address me by it. When it was time for my 30th high school reunion, all of this e-mail started showing up addressing me by a feminine diminutive of my given name, which I’d hated at the time and asked people not to use, to no avail; I thought “Thank you for reenforcing my decision not to go!”

            (. . . and we were broke and a parent was dealing with serious illness, but still!)

      2. That is an amazing way of handling it, and also somehow reminded me of some Saturday Night Live sketch I saw a million years ago.

        “TommY! Tomster! Tomtom! Tomerino! TomMAY-To, TomMAH-to!”

  36. “Why would you say something like that?” The tone I shoot for is one of mild scientific interest with just a smidge of disgust. As though I’m asking, just because I want to know, “Why on earth would you choose to walk around with feces smeared all over your clothes?”

    I find it important (and also hard) to remember that stupid-ass sexist comments like this don’t reflect poorly on you, but on the person making them. That person is trying to give you handfuls of dog shit and pretend it’s your shit and your problem. It’s not your shit. It’s his.

  37. In all innocence, I once ended an argument with a crabby, passive-aggressive male colleague this way: “I can’t figure it out. You’re necessary here, you’re good at your job, you have all the resources you need — WHAT are you compensating for?”

    He was struck dumb.

  38. Not an academic, but in social situations, I like to either go for the Socratic method, if I have the energy to do so (because it’s easy to do whilst projecting yourself as neutral to the whole issue, and then if they get irritated, you can ask them why they’re getting so emotional. Men aren’t emotional, right? Especially not intellectual, academic men, right? Right?), or (long pause) ” . . . charming.” React like they just said something gross and stupid, because they did.

  39. OK, this is short, snappy and doesn’t give enough credit to his assumption even by arguing against it. Not sure it works for everyone, but I use it with some success:

    “You only got into because you’re a girl?”

    “Right.. Keep telling yourself that”

    1. Haha, very close to what I was going to suggest: “Feel free to tell me that again every time I publish something.”

  40. “You know that’s not actually true, right? I mean, I get that you’re saying that because whatever, you’re upset about something, but I know you don’t rationally think that.”

    “I know you’re saying that, I think you may even want to believe that because you think it’s comforting, but we both know that it’s not a factual truth.”

    Because the thing is, a lot of the time, people like that like believing that more than they actually know it to be true. Sometimes, they don’t believe it and they say it because they’re… well, crappy human beings, but a lot of the time, they believe it because they choose to, because they find it comforting, and not because it matches up with reality as they know it to be.

    People believe a lot of things that they *know* aren’t, bottom line, actually true. Sometimes, it can help to make to them that it’s clear to you that they’re being irrational, emotional, and if they do try to justify themselves, well you do have reality to counteract with. A lot of the time, people like this want you to come off as being the emotional, irrational one, and it’s a killer when you make it clear that that’s how you’re viewing them, adn as a result, you’re going to disregard everything they say.

  41. I currently default to “I beg your pardon?” It gets me through the moment of “wait, did he really just say that? Did I hear him wrong? What do I say now?” that inevitable floors me during the moment where a witty comeback would have the most effect. Either he’ll back down or he’ll repeat himself, in which case I have an extra moment to summon a useful reaction and everyone around us gets to hear him double down on his shit. (Or I completely did hear wrong, in which case he gets a chance to explain and no harm is done.)

  42. “Wow. Seriously? I am really disappointed in you. I thought you were a better person than this.”

    Play taken out of old fashioned parenting handbook, was rather effective when used on old boss caught in the act of mocking Black clients behind their backs. “Wow, seriously?” was what I said when I caught him and other coworker, the second part was what I said when they practically chased me down to make me assure them I wasn’t mad. (I didn’t. I was. definitely. mad.) I followed up the second part with “You’re the boss. People follow your example.” Hands on hips, stare, watch them sputter and make excuses about it being a joke. “Whatever, dudes, that was unacceptable and you know it.” (then go outside on a “coffee break” and bawl your eyes out)

    When in doubt, tell the person they disappoint you. Disappointment is such a soft thing, I don’t know why that has the power it does, but it is powerful.

    1. Wow. That is some triple-black-belt conversational judo. I admire you so much. And I totally empathize with that emotional power-surge that sometimes sets off the emergency sprinklers after those kinds of confrontations 😉

      1. Thank you. I was so angry (it was years ago and I am still angry), I had a really hard time making words at them. Spouse tells me that anger is my superpower, in that I go straight for the heart of a matter, but honestly, all I feel in those sorts of situations is scared and powerless. And I cry when I feel powerless, which makes me feel, you guessed it, even more powerless. Especially when my words seem to do little to change a particular situation.

        I still can’t believe I lasted three whole years there. It was a cry once a week sort of place.

  43. “Oh, great. That means they haven’t caught on yet. Excellent. Well, cheerio, things to do”.

    Walk away. Leave them confused and wondering what secret you’re hiding. Are you actually an alien? Extra-galactic visitor? Sentient mass of jelly in the rough shape of a human? A, gasp, female? WHO KNOWS. They certainly don’t.

    “I’m sorry you have low self esteem today. Don’t worry, I’m sure you’ll be fine”

    Mean it.
    Being friendly disarms people. And it’s very likely they’re just overcompensating on having a downer day and choosing to be gits and take it on you.

    “How strange. What are we doing for X? Is this due next week?”

    Ignore the statement.
    Pet theory: People say stuff like that to your face either to get a rise out of you, or to voice their own confusion. One is a waste of time, and the other is on them.

    I mean, if you’re already, literally, in the field, doing science, then the weird subtext that “Y cannot possible do any kind of scientific work” is demonstrably false. As it has been for, oh, rough guess, all of human history viz a viz people of any gender generally being fairly competent at most everything.

    That last one is also easy to remember, and makes the conversation move on. You don’t have to be the snappiest, wittiest person in the world. And confrontations can be tremendously bothersome. So cultivating a response of “Eh” works, even if it does deny you that glorious sense of snappy wit which would suddenly make the barrage of irksome comments cease.

    (Lastly: Combine them all.

    “Okay. Is this due next week? Because I have to go make sure my face isn’t leaking again, seeing as they haven’t caught on yet and that’d just be a dead-give away. Speaking of dead, I’m sorry your sense of self esteem and empathy both are, and I offer my condolences. Well, cheerio, can’t stand around here all day, I’ve got snarflarks to re-calibrate)

  44. I love a lot of the advice here, and I’m thinking of using some of it in my non-academic job. I’ve found that, when faced with ridiculous notions on the part of a coworker I simply HAVE to keep dealing with, being perfectly upbeat but somewhat irritated by the distraction has had the best effect. By ‘best effect’ I mean that this person usually then stops trying to include me in their nonsense. “Have you noticed X thing yadda yadda our black patients etc.” “That’s cute. So did we get the fax from Dr. Blooks?” or “Women have issues blarg” followed by “Uuuh, sure, are you done with this basket yet?” Dismissive words are fun because they’re not aggressive but they definitely get my contempt/lack of interest across. Cute, intriguing, special, curious, gosh… All better than hating myself for not confronting coworkers all the damn time.

    1. I actually ended up doing that in a taxi this morning. We drove past someone running, and the taxi driver went, “oh my God, that’s a fella!” I was too disconcerted by the transphobia to respond properly, but I just went, “um, all right!” and he immediately said sorry.

    2. This works so well! Or “wow” or asking someone to repeat what they said.

      Actually, I think I got that advice here to begin with.

    3. i like these because it sounds a little bit like you’re replying to a toddler who’s said something nonsensical and you can’t be bothered to figure out what they mean.
      i’m transferring to a new school pretty soon in a fairly man-dominated field, i haven’t encountered anything like this yet but i’m trying to figure out strategies for when i do, the only thing i came up with on my own would be to lock eyes with the person and stare in frozen, silent horror. possibly until they leave the room.

      1. Go to YouTube, look up Jenna Marbles’ “How To Avoid Talking to People You Don’t Want to,” and voila. Throw em the face!

        1. I also like Adulting’s recommendation to startle like you are afraid you will be murdered when someone touches you without asking or being invited.

          1. This is part of why I’ve never 100% trained myself out of my startle-and-yelp reflex, especially when I can’t see the person touching me. I don’t get socially blamed for it! As opposed to asking, “Can you not touch me?” I just silently and mostly-involuntarily communicate, “Touching me without my permission/knowledge is a bad idea.”

  45. I have an engineering PhD and worked for 12 years in the field. And the best answer I ever came up with was: “You know that’s not true.”

    Which failed badly when one of the guys who recruited me commented that he did deliberately like to recruit women when he had the chance because he thought it was good for team morale.

    So .. uh … don’t use that one 😉

  46. I’ve had a few sexist remarks directed at me during my years in graduate school.

    Male graduate student: “[Other grad student] and I think you wore way too much makeup at your interview.”

    Asst. professor: “Wow, you look rough today.” (On said day, I decided not to wear makeup, as I do on occasion because I don’t feel like I “have” to wear it, I just like it. Thankfully, this man was NOT my mentor.)
    Me: “Well, isn’t THAT rude.”

    I find that labeling a statement for what it is, rude/demeaning/sexist, is usually the best bet. I think many of these comments stem from a person’s insecurities. I totally agree with the whole “living well is the best revenge” statement. At our graduation luncheon, I won first place for the “Outstanding Dissertation Award”…which was a blind contest in which the reviewers only got a copy of my CV and my dissertation. Suck on that, haters!

  47. Okay, Awkwardeers (ladies especially, but everyone) … this is a digression, but it’s a relevant one given the topic, and I need to share:

    I filled in freelancing at my old company today, and a couple of people (who I’ve known since working there full-time) are leaving, so they had farewell drinks on the office terrace after work. Chatting with one of the departing colleagues and two other women I don’t know well, the talk turned from travel plans to politics (as it is wont to do here in the nation’s capital). Departing Colleague notes that she’s a bit disappointed in our POTUS nowadays over the NSA stuff, the Manning case, etc. I chime in with a wry comment about how POTUS also seems to think a certain person — who, though I did not note it in this conversation, is known among other things for stating in public his belief that girls are most likely just innately not as good at math and science as boys are — should keep getting important government jobs.

    Cue needle screeching on record and indrawing of breath. Departing Colleague and one of the other two pull faces and turn to the third woman, who says … “Um, yeah, he’s my stepdad.”

    People, I have never desired more for a trap door to appear in the floor for me to fall through. AND YET … while I apologized profusely and conceded that I need to remember the actual small-townness of the superficially large city I live in when speaking critically of someone of note, etc, I did not feel the need to retract the tone of my statement. Partly because it just wouldn’t have been true or genuine, and partly because … well, if this woman HASN’T ever heard anything like this before (unless everyone else she meets already magically knows who she is), I’d be pretty damn surprised.

    Anyway, the moral of the story is apparently that douchebags in public life can get away with saying misogynistic shit but their kids will be inadvertently forced into defending them. And that this foot in my mouth tastes delicious. And that I’m very thankful, once again, that MY dad (who was a teacher) believed ladies could do anything they set their minds to, in the classroom or elsewhere.

    1. But her stepdad thinks women can’t do math! I hear you on the floor opening up, and it must be hard for her to hear him being criticized, but at the same time, he was the one who expressed those opinions, and it’s a bit unfair that she has to have his back.

      As you say, she’s probably used to hearing stuff like this, and ideally she’d be able to say something like (assuming this is what she feels): “Yeah, he’s my stepdad. I don’t agree with him about XYZ but he’s really great for ABC, so I try to balance it out. I can understand why you would feel that way, but I’m lucky to see another side of him.” Or something.

      1. Meanwhile, we’re left to deal with the fact that a dude who thinks my ladybrain can’t handle math or science is informing national policy….

        1. Didn’t he also manage to financially screw up Harvard? Even though Harvard’s endowment is like, the size of that of every other university in the US put together? Sounds like a great choice to make financial decisions for a heavily indebted country.

    2. D: D:

      Definitely have had stuff like that happen to me, which makes me wish I had a portable trapdoor to set up underneath my feet so I could sink through the floor.

      That being said, a certain person who rhymes with Harry Plummers is a legit awful person with some really Neolithic opinions, so I guess my response would have been “how do you feel about what he’s said?”

      I get the feeling of loving someone who has awful opinions (my mom is a conspiracy theory whackadoodle) but I’m not afraid to own the fact that she’s pretty awful when it comes to certain topics, but that’s Just The Way She Is.

      That being said, if the POTUS tried to appoint her to position where her whackadoo opinions would inform national policy, I would be dead-set against it, no matter how much I love her.

      1. A friend indeed suggested that I should have asked “Do you think he’d be a good fit for the job in question?” My first reaction was wow, that would put her MORE on the spot, but then I thought, well, or it’d give her a chance to defend him on the merits, or not, as she chooses. Still, it’s an interesting thing to be able to take for granted — those of us with parental figures who are not in public life can afford to kind of roll our eyes and sigh at their whackadoodleness because the stakes are low, instead of feeling stuck having to defend them regardless of our real feelings.

    3. I think the most awkward thing for her would be if she agreed with you! Not only is someone in her close family being a douchebag, but he’s doing it in public and with a ton of power–and then if people criticize him in her presence, she still feels obligated to defend him and his douchebag opinions! No wonder she put a half to that conversation real fast.

  48. *look around lab/class/department in an obvious manner, if you are in a male-dominated field* “You know, that statement might sound more logical if our program was [over] 50% female.”

    *look fascinated* “Is that the mating call of the white male who wants to believe they got in due to merit?”

  49. OH MAN just found on Dances with Fat: “It’s interesting that you are comfortable ignoring all of my accomplishments because you can’t set aside your prejudice about my body.”

  50. I stumbled across the “why?” strategy by accident. The day I got offered a super-prestigious postdoc, the department happened to have a holiday reception, where I was chatting with a professor I had TAed for in the past. He asked how things were going and I blabbed excitedly about my postdoc offer and he said, “Well, I suspect demographic factors played a role.” And it took me so off guard that I was like, “Huh? What do you mean?” and then he totally backtracked and mumbled something about how they must not get many applicants from Massachusetts (which makes zero sense at all — I was at Harvard at the time, and you can bet all the MIT kids were applying too!). So, even though I didn’t do it intentionally, asking for an explanation actually forced him to retreat quite effectively, and apparently on some level made him realize how incredibly inappropriate the comment was. (Incidentally, it also reminded me of another incredibly offensive comment he made about a student in the class we were teaching — she had told us that she was hoping to be a theoretical scientist in our discipline, and later on the guy said to me, “well, she might get into grad school, because she’s female *and* black.” At that point I was so stunned I just gawked. Fortunately I wasn’t the only person in the room, and the conversation moved on.)

  51. I’d reply with “Ah no, /you/ are /only/ here because you are a white boy”, smirk and walk away. Mainly because if he thinks that this is the tactic that works on other people, there’s a high chance of it working on him, and you are turning the tables and making him realise that you don’t have to prove anything and you don’t give a flying fuck about his opinion of you. And if it does work on him, he’ll automatically start to think of ways of how to prove that he belongs in this or that setting. In spite of himself. Which will make him angry with himself (and probably you, too, so be careful because nothing is more vicious than a boy scorned). And I think it might work since no one who has even an ounce of self-confidence is going to act like this. Would like to hear your opinions.

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