I’ve talked about how traveling for work can be challenging and I’ve always focused on why it’s hard related to what I’m leaving behind at home. (My kids tend to get upset and I feel bad that my partner is left with a pile of tasks that we would normally split evenly.) Another reason, though, is that some of the things that I encounter after I leave can be pretty frustrating.
There is an aspect of work travel that I have found to be uniquely and specifically difficult because I am a woman.
Traveling in an unfamiliar location does require certain precautions. Honestly, just moving through the world as a woman requires precautions. There are all sorts of things that we do to try to keep ourselves safe. (None of which are guaranteed to work, of course, but that’s another topic…) Most of us do use a different collection of tools and tactics when we are out of our familiar locations and away from familiar people. That’s definitely part of it, but it’s not what I want to talk about. What I want to focus on are some of the things that women have to deal with because of (some) men that we have to interact with while we are out there simply trying to do our jobs.
Traveling usually brings me in contact with more people and with people that I am less familiar with. Both of these things make the types of interactions that I have while on the road different than when I am home and working with familiar people.
To be sure, there are plenty of men that I interact with while traveling and working that are great. They are respectful, supportive allies, and pleasant to work with. They don’t act like our interaction is a date nor do they constantly question my intelligence (without cause). Other men seem to be situational based on their familiarity with the woman. They have a different set of behaviors for women that they know compared to random women that they happen to encounter, so the experience of interacting with these men depends on what situation you find yourself in with them. These are the men that wouldn’t dream of talking disrespectfully to their mom or sister, but will say completely inappropriate things to women (or about women) that they don’t know. They might think their female coworker is smart and capable (most likely because she has “proven herself” to them), but they question the capabilities of a woman they don’t know that is doing her job. They talk professionally with their female colleague at dinner, but try to hit on their waitress. I’ve seen men that know me and speak to me with respect (to my face, at least) turn around and talk at length about a random woman’s butt. They question another woman’s competence for no clear reason or double-check information they received from her by asking her male colleague the same question. There are also the men that are just awful all the time. They do all of these things (and worse) whether they know you personally or not.
Some women deal with these things all day every day. They may work directly with men that are awful all the time or they are in positions where they have a lot of interactions with unfamiliar people. That’s not really the case for me (in my current position), so I find that these difficult interactions are much more common when I am traveling. I am bound to come across some of the awful men and/or find myself on the wrong side of the situational men. I have found that it is very rare to return from a trip without something having happened.
- Sometimes it’s subtlety inappropriate – someone stares at my chest instead of making eye contact in a conversation.
- Sometimes it’s blatantly inappropriate – someone makes a comment about my breasts after I’ve giving a presentation.
- Sometimes it’s sexist – someone questions if I am the one that actually did the work that I was presenting.
- Sometimes it’s patronizing – someone tries to explain my own research to me (that is my area of expertise and not theirs).
- Sometimes I feel invisible – someone talks over me or interrupts during a discussion
- Sometimes I want to hide – someone follows me around trying to take my picture to “show my friends how beautiful you are.”
- Sometimes it’s misogynistic – someone stands way too close and aggressively asks, “What do you know about this? This is a man’s field.”
- Sometimes it’s scary – someone is angry and intimidating after I have declined his offer to “walk me back to my hotel room.”
It’s annoying. It’s unwanted. It’s uncomfortable. And, it happens all the time…
I don’t really know what to do about this. We can make a pact to keep an eye out for each other. We can call for the great allies to speak up and speak out. We can ask the situational men to check their own behavior. The awful all the time men probably need societal pressure and more consequences to change. I don’t know. I do think that an important part of any path forward, though, is helping people understand the realities of working while female. The few times that I’ve been in a conversation where something like this was being discussed, I’ve noticed that the women tend to knowingly nod along while the men are surprised or even shocked. In fact, surveys have shown that men significantly underestimate the levels of harassment and sexism that women face. In the United States, 81% of women report having experienced sexual harassment at some point in their lives, yet the average estimate from American men is that 44% of women have been harassed. I think we need to talk about it when these things happen. Tell your partner. Tell your coworkers. Say something to the person standing next to you who didn’t hear or notice. Sharing our stories shares the burden – we shouldn’t have to feel angry, cringe, or be afraid alone. It can also help open people’s eyes to the realities of working and traveling while female.