I was helping at a two day conference that a colleague had organised. On the morning of day one, I stood behind a table, handing out conference packs. A young man came to pick up his conference pack, and when I gave it to him, he asked: “how long have you been pretty for?”
I responded: “I’m sorry, that is an inappropriate question.”
He asked: “Why?”
I explained: “Because we’re both here in a professional capacity. I am not here to be pretty. My appearance is irrelevant. Besides: it happens too often that people at conferences acknowledge my appearance or gender before they acknowledge my work. It’s just not very nice.”
He said: “Well, I’m sorry to hear it happens too often for you, but I meant it as a compliment, so I wont apologise.” And he walked away, leaving me baffled.
However, five minutes later, he returned, saying: “On second thought, I do apologise. I’m sorry, my remark was inappropriate.”
I was surprised, but glad it was resolved so I said it was ok.
The next day, during the tea break, the young man came to me and said he had been thinking about the situation. He asked me to explain further what exactly was at stake in such a situation. We had a constructive discussion. We challenged and questioned each others’ views respectfully and sincerely like one would hope a respectful conversation between two philosophers goes. At the end of the tea break, he had convinced me that his inappropriate question was genuinely not motivated by ill-will or machismo, really just a compliment, albeit clumsy. And he said I had opened his eyes to what it must be like to be a woman in academia, an issue he had never really given much thought. He even held the view that such ignorance was the responsibility of men themselves, they really ought to know better. We parted on a friendly footing.
One soul at a time.