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Drinking in professional settings comes with risks and can alienate colleagues. There are better ways for physicists to socialize.
By Nathalie Vriend | May 11, 2023
Many years ago, when I was a young graduate student in mechanical engineering and geophysics, I presented my first poster at an important conference. I was stationed at my poster, excited for discussion, when a colleague approached me with a beer in hand. I could smell alcohol on his breath, and he had clearly had too much to drink. For an hour, he loitered at my poster, asking inappropriate questions — and blocking my ability to talk to others, including potential collaborators or future postdoctoral advisors. I was deeply uncomfortable and uncertain what to do.
My story might feel familiar to many young scientists, and data confirms the relationship between alcohol and inappropriate behavior. Alcohol is linked to loss of inhibition, and research indicates that alcohol increases the risks of harassment, including in professional settings. A 2007 study found a significant association between the number of heavy-drinking male employees and a culture of gender harassment against women in a workplace. Of course, alcohol does not cause bad behavior on its own — any perpetrator is solely responsible for their actions — but its role as a risk factor is clear.
These statistics should concern all of us in physics, not least because the gender gap has persisted so stubbornly. In 2020, women earned just 1 in 4 physics bachelor’s degrees and 1 in 5 doctoral degrees, and only 13% of last authors on research papers in physics — who tend to be senior — are women.
Whenever there is a strong imbalance in gender — e.g., in male-dominated fields like physics — harassment crops up more often, harming victims’ sense of belonging and worsening imposter syndrome. In a 2018 survey of undergraduate women in physics, 74.3% of respondents said they experienced gender harassment or unwanted sexual attention in physics in the last two years.
Of course, harassment is an enormous issue — much bigger than drinking at work events. But given alcohol’s links to poor behavior, it deserves thoughtful attention in any professional space.
I myself have experienced harassment on multiple occasions in professional settings, from colleagues who had too much to drink. As a result, I have become more cautious, sometimes leaving events where I feel unsafe — hardly the welcoming environment we aim to create in our scientific communities.
So why is drinking so prevalent in professional settings? In many ways, it’s understandable. Work-life separation is difficult when your work runs into evenings and conferences often take place on weekends, so it's easy for professional events to spill over in social ones — often with alcoholic refreshments. In the academic world, you depend on colleagues for tenure letters, paper and grant reviews, and collaboration, and socializing at professional meetings is key to success. In the corporate world, networking can shape careers. Alcohol might seem to help break the ice with strangers or decompress after a stressful workday.
As a result, many scientists are comfortable with alcohol at professional events. For example, in a 2022 Nature poll of nearly 1,500 scientists, many respondents questioned the appropriateness of serving alcohol at work-related portions of scientific conferences, like poster sessions — but most still said they wanted to keep alcohol at conferences overall.
As scientists, though, it is not only our responsibility to do good research and advance our field, but to support the next generation of scientists. Science is more diverse now — in age, gender, sexual orientation, race, cultural background — than it was for millennia; we are moving away from the cliché of the cigar-smoking, whiskey-drinking clique of mostly white male scientists. I am not the only person not drinking alcohol — more than a third of US adults don’t, perhaps for religious or cultural reasons, or perhaps simply because science has shown that alcohol is not healthy. Still others may be uncomfortable drinking in work settings because they are struggling with alcohol abuse; after all, nearly half of US adults who drink, drink too much, according to a 2018 study published in the Journal of Substance Abuse.
Alcohol in professional events can stymie efforts to create a welcoming community, and scientists and students of all generations deserve better. In academia, as well as in the business and nonprofit spheres, we senior scientists are responsible for inviting young, diverse people into the field and making them feel comfortable and confident. We are responsible for upholding professional conduct and setting the right example for the younger generation.
Luckily, there are plenty of creative ways to deemphasize or avoid alcohol in professional settings, while still socializing with peers and colleagues. First and foremost, an open-bar event can promote excessive drinking (it’s free, after all!), so consider offering one or two free drink tickets instead. The location of a social event can send a strong message, too: Plan your team’s next activity at a restaurant, bowling alley, or dessert shop instead of a bar or brewery. You could also head outdoors. In the past few years, I've hiked, surfed, scaled walls at a climbing gym, and even skied a glacier with colleagues. I had many inspiring conversations during these events, which led to prosperous new collaborations.
Even now, 15 years after attending my first conference, I still remember that intoxicated colleague and the uncomfortable situation he put me in, though he probably does not. However, I’m sure that it would mortify him to learn that his poor behavior — not his research — is what a young scientist remembered most.
As a woman in a male-dominated field, I’ve faced many roadblocks. Still, I love my job as a scientist, and I want my field to be as welcoming as it can be. Deemphasizing alcohol in work settings won’t squelch inappropriate and unprofessional behavior entirely, or make physics perfectly ethical or welcoming. But might it be a start?
Nathalie Vriend is an associate professor in mechanical engineering at the University of Colorado, Boulder. She leads the Granular Flow Laboratory and has active projects in granular rheology and avalanching, as well as dune structure and migration.
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