Saturday, March 26, 2011

How do you fight sexists who are anti-sexism?

On Thursday The Chronicle of Higher Education ran an article called For Women Seeking to Advance in Academe: Advice From 4 Who Made It to the Top. The article featured women who serve as college and university presidents, positions that, as we all know, are held by men far more frequently than they are held by women. The backlash displayed in the comments that follow the article is both incredible and disheartening. A number of commenters are even horrified by the title of the article -- and, by extension, appear to be horrified that the article even exists. This is a good example:

I hate this kind of article, man vs. woman garbage. Women as a special group needing to take special "for women" approaches; women entitled to special consideration, etc. Does the obvious, openly stated gender bias of the article bother anybody but me? What if men displayed the same "let's help other men" gender bias? ... Why can women openly favor helping and advancing women, but it would be wrong for men to do that? I am so tired of all this divide-us-into-special-interest-groups garbage. And to you posters who are complimenting this article, shame on you. You would condemn men for showing gender bias in favor of other men.

At my institution, faculty were recently asked to fill out a satisfaction and wellbeing survey that included questions about, among many other things, the treatment of female faculty. The female faculty have been discussing their answers in hushed tones behind closed office doors these past few days. We agree that gender bias exists at our institution. We agree that reporting it felt a bit risky even though we were assured of our anonymity.

We've all noticed that women are routinely shut down during meetings, but it rarely happens to men. We've noticed that when several hands go up at the same time, the men almost always get the floor first. We've noticed that women are more likely than men to back down when pressured by a male colleague. We've noticed that our ideas are less likely to be discussed at length, and even less likely to be implemented. We've noticed that our performance evaluations focus on different issues than those of our male colleagues. And I don't think my institution is a gross anomaly.

I suspect that many of my male colleagues would think my female colleagues and I were crazy or paranoid (or both?) if they heard our conversations. I doubt our male colleagues think they're sexist. I don't think they realize the way they respond to us, treat us, or make us feel. I'm sure they don't consciously write sexist performance evaluations or intentionally ask us to take on tasks that, if gendered, would fall more on the feminine side of the spectrum than the masculine side. My male colleagues no doubt think of themselves as good, unbiased people; I have no doubt that they see sexism as a thing of the past, would be opposed to sexist institutional policies, and have no idea that they are in fact engaging in behaviors that uphold a system that strongly favors men.

The people who have complained about the existence of the "Advice for Women who Want to Get Ahead" article are probably a lot like many of the men at my institution. They don't see the real problem: that women currently have to compete against men in a system designed by men to favor men. Women do need to develop special strategies and resources to succeed in that type of environment. For that reason, women helping women to get ahead -- or men helping women get ahead, for that matter -- is not at all the same as men helping men.

For instance, men don't need to help each other to be heard during a faculty meeting at my institution because the men are already the ones speaking. But a woman (or a man) might need to help a female colleague to be heard because she isn't speaking. And why isn't she speaking? Because she is passed over during the discussion. This can happen for lots of reasons -- maybe the moderator is blatantly sexist and trying to silence women. More likely, though, the woman's voice is not as loud. Or social conditioning has taught her to allow a man to take the floor when they both begin to speak at the same time. Or she has learned that it's not lady-like to interrupt and so she doesn't, even though her male colleagues have no problem interrupting her. The list of possibilities is endless. These are just the ones I have personally experienced.

I would agree that blatant discrimination against women isn't terribly common at my institution, and I hope that's true in other institutions as well. But bias? There's a lot of bias. Most of it is unintentional, and that's precisely what makes it so difficult to deal with. Women are fighting a battle against social norms in academia (and, I'd argue, in just about every other realm). We can't easily undo what generations of conditioning have taught us -- and our male colleagues -- to unconsciously accept, nor can we easily begin behaving in ways that we (and our male colleagues) view as unacceptable because of generations of conditioning.

We're working on it, but it's going to take more than a few decades to change the rules, the system, the behaviors, and the biases that make it essential for women to create strategies that will help themselves to succeed. It's going to take some time before women don't need to help one another to get ahead. And apparently it's going to take some time before some men can see that we aren't just whining but instead are responding to some very real circumstances that we can't overturn just because we and our male colleagues agree that it's time.


  1. What bothers me more than anything is the "advice" offered by women who have made it to the "top" (of what? I seriously wonder).

    "Be on the finance committee. Don't be on—this is going to sound awful—the child-care committee."

    (Um, yeah, fyi that sounds pretty awful.)

    "Have the sound bite at the end of the conversation."

    (Not quite as awful. Still pretty awful.)

    "Be on powerful committees that control money."

    (Power. Money. Go for it, ladies!)

    "And always have the last word."

    My last word is: vomit.

    I would go into detail why, but I instead I am going to play angry birds for awhile until I calm down.

  2. Thanks for this.

    I do find some of the "women give advice to women" seminars a bit tasteless, almost condescending (I get my good advice from my female friends, especially my female friends who are advanced professors and chairs and yes I know I am lucky to have such friends and to live in this day and age).

    But I find that there are people in two camps on this issue, and many of them talk and talk and talk but never talk to each other.

    Some people decry complaining women and see women helping women as sexism precisely because they do not make the connections of silent sexism happening around them.

    So thanks for this, and for explaining how it might feel to walk a day in one woman's shoes, or for a woman at a pretty egalitarian institution to walk a day in a woman's shoes in a more "traditional" position.

  3. I'm not black, so if a black colleague says they feel discrimination, I listen. Likewise, I'm not a woman, so if my female colleagues tell me they feel biased against, I listen.

    But what is my responsibility here. Do I make sure a woman speaks first at a faculty meeting? Do I spend time asking women if they feel their opinions are addressed on academic issues? If I were to do this, actively, I feel as if I am treating my female colleagues as some sort of group that needs my help. Which is certainly not the way I perceive my female colleagues.

    How do we counter unconscious bias? Just let things evolve over time?

  4. honest_prof:
    I think one of the first steps is paying attention. I mentioned some of my observations to a male colleague who is also a close friend of mine. His initial reaction was to say, "Really? I've never noticed anything like that." A few weeks later, after the next faculty meeting, he stopped by my office and said "'re right." At my institution, anyway, a lot of this stuff is subtle, but that doesn't mean it's not real.

  5. Bring the unconscious to the conscious. Still puts the onus my female colleagues to point out what I have difficulty seeing.

  6. @honest_prof - While it's true you shouldn't expect your female colleagues to be responsible for teaching you these things, many women (like Mitch and other commenting-people here) have already described specific manifestations of inequality that you and your male colleagues should attend to. If you start with those, and also take an active role in calling other men's attention to the same, you're already making a difference.

  7. @Honest Prof

    I'd like you to look at how what you've said above puts the onus on the CM community / your female (and racialized) colleagues to teach you instead of putting the onus on yourself to go out and learn. (And I'm pointing this out, gently, because it's a big part of having /not seeing privilege.)

    There are tons of sources on gendered and raced privilege out there. A quick Google search will start you in the right direction. Good luck.

  8. Isn't the classroom bias of teachers calling on males first in class pretty well established in the literature of sociology and pedagogy? (As I recall, the males are often gung-ho to answer, even with a wrong answer, as a form of one-upsmanship. And from personal experience, they can get quite bitter and pissy when you start trying to get others to answer first. A hand in the air means one MUST be called on first!)

    Just goes to show that a lot of the "teachers" in colleges and universities are fairly ignorant of this simple, little, incredibly useful research finding.

    Then again, the males may not care. They've not been taught to. Cuz, you know, they're obviously brilliant (excepting the ones who see the pattern and help to undermine it.)

  9. @honest_prof Sometimes I feel a little discriminated against. It happens in faculty meetings, committee meetings, on my evaluations, and even at the car dealer. Like Mitch I, too, have noticed these things. So has my husband now that I've brought it to his attention.

    Ok. So now a female colleague has brought this to yout attention. The best thing you can do now is like suggested above. Listen and watch. Make a new friend. At the next faculty meeting when one of your female colleagues gets a little pushed aside when she speaks up be her champion and make sure she can finish her thought. Or bite your tongue until she is finished if you have the urge to speak over her.

    This was a beautifully written post, Mitch. It so well expressed everything I feel that I was afraid to look at the comments. Brava!

  10. @drunk in a midnight choir - honest_prof said that that's exactly what he *doesn't* want to do. And I certain don't think he is "putting the onus" on women to teach him just by asking for strategies by which he can respond to it. This post asks that very question in its title, in fact.

    Of course when we experience (or witness, or hear of) sexist behaviour in the academy we need to express what it is and how it affects us; we can't expect men to just guess at what it might be, when for most its been naturalized (and thus hidden) throughout their lives. The examples in this post and the comments are good places to start looking to 'see' inequitable behaviour.

  11. I think drunk_in_a_mid was correct, there should be more pressure on us white males to educate ourselves. However, experience has taught me that I can not be a champion of these issues, it is not my place. I can be a small part of the solution,

    And I join others in applauding Mitch on the post. A issue we know abot, but always good to see new views.

  12. @The Myth (prepare for ironic moment)

    "Isn't the classroom bias of teachers calling on males first in class pretty well established in the literature of sociology and pedagogy?"

    Actually, it has been shown to be, well, mythical.

    Not to say that the phenomenon women sharing here does not exist, but the "who gets called on in class" literature is not resolved.

  13. I'm in a field that is probably, at this point, majority-female, with female department chairs a common phenomenon, so that may play a role, as may my general tendency not to notice social dynamics as much as most women (and many men) do (I'm not completely clueless, but I'm not as tuned-in as many women). However, I haven't seen a lot of the women-not-getting-to-talk problem, either in department meetings or in graduate seminars. But I believe it exists; among other things, I had female friends in other departments who used to strategize about passing the conversational ball to each other in seminars so as to get a word in edgewise.

    What I do see:

    --a general tendency for women to end up with the more labor-intensive, time-intensive, less-glamorous "housekeeping" jobs in the department, and/or to take such aspects of "mixed" jobs (see department chair, above) more seriously, and do them better. Though there are some very conscientious male members of my department as well, there are also some who, in setting personal or even departmental priorities, seem to feel free to just ignore stuff they don't feel like dealing with. Since the welfare of the contingent faculty often falls in the low-priority category of job, I'm very grateful to those who do take the time.

    --Much more urgency on the part of the department, and perhaps on the part of the couple involved, to move a trailing male spouse from non-TT to TT status than to do the same for a trailing female spouse. Since spousal offers are usually extended in order to keep a TT faculty member who at least ostensibly is considering taking an outside offer that would also put the non-TT spouse in a TT job, the conversion does require some initiative on the couple's part, so I'm not sure this is entirely institutional. But I'm also not sure it isn't.

    --While the TT faculty in my department are pretty much 50/50 M/F, the contingent faculty has, historically, had a much higher proportion of females. The balance has shifted a bit over the last 5 years or so, as the economy has worsened, but there's still a very definite trend. I'm not sure what to make of this one, since it seems to reflect personal/family choice as much as anything. It might even suggest that women are more likely to have the luxury of staying in a field they enjoy, but which doesn't pay very well, while males feel more pressure to move on to a better-paying job. The other side of that coin is that it may reflect women's decisions to take jobs that slow their career progress, but allow more flexibility for family responsibilities. And there may be other explanations as well. Still, I can't help wondering whether, if the ratio were reversed, there wouldn't be more awareness of how severely underemployed, in terms of both money and responsibility, many of the occupants of our non-TT positions are.

    We could, of course, also get into complicated discussions about the decline of the humanities, and the rise of STEM fields, at a time when many humanities fields are getting close to gender parity, while STEM fields tend to remain majority male. There are lots of choices, personal and institutional, and lots of non-gendered (at least on the face of it) reasons floating around there, too, but the gender patterns are there nonetheless.

  14. In my department, the women hold a lot of powerful positions and talk pretty freely -- but this seems to be on the condition that they never, ever mention women's issues, get angry, or say anything overtly feminist. Furthermore, it's clear that feminist and queer theory are not theory, that is, not Continental philosophy, so those of us who do the former are de facto not as serious scholars. So while I think we have come a long way in terms of the treatment of women, I think the terms are pretty clear when it comes to scholarship: play like the boys, and you're in. I routinely advise graduate students not to write on just female authors, to build in analyses other than pure feminist theory and so on -- only so they don't get stuck with marginal jobs, not because I believe this is intellectually defensible. So, honest_prof, one of the very best things you can do is stick up for your *feminist* colleagues, not just your female ones.

    I, too, was afraid to read the comments here. But I was pleasantly surprised, although a few regular voices are missing. I appreciate honest_prof's willingness to ask questions.

  15. I agree with Frog and Toad, for my field as well; "feminist" theory is apparently not real scholarship, work on male authors if you were planning to get a job, pretend to be a boy.

    I remember I cut my hair short all the way through grad school and it was only when I got a job that I realized it was in order not to be too obviously female. (Once I realized this, I grew my hair halfway down my back.)

    In theory everyone is utterly egalitarian here. But somehow the female job applicants are never quite good enough. I was the last female hired, and that was 20 years ago.

    I was also pleasantly surprised at the comments on this post; I was bracing myself.

    Mitch, I have experienced every single thing you've described and then some. Thanks for posting.

  16. Ha,seminars


    At every seminar I have been to, they spend the entire time talking about why it's important to do something a certain way but never actually tell you how to do it.

    Sometimes, when I go to a seminar (and usually because my Deanflake wants me to) I often wonder if I am watching grant money be re-directed to "other" things than the actual seminar. I smell fish whenever the only colleagues at the seminar are precisely those that the deanflake wanted to go, and that the enrollment would not have made it otherwise. Hmm...

    It's called professional development and all it does is make my butt hurt.

    I can see the following scenario.

    Deanflake to Chair: Wow, there's a $10,000 grant available. Can you arrange the grant proposal?

    Chair: Oh certainly! I know just the person. Did you have something specific in mind?

    Deanflake: Only that I want some of that money for myself. I'll split it with you like last time!

    Chair: How do we make it look like we spent the money appropriately?

    Dean: Oh, you know, the usual. Tape, staples, paper...

    Chair: I know! We can send the faculty to another professional development seminar!

  17. @klytaimnestra

    re: hair, me too! Once when it got cut way too short, an undergrad stopped me and said "Sir, may I have the time?" In the moment, I was pleased to have been androgynous enough to confuse him; in retrospect, I think I was trying to get the respect of my male colleagues.

    It's so strange how important physical image can be to identity.

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  20. If there was a real commitment to women's equality in the academy, instead of 'how to succeed' seminars for female scholars, there would be 'how not to perpetuate patriarchal structures' seminars for male ones.

  21. I suspect more people would sign up for the "how to succeed" seminars, rather than the one accusing us of felonious behavior. I mean if your goal is to make a change in the way people think.

  22. What about a compromise -- 'How to succeed at not being felonious'? :-p

    Really, though, the (likely) assumption of many potential male participants that such a seminar *would* be based around "accusing [them] of felonious behaviour" illustrates the sort of fundamental misunderstandings of equity efforts that are expressed by the comments on The Chronicle piece. It also demonstrates the tendency of privileged people to perceive critique and diminution of that privilege as personal attack and 'reverse discrimination' against them.

  23. I am all for equity. However, and I believe I may be expressing a common concern from the "privileged", I am not interested in simply replacing the current power structure with another, even if the new one is now dominated by those discriminated in the past. This goal is not noble, even if it helps the gender or race balance.

    It looks like some of the comments above reflect this same concern, does helping women "succeed" mean adopting the same flaws our current system contains.

  24. "I am not interested in simply replacing the current power structure with another, even if the new one is now dominated by those discriminated in the past."

    In all my equity work, I have yet to hear anyone actually advocate for a power structure "dominated by those discriminated [against] in the past" (and discriminated against in the present, too, I might add).

    There will, of course, always be some kind of configuration of power; the challenge is to make it as equitable as possible.

  25. Since when is "perpetuating patriarchal structures" felonious? Last I heard, it was the status quo.

    honest_prof, asking men not to perpetuate patriarchal structures (quaint as that phrase seems) has very little to do with not sexually harrassing women, if that's what you were referring to -- which in any case is not a felony. Not sexually harrassing woman is a great start, but I think the whole point of Mitch's post and many comments is that a harrassment-free environment is hardly one in which women are home free.

  26. No one advocates for a power structure "dominated by those discriminated against in the past."

    Yet it often happens. Because the patriarchy, such as it is, is not really subverted by changing the genders and/or races of those that perpetuate it.

    When a woman says "don't volunteer for the child care committee" and "get on powerful committees that are in charge of the cash" and "always have the last word," nothing changes, save that the person having the last word and focusing on money and power has a vagina.

    You don't have to be an evangelical preacher, or the wife of an evangelical preacher, to elevate patriarchal paradigms, and elevating patriarchal paradigms is the essence of patriarchy.

    Women getting what men have always had is a good start, but it is not the ultimate answer. Women (and men) questioning the validity of what patriarchy seems to value is.

  27. @Stella - Oh, yes, I don't doubt that many attempts to 'change the system' solely through changing the occupants of that system result in the continued perpetuation of patriarchal paradigms. But I would also reject the idea that a numerical majority, in such a situation, of women/racialized persons/etc generally results in a situation in which that new majority could be fairly said to "dominate" the power structure (though perhaps I have a somewhat-more macro-level conception of 'power structure' in mind here).

  28. I emailed this around my department. No one commented via email...but several women have approached me to thank me for sending it...uh...thanks, y'all, from the ladies here at Humpshack U.!

  29. Wow, a serious discussion about feminism and patriarchy and everyone's being collegial!

    I like to do a little consciousness raising in the classroom when it relates to curriculum. One class activity covers the laws and ethics of Basketweaving. Pairs of students pick a card with an ethical dilemma and have to identify which law applies, how it applies, and what the ethically correct action would be. A couple of dilemmas are about a parent accompanying a group of kids with a leader (coach, scout leader). In the discussion that follows, I ask students "What if the parent is a woman and the leader is a man? She's telling the male in charge that he's violating the law?"

    It's very interesting to see how students sit up, slow down, and rethink the situation when I specify the genders. It doesn't change the legal issues, of course, but it can change the practical solutions they propose. Often they'll offer some solution where the woman helps the man save face in front of the kids, in the guise of "offering help" -- "I'd hate to see the troop get prosecuted for violating this law." Someone will bring up that it's "not fair" that a woman who knows the law would have to act subordinate to a man who is about to break it. Someone else will bring up some example in *her* experience involving the woman knowing more or being more competent but having that undervalued.

    I've also talked about it before class begins. As in Mitch's post, one day I offered an idea at a meeting and had it ignored until a man brought it up as his idea, when it suddenly had merit. (A junior man, no less.) When I griped about this before class the next day, the (adult) women rolled their eyes and most of the men (of all ages) expressed some kind of shock or disgust or anger. It was gratifying; it also interested me my treatment seemed to be news to the men but not the women.

  30. @Eskarina -- Aaargh. I *hate* it when a man appropriate a woman's idea and then all of a sudden it's a viable idea. That exact thing happens in a particular task force I serve on at every single meeting. I mean it. Every. Single. Meeting.


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