by Anonymous Authors:
“You won’t believe what he said to me. Please don’t tell anyone. Please don’t say anything to him.”
Sexism takes many forms, and as a result impacts individuals, communities, and work spaces differently. As women working in a space where sexist discourse was often used in the protected space of an advising session, a private conversation, or a classroom to minimize and marginalize women, we found it critical to think purposefully about how diverse tools can be deployed in varying contexts.
Sexism in academia is well-documented. Cole & Hassel’s recent edited volume, Surviving Sexism in Academia, provides a wealth of evidence that sexism is alive and well in the halls of higher education. In the opening chapter, Maldonado and Draeger outline the contours of how sexism is manifested in the academy, illustrating that “sexism can take the form of acts, attitudes, and institutional structures.” In other words,combatting sexism necessitates a multifaceted response, one that acknowledges systemic power, raises consciousness, and emphasizes diversity (10-11). Building off of this work, we argue that because the formsthat sexism takes to structure space and silence voices may shift over time, the responsemust reclaim space and voice in similarly multi-modal and adaptive forms.
A bit of background. We are both not-yet-tenured women in academia; we both entered the field/s of political science/ public policy/ public administration as professors just before the #metoo hashtag went viral on twitter in 2017, calling attention to sexual assault and harassment in the workplace. We thought—maybe now, finally, our concerns will gain traction! But alas, we remain anonymous as the backlash has been powerful.
Yet, this post is not about the #metoo movement on a national scale, but about how calling attention to sexism, in all its forms, including but not limited to sexual harassment and sexual assault, comes at a cost—a backlash that requires adaptability and resilience—or, we suppose, a willingness to relocate or withdraw from academia(sadly). More specifically, this post serves as (brief) casestudy in responding to sexism and effecting change in academia through leadership and mentorship that is grounded in a feminist reflexivity. Social change, after all, is rooted in reflexive learning that is grounded in solidarity, intersectionality, and critical praxis (Freire).
What follows is a brief account of the persistent sexism—sometimes obvious, but often subtle— that we have encountered since entering the academy as faculty members at a mid-sized university. We outline the tactics we have used to respond; note that these tactics are both multi-modal and adaptive over time and audience.
Our experience, anonymized
To start, it is important to acknowledge why we have chosen to write this as “anonymous and anonymous.” We have agreed to forego any recognition or credit, as we have been indirectly threatened with lawsuits for speaking out about our experiences. After all, as one colleague stated, and we paraphrase here: “we are putting their [the male faculties’] jobs at risk by talking openly about sexism.”
Sexism & Resistance
Years ago, before we entered the scene, the context for women working in this academic department was defined primarily by words weaponized for marginalization. The marginalization dispersed through patriarchal directives (“advice” and “requests”) and patronizing commentary (“compliments” or “simple questions”) defined an environment in which women graduate students and faculty came to share their experiences in whispers, often in the bathroom.
Not all of the men in the department thought or spoke this way. Some were appalled by hallway conversation, but still silent in response to “And of course I’m going [to this conference overseas], because they are paying for me to attend. I’m like a prostitute, pay me and I’ll come.”
The fact that conversations among women were whispered, shared in the bathroom or behind a closed office door, are testament to the marginalized status of women in the department. These conversations felt dangerous. “He’s going to write my letters of recommendation for the rest of my life,” said one student. “You cannot repeat this. I will lie and deny it,” said another woman. At the time, all of the tenured professors were men. They oversaw the dissertations, wrote the letters of recommendation, wrote the peer reviews for teaching, filed the tenure ballots.
This power dynamic encouraged the formation of layered protections for perpetrators. It reinforced perceptions that women were victims or resigned to the system, and in so doing women made themselves complicit in reinforcing sexism. Like many other settings, women were not likely to report harassment due to the risk. But in this department it was really more complicated than this. Women maintained and demanded silence of others (“trust”?) when they did share our experiences.
Women in the department, before we arrived, recognized and resisted sexism through communities of trust, but were unable or unwilling for any number of reasons to speak out—there were just too few women and too few vocal allies. The culture of the department was one of silence.
Eventually, some changes began to unfold and the sole-tenured woman in the department was hopeful (as she reported to us years later)—maybe there would be real change. An ally became chair. Frustrated with the silence, but also wanting to protect identities, he invited various offices around campus to speak to the department about climate and how it could be improved. The department heard presentations from HR (EOE) and the school’s Diversity office. Specific instances and names were excluded from all conversations. Speakers addressed issues in generalities, ineffectively. Over time, it became clear that no amount of conversation or information would challenge the behavior, much less the structures that protect it. The entitlement that served as the foundation for all of this sexism was girded by a strong sense of self-righteous indignation but also by power differentials, and the layers of protection those create.
After a training on how to enhance diversity while maintaining quality candidates led one male colleague shouting “I guess we just don’t hire white men here!” (please note that at the time the department had only one T/TT woman), finally, a TT woman was hired (Anonymous #1)!
Mentorship & the “women in academia” reading group
With one newly-hired TT woman and one tenured woman, we started a “women in academia” reading group. Our women graduate students were facing myriad challenges. There was the sexist discourse in our department, and the structures and sexism rampant in academia. We wanted to give our students the tools for success despite the obstacles. So we read about sexism in course evaluations, and had a workshop on how one can communicate teaching excellence in a portfolio despite gendered quantitative evaluations. We read about gendered citations and instructional readings, and how to incorporate women scholars in our classrooms and in our publications. We read about imposter syndrome and how we can recognize and combat it.
The “women in academia” reading group, which met at monthly intervals, provided a formal setting to (1) communicate strategies for pursuing teaching excellence in a context that relies on evaluation metrics which are known to be gendered, (2) present tools for identifying and overcoming imposter phenomenon [or syndrome], (3) explore techniques for interrupting sexism in the classroom and the workplace, and (4) determine ‘best practices’ for transforming spaces to be unwelcoming of sexism.
In addition to creating a formal setting for structured mentoring, the formation of the reading group also had the unintended consequence of opening up additional space for informal, unstructured mentoring. This informal mentoring was not a replication of previous responses, where safe spaces allowed women to discreetly divulge their stories but in doing so ultimately protected the status quo; this was a venue for women to share and learn to navigate shared experiences of sexism in the department. Following the first meeting of the reading group, several women graduate students individually expressed to women faculty how grateful they were to hear that they were not alone in their experiences. In many instances they were uncomfortable publicly disclosing events, but sought assistance in how to navigate them; women faculty were able to identify shared concerns and connect these with readings offering techniques to address them. These informal, unstructured mentoring sessions also revealed to women faculty inadequacies of the academic program in preparing graduate students for professional success. Women faculty then returned to formal, structured mentoring to determine preferences for alternative program features, and present these alternative program features to faculty in consideration for adoption. Group mentoring via formal structures and individual mentoring via informal structures, together, provided a mechanism for breaking the silence, exposing sexism, and preserving the safety of those in precarious positions. Most importantly, the “women in academia” reading group was adaptive–moving back and forth between formal and informal mentorship.
It was during this time that we heard from a trio of women graduate students. They had had enough. Their male peers were interrupting them in classes. One was told she was “cute when she did math.” One was repeatedly called “sweetie,” and when she objected was told “you’re cute when you’re angry.” Another, on her way to reading group, was asked, “Are you reading Fifty Shades of Grey?” The question was posed in front of a Woman of Color there for a job talk. One was told she would never get to TA the quants class. That’s not for girls, was the insinuation. The chair spoke with a few perpetrators individually, focusing on the unprofessionalism and sexism. He sent an email to the graduate students clearly indicating such behavior was unacceptable, unprofessional, and would not be tolerated. Faculty were cc’d.
In response the department again invited the diversity office to come in and conduct diversity workshops for the graduate students. At one point, a senior male colleague suggested it was “enough,” and we ought to stop “talking about climate and focus on professional work.” He was reminded that we were not dealing with an isolated case but with an environment. “Sexism in the workplace isa professional issue.” He agreed. In one of the workshops, the students collectively came up with climate priorities: Respect, Honesty, Trust, Empathy. A few days later a student returned to their space to find “STFU” [shut the fuck up] written on the board next to the priorities. When senior male scholars do not think of the productivity setting as an issue of professional development, neither will their protégés.
Modeling Power & Building a Critical Mass
Later that same fall, our newly hired, TT woman professor was sexually harassed. She (Anonymous #1) reported it to Title IX at the request of the faculty. Title IX investigators asked her what she was wearing. Behind closed doors, male colleagues insinuated that it was her fault. The offender was found “not guilty” of violating university policy, but was verbally admonished for his behavior – it was inappropriate and should not happen again. Our last meeting of the reading group that year focused on sexual harassment in academia, and the failures of Title IX.
While ultimately unsuccessful, use of the university Title IX complaint process worked as both a behavior modeling tactic – in that it specifically drew on institutional processes to call attention to inappropriate behavior in lieu of silencing it as had previously been done – and as a mentoring tactic. Title IX and internal complaint processes are particularly complicated to navigate; few in the department had prior experience with them and could not offer advice with regard to ‘best practices’, let alone offer perspective on the timing and steps involved in the process. Having experienced the process, the woman faculty member was able to assist graduate students in navigating it for themselves as the need arose.
With each wave of backlash, we found new footing and pushed forward; though a bit more angry and jaded, we persisted in pushing for a department the reflected the values that the members of it claimed to support.
There was also positive news; another search committee that year also hired a woman — we were up to three! For those who think a “critical mass” is important for mobilization, we were nowhere near it, but certainly closer than we had been. More importantly, perhaps, this round of hiring was not nearly as openly sexist as it had been previously.
That spring, the university’s campus-wide climate study results were unveiled. The chair used those as a launching point for a faculty meeting. The study revealed the impact of sexism and racism across the campus. Now with data to support the claim that sexism existed in our department, the chair said, “This is US.” One male colleague, an ally, said as we left the room “now thatwas leadership.” Later that evening, at a bar, in front of (now two!) newly-hired junior women faculty members, the formerly deflecting and rejecting full professors proclaimed the chair was “too harsh” and out-of-line. “The N is too small.”
Just months later, our department hosted another training, this time on how microaggressions marginalize. The facilitators emphasized the “impact, not intent” message. One full professor silently stared at his screen working on a syllabus. Another argued “it’s so much worse at other places;” “it’s much better than it used to be!” Deflection and rejection were the highlights of that meeting.
Ignorance of the problem was slowly replaced with disdain and hostility for attention paid to it. Nonetheless, “We used to just exist. Now we exist with agency,” said a female grad.
Reclaiming Voice/ Reclaiming Space
The informal and formal meetings among a growing number of women in the department provided a space for mutual support, and also (over time) created a space for shared action. Years of pursuing things the “right way” through proper procedures and top-down trainings had only gotten us so far. In the safe space of the reading group we felt heard and valued, but in the department we were still marginalized and silenced.
Then, after one of the newly hired women faculty members’ office was vandalized with a drawing of penis on her wall, another’s car tires were slashed (likely unrelated incidents), and the third forced to relocate her office to avoid her harasser, we organized a campaign to call attention to the pervasive sexism–this time using grassroots activist tactics.
We again asked the women in the department to give examples of how they have experienced sexism within the department–we anonymized the stories (both victim & perpetrator) and posted them on a small area inside the department. The goal: transform the space from one that was unwelcoming for women into one which is unwelcoming of sexism.
Prior to the organization of this activity, silencing women’s voices in the department had become routine; this silencing came in several forms, most commonly by questioning their ability to be ‘objective’ and rejecting their experiences as meaningful or reflective of larger issues of sexism within the department. There was a distinct lack of willingness to carry-on a broad discussion regarding the structures of marginalization in the department, especially those which targeted women. Women faculty in the department needed a mechanism to publicly share their experiences and expose the patterns of sexism, and this mechanism needed to be simultaneously quiet and deafening. They were also cognizant of the precarious position that participating in such an activity – which publicly exposed inappropriate behavior of many senior men in the department (although anonymously) – may place junior faculty in. Finally, they considered how such an activity could be a mentoring tool, allowing women graduate students to share their own experiences, hear about the (potentially similar) experiences of other women, and present these events in a manner which highlighted a collective approach to reclaiming space.
Toward a Reflexive Feminist Leadership Model of Resistance
The tactics we employed were rooted in critical praxis, wherein we were committed to developing among ourselves and among our allies a critical awareness of our shared reality. We did so through reflection and action. Within our groups, whether in women faculty-only spaces or in shared spaces, we emphasized purposive dialogue and equality amongst participants.
Reflecting on our cumulative experiences—the good, the bad—there are a few relevant takeaways—lessons learned.
1. The tactics that we employed were adaptive, responding to the changing dynamics of the department (climate and structure).
2. Our ongoing attempts to respond to and address sexism in the department were met with varying levels of backlash from men in the department. Some members of the faculty dug their heels in and resisted change, suggesting that we were wrong-headed in our concerns. Tactics such as the anonymous notes were viewed as a direct attack on our colleagues, and, to some, was viewed as unnecessarily antagonistic. Others minimized the action as “being dramatic.” There was a cost to taking on an adversarial role and demanding change. As individuals we have experienced the psychological stresses associated with working in this space.
3. Although little has changed internally, we have created a close network of trusted allies. There is a shared sense of community, a sense of solidarity among the women in the department and a growing contingent of allied-men. This stems from our efforts to be self-reflective. The process of talking through problems and reflecting on the shared experiences as a group gave us a space to examine how our actions may inadvertently support (or in some cases fail to challenge) the existing power dynamic. Our actions now carry intentionality with regard to identifying power imbalances and challenging their status through strategic, collaborative action.
4. We were responsive to the needs and vulnerabilities of faculty and staff. This was vitally important, as only one of the women involved in this organizing effort was a tenured faculty member—the others were tenure track professors and doctoral students.
5. Outside of the department, there has been some move toward change. Our work has been supported, at least verbally, by many across campus. Our willingness to take action has been celebrated, though often behind closed doors, as important but risky.
So, what next and what costs are we willing to incur? In other words, how will we continue to claim space and reclaim our voices within a department resistant to change in an institution that is slow to change? We don’t have the answers, but we do argue that in the process we must both resist sexism, adopting tactics that foster agency, and adapt to the ever changing backlash.
The multiple means by which sexism structures marginalization requires a multi-modal response. Yet, responding to or challenging these structures can place women in even greater isolation. The casepresented here provides ample evidence of the ways in which pushback by those perceiving a loss of power as the space and voice of women expanded and redefined parameters, and therefore prompted adjustments and creativity by women and their allies.
We offer that resisting sexism in the academy– especially in the #metoo era– must be reflexive.We suggest that we, as women faculty, look to feminist models of leadership that seeks to reclaim space and reclaim voice, while navigating backlash. We propose that a feminist leadership model should be manifest in mentorship as well as decisive activism grounded in solidarity.
Cole, Kristi, and Hollie Hassel, editors. Surviving Sexism in Academia: Strategies for Feminist Leadership. Routledge, 2017.
Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Bloomsbury Academic, 2012 .
Maldonado, Heather, and John Draeger. “Surviving Sexism in Academia: Identifying, Understanding, and Responding to Sexism in Academia.” Surviving Sexism in Academia: Strategies for Feminist Leadership, edited by Kristi Cole and Hollie Hassell, Routledge, 2017.