How not to respond to problems

Posted: October 8, 2010 by Jender in sexual harassment, trivialising women

At the end of my first year of graduate school our grad director sent out an email asking us if we had any feedback. What worked? What didn’t? I had struggled a lot that year. I had senior male professors calling me in the evenings, and sometimes even the wee hours of the morning. (At 1 a.m., “Are you in your office? No? Then why is the light on?”) Another time a professor for whom I was TAing emailed, “Call me as soon as you get up.” When I called him at 8 a.m. he said, “Did you just get up? Are you dressed?” When I started declining dinner offers from another faculty member he told several of my fellow graduate students (untruly, of course) that I had said malicious things about them. I want to say: The issue wasn’t necessarily a matter of sexual harassment, or impropriety (although that might have been a part of it). It’s not always the case that gender inequity is the result of the sexualization of women in professional settings. In my case, it was a certain sense of entitlement that manifested in this imposing way that they insinuated themselves into my private life. It implied a kind of power dynamic that was absent from their relationships with my male colleagues.

My peers were in some (of course, not all) cases, just as bad or worse. Female professors and graduate students were almost exclusively talked about in a sexual context. If a female professor gave a male student a grade lower than an A, it was because she “didn’t like them” or “didn’t understand their position”. Certainly not because they hadn’t earned it. I once gave a student a grade that was contested. A fellow graduate student (though, not a TA for the class) took it upon himself to come to my office and patronizingly “suggested” (without having read the paper) that I change it. It was completely undermining. I felt as if I were being reminded that I was only “credible” insofar as I was aligned with my male colleagues.

So, when that email came around, I composed what I thought was an unaccusing and diplomatic letter detailing some of these incidences, saying in the end that what our department needed was to put in place a policy regarding equality and respectfulness. I said that our department could be a difficult place to be a woman, and that I thought we could do better. His response, in total?: “That’s easier said than done.”

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