In the last post, I gave some thoughts on sexism in Academia which I have come up with during the last few years experiencing Academia.
My conclusions were that only breaking the silence will make things better in the long term. This means persistently speaking up, even and espeically, about minor incidents because they give a good picture of what’s really going on, they make perpetrators lose their anonymity and they are relatively easy to talk about for the victims. Speaking up and owning your story often results in victim blaming, de-validation of your experiences or down-playing (in German, we have the very fitting word of “verharmlosen”, meaning pretend as though no harm had been done). Regular compulsory educational workshops for bosses and strict company policies are promising initiatives to counter this systematized phenomenon that is discrimination based on gender. Because this discrimination often happens in so-called “non events”. So, it can be difficult to complain about it because, essentially, “nothing happened”.
Today, I wanted to expand on this and also talk about some points even more specific to Academia. So let’s begin:
Why did I give the incentive for this workshop? My own experiences leading up to this activism
First, I want to take a few paragraphs to illustrate some of the things which have happened to me. This is by no means a complete collection but these incidents mostly suffice to surprise people about how many things like this happen to a womxn on a regular basis.
Disbelief that a womxen can be more successul or qualified than a man: How do you mean you are about to grade a Bachelor’s thesis?
Not so long ago it happened to me that I was asked repeatedly “Which bachelor’s thesis? Your bachelor’s thesis?” after I had stated I had to turn in early because I had some BA thesis corrections to do. The person in question (a man, however not from Academia) really couldn’t wrap his head around the fact that I was advising a bachelor’s thesis and he didn’t even have a degree. By which I don’t mean to say that it’s bad to not have a degree. But it also indicates a strong reluctance to believe that a womxn is able to accomplish something, and most importantly, to be more accomplished than a man.
Groping during a panel at a conference
I had my worst instance of sexism in Academia at DH-Budapest in 2018. It was an extremely hot day in a small room. Seats were very close together. It was my first “bigger” conference I had specifically travelled abroad to. My poster presentation had already gone well, people were nice, all was good. It was my last day at the conference, during a panel focusing on Classics, so probably the one which was most relevant to me. We went in talking as group of people who got on really well but had only met eachother at this conference. I sat beside this guy who was weird. But I have I bias that all weird people must be really nice because people thought I was really weird at school and ever since I have a – probably stronger than healthy – understanding for the exclusion and stereotypes these people have to live with on a daily basis.
This time, however, it would probably have been better to react with more distance since the guy got really close to my during the panel. He sat in weird ways but I explained this with his general awkwardness and the fact that it really was extremely warm and packed in the room. There really was hardly any room to move. So I tried not to interpret anything into the fact that he casually started to touch my leg at some point. I honestly wanted to believe that it was just so cramped in the room that no other sitting position was possible for him. And since he was an extremely awkward guy, I though he might not even have realized. I still tried to shift around in my seat to avoid his touch. After he changed positions multiple times and subsequently shifted away multiple times, at an increasingly fast rate, I started to suspect something. There weren’t any more positions for me to sit without touching him that I hadn’t tried yet.
I silently gesticulated to him that he should not touch me. He wrote “Sorry” on his phone and showed me, so I thought it would be ok now. But after a few minutes, the touching restarted and more aggressively than before. In the end, he ended up touching my ass and I told him to stop again. Then he finally stopped. I avoided him afterwards but he actually had the insolence to want to share his contact info with me.
When I recounted this story to friends, they asked why I hadn’t reacted quicker and more vigorously. I really don’t know. I think I didn’t want people to know. I didn’t want to believe this was happening. I didn’t want to make a fuss. But since the seats and rows were cramped so tightly together, I wouldn’t have been able to leave without making quite a fuss. Maybe I should have done. Maybe I should have screamed. But I didn’t. I was angry at myself for a long time for not reacting faster and more vigorously.
But I also didn’t want to miss the panel because of the guy. I don’t know if nobody noticed what had happened, but I am quite sure that the people around us must have realized I was shifting around in my seat like a freak. Should the bystanders have said something? I don’t know.
All I know is that I have never felt fully safe at conferences ever since. And for good reason, because things like these kept happening. Many were just casual hints to follow someone up their room, but phrased in ways which were hardly clear. So had you complained, they would say that you had misunderstood them. Things like these happen quite frequently. Mostly, they are deliberatly circling ‘grey areas’, in my opinion, deliberately phrasing what they want ambiguously. So you have to spend nights wondering whether this was a sexist moment or whether you’d just made it all up. This is also victim blaming, in a way, making the victim so confused about where the boundaries are and making it hard to identify if they were crossed so that the victim seems like they are not in their right mind.
Verbal harrassement when traveling to conferences
It happens to me a lot to get sexist comments when I travel from and to conferences by public means of transport, like trains. Often, these comments come from elderly people who don’t seem to realize their ‘compliments’ are uncomfortable and not really compliments. All sorts of weird things have been said to me on the train (“A reservation in your heart is not as cheap has this 1€ train seat reservation, right?”). I will also not go into detail too much here because the post is already so long.
Since this post is already getting really long again, I will just point you to this brilliant and important article on non-events for now:
Liisa Husu, Recognize hidden roadblocks
In researching women in science and academia, I have found that it is not only the things that happen to women — such as recruitment discrimination or belittling remarks — that affect them in pursuing a career in science or that slow their career development. It is also the things that do not happen: what I call ‘non-events’ (L. Husu Adv. Gender Res. 9, 161–199; 2005).
Non-events are about not being seen, heard, supported, encouraged, taken into account, validated, invited, included, welcomed, greeted or simply asked along. They are a powerful way to subtly discourage, sideline or exclude women from science. A single non-event — for example, failing to cite a relevant report from a female colleague — might seem almost harmless. But the accumulation of such slights over time can have a deep impact.
Non-events can be manifold. Superiors or colleagues might ignore or bypass women’s research and performance; fail to invite or welcome them to important informal and formal networks; bypass them for awards, prizes or invitations; fail to give them merit-advancing tasks such as representing the research group in public forums; not ask them to design or participate in scientific meetings, conferences, panels or as keynote speakers; or simply stay silent when it comes to career support, advice and mentoring. Even supposedly small non-events can send a powerful message, such as when a female postdoc publishes a high-profile article that generates no reaction from senior local colleagues, while her male counterpart’s parallel article is celebrated with high-fives all round.
Non-events are challenging to recognize and often difficult to respond to. Nothing happened, so why the fuss? Often, non-events are perceived only in hindsight or when comparing experiences with peers. Learning to recognize various non-events would help women scientists to respond to them, individually or collectively, with confidence and without embarrassment. Anonymous pooling of non-event experiences would be an eye-opener and a good start to understanding how non-events work in various scientific settings.
All scientists — leaders, gatekeepers, rank and file — need to be aware of how they might inadvertently exclude women from crucial collegiality. Monitoring the practices of support, encouragement, inclusion and exclusion in research groups, projects, networks, conferences and science institutions from a gender perspective would be a first step forward. Addressing this issue in management and supervisor training and early-career coaching is key.
A postive example?
Once during a after work event, my boss sat beside me. He then asked me whether I could change places with a male doctoral student because it’s less weird if their legs touch accidentally than ours. While this is a very heteronormative view of matters, I think it was weird, but also quite thoughtful of him. I am his doctoral student and I appreciate that he was so ‘proactive’ since there are many small situations where you’re not sure “Is this sexism or am I making this up?”. By stating this good intent, he made it all clear. It was still a little bit weird and also, a form of rejection of a student of the opposite gender compared to the acceptance of the own gender.
We discussed this particular situation during the workshop and like me, most others also can’t decide whether this was a brilliant or an extremely awkward and over-the-top thing to do. In the end, I am grateful. This behaviour would probably be weird between boss and ‘normal’ colleague. But the PhD phase is a very vulnerable one. The advisor has a lot of power over the advisee, even though this might not be visible so much at all times. I appreciate the fact that he keeps some personal distance during this qualification period.
It’s protecting me. It’s a nice change in a world where I ask myself so many times whether someone is just generally a touchy person or whether they just ‘accidentally’ touch me more often than other people. But it’s also a case which shows some of the potentially strange consequences this process of banning sexism might have. Like one participant said at our workshop, this newly won ‘safe space’ might cost us some of the “more natural” way of going about social life.
Why I think a lot of womxn feel sympathetic to a workshop like this but don’t actually sign up for it because they feel it doesn’t concern them
When talking to womxn about sexism, I am sure that all of them have had their sexist moments. I can’t believe there are actually womxn out there who have never experienced sexism. Yet so many say that they feel sympathetic but they won’t come to a workshop because it just “doesn’t really concern them”. Why is that, I wonder?
Maybe you are not dominant enough to be perceived as a threat. Maybe you are too early in your career and people just don’t take you seriously. Which is not a judgement about you but rather, about the society you live in. It is highly likely that they don’t trust you to ever accomplish anything at all. You are just a nice girl who knows her place and has no ambitions (no matter whether that’s the case or not). But once you step out in the limelight, once you want to be respected and treated in the same way as you male peer, I think it very unlikely you’ll still feel that sexism in Academia doesn’t concern you.
Manthologies and Manels
Terms to know in the context of academic sexism are ‘manthology’ and ‘manel’, that is to say an anthology or a panel which only consists of male contributions. This is a problem because it causes men to even more be perceived as overly competent, whereas it makes women seem like the don’t contribute or aren’t as important.
An easy #heforshe thing to do for all those wanting to be allies: Don’t participate in such all-male displays of competence.
If they “really couldn’t find a female contributer even though they looked very hard” they must be a pretty shitty organizational team anyway, right? Research is only good when as many perspectives as possible have been taken into account.
So let’s not accept shitty excuses anymore.
Also, if you’re interested, a brilliant article about the subject is the following: Mara Benjamin, On the Uses of Academic Privilege (@theTable: “Manthologies”), in: Feminist Studies in Religion, May 27, 2019. Let me cite her definition of the ‘manthology’:
man·thol·o·gy · noun · /manˈTHäləjē/: 1. A collection of writings by different authors, the vast majority of whom are men. 2. a popular form of scholarly production, produced by an intellectually myopic volume editor, an insufficiently critical publishing house editor, and the passive complicity of contributors.
This is her advice:
First, to would-be editors of volumes and publishing houses: you’re on notice. We are watching the choices you make. We are uninterested in hearing I asked many women but they all declined. If your volumes aren’t representative, they are not worth publishing. Women and other underrepresented minorities don’t want to be tokens; we want to do our work. You can support us by reading it, publishing it, and engaging in serious and constructive conversation with it. Your failure to acknowledge and engage our work is a methodological error on your part that is now being called out publicly in more and more subfields of Jewish studies.
Second, to senior scholars: Share the spotlight. Lift up the work of scholars who are in more precarious positions. Call out editors. Ask your friends and colleagues who organize conferences about how they came up with the list of invitees or contributors. If you’re at an R1, reflect on how you admit graduate students. To what extent are your decisions guided by the implicit aim of replicating yourself? How can you bring underrepresented voices and topics into the scholarly conversation? Make your position on these issues known to junior and contingent colleagues who may want to call on you for support.
What we learned during the workshop
The workshop was held by Mag. Dr.in Lisa Kristina Horvath (Dr. Lisa Horvath. Universitäts- und Organisationsberatung) and Mag. (FH) Stefan Pawlata (Verein für Männer- und Geschlechterthemen Steiermark). As a guest speaker, Seunghyn Song presented her work with the EGERA.eu project.
What counts as sexualized harrassement?
Basically anthing from cat-calling to comments on when you are planning to have your children or overhearing informal talk that womxn XY is probably not a good fit for a job because you can’t believe she will be able to handle authority while caring for two small children. Or mean comments that a womxn has gained weight with age or stress. Which actually, most man do. In my personal opinion even more so than womxn because they are less societally required to look good. And most people do not have magazine cover ready bodies. Yet when you are a womxn, there is the implicit expectation that you should. That you should look permanently fuckable, an expectation which dehumanizes and objectifies you. Which takes the focus away from your (academic and other) strenghts to your superficial appearances.
So basically in sexualised harrassment, there is non-verbal (staring, gesturing, unwanted presents, etc.), verbal (cat-calling, remarks, annoying and inappropriate questions, unwanted invitations) and physical (unwanted closeness or touch, sexual assault). This term stands as a broader form to ‘sexual harrassment’ which really only covers the ‘extreme stuff’, yet fails to encompass the far more common daily problems with sexism. Not taking into account the small stuff which leads to the big stuff is a mistake, I think.
Sexualized harrassment can also be on the base of sexual orientation. And it is by no means reduced to womxn only. But since our workshop was a pilot workshop and we wanted to reduce complexity, this time the focus was only on womxn.
Silence, victim-blaming and rewarding the prepetrators
As I said in the last post, they need your silence. Song brought this topic up in her talk as well: If you’re not silent, they will try to silence you by punishing you (if only implicitly) for speaking up.
Prepetrators actually get implictly rewarded for sexist behaviours: It is the victims who will be blamed and/or shamed (victim-blaming, victim-shaming). It is the victims who get asked to just avoid the prepetrator or who just don’t get invited to events anymore, whereas the perpetrator still gets invited. They subsequently profit from the absence of the victims who could be competition for them. They alone are there at events to profit from networking, recommendations, introductions and the like.
This is not pure conjecture either, this has been proven in a study examining this problem Europe-wide. Because sexism causes Academia to lose so many talented people and because sexism seems to be so deeply ingrained to the Academia field that the EU thought they had to address the issue.
Sexism and promised rewards
With sexism in Academia, we learned, often come promised rewards or threats of negative consequences. Prepetrators in a position of power over the victim abuse this power for getting closer than the victim likes.
This could be the abuse of an exam situation to make inappropriate comments, only allowing to discuss a dissertation in uncomfortable narrow or private places (such as at your advisor’s place). Forcing employees in precarious situations to share a hotel room “to save costs” without asking them first or without really asking them (i.e. giving the opportunity to decline without offending anyone). And of course nagging questions about relationship status, etc. But always accompanied with the threat of negative consequences should you decline. Sometimes you are even offered help that you really need – like the introduction to a famous person – but only in return for sexual favours.
Spotting and handling those sexist moments
Often, you will not know rightaway you ended up in a sexist moment. It often happens so fast. People actively use grey areas to make you unsure of what’s going on, to blur lines which they are about to cross, etc. But mostly, you will feel that something’s off.
Get a sense of what is normal by asking simple questions
In order to find out what you really feel, use some psychological methods like: asking “How do I feel right now?”, “What would I like to say right now?”, “Would they be saying this to a man? Would it sound ridiculous to say this to a man?”.
Start documenting as soon as possible
If something happens and you’re not sure whether you’re making this up, start a diary. Always write down exactly what happened and how you felt, what lead up to the situation, etc. Since our memory plays tricks on you, people might not believe you that you experienced what you did if you only speak up years later. Our memories are susceptible to manipulation. But if you have written accounts of how you felt that day, right after it happened, this will be much more believeable should you decide to sue one day.
Also, if you were raped, definitely go get a forensic checkup to secure the evidence. In many places, there will be the possibility to do these tests and they will save the evidence and results for you until you are ready to act. So even if you are sure that you don’t want to file a complaint right now, secure the evidence!
Make a fuss if you can
Other ways of handling sexist situations include: making as much noise and fuss as possible. Prepetrators only continute to harrass people because it’s easy (most of the time). Speaking up, getting them into embarassing uncomfortable situations is exactly what they need to stop. But also of course you need to be careful if you’re in a precarious job situation. The one day workshop wasn’t really enough to work all this out.
So, this is it for now. The problem is in no way solved or talked through completely. But hey, it’s a start.
Platforms on the internet
I just wanted to quickly mention a sexism support network on Twitter (and Facebook?) #wiasn: womxn in academia support network.
If you follow some of the hashtags like this one, it can be depressing, I know. But hearing about other’s experiences can also be a big relief that you’re not “making this up”, like people often urge you to believe. So think about it.
Typical tips you will get on how to deal with sexism include those: Find likeminded people. Get a support network. So if you can’t find anyone in your analog life, try #wiasn (women in academia support network)