Monday, 15 August 2011

An everyday story...

Once upon a time there was a young female academic, Dr Ann Other (we’ll call her Dr A for short). She heard that an eminent senior male academic, Professor X, at another university might be working on an area relevant to her research, so she emailed him about it. He asked her to lunch, was friendly and encouraging and suggested a new collaborative project. Being a probationer, she was pleased by this suggestion, and reported it to her HoD (also female) Professor B without delay. Professor B’s reaction was a great surprise: she insisted that this collaboration was not a good idea, and that Dr A should on no account carry on with it. Dr A was confused but did as suggested, and was rather surprised never to hear about it again from Professor X. Some years later Dr A was surprised to learn from another senior male academic that Professor X was well known as a womaniser and seducer of younger colleagues. It all made sense now; Professor B had clearly warned him off, but Dr A wished she’d been told the truth at the time.

A few years later Dr A moved universities. She was invited to a reception after a workshop here she met another eminent senior academic, in a sligtly different field. Let’s call him Professor Z. Professor Z struck up a conversation with her, but quite quickly Dr A began to feel uncomfortable. Professor Z stood far too close, smiled in a not altogether professional way, looked at bits of her she was uncomfortable about having stared at and pursued her when she tried to move away. At any minute she felt she might be grabbed, even though this was a public place. Eventually she managed to escape, but she never took Professor Z up on the idea of discussing a teaching collaboration that he’d seemed so keen on. Some years later she was surprised to learn, from another senior male academic, that Professor Z was well known as a womaniser and seducer of colleagues. She was not greatly reassured to know that apparently he was less bad now than had once been the case.

Some years have passed and now she is Professor Ann Other. She wonders what to do when she hears her female PhD student complaining of being cornered at a party by Professor Y, an eminent male academic; when a probationary lecturer talks of being patronised and put down (by Professor V- guess what?) for being pretty, when the clear implication is that she cannot also be clever; when a 30-something Senior Lecturer talks about comments being addressed to her breasts not her face (and I won’t even spell out who did this). This story doesn’t have a happy ending- sorry.

There’s a reason for the name I’ve chosen. It seems to me that the identity of this female academic is not important. The point is that her story is typical of those I hear from other women in academia. In the end Dr A got off relatively lightly, we might feel: she didn’t actually get propositioned, let alone assaulted. But she lives in the knowledge that this kind of low-level sexual menace is always lurking in the background of her job and that she can’t do anything to protext her colleagues from it.

What really concerns me is the reaction of the senior males involed in this story, who were not the offenders. If it’s well known that there are some senior people out there who are sexually predatory or who don’t respect women as colleagues, why is nothing said and nothing done by those people they might listen to- their male colleagues? There seems to be an assumption that nobody is really hurt by all this; it’s just a bit of bad behaviour and does it really matter in such eminent men? The female HoD may have warned off Professor X, but it seems he didn’t do much to change his ways. I’d like to feel that if I knew someone who was treating junior collagues in such an inappropriate fashion, I’d take her aside and tell her in no uncertain terms that this was to stop. (It sounds a bit odd put that way, doesn't it. I wonder why.) Do men do that? If they do, why doesn’t it work? Why doesn’t this behaviour stop? Could it be that such things are excused if the culprit if sufficiently distinguished and the sufferer sufficiently junior?

I wonder if we ought to be more overt about discussing this as women. We don’t complain much, unless it’s really serious, and we don’t generally talk to anyone but other women. It's almost as if we feel guilty. I’m an HoD now, so should I tell my junior colleagues to expect this kind of thing as part of academic life? Should I reassure them it’s not their fault if such things happen? Would then even tell me, fearing that nothing can be done? It makes me furious every time I hear stories like the one I hear above, but I at a loss to know what we, as senior women, can do to stop this. Perhaps the first thing is to make it public, so that other Dr A’s out there won’t feel so isolated, but it seems a pretty inadequate response.

1 comment:

  1. I think part of the problem is that institutions can have cast-iron policies about this kind of thing, but the informal nature of academic power (hiring, references, teaching/research allocations, gossip, conference networking, publication access etc.) means that anyone junior is vulnerable to exploitation, sexual or otherwise. We're all so insecure in various ways that we're ready to be silenced, for the most part. Especially those of us with temporary or hourly-paid posts.
    (Disclaimer: I'm male, and it hasn't happened to me, but I've heard plenty of horror stories).