Punishing Women for Speaking Out

Will the Weinstein scandals lead to a change in academic culture?

February 21, 2018

As the revelations about sexual harassment in Hollywood and elsewhere came to light, what I found most disturbing was the institutional culture that tolerated harassment and punished women for speaking out. Having spent most of my adult life at universities, I am all too familiar with the type of everyday sexism and intimidation that allows harassment to go on.  

Like Hollywood, academia is an insular, highly competitive institution in which women are systematically disempowered. As Hollywood ousts its predatory stars, some universities follow suit. However, long-term change is unlikely unless universities change their institutional culture. Will such a change take place?

In many of the incidents that are now coming to light, sexual harassment wasn’t a secret. University of Rochester professor T. Florian Jaeger was well known for his inappropriate behavior toward female graduate students. So was David R. Marchant of Boston University, who has recently been placed on academic leave. According to his accusers, Marchant, a high-profile geologist, tormented graduate students and postdoctoral researchers on an Antarctic expedition. One of the women described the experience as “terrifying,” while another said that the ordeal led her to abandon her career.

Though I did not experience sexual harassment first hand, I’ve been a witness and a participant of the culture that tolerates it. In my early twenties, I entered a competitive graduate program with a small cohort of students. At parties and in the hallways, continuing graduate students regaled us with gossip about the senior professors with whom we worked. Most of the gossip was benign, but there were also rumors about a professor who had affairs with graduate students and maybe even undergraduates. The rumors weren’t hard to believe: the professor often flirted with younger women, told stories about his personal life in class that made some women uncomfortable, and was condescending toward us.

I would like to say that these rumors made me wary of this professor, and that I avoided working with him. That wasn’t the case. Like many of my peers and some of the junior faculty, I saw him as a maverick and a rebel. His expertise was in an area of literature and philosophy that extolled individualism and sexual liberation. We saw his relationships with women either as irrelevant or as an extension of the “radical” ethos promoted by the philosophers we studied. Though I considered myself a feminist, the words “sexual harassment” were far from my mind.

Needless to say, my views on this professor’s behavior changed soon after I graduated from the Master’s program. However, I think that my initial reaction was significant because it was conditioned by the culture to which I’d been eager to conform. In today’s academy, like in many other institutions, the ideology of sexual liberation and sexual individualism is used to justify and cover up persistent gender inequality.

Sexual misconduct is just one manifestation of such inequality. Though harassment is prevalent and in many cases has a devastating effect on a woman’s life, it is not as ubiquitous as economic inequality, and all the ways in which women’s career choices and modes of self-expression are constrained throughout their lives.

As I continued working toward my graduate degree, I realized that even as we were studying these “radical” philosophers—among them feminists who inveighed against patriarchy—male and female graduate students were expected to conform to two different sets of expectations. While men were encouraged to be outspoken, to take on large ideas in their projects, and spend all their waking hours on academics, women were expected to be nice to colleagues and mentors, pursue modest dissertation projects, and develop into nurturing and approachable pedagogues. I bristled at these expectations and, consequently, had trouble finding mentors who would support my work.

In part, the university culture that tolerates sexual harassment and sets different standards for men and women is the legacy of centuries of overt patriarchy. Despite the notoriety of some academic feminists, universities were often the last to implement equitable hiring practices, and some disciplines are still predominantly male.

However, the contemporary culture is also the product of the neoliberal managerial system that universities increasingly adopt. Anyone who has attended a graduate program, especially at the doctoral level, knows that many academic departments have more in common with Wall Street’s financial firms than with the myth of the Ivory Tower. As more and more tenure-track positions are replaced by adjunct jobs, graduate students and adjuncts fiercely compete for every bit of edge.

These are the kinds of competitive environments in which sexual harassment thrives, and where other important struggles for gender equality become meaningless. When you are one of four hundred applicants for a job, there is no way of proving discrimination.

The effusive public debate about sexual harassment, and the ousting of powerful men who engaged in such behavior are steps in the right direction. However, without a meaningful change to the culture, as well as the management practices of academe, gender inequality is likely to persist. Given the prevalence of ideas of sexual empowerment and liberation in our culture, it may be useful for commentators to step back from the specific instance of sexual harassment—important and compelling as they are—and examine the cultural politics which makes men brazen in their conduct and women hesitant to speak out.

Perhaps more importantly, since sexual misconduct is almost always predicated on a power imbalance, we should look more closely at the reasons for women’s systematic disempowerment. Women’s economic disempowerment at universities and virtually all workplaces is easy to disregard when we focus on sexual harassment. However, the surest way to combat sexual harassment is to ensure that women have better access to well-paying academic jobs as well an equal opportunity to attain high-ranking positions.


Polina Kroik is an Adjunct Assistant Professor of English at Fordham University and Baruch College, CUNY. She writes about gender, work, and migration in 20th and 21st century literature. She is on Twitter @pkroik.



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