Clearing the Shrapnel

Gender-based discrimination in the academic workplace isn’t always overt, but the “shrapnel” of small indignities stays with you. That’s the premise of a new book on this kind of bias, and how to alleviate it.

September 22, 2016
 

Ellen Mayock, Ernest Williams II Professor of Spanish and professor of women’s and gender studies at Washington and Lee University, wasn’t always a feminist. But a career in academe -- including a frustrating stint as the token female administrative “voice” -- led to a consciousness about how gender issues play out in the academic workplace. That transition is a major thread in her new book, Gender Shrapnel in the Academic Workplace (Palgrave Macmillan), which is a combination of theory, personal and gathered anecdotes, and recommendations for change.

Shrapnel takes its name from its central concept: that female professors and administrators aren’t necessarily overtly discriminated against as much as they are subject to regular insults and slights -- all of which build up over time to inflict real damage. The cumulative damage idea will be familiar to anyone following recent dialogues about race -- in that context this idea has frequently been described as microaggressions. Mayock’s gender-specific term is arguably more illustrative: gender shrapnel.

Put another way, digs such as “How does your husband deal with this?” (“this” being long hours at work that have amounted to a productive research agenda), lodge in one’s skin, like bits of shrapnel from an explosion meters off. One isn’t fatal but many over time pose risk to the woman -- or at the very least to her longevity in academe.

Yet the book is not all descriptive. It presents possible solutions, such as awareness training and a detailed instructor’s appendix to help better contain the blasts. As Mayock puts it, “When more women and men workers can capably evaluate their work environments, find the strength to speak out consistently against injustice, become CEOs and presidents who vociferously do not tolerate workplace injustice, and find support in other like-minded individuals, then we will have cleared much of the gender and intersectional shrapnel that continues to cause too many ‘Ow, it got me’ moments and to capture too much of our attention that could be placed more productively on the work itself.” 

Mayock responded to email questions about the book. Here is some of the conversation, edited for clarity and length. (Shrapnel also has a blog for further reading.)

Q: What is gender shrapnel, and how is it similar to microaggressions that have been cited in recent campus protests about race?

A: Gender shrapnel is a series of small workplace explosions that occur when no one person or organization is purposefully discriminating against women (or men, less frequently) based on sex, but when the gender norms of our homes and of our public interactions that consistently follow a patriarchal flow are replicated in the workplace, entrenched in the workplace, and then become the fabric of a pattern of sexual discrimination. This pattern is normally not consonant with the organization’s professed values and is often in direct opposition to Title VII and Title IX law. Gender shrapnel also encompasses the scattered bits of metal at the intersections of gender with race, socioeconomic status, sexuality, parental status, national origin and religion.

The excellent term “microaggressions,” originally coined by Chester Pierce in 1970 and made more commonplace recently through Derald Wing Sue’s 2010 Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender and Sexual Orientation, is certainly linked to the concept of gender shrapnel. In Gender Shrapnel, I say that Pierce’s term is a useful way to understand the daily, frustrating, energy-sucking experience of dealing with discrimination. The metaphor of gender shrapnel obviously focuses on gender (and its connections with others of the so-called protected categories), and it implies that oftentimes the experience of discrimination, harassment and retaliation requires an understanding of uneven dynamics over time and a nuanced approach about when and how to confront the workplace injustice.

Q: What are “bad gender days,” and can you describe one of your own?

A: Each one of us can probably offer a highly unique take on the “bad gender day.” [Cisgender] men who feel limited by the emotional palette available to them, cis women who work so hard just to be heard and to be credited for their good ideas and work, and trans women and trans men who are even more boxed in by gender norms and scripts. These issues are so hard to navigate, and I wonder how we can move deliberately towards kindness and very firmly away from violence in these realms. I think most of us can generate a narrative of gender shrapnel, if we think analytically about our own experiences.

A bad gender day for me might include being interrupted at a meeting, hearing another credited with my idea or work, having someone speak for me, rather than listen to me, and/or being seen in a group of women and being asked what we are “plotting.” There are many worse gender days out there, so these are just a few lighter examples. Of course, we see in the news every day much more acute examples of the sexual violence so present on our college and university campuses.

Q: You cite Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, from which you’ve developed the notion of the professional mystique. What is the professional mystique, and how -- if at all -- has life for women working in academe and without improved since the early 1960s?

A: I talk about the professional mystique as a dissatisfaction with roles and cultures that women and underrepresented groups experience in the workplace. I relate this issue to women’s depiction in the popular press, the “role crisis” (i.e., which role[s] are we supposed to play at any given moment?), the “is this all?” phenomenon (Friedan), privilege envy (Friedan) and the structure of the workplace.

In many ways, life for women in the college and university workplace seems better now. There are more and more women, including women of color, graduating from undergraduate and graduate programs, so the pipeline is open. At the same time, a look at the statistics in Kristine De Welde and Andi Stepnick’s excellent volume, Disrupting the Culture of Silence, shows us that women and, in particular women of color (categorized by the authors as black, Hispanic, Asian, Pacific Islander and American Indian/Alaska Native women), occupy primarily the part-time and/or temporary (adjunct) ranks and, on the tenure track, primarily the assistant professor level. This means that women in the academic workplace are definitely experiencing a glass ceiling and a significant wage gap.

Another important issue to consider is women students’ and employees’ access to equality in the education workplace. If sexual discrimination, harassment and retaliation are an issue for educational institutions, then it’s more than likely that these institutions are not managing well the more acute problems of sexual assault and violence. We know that this goes against [federal antidiscrimination laws] and creates significant obstacles for girls and women in educational settings.

The U.S. government over the past several years has required educational institutions to inspect and revise their policies and practices. This increased vigilance sends the right message that illegal behaviors won’t be tolerated, although enforcement methods and goodwill about transparency still vary widely from institution to institution.

Q: The book has personal, academic and practical purposes. Who is its intended audience?

A: The book is structured to offer narratives of gender shrapnel, theorize about the problems of gender and intersectional dynamics, and offer solutions and training principles. In this sense, the first part of the book states clearly that stories matter, that we have to understand the nuance and the details to make more transparent the experiences of discrimination, harassment and violence. The second part of the book is perhaps the most dense, as it dives into legal theory and history, sociology, organizational management, and media analysis in order to name common denominators in different types of workplace injustice. I don’t leave my cultural studies/Hispanic studies roots behind, but rather enhance them through the incorporation of other disciplines’ scholarship. The third section, titled “Solutions,” has an extremely practical bent. This was of utmost importance to me, because I didn’t want to just lay out the stories and problems without offering clear, firm solutions.

Many people and groups, therefore, fit into the audience for the book. Some readers might want to get a sense of the minutia, or the textured details, of gender shrapnel; some readers, especially sociologists, women’s, gender and sexuality experts, lawyers, and journalists, might delve into the more data-heavy second part of the book; still other readers might go right to the nitty-gritty of training principles and solutions for creating an improved workplace environment. I laughed when several people told me they read Gender Shrapnel on the beach this summer. I love that! It is somewhat dense beach reading, but I do think many of the messages will speak to a wide audience, both in and beyond educational settings.

Q: What is tempered radicalism? How do you see it helping women in the academic workplace?

A: Tempered radicalism is a term coined by Debra Meyerson and Maureen Scully, who say that tempered radicalism is a process enacted by “the people who work within mainstream organizations and professions and want also to transform them.” I particularly like this concept, because it doesn’t ignore that we workers are human beings who have beliefs and platforms that we don’t just leave at the door when we enter the workplace. Meyerson and Scully believe that recognizing and understanding the broad array of views of different individuals in the workplace can help managers to effect fair change. This is good for men and women in the workplace. The one drawback they note is that the “radicals” can end up forming a part of an out-group, and organizational dynamics can stagnate with fixed in- and out-groups.

Q: How do we “clear the shrapnel”? What kind of awareness training should be required, for whom?

A: I believe that clearing the shrapnel requires a multipronged approach, which includes providing education about gender and intersectional dynamics and pitfalls to every member of the organization (students and employees in the academic setting), following up on that education in small and large groups, sending consistent institutional messages, considering and rectifying inequities in levels of visibility and invisibility, advertising new opportunities to all, and figuring out individual students’ and employees’ strengths that can contribute to organizational change. Gender Shrapnel provides instructions for training sessions, a glossary and recommendations for creating a more equitable work environment. We must make sure that we train the trainers well, or else the whole process can run off the rails.

The leaders of the institution or organization must make the training and follow-up absolute priorities for themselves and all students and employees.

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