empowerment · enter the confessional · faster feminism · righteous feminist anger · sexist fail

This life in sexism

Imagine this: you’re going out for drinks with fairly new work colleagues to bid another work colleague farewell, as they* are moving on. Lots of the people present have not met each other before, because some of the people present there have been in that work place for long, while others are quite new. So, you’re walking into the pub accompanied by men and women. So far, so good. When you reach the table, however, it’s all men, some of whom you’ve never met, and who get up to introduce themselves and shake hands with… the other men in your group *only*, while ignoring you, and the other women. All this among the usual banter, posturing, and performance of masculinity of the most patriarchal kind.
Welcome to the club. Not.
Ever since Hook and Eye has started, I have been a fan of reading the positive stories, the wins, the triumphs, etc. My thinking was we all know we deal with sexism and other kinds of discrimination every single day, so let’s rally around the good stuff, to remind ourselves that we can move in better directions. I still am.
However, since 2010, I’ve gotten older and more cynical, and to tell you the truth, I have lost patience with this type of effrontery. I want to pull an SNL-style “Really!?!” whenever I meet with this level of blatant erasure of any gender that is not aggressively in-your-face, homosocial-style masculinity.
My jaw dropped on that occasion, and I could not pick it up off the floor during the entire event. I had trouble speaking, and you already know I’m a talker! My jaw still drops every single time one of my friends tells me about yet another encounter with sexism of the nth degree, because you know what the cherry on top of this BS-filled cake is? We’re talking about academia. Where we all think ourselves high and mighty and feminist and all, but when it comes down to it, we pat young women on the head, and declare them “Charming! Like Heidi” or we withdraw job offers when they try to negotiate a living wage and maternity leave
So, let’s have an Expose Sexism Fest, Academic Style, and denounce it right here and now. If you feel like keeping it anonymous, send it my way at margrit at ualberta dot ca, and I’ll post it in the comments. Otherwise tell us what happened to you or your friend or “your friend,” and let’s expose this life in sexism.

*as much as I loathe grammatical disagreement in number when it comes to personal pronouns, I think that’s the way English is going (or has already gone). On the bright side, it does enable gender-neutral expression.

11 thoughts on “This life in sexism

  1. Here's an eye-popping anecdote that I just received:
    “I was presenting a paper at an event at another university. After the event had concluded, I socialized with a few of the local faculty members who attended and we ended up all getting drinks together afterwards. At the bar, I sat next to one of the men at a table and reintroduced myself, because we hadn't actually spoken that night beyond a very brief introduction. He looked me dead in the eye and said that he remembered me, before stating: “I mean, those pants, your ass… it's working. I'm sorry if this offends you, but it's working.” The bar was loud so obviously he felt that he could a) get away with it without his colleagues hearing his disgusting remark and b) probably says shit like this all the time based on how quickly that statement came out of his mouth.”


  2. Yet another one:
    “Fairly early on in my doctorate programme, I, by myself, organized a conference that ended up being quite well-attended and successful. During the closing reception, I was chatting with a friend of mine next to the wine table, when another graduate student from my programme, an older man, came over and joined the conversation. As we were talking, I reached down under the table to grab a few extra bottles of wine to put on the table, and as I was on the floor, the older man wink-winked, nudge-nudged to my (also male) friend and a few other people gathered around the table, “She looks pretty comfortable on her knees like that. Must be a familiar position for her.” To be honest, the comment didn't even really register with me at the time (although I was embarrassed that other people heard—sigh), and I just ignored him and put the bottles on the table. My friend, however, was really upset and followed me around the reception for a good twenty minutes trying to make sense of the comment. I still think about this moment, 6 years and many professional accomplishments later, and am struck by how blatant that sexism (and harassment) was and how little I reacted at the time because I took the comment as a matter of course.”


  3. My favourite (not) was at a major conference a few years back, one even more heavily skewed toward the older Caucasian male demographic than usual. The first lovely moment was when a senior scholar on the panel I was moderating found me prior to the panel starting to tell me that, as a junior female scholar, I did not have the right to, and would not, ask him to stop speaking when his allotted time was up. Even better was during the panel I was speaking on. I was seated closest to the podium and was asked by the moderator to put a slip of paper on the podium indicating to the current speaker that he had two minutes left. The speaker looked down at the slip of paper, stopped in the middle of his sentence, turned to me (in front of a large audience, remember), and said “Oh, slipping me love notes, are we?” Seriously? Given that I wasn't in a position to tell him off in front of a crowd, I laughed (awkwardly as eff, I'm sure) and then pretended to continue listening as he concluded. The only redeeming aspect of that day was having the senior female scholar in the field commiserate with me afterward.


  4. Anonymous:
    “I'm not even sure where to begin. Years ago I began doctoral studies
    in the humanities at an R1 in the Southeastern United States. Over the
    years I've seen a good deal of sexism aimed at me and my female
    colleagues: name calling, evaluating appearance, sexist “jokes,” tone
    policing, and silencing. “Too aggressive” and “cold.” A “bitch.”
    “Scary.” “Prettier than…” “Not as pretty as…” Female colleagues have
    left the program because of the sexist culture, and said as much to
    administration, and others have been left marked by the cruelty they
    have endured. It's difficult to catch the moments because they're so
    commonplace. It's all so pervasive I feel hopeless about the situation
    on my best days and that I must be disconnected from reality on my


  5. Another anonymous comment on academia's penchant for rape culture:
    “One day I went out for drinks with a male faculty member and a
    graduate student to celebrate the student's new position. His
    professional position. After the male faculty member suggested to me
    that I “give the guy [the student] a chance” I planned my exit. It was
    too late and before I could do anything the male student's hand was on
    me. I tried to push him off but he was so much bigger than me. I told
    him to stop and that I was uncomfortable. He didn't. I tried to push
    him away. His hands were so much bigger than mine. I literally ran
    home after that. I have written evidence (the student admitted to what
    happened) and the university sanctioned the student. Since then I've
    been told that the faculty member and the student share the events of
    that night with colleagues, both students and faculty, in my
    department. In their version I “have a reputation,” which I have to
    suppose justifies in their minds that behavior they claim didn't
    happen. Before my doctoral studies, I was surrounded by supportive
    male students and faculty who called out sexism. I still don't know
    how to process the template I was applying that night or the naïveté I
    brought into that situation, but I know all this makes me angry.”


  6. Wow. These are all awful stories.

    Mine is much more mundane.

    I don't like it when people tell me I'm too young to be an associate professor, or too pretty, or some such. It happens a fair bit. What it assumes is that I'd rather be mistaken for too young to be a serious professional, rather than fully occupy my serious professional role. I've seen this happen to other women at events, where the young-looking prof demurs and repeats that she's really as senior as she claims, and the “complimenter” won't stop repeating the comment. Like young is better than powerful, or that youthful and powerful cannot coexist.

    I hate that.


  7. This next message shows how women are actively discouraged from pursuing grad studies:

    “The university where I did my Master's requires all internal candidates to get a reference letter. From all their master's professors if applying for PhD. When I went to ask my very well know male senior scholar for a letter he said 'No!' Because “women should not receive PhDs.”


  8. Thank you for posting about sexism, Margrit. Thanks too for all of the comments. I think it helps to expose these incidents as much as possible. The comments indicate that we must really work together on inclusivity and castigate sexist (and other discriminatory) acts whenever we encounter them… However, this can be difficult because of the emphasis on performative politeness, politics, competition, and often the consequences of direct address. As a PhD Candidate with a lot of professional experience in multiple arenas inside/outside of academe/and inside/outside of Canada, I had high hopes when I initially returned to academe that sexism and other forms of discrimination were behind me because we study social models, theories, and confront the language/thinking that engenders sexist and discriminatory behaviour. So naive!!

    Prior to academe, I worked mostly in business–software, IT, and finance–,(and so mainly with men holding BAs (maybe) in engineering, computer sciences, technology etc). I am fairly aggressive and I am not afraid to offend or hold my ground if I need to. I remember once being verbally/spacially accosted by 6 engineers in a business boardroom because I refused to move my meeting. I had booked the room in advance and started the meeting, including a video conference with my other team members in Toronto. Suddenly, the meeting room door slammed open and six men (all engineers and also quite sure of their male privilege) came into the room and demanded that I move my meeting. I refused. Stuff happened.
    Anyway, I write about the anecdote because privilege, and specifically male privilege, in professionalized arenas is so insidious and pervasive. I figure the work we do means more than this… at least it does to me. I want to work with all genders/people in a tangible, material, significant way.

    Like most women, I've encountered a lot of sexism in academe. One of my “favourites”: I've been told not to speak about my experience or my body as a mother by male and female graduate students Two weeks ago, I was told by family members that my work had little value: “you've studied a lot and look where it's got you…)–presumably because I do not aspire to certain bourgeois, neoliberal “values”… However, what I really want to write about in this post returns us to the social introduction and to the rhetoric around gender difference–here are my two pet peeves: 1) I hate it when I am introduced in relation to my partner. This has always pissed me off and in my opinion attempts to negate me. I am my own person: I have my own accomplishments, position, and work even if unknown or irrelevant to the person doing the introductions. Introduce me by my name–even if it is of little consequence or notoriety–not in relation to that of my male partner. 2) Do not tell me as a male that you do the same things as me and the same amount of work. Even if you think your schedule looks similar to mine, you do not know the details of my life or often really anything about my life except for a few little things I may have made public or commented on in passing. I hate this kind of assumptiveness…the attempt to equate, compete, and often to diminish… But “look at all the work I've accomplished” without any recognizable cognizance in regards to gendered or other differences: location, region, opportunity, systemic privileging/disadvantaging, time, money, resources etc. I am not the same as you nor will I ever be. This is not my desire or my intent or my goal. I intend to forge a different kind of living/being and a different path–my own. I do not follow or aspire to yours.

    Keep it coming, Hook & Eye.


  9. “PhD defences. I’ve done a bunch where I served as a dean’s rep or neutral chair etc. Exactly like the pub scene: if there are women at the defence, they take the trouble to thank me. The men never do, even though it’s usually a male supervisor of the PhD student—ie you are doing them a favour, but one they need not deign to notice. “


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