Twice in the last few months I’ve had male colleagues put their hands on me. One time involved actual physical contact. The second time was more metaphorical. Both were unacceptable.
In the first instance, I was standing with a group of other colleagues, talking at the end of a meeting, when I felt someone come up from behind and put his hands on my shoulders. He used doing so to turn me towards him and then he dropped his hands and began speaking to me. As is often the case with such things, I was so taken aback I didn’t have a witty or pointed response at the ready. I spoke with him briefly and then walked away.
But it was another feature of my response that troubled me as well. As I told the story to colleagues later that day and tweeted about it, I caught myself saying that he was someone who “I didn’t even know that well.” Once I realized I was doing that, it caught me up short. What difference did my relationship with him make? I had fallen into the trap of trying to explain his behavior and provide a potential “out” for him by suggesting that familiarity would have made his actions acceptable. But would it have been okay if a male colleague that I DID know that well had done this? Of course not. There should just be a “no touching colleagues” rule.
The second instance was different. I ran into a male colleague on campus. He referenced an earlier meeting in which I had very directly criticized a certain practice at the university. And then he said with a smile “Next time I’ll sit close and hold you back in case you get all angry and fired up again.” Ah yes, the tired (nay, exhausted) trope of the angry woman. Had a male colleague led the charge, I’m sure he would have been praised for his dogged determination and leadership. And I’m sure he wouldn’t have been jokingly cautioned when he came to the next meeting. Thankfully, I was able to chasten my would-be restrainer somewhat by telling him that my critique had actually resulted in a much-needed change.
In the grand scheme of things, both of these cases are relatively innocuous. They involved no direct physical threat or harm. Neither has held back my aspirations as a leader on my campus–or have they?
They are, of course, evidence of the insidious, subtle and often silent operations of gender in the academy. Why are only 18% of the full professors in my field (History) women? Why are only 26% of college presidents female (when over 57% of college students are women)? Certainly, some of it is the result of overt and structural discrimination, but part of the reason these gaps persist well into the twenty-first century is also because of episodes like these. And so although I’ve enjoyed promotion, leadership, and research opportunities at my university, am I truly the equal of my male colleagues if I’m going to manhandled (pun intended) and called angry when I fight for something important? I suspect not.