Hands Off

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.

6 thoughts on “Hands Off

  1. Great post, Liz. The presumption you describe here is of a kind you would never make to a colleague, male or female I’m sure.

    I agree with you that not touching others is a very sensible rule about our workplaces. I have offered and accepted hugs from colleagues and students, mostly other women as I recall, and only in response to shocking, tragic news (the Sandy Hook massacre, for example, the death of another colleague, and the day after the election last fall.) But outside of that, the “don’t touch other people” rule is operative and should have been a lesson learned in preschool.


  2. No touching. People really should know this.

    But the answer to the question of why there are only 26% female college presidents when there are 57% college students seems much less insidious than you imply.

    One might, for example, look at a family of two parents and five daughters and declare it an outrageous perfidy that only 50% of those with driver’s licenses are female but 83% of the family is female. However, when one notices that the daughters are all less than 14 years old, it doesn’t seem so out of line.

    It may have been insidious to keep women out of college in past decades but my observations and the statistics you cite suggest that is not a problem anymore. But just being in college does not qualify one to be a college president.

    I think it is great that we now have about a 50/50 mix of men and women in college. I find further that although they make up about half of the class, women make up much more than half of the top students. My explanation for this is high school sports that teach boys to think that achievement in the classroom is not as important as achievement on the playing field; girls do not get this message sent to them and we see this when these students get to college.

    But none of this points to an insidious force in academia (at the moment). The relevant comparison is not to the composition of today’s presidents and today’s students but to the composition of today’s presidents and the composition of the students 30 years ago. I don’t have actual statistics to cite but my memory of classes in my discipline in the 1980s is that there were about 30% women whereas now in the classes I teach in that same discipline are about 50% women. If this was true generally, then we should expect about 30% female presidents today and about 50% female presidents in 30 years time.


    1. I wasn’t suggesting that the silent and insidious operations of gender were the sole reason for these disparities. My intent, rather, was to suggest that these little things, that often go uncommented upon or uncontested are also factors in what has created these imbalances.


  3. So Rocky… you are suggesting that women should be content to make advances at the rate of the last 50 yrs, count being half of the presidents in 30 yrs as a victory? I am sorry, but that is despicable. Just as your admitting that women make up more of the half the top students… yes you use a “under age 14” to compare their abilities to males. Yes, it is insidious gender bias when more women get degrees, more women are in the top of their class, but less women… much less women… get top jobs.

    Let’s have some facts:

    >>According to data from the Department of Education on college degrees by gender, the US college degree gap favoring women started back in 1978, when for the first time ever, more women than men earned Associate’s degrees. Five years later in 1982, women earned more bachelor’s degrees than men for the first time, and women have increased their share of bachelor’s degrees in every year since then. In another five years by 1987, women earned the majority of master’s degrees for the first time. Finally, within another decade, more women than men earned doctor’s degrees by 2006, and female domination of college degrees at every level was complete. For the current graduating class of 2013, the Department of Education estimates that women will earn 61.6% of all associate’s degrees this year, 56.7% of all bachelor’s degrees, 59.9% of all master’s degrees, and 51.6% of all doctor’s degrees. Overall, 140 women will graduate with a college degree at some level this year for every 100 men. The article is from AEI Ideas and is summarized by Carnegie Foundation..<<

    So since 1982 more women graduated and have done so every since. Yet, 45 yrs later they get less top jobs (and pay) in nearly every field. If you fail to see gender bias, I suggest you re-calibrate your evaluation skills.

    If that doesn't drive it home, try this:


  4. Debra,

    I apologize for whatever I have done to cause you to so fundamentally misunderstand my comment.

    I really don’t see how any careful reading of what I said can be construed to me comparing females under the age of 14 to males generally. The point of that paragraph is that in order to be a female driver, one needs to be female and old enough to drive. The extension of that (which I clearly did not make plain enough) is that in order for one to be a female college president today, one needs to female and enrolled as an undergraduate about 30 years ago.

    The recollection I shared from my experience is that there was a smaller proportion of females in my classes when I was an undergraduate than in the courses I teach now. You quote statistics that suggest either my recollection is flawed (which I kinda doubt) or that my recollection is not representative of all fields (which seems quite reasonable). However, that is off the main point of my post.

    The point of my post is that good causes are not helped by bad arguments. The comparison to the makeup of todays undergrads and todays college presidents does not advance the notion that women are being inappropriately discriminated against. One cannot harvest a crop if one does not plant a seed and the planting of today’s seed is irrelevant in evaluating today’s crop, especially for a crop that takes a long time to mature.

    Your post suggests that there were indeed a pretty fair proportion of undergrads in the 1980s who were women. That’s maybe a very good place to start asking the question if those women are today being treated fairly when it comes to placement in academic administration. My point to the author of the original post (and to all of the rest of us) is that a righteous cause is not best advanced by a weak argument, particularly when, as your comment suggests, there is a much better argument available.

    I have refrained from calling you names such as “despicable” because I think it much more likely that you misunderstood me than that you are a terrible person. I must close, however, with saying that I really don’t understand how my assertion that the top students in my classes are disproportionately female qualifies me as despicable.


  5. Not for nothing, but I’m pretty comfortable teaching my daughter that if someone puts their hands on her, she can go ahead and put her hands on them right back. And she’ll be starting training in jujitsu soon, because of nonsense like this.

    I’m not in academia, but as a clergy-person if anything I’m more likely to encounter issues around touch. When is a hand on a shoulder appropriate? Or a hug? Or holding hands?

    But never, under any circumstances, would I just put my hands on someone out of nowhere, with the exception of keeping them from stepping out into traffic or something. Only if I know it is welcome, and has been accepted in the past, and is appropriate to the situation, would I even consider touching someone unless they are reaching out for a hug or something.

    As for lacking a witty response, I’m not sure that’s a problem. I think something like “Never put a hand on me again” is a perfectly reasonable, non-witty response to this kind of behavior. Delivered in an even, direct but non-aggressive tone, I bet it would even make an impact. Once they acknowledge what you said, you can let them continue with whatever they wanted to say.

    As for having to have this conversation at all…unacceptable that it’s still necessary in any field.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s