The Sexisms of Graduate School

It’s an age-old and tiresome story, and I’ve watched more than one friend undergo some variation on it. He’s got what you want: the knowledge, the erudition, the passing grade on exams, the dissertation signature. He’s brilliant, an acknowledged expert in your particular area of study, an incisive thinker and an wide-ranging scholar, and he provides quick, detailed (some might say terrible and swift) feedback on the many difficult but instructive assignments he requires. In short, just the kind of professor from whom one might, in theory, secure a first-class education.

He’s also, not to put too fine a point on it, a jerk.

There are, for women, two kinds of professorial jerks: the sexists, and the sexualists. The few sexists I’ve known have been along the lines of one seventy-year-old classics prof who had never really adapted to coeducation and who determinedly emitted random comments about the mechanics of bull insemination (mid-Plato’s Apology, I kid you not, Dave Barry) in the hopes of embarrassing us confused bluestockings who’d drifted away from our needlework and into the range of his gimlet, Latinate eye. There are the geezer old-boys’-network profs who won’t write letters of rec for women applying to med school, the right-wing loonies who prate on about the disastrous consequences of women’s suffrage. As for the sexualists, well, every college of humanities has a serial seducer or two who just can’t keep his hands off his graduate students. We’ve all known a couple in our time. (And then there are those versatile charmers who are both, just a little excessively friendly with the women, embarrassingly prone to working out their bizarre mommy issues in their commentary on the ostensive topics of their classes.)

I’m in one of those squishy feminine fields–literature–which has led nervous literary men everywhere to don the Jock Straps of High Theory with a vengeance (the interpellated alterity of the post-capitalist body, hi-YAH!), but it’s also a field stampeded by Hawthorne’s damned scribbling women. This does give the sexualists greater occasion to drool over the nubile bodies flashing by, in some cases quite visibly, but it also, mercifully, reduces overt sexism by normalizing a feminine presence.

For the most part, these petty sexisms are little more than obnoxious, and a certain variety of “Now, honey” hand-patting sexist is a dying breed. But what should one do when the expert in one’s particular area happens to be a galloping sexist sexualist? (Sexualists, sad to say, are not a dying breed. Perhaps because they so successfully, ahem, breed.) In short: should the canny female graduate student (1) switch to a subfield governed by more humane advisors or (2) adopt a ruthlessly professional attitude with the sexist sexualist in question and hope to get by educated but unscathed?

16 comments / Add your comment below

  1. Disclaimer: the vast majority of men I’ve worked with, in the academy and out of it, have been kind, civil, supportive, and eminently capable of keeping their hands off their subordinates. I’m speaking here about a small subsection of the male supervisory population–small, but disproportionately annoying to an extreme degree.

  2. I would probably choose option #1, mostly because I have problems establishing good relationships with *good* professors. I purposely chose a large department for grad school so that there would be multiple professors in the areas I might be interested in specializing in.

    Also, I must say your “jock strap” theory of men and high theory made me chuckle. If I’m a woman who adores high theory, what does that mean?

  3. You are going to run into lechers no matter where you go and what you do, academia or no. It has nothing to do with Classics, Literature, or any other field. That relatively small percentage of people who see fit to manipulate their underlings for whatever selfish purpose they see fit is not limited to the ivory tower. Deal with them as individuals, the same as any other obnoxious individual, avoid them and manage your environment to the best of you ability to limit their influence over you. If the lecher is sitting on your committee, then its time to reorganize your committee. If the lecher is your adviser, then change advisors, after you find out from your fellow grad students who is and who isnt a good pick. Try to move to a subfield, and I bet you will run into some…yes, you guessed it…lechers.

  4. I know very little about higher ed. I worked as staff for a large department at a large university for a couple of years. I like to think that I’m pragmatic. I am not one who advocates sacrificing your career for the greater good.


    Isn’t this highly unprofessional at best?

    Isn’t it sexual harassment at worst?

    Isn’t this the kind of behavior that EEOC laws were designed to address?

    Why should you have to “just deal with it?”

  5. I echo Ann, both with regard to the fact that you don’t want to throw yourself under the bus, but that you shouldn’t have to deal with sexual harassment.

    Does your university have a lawyer to deal with sexual harassment? When I worked at BYU (as an undergrad), the university hired a woman largely to deal with sexual harassment and discrimination. It wasn’t being hit with any suits, as far as I know, but her job was to implement a policy through which employees and students could report problems, with structures about how the university would respond. (It served two purposes–it protected the university from liability if it followed the procedures, and it probably reduced discriminatory practice).

    I understand that such policies/attorneys are fairly standard. The attorney wouldn’t be interested in departmental politics, and would presumably not be interested in ratting you out (although that would be worth checking on). He/she would, however, be emminently concerned that such harassment cease, to prevent a future suit.

    There are no guarantees–the BYU attorney told us that, in private practice, the head partner of her firm (a sexual harassment firm) was the worst sexist she’d ever dealt with–but I would think you could get the problem resolved (or at least try) without sacrificing your reputation and future.

  6. I have no advice . . . it’s depressing that situations like this continue to occur.

    Eve, your turns of phrase never cease to delight me. I love your writing style.

  7. Great Scott. I can’t remember my engineering grad program as ANYTHING like this. Is it unique to the fuzzier studies? My professors were very supportive in helping women succeed in our field, and their only flaw might have been shredding our oral defenses less thoroughly than those of our male classmates (dare I call the poor boys “coeds”?).

  8. Eve, do you think that offenders at universities get protection from the institution of tenure? I’ve worked in a lot of different companies of varying sizes, and they all were highly motivated to get rid of both sexists and sexualists. Jock strap wearing alpha males who like to paw the ground and snort at one another usually don’t last long.

    Also, whenever I am on a campus, I am always surprised at how much the undergrads (and I assume grad students) pander to the egos of the professors. It is really kind of sickening. The whole enterprise presents a situation ripe for exploitation, given the difference in age and the power the prof wields over the student’s future. You have my sympathy, though you probably don’t need it. Something tells me you can hold your own. 🙂

  9. “…do you think that offenders at universities get protection from the institution of tenure?”

    I do not. I can’t think of a university where moral terpitude is not a reason for dismissal regardless of tenure status. This gets talked about a lot in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

    At the university where I atended grad school, a full professsor who was also a program director was fired for not keeping his hands off his students.

    I don’t understand the acceptance and resignation; this is NOT an inevitable part of grad student life.

  10. Seraphine, heh heh. I should probably lay my cards on the table here and confess to a conflicted relationship with theory. I like it when it’s well done, but it sometimes seems obfuscatory and ideologically shrill (characeteristics, of course, not limited to theory by any means). Still, I have to wonder about the literary world’s zealous embrace of extremely difficult, recondite theory in the 70s and 80s, if it wasn’t a way of asserting the legitimacy of the humanities by aping science, our queen of discourses (sorry, Lynnette, it’s not theology anymore!). To paraphrase something Lynnette said to me recently, learning a field is, in a sense, learning to speak its nonsense. And my, have we got some formidable nonsense making the rounds!

    But you raise a fascinating question, what to make of a woman who likes [high literary theory / obscure ancient languages / philosophy / nuclear physics], who, for whatever reason, immerses herself in a form of knowledge that’s somehow considered masculine. Wish I had something more profound to say about it than “it’s a fascinating question”!

  11. Kurt, I didn’t mean to suggest that it has anything to do with classics or lit; those are just the fields in which I’ve encountered it, since those are the fields in which I’ve worked. You nicely outline my general approach to the problem of lechers (and other generally poisonous people, male and female): damage control. Lechers can often be avoided. Sometimes, though, they’re the people with what you want, and other people in the department who are much nicer and saner don’t have what you want. That’s when it gets trickier, and that’s the dilemma I’m trying to consider in my post.

    Ann and Sam, thanks very much for your legal suggestions. I should probably be clearer here and explain that I personally am not being sexually harassed at this time. (And having served a mission in southern Italy, I consider myself to have a black belt in managing sexual harassment. Or a brown one, at least.) Your suggestion about consulting university counsel on the issue is a good one, and one that might be appropriate at some point. I personally haven’t had problems in this particular situation (yet); I’ve just heard of others having problems. So what I’m wondering–hoping–is that if I manage the situation right by keeping everything tightly focused and professional, I can get what I want and emerge unscathed. (I’m hardly a cute, young grad student anymore; I’m approaching middle age, and I’m fiestier and more willing to disagree with authority all the time.) On the other hand, I also wonder if I’m being naive and arrogant in thinking I can manage the situation.

    The heart of the problem is that, as is usually the case with this class of human beings Kurt has labelled “lechers,” is that most of what they do is very subtle. They’re just a little too friendly, a little too invasive of personal space, a little too eager to talk about sex in class–or out of it. What’s really complicated, though, is that another man could perform all of the same actions, perhaps even make some of the same statements, word for word, without it having any creepy valence whatsoever. Usually it’s nothing I can point to with certain people, and I don’t trust my own intuitions to the point that I would make an accusation against someone on something so subtle.

    At one point in my academic career I was faced with exactly this sort of comparison. I was working with two different men, in two different capacities. Both were really friendly, and both would sometimes comment on my appearance favorably or toss off comments or jokes about sex. In one case it was completely 100% innocent and didn’t bother me in the least; it was like working with my dad or uncle. In the other case it was a little creepy. But there is absolutely nothing concrete I could point to to differentiate between the two situations.

    I remain convinced that other than the blatant propositions and threats, sexual harassment (or general creepiness, if you prefer, or lechery) is not a matter of what someone says or does; it’s a matter of who they are in those words and actions. And I also realize that such a definition would be a legal nightmare. There really is no way to deal with such subjective impressions legally. And I find it sad when teachers hesitate to touch students at all for fear of accusations. (I sometimes pat students on the arm, for example–could someone make a case against me?)

  12. AmyB, thanks for the kind words. Nice to see you here!

    Space Chick, I really appreciate your perspective. I’m particularly interested in hearing what others encounter in other fields that might be dominated by different cultures. I’m glad to hear your professors were so supportive (and I should add again that the vast majority of my male professors have been great–kind and civil and encouraging without being in the least inappropriate). I have no idea how typical, or atypical, my own experience is.

    Mark, I tend to think your analysis is accurate. Universities really did not evolve to deal with sexual attraction among their inhabitants, and the issues of power and age that come into play can pose irresistible temptations to some professors, I think. I read somewhere of a study that found male teachers and college professors are more likely to divorce than their non-teaching counterparts, and the speculation was that they’re constantly surrounded by attractive young women; they constantly see the alternatives to their wives. We in the academy certainly have our share of performing egos, and you may well be right that obnoxious behavior is more quickly and ruthlessly weeded out in the business world than it is in the tenure-protected ivory tower. It’s been my observation that getting anything done in a university takes twice as long because we all like to sit and ponder multiple alternatives, perspectives, implications more than we like to take decisive action.

    Thanks for your sympathy and your vote of confidence! I do hope you’re right that I CAN hold my own; I don’t want to overestimate my ability to deal with the situation.

    Naismith, actually, I’m neither accepting nor resigned; as it happens I’m ranting sarcastically in a tone of which I myself do not entirely approve (yet again, what a shocker!).

    See? Not a whit of resignation hereabouts.

  13. So, Eve, if you choose to, will you have to work with this professor for a long or short time? Would you have to spend time with him one-on-one? It seems like a tricky situation. I hope you get through it in the most professional way possible. (wear ugly clothes and don’t do your hair, how’s that for feminist advice?)

  14. Jessawhy, good question. I’ve got some time (at least a year) before I decide just how closely I want to work with this person, which is why I decided to mull over my options here in public and get all of your ideas and suggestions.

    Great feminist advice! As it happens, I excel in wearing ugly clothes and not doing my hair (I’ve been known to be driving down the road and suddenly realize that I haven’t even dragged a brush or comb through my mop…). I chose grad school partly for its lovely, lovely dress code. One reason I could never be a lawyer.

  15. Eve is quite right about lechers being very skilled at walking the fine line when it comes to those who are in prominent positions. If they werent talented in their perversions and cunning in their approach, they never would have gotten as far as they are. The blunt ones dont get far in academia, only the smooth and sophisticated ones rise through the ranks, which makes it all the more difficult to bring the law to bear on them. Good luck, Eve, you are in a difficult situation. Have some fun with it and find out one of Dr. Lecher’s pet peeves and ever so subtly play on it to make yourself an eyesore. If he hates a certain color or type of clothes, subtly work it into your wardrobe over time until it is a common component. You have to beat him at his own game.

  16. I did run into some other sexisms in academe, though. One is that some male professors think twice or three times about mentoring a female grad student if the field is one like archaeology or ecology where field work is involved, and they may spend days or weeks in the wild together. My husband and I have had long talks about this, and he has taken on some female students, but never if they were the least bit flirtateous during initial interviews or even if he didn’t have a good feeling about it, which is rather subjective and unfair, but oh well.

    Such a phenomenon should apply to mixed-gender mentoring of any gender, but it tends to affect female grad students more in fields where most professors are male.

    And that certainly doesn’t take the prize for snap judgments; I’ve worked with a scientist who refused to even interview anyone whose email username was the least bit sexual (hotgirl) or religious (4jesus). They were the first ones out of the pile. And it’s amazing how many college students have such unprofessional email addresses (and mostly women in the cases I’ve seen).

    The other issue is that while THE FEMININE MYSTIQUE talks about grad school as being a good option for women while they are raising families, etc., in reality nowadays most programs require fulltime enrollment plus an assistantship. This is brutal on family life, especially if spring break for the university does not mesh with spring break for the public schools. To me this is sexist, because it makes women do grad school exactly like a man. And I don’t have a wife, so I couldn’t keep up that pace.

    I did go to grad school with 3 kids in school, but I had a University Fellowship so that I didn’t have to work at an assistantship, and my children’s spring break was at the same time, and I didn’t take classes during summer.


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