Mapping misogyny in the academy: From deplorable to illegal

A new book that is replete with stories based on interviews with 35 female academics about their misogynistic experiences in a range of research university English departments creates a valuable space in which other women academics can see that they are not alone.

Misogyny in English Departments: Obligation, entitlement, gaslighting by Amy E Robillard is published by Peter Lang. ISBN 9781433199587.

It was tempting to respond to many of the stories that Amy E Robillard, a professor of English at Illinois State University, recounts in Misogyny in English Departments by saying, “Who are the cretinous men who comment on their female colleagues’ dress?” or “Following the much-needed revelations of the #MeToo movement, you’d think ‘enlightened self-interest’ would lead to repeating sexist, homophobic or racist jokes”.

However, one of the important effects of the misogynistic incidents Robillard’s 35 respondents tell her about is to effectively create a map of behaviour that ranges from the deplorable to the illegal.

Given the claims of American right-wingers like Florida’s Republican Governor and Presidential Candidate Ron De Santis, or media personalities like Tucker Carlson, that America’s universities and especially their humanities departments are overrun by woke ideologues, those same departments seem, at first, an unlikely place to find misogynistic men and, in fact, some women.

Following Cornell University Philosophy Professor Kate Manne’s 2017 book, Down Girl: The logic of misogyny, Robillard shows that misogyny should not be understood by focusing on individual actors who, if put on the spot, slough of the complaint by claiming how much they love the women in their lives. Rather, as Manne writes, it is a “system that operates within a patriarchal social order to police and enforce women’s subordination and to uphold male dominance”.

This policing function can take many forms quite distanced from unwanted sexual attention or assault – but they are no less effective in protecting male privilege and reinforcing women’s subservient status.

The prevalence of ‘hepeating’

Among the 35 women Robillard interviewed at both public and private research universities, colleges is ‘Molly’, an assistant professor at a university with a large Hispanic population, who was tasked with creating policies for the Writing Project Administrator.

A recalcitrant instructor named ‘George’, who is a large man, pointed his finger at Molly during a meeting they attended with the chair and, in a series of sentences that began with “She”, attacked her, going so far as to say: “I cannot work here as long as she is telling me what to do.” With her chair’s support, Molly filed a Title 5 complaint against George that led to a recommendation that “George be let go”.

Much more common than Molly’s chair, who supported her, are senior officials who allow male professors to demonstrate their assumed privilege while playing off of the fact that the female colleagues are women – who have been socialised to differ. This is the dynamic behind ‘hepeating’.

According to ‘Gwen’, it’s not just that her contributions are often ignored in committees – it’s that later in the meeting male colleagues make the same point and it suddenly becomes important. “Sometimes,” she told Robillard, “I’m sitting there and my face must be . . . what the hell is going on in here?”

‘Alyssa’ has responded to this belittling, which reinforces women’s socialisation to defer to men, by making few contributions. This, she knows, is detrimental to her career since at these committees, “You can make change and also make yourself visible.”

Robillard’s discussion of male graduate students effectively silencing female graduate students came as a shock. My memory is that the women I went to graduate school with at McGill would not have put up with being shunted aside. Then, I began to wonder if my memory failed to account for their experience.

Hepeating, one graduate student told Robillard, was common in graduate seminars. “I’m tired of sitting in classes for the past two years and saying something – in most of my classes – and then twenty minutes later I know that a male graduate student will repeat the same thing.”

‘Diana’, a third-year doctoral student, said that since younger faculty cannot control the men in the seminars, she created a chat group so that the women could share ideas.

Department meetings, Robillard’s respondents tell us, are scenes that seem out of the 1950s: men speaking over women, men showing by their body language that they “accept the role of the knower, of authority of epistemic entitlement”.

‘Susan’ tells of meetings in which male colleagues say, “Oh, such-and-such student was wearing a really low-cut tank top.” Such language does more than show objectification of students. As ‘Lucy’ explained, it shows that in that male professor’s mind, women are to be “silenced, dismissed, talked over, undermined”.

Expectations of mothering

Robillard’s respondents catalogue other examples of appalling behaviour including one who told of a professor with whom she’d organised a conference who told her as they were setting things up that he didn’t know how to “put out the cookies”.

Few academics like in-service committee responsibilities, but the male professors managed to get out of them by, among other gambits, simply not showing up – secure in the knowledge that their female colleagues would pick up the slack.

‘Elizabeth’ told how male faculty members took leadership roles on the committees they served while expecting women like her “to serve as secretaries”.

Robillard reaches for a number of feminist writers, including Manne, to explain how the stories above put female academics into a double bind.

“What about the times when she [a woman colleague] fails to provide feminine-coded goods and services in the right way, at the right time? Withholding sympathy makes her a bitch; looking inward makes her cold or selfish; being ambitious makes her hostile and anti-social, as well as untrustworthy.” Male professors are entitled to say no. Female academics, ‘Gwen’ related, are caught in a “mothering” trap, both for difficult male colleagues and students.

“[In] each area, how you do your service, how you teach, how you do your scholarship, it’s like you’re supposed to be mothering … What if this is not a good time, you don’t have the bandwidth to do it? It’s like there's a shock collar that’s like, well, no, you’re supposed to do it … never-ending patience and compassion no matter how much of an ass this person is.”

While the use of titles, such as ‘Dr’ or ‘professor’ by academics sometimes rankles people outside academe, within its walls they are important because they signal earned status. Thus, the feeling by ‘Lisa’, who teaches at a STEM-focused institution, that calling her by her given name and the male professors as ‘Dr So-and-So’ was no mere verbal tic. Rather, she saw it (correctly, in this reader’s judgement) as a micro-aggression. “I don’t think this person has anything against me; he probably didn’t even realise he was doing it, but at the same time, it’s this environment where respect and authority automatically goes to men.”

Gwen’s experience is instructive because her chair made a real effort to be aware of the power imbalance in the committee and department dialectic. And yet, he too “constantly overlooks female faculty accomplishments. Now, when it’s pointed out to him, he tries to make up for that, but he will in my conversations with him say things like, ‘Well, you know I won a Guggenheim [scholarship]’”.

Sexual harassment and women’s credibility

Robillard opens the chapter, “Sexual Harassment and Women’s Credibility”, with the jaw-dropping story of Susan who had worked hard mentoring new hires in best practices for teaching online. Even telling Robillard the story was obviously difficult, for Susan stopped and started several times.

The head of her department informed her that another woman in the department had emailed the chair and several vice-principals saying that Susan was being “inappropriately affectionate” with the new hires. The department head e-mailed the woman who wrote the e-mail, “I’ve never gotten that vibe from Susan before, but what do you mean by inappropriately affectionate.” The woman answered that Susan was with them in her, Susan’s, office for longer than 20 minutes.

Susan was told that any future meetings with the new hires had to be fewer than 20 minutes and in the hallway! She moved their meetings online.

The stern email she got from the head of her department, who was 29 years old, cautioned, “You want to avoid any appearance that you’re grooming these two new hires.”

Susan told Robillard, “‘Grooming’ them? Into what? Better online teachers?” She wrote back to her department head saying, “Isn’t the English language interesting, how words can have multiple meanings? I don’t appreciate your use of the word grooming as if I’m a sexual predator.” The head e-mailed back admitting to a poor choice of words but reiterated, “You do need to avoid any appearance of sexual misconduct.”

The irony of this instance, Robillard notes, is that not only had there not been any appearance of sexual misconduct but that the very charge of sexual misconduct is one that women usually bring – and are routinely disbelieved.

She presents several stories of female graduate students being ‘hit on’.

‘Monica’ told Robillard that those responsible for scheduling made sure to never assign female students to a particular male adjunct. Eva told of male PhD students making rape, racist and homophobic jokes “and nobody says anything”.

‘Anna’, an ABD doctoral student had to deal with rumours a male graduate student spread about her when she refused to become involved with him.

In the case of ‘Jackie’, the Title IX office resisted her efforts to bring a complaint of sexual harassment against another female graduate student who looked “up Instagram photos of my exes and comment[ed] to me about their attractiveness and how they are in bed and things like that and what lesbian sex is like”. She was advised to wait since the other graduate student was graduating and the “‘problem’ was going to go away”.

‘Meg’ told Robillard that at conferences women used hand signals to alert trusted male colleagues that another male department member had become physically aggressive with them. “We had designated men who would come and take him away from you.”

The elephant in the room

Towards the end of the book, Robillard addresses the elephant in the room: squaring the circle of English departments that pride themselves on being committed to diversity, equity and inclusion and yet are misogynistic.

Part of the problem, ‘Rebecca’ says, is definitions. As with “bullying”, misogynistic acts may not rise to the level of being illegal, which doesn’t, of course, mean that they are not damaging.

“If it’s not illegal, it is usually allowed to continue to happen, with women being gaslighted into believing that what is happening is not actually happening.”

Largely an Americanism, ‘gaslighting’ is defined by Psychology Today as “an insidious form of manipulation and psychological control. Victims of gaslighting are deliberately and systematically fed false information that leads them to question what they know to be true, often about themselves”.

The gap between English departments and their efforts to revamp their curricula to be more inclusive and equitable, and the misogynistic behaviour of many male graduate students and professors is a prime setting for gaslighting. For, when confronted with evidence of their actions, the male academics and those women who commit misogynistic acts can point to their classrooms and scholarship to demonstrate their commitment to social justice, thus devaluing the lived experience of the women they have belittled, degraded and abused.

Perhaps the chief effect of the cognitive dissonance this psychological double bind generates is, Robillard shows, the recapitulation of the issues feminist scholars discuss: self-policing of their speech and conforming their behaviour to male-determined standards.

As one of her respondents explained, citing Foucault [the late French social historian who wrote that the sine-qua-non of the modern nation state was self-policing, self-conformity to the dominant ideology], “A lot of times self-regulation is something that women learn . . . . We learn it and we monitor ourselves.”

Such self-policing, Robillard writes, includes the delegitimisation of stories of misogyny, the reduction of them to the level of gossip or tattling. This is why her book, which is replete with stories of female academics telling of their misogynistic experiences, is important: it creates a space where other female academics can see that they are not alone.