Sunday, April 06, 2008

Harassments, Part 3

Unsurprisingly, three of the men in my stories were overt bullies, taken to throwing temper tantrums like 3 year-olds until they got their way in any given situation. They interpreted any dissent as an attack; and an attack meant that they were victims. In their minds, as victims, anything that they did to fend off the attack was self-defense.

Most of the bully's colleagues would back down because they did not have enough invested in any particular conflict to launch the kind of nuclear opposition required to force the bully to back down. Any opposition that hoped to be successful would require the involvement of many people, and sometimes more powerful people, and the bully would claim to be not just a vicitm, but a victim of a conspiracy. Worse yet, (as Belle noted in the comments to my last post) the environment of the department could easily become one of open hostility and bitter factionalism. No one wants to go in that direction, so bullies tend to get their way. That is how bullying works. Thus, if the bully acknowleged responsibility for his own behavior, then the bully would have to give up what had become a very successful tactic in meeting his own ends.

Also unsurprisingly, these bullies, in claiming the victim pose for their own, deplored the use of the victim pose by anyone else, particularly those groups who might actually have a grievance.

Only one of the supervisors in my examples deviated from this bully pattern. He did not throw temper tantrums that often, and he did not oppose efforts to address the problems facing minorities. He supported the changes that brought women and minorities into the workplace. In some ways, that made his own behavior more egregious to me. I felt like he should have known better. Instead, he used his own history of supporting minorities and feminist causes as evidence that he absolutely could not have harassed me. Only sexists harass sexually, he reasoned. He was not a sexist (and had the credentials to prove it, he would remind me), therefore he could not harass. He failed to see that, while I did not qualify his behavior as sexual, his behavior was still harassment.

All of which brings me to part of the heart of the problem here. The focus in harassment cases is upon the “sexual,” which is not the source of the abuse. The source of the abuse is in the “harassment,” which is not always sexual in nature. While most universities and workplaces have a policy against sexual harassment, they do not have policies dealing with simple harassment or bullying. In all of these cases, but most pronouncedly in the fourth, the problem lay in the fear, intimidation, blatant favoritism, overt attacks, and continued unwelcome behavior that ruled the work environment. Yet, unless provable damage had been done, and unless the hostile work environment rested upon sex, the subordinates had few options for recourse.

The colleagues of these men did not see objections to their behavior as anything other than a personality conflict. When I brought my problem to the chair of the department in the third case, he told me, “you can’t file a complaint against someone for being an asshole.”* In all of these cases, that was how the colleagues of these men perceived these men: simply as assholes. Bullying assholes in some cases, to be sure, but still just assholes. “Yeah,” they would say, “we all know how that guy can be. We just have to deal with it.” They, as the assholes’ colleagues, had to put up with the behavior; so, naturally and more so, the assholes’ subordinates should endure it as well. In fact, in every single case here, the question to the subordinate – me or others in my position – was “why don’t you just go somewhere else?” As if there were somewhere else to go. As if the subordinate shutting up and disappearing solved the problem. As if making a lateral move would always end the harassment. As if the problem were the objections to the abuse and not the abuse itself.

The colleagues, such as the chair in this third case, failed to realize that there is a very big difference between dealing with an asshole colleague and dealing with an asshole supervisor (especially when, I might add, the asshole has tenure). That difference would be power. The same behavior that just pisses off a colleague becomes intimidation when aimed at a subordinate.
In the fourth case, the dean realized that the supervisor was behaving very badly. He also realized that his own hands were tied in doing anything about the situation until someone came forward with a complaint, and that that complaint would have to be sexual harassment. Mediation was not even an option, only a complaint and only a complaint of sexual harassment. The two people harmed most by this supervisor’s behavior were white men (and I don’t defend white men often, so you can get an idea of the problems that they faced). The dean needed a woman to come forward and make a formal complaint of sexual harassment, because that was the only avenue whereby the dean could act. The dean, of course, has his own agenda, and the pursuit of this case had much more to do with that agenda and those of others whom this supervisor had pissed off in his decades at that institution.

Meanwhile, I count myself more than fortunate to have landed at an institution where these sorts of problems have not yet emerged around me. I count myself more than lucky to have colleagues, a chair, and a dean, who all insist upon faculty having full lives outside of work, and who so far seem not to engage in any sorts of power games. I also try to be aware of my own behavior in relation to my students so that I don’t abuse them.

Yet, the system of power and privlege still remains to be negotiated not just at any place of employment, but in the professional field as a whole, perhaps even in our whole culture. Will it only change when the generation containing these men dies off (because retirement is not in the cards for most of these men)? Will their protégés take over and advance it? Is privlege so much a part of the way the business works that there will always be room for such abuse? Also, is there a way to address the grievances of the subordinates in a way that does not lead to open warfare? Is there a middle ground between grievance proceedings and ignoring the situation? Or does the nature of privlege -- or of the personalities involved -- mean that even questioning behavior leads to hostility? Meanwhile, how can women negotiate these problems that clearly (from the comments to my first post) many of us face?

I don't have any answers; but I think that the more of us that there are, and the more of us who make connections to one another, the less vulnerable we become to this behavior. I was a target in these cases because I was alone. When I had a gang, a crew, others around me, I was safer both for the numbers and for the extented network of resources that each person brought to the whole group. Isn't that the way civil rights and women's movements have always worked?

(Thank you all for listening and for your comments.)

*Actually, you can fire someone because you don’t like his or her personality. It is called “non-renewal” because a person is “not a good fit,” but that's another story.


Feminist Avatar said...

My ability to cope with the situation I described in 'part one' was my feminist politics. When it first started happening, it made me ill and I felt isolated and vulnerable. I knew something was wrong though, as I had my friend keep a copy of all his emails because I couldn't. Then one day, soemthing clicked in my head and went this is sexual harrasment! And I actually felt less scared and felt really angry. I, who had studied feminist politics for years, wasn't able to make this connection right away- but once I did, it made such a difference to my mental health. And I realised how clever such behaviour is, because it works by trying to isolate you and think that you are the only person with a problem. I could see why the consciousness raising groups of the sixties were so powerful. So you're absolutely right.

Di Kotimy said...

Great series of posts, Clio -- and ditto what feminist avatar said about how this conduct isolates you and makes you feel like you are the only person with a problem. Sharing the stories is really important to that end -- when you read that one other person has had the same experiences, you feel a little less alone. When you discover that several or dozens or hundreds have gone through experiences that follow a remarkably similar pattern, well it becomes something different entirely. Not just feeling less alone, but feeling somehow vindicated -- yes, that's what happened; yes, I have a right to be angry about it. One might even hope that hearing enough stories could give a few women the strength to actually speak up instead of blaming themselves.

Thanks for the posts!

Hahn at Home said...

These are, as always, fascinating to me. I see Belle disagrees with me about my part 2 comment. I do not mean to suggest that no harassment exists in the corporate world, but the threat of lawsuits seem to scare the corporate world much more than it appears it does in your world. Having worked in a wide range of corporate environments, my generalization remains that typically, corporate harassers are much more likely to be met with punitive action.

Hey Clio - send me your email again...I want to share something from a potential future student. You know how to find me.

Belle said...

Clio, these posts are not only great, but important. As you say, it's important that we have a community around us to limit our isolation.

The worst cases of harassment against me were in the corporate world, and not one was ever addressed. Academia has been far less hostile, but seems more pernicious in that we expect thinkers to think, not simply indulge in bullying behaviors. IMHO, I just expect them to behave better.

The History Enthusiast said...

Thank you so much for this series of posts! I've encountered relatively small things over the past few years (nothing to the extent of what you had to endure), but it was cathartic to hear about how I am not the only one who's been harassed.

Rent Party said...

I was sexually harassed and didn't realize it, either. Yes, I'd been overtly harassed before but not skilfully - just said cut it out and reported the person and that was it, no stress.

The more recent case was much more subtle and complex and I didn't realize it could be sexual harassment because it was a relationship I had initially entered voluntarily, with someone I thought had only as much power in the workplace as I (not more), and who I thought was in a completely different department (we're all the children of the same dean, though).

It was amazing to realize I had been sexually harassed and not known it except in retrospect.


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