Friday, 6 January 2017

In Defence of Men in Academia

On the first day of my first conference as a first-year postgraduate, a male academic invited me back to his room. This academic was married, twenty years my senior and I barely knew anything about him. I gracefully declined at first but then, upon discovering that it was a time-honoured whisky party to which a select number of delegates were invited each year and two of my colleagues had also received the same invitation, I accepted. It was a fabulous night and the whisky party became a regular event at the same conference each year thereafter. The host is now one of my closest friends, I have met and stayed with his wife and children and we continue to meet up as often as possible to treat ourselves to good food, good wine and a good old gossip.

I was fortunate to meet such a delightful male academic at a conference, but yes, I’ve also had uncomfortable experiences with men at conferences. I’ve been stalked from seminar room to seminar room, hounded on social media and, because my politeness is a hazard to my safety, I’ve left conferences clutching phone numbers and email addresses that I’ve promptly binned. It’s an unsettling feeling to say the least (especially when you’re both confined to the same small venue for days on end) and it ruins any enjoyment of the conference. In fact a particularly bad experience can even cause you to question whether you wish to continue pursuing a career in the field. 

In response to this unacceptable and evidently common behaviour at conferences – and for some unfortunate folk for whom this is a day-to-day struggle in their own university departments - there has been an emerging groundswell amongst both female and male academics to scrutinise the behaviour of male colleagues, to pummel them into the dirt the very second they put a foot wrong and to hound those who exhibit behaviours not considered to be acceptable. Now if you’ve got Dr. Wandering Hands or Prof. A Women Should Not Have A Profession in your department then a proactive approach is entirely justified; I agreed that we should call them out and challenge them to account for their behaviour because these cretins can stunt the career progression of a female academic and cause serious and long-lasting damage to that individual’s confidence and motivation to continue teaching and researching in their subject.

But thankfully, I have not witnessed this type of behaviour in the men in my own department. There are 32 male academics and 27 female academics in my department and each one of them is a pleasure to work with. I’m judging them by our daily water cooler conversations of course and I have no idea whether they have anyone stripped and hogtied on their basement floor, but over the ten years that I have worked within my department I have not experienced one moment of malicious misogyny or harassment. I’m sure that if I pored obsessively over every daily conversation I could single-out one throwaway sexist gag or a lazy misconception that would have the averagely-incensed feminist burning the building down, but if a comment is made then it is not driven by malicious intent and I am sure that the source would be devastated to discover that he/she had upset anyone. On the whole our staff are mutually supportive of each other and our more confident, aggressively competitive and ambitious members of the department tend to be female (which is by no means a criticism, on the contrary it has contributed significantly to the success of the department). 

A couple of years ago the department was called to a meeting to discuss harassment in the workplace. It wasn’t prompted by or directed at anyone in particular, just a friendly chat with a professional on how the male members of the department should behave around women and how they could offer support and encouragement to their female colleagues. The meeting was very cordial and we all agreed that we shared the same desire to support everyone equally and we would strive to ensure that no-one felt disadvantaged, but, by God, things felt awkward afterwards. Some male members of staff, particularly the older members of the department who had known their female colleagues for many years, became so over-sensitised to causing offence that the simplest actions and conversations were painfully awkward and stilted. Colleagues that regularly dealt out mutually received and well-meaning banter began apologising after making the most innocent of comments, they overcompensated to the point of sounding patronising when genuinely attempting to be supportive and they didn’t know whether it was acceptable to enquire about family issues, illnesses or, in one case, congratulate a member of the department on her pregnancy. Far from clipping the wings of Dr. Wandering Hands or Prof. A Women Should Not Have A Profession, the advice that these individuals received caused confusion, it completely killed the relaxed atmosphere in the department and it turned the loveliest of people into socially bungling, terrified bundles of nerves.

I realise that I am lucky to work with a respectful group of people who do not require close scrutiny and criticism of their behaviour while other departments and universities are in desperate need of close attention and direction in order to make their working relationships bearable, however some women in academia take a disproportionately aggressive approach and they produce exceptionally venomous material that is directed towards male academics in general. This approach sits very uncomfortably with me and, if I am honest, their indefensible generalisations make me question whether the issue is as prevalent as they claim or whether they hold university positions or carry out research that relies heavily upon misogyny and harassment existing in the workplace, to which a successful eradication of these behaviours would put them out of a job. If I was a man I would take great offence upon hearing these generalised attacks however it must be extremely difficult to engage with this material as a male, hence I suspect why I am increasingly encountering women working in university departments who, like me, feel sympathy towards our male colleagues who endure criticism by virtue of assumptions made about their gender rather than from their observed behaviour. 

To those women in academia who are currently rampaging through university departments and sticking both barrels into the gullet of every man they see, I would offer this note of caution: know your enemy.  By all means aim for the bad guys and I will buy you all the ammo that you need to take them down, but please don’t take the scattergun approach because you’re taking good people down with them. In my experience, the good guys outnumber the bad and for every creepy guy who follows you around the room at a conference trying to give you his mobile number, there is a guy who would like to invite you to a whisky party because he admires your work and he would like to talk to you about it. Or there is a male member of staff who feels socially awkward at the best of times and he would like to engage more with his colleagues, but he’s afraid to speak up in case he plays the game incorrectly and says the wrong thing. Or there is an older male member of staff who has the deepest respect for the women that he works with, but he’s afraid to congratulate an administrator on her pregnancy in case he is considered to be speaking out of turn. Certainly there are monsters who target women in all walks of life and we must raise awareness and strive to keep each other safe, we must ensure that no-one is disadvantaged due to their gender and we must seek to punish those of any gender who behave abysmally towards their colleagues, but we should also guard against demonising a whole swathe of men based upon generalised conjecture and thereby behaving precisely like the same tyrannical, presumptive and intolerant monsters that we are fighting against.

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