The Problem of Gendered Violence in Academia
By Dr Allison Surtees, University of Winnipeg
Gendered violence is one of many challenges women in academia face. It is not a problem specific to academia; it is rampant in our society more broadly. There are, however, specific challenges to dealing with violence in an academic setting. The small size of our communities, the very nature of our education system and career advancement, and the power structures involved all make dealing with violence in the academy all the more difficult to navigate, negotiate, and prevent. Violence takes multiple forms and the effects are complex and enduring. Regardless of the form it takes, the ultimate goals of violence are to cause fear in the victim and to silence them. Gendered violence, then, works to silence the voices of women. I present here different forms of violence and their effects in the general population before looking more closely at academia and the peculiarities of our profession that foster an environment in which violence occurs, often with impunity.
Gendered violence: Gendered violence is violence perpetrated against someone as a result of their gender or gender expression. This term covers all women, including non-cis and non-binary people who identify as women. It is also important to note that violence affects all women differently, and people in marginalized groups face particular challenges; women of colour face violence at the intersection of race and gender. Women with disabilities, either physical or psychiatric, are more at risk with respect to people close to them on whom they rely for assistance and/or support. Trans women face a deep level of violence that intersects with gender, homophobia, and transphobia.
Sexual violence: Sexual violence is a broad term that encompasses a variety of physical and non-physical assaults on an individual. These can include verbal harassment, unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favours, unwanted physical contact, coercion intended to pressure, trick, or force unwanted sexual activity, and physical acts of sexual assault. Sexual violence also includes making conditions of employment dependent on sexual favors.(www.womenshealth.gov).
Consent: Crucial to the definition of sexual violence is the issue of consent.¹ The Canadian Department of Justice provides the following definition of consent (www.justice.gc.ca).
Subsection 273.1(1) defines consent as the voluntary agreement of the complainant to engage in the sexual activity in question. Conduct short of a voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity does not constitute consent as a matter of law.
For greater certainty, subsection 273.1(2) sets out specific situations where there is no consent in law; no consent is obtained:
● where the agreement is expressed by the words or conduct of a person other than the complainant
● where the complainant is incapable of consenting to the activity
● where the accused induces the complainant to engage in the activity by abusing a position of trust, power or authority
● where the complainant expresses, by words or conduct, a lack of agreement to engage in the activity, or
● where the complainant, having consented to engage in sexual activity, expresses, by words or conduct, a lack of agreement to continue to engage in the activity.
Despite the seeming clarity of these definitions, even in the most extreme cases of violence, proving sexual violence or identifying it when it has occurred is far from straightforward. This has been made abundantly clear in recent years with a series of high profile cases, both within and outside academia. And it is far more difficult to prove or recognize more subtle acts of violence. Women encounter on a regular basis acts of sexual violence that we often don’t register or recognize as such. A sexually explicit joke, an unwanted hand placed on a woman’s body, a person in a position of power making sexual advances towards someone under their professional influence can all be forms of sexual violence. The cumulative effect of these acts can take a serious toll on women both personally and professionally.
Verbal violence: Verbal violence is the use of abusive language or ways of speaking that belittle and demean another person, including yelling, shaming, blaming, name-calling, insulting, dismissing, using threats, or making negative comments about a specific group as a whole. Saying that all women are irrational belittles women as a group and devalues their capabilities, and is therefore a form of verbal violence. This form of violence includes not just the spoken word, but also written communications, such as email, text messages, or written reports and evaluations. A key aspect of verbal violence is the act of causing fear in another individual. For example, if an individual is continually shouted down or talked over in meetings, this can cause that individual to be afraid to speak, effectively silencing them. It is the element of fear that distinguishes a simple disagreement from an act of verbal violence.²
Microaggressions: A particularly controversial form of violence is the microaggression. The term ‘microaggression’ has come into common parlance in recent years, but its meaning is not always properly understood. In the preface to his 2010 book Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation, Derald Wing Sue describes the experience of microaggressions as “the constant and continuing everyday reality of slights, insults, invalidations, and indignities visited upon marginalized groups by well-intentioned, moral, and decent family members, friends, neighbors, coworkers, students, teachers, clerks, waiters and waitresses, employers, health care professionals, and educators. The power of microaggressions lies in their invisibility to the perpetrator, who is unaware that he or she has engaged in a behavior that threatens and demeans the recipient of such a communication.” Microaggressions are thus a subtler form of violence that often goes unrecognized, and they stem from internalized bias and stereotypes which are continually reinforced by our culture. While there may be no harm intended, microaggressions are constant reminders of social inequality and serve to put people from marginalized groups back in their place. With respect to gender, these microaggressions reinforce the gender binary, forcing cis-women into assumed gender roles, and erasing trans women altogether (everydayfeminism.com). Assuming a woman will take minutes at a meeting can be a microaggression, as it reinforces restrictive gender roles. Refusing to use the correct pronouns when speaking to a trans woman denies her identity by refusing to acknowledge that she is a woman. One of the more frustrating microaggressions can be the denial of the reality of sexism and misogyny altogether.
A common example of a microaggression is something as simple as interrupting. Women are regularly interrupted in conversation, primarily by men. While this may seem like a relatively harmless thing, when women are continually interrupted, they are being sent the message that their voices are not as important as are the voices of the men interrupting them. This reinforces, for the women and for everyone else in the conversation, that men’s voices have more authority than do women’s and discourages women from speaking. It can make women fearful of speaking, and has the explicit goal of silencing them. Some researchers even suggest that microaggressions can be more damaging than overt misogyny because they are so small and thereby often dismissed or trivialized (Greer & Chwalisz, 2007; Solórzano, Ceja, & Yosso, 2000; Watkins, LaBarrie, & Appio, 2010), and those who challenge them are often told that they are being too sensitive. Women in particular are conditioned to accept, to question themselves, and to not want to cause problems. Dismissing these actions as minor things invalidates the victim’s lived experience and further continues the violence and the silencing.
The body of academic research on microaggressions is substantial. Derald Wing Sue has addressed microaggressions broadly and more specifically as they play out in psychological counselling. A recent article in The Journal of Black Studies addresses the experience of microaggressions of Black faculty members in an academic setting (Louis, Rawls, Jackson-Smith, Chambers, Phillips, and Louis, 2016). And the December 2016 issue of Australian Feminist Studies contains three articles exploring the integration or inclusion of microaggressions in aspects of feminist scholarship (van der Tuin, 2016, Moran Nocek, 2016, King, 2016). These are but a very few examples in a significant and growing body of research. In common parlance, however, microaggressions (and by the same token ‘trigger warnings’ and ‘safe spaces’) are often repurposed, misrepresented, and (at times wilfully) misunderstood. Most problematically, the backlash against these concepts by academics rarely engages with the substantial and easily accessible scholarship on the topic. Rather, detractors reframe the conversation to paint themselves as the victims of political correctness run amok, led by the cries of overly-sensitive groups of people afraid of confronting ideas they may find distressing. Calls to mitigate microaggressions (and to provide trigger warnings/safe spaces) are characterized as attacks on free speech and academic freedom.³ A particularly disturbing example is a 2015 column in the Washington Post by Eugene Volokh (www.washingtonpost.com). The article responds to attempts by the University of California (where the author teaches) to educate members of the academic community about the nature of and damage caused by microaggressions, focusing in part on the importance of language. Examples of problematic statements provided by the University include: “Gender plays no part in who we hire”; “Affirmative action is racist”; “Men and women have equal opportunities for achievement”; “I believe the most qualified person should get the job.” In his repudiation of these guidelines, the author makes no mention of the extensive research on the topic of microaggressions and provides no scholarly argument (or any real argument at all) to refute or disprove the extensive research on the topic, and in fact makes no mention of the existence of this research at all. Rather he simply dismisses the notion of microaggressions wholesale and states: “Well, I’m happy to say that I’m just going to keep on microaggressing. I like to think that I’m generally polite, so I won’t express these views rudely. And I try not to inject my own irrelevant opinions into classes I teach, so there are many situations in which I won’t bring up these views simply because it’s not my job to express my views in those contexts. But the document that I quote isn’t about keeping classes on-topic or preventing personal insults — it’s about suppressing particular viewpoints. And what’s tenure for, if not to resist these attempts to stop the expression of unpopular views?” In making this statement, the author willfully misunderstands what microaggressions are, and why the examples given are damaging. Rather he simply denies the existence and experience of violence towards marginalized individuals, which is in and of itself is a microaggression. Moreover, he actively chooses to continue to engage in behaviour others have indicated is harmful. The irony of this defensive, knee-jerk reaction is that these detractors themselves are refusing to engage with ideas that they find disturbing or distressing. For in acknowledging the existence of and the damage caused by microaggressions, one must either change one’s behavior and beliefs, or consciously choose to inflict harm. It is easier to simply dismiss the concerns of marginalized groups (often in insulting terms), thereby eliminating any need to reflect on and change one’s ideas and actions.
All these forms of violence work together in tandem, building upon each other. Through their subtlety and endless repetition, microaggressions create and maintain a societal atmosphere that reinforces and justifies the marginalization of women. This oppressive system creates the foundation on which misogyny and patriarchy are permitted to thrive. These structures serve to further marginalize and dehumanize women, all of which not only opens a space for further emotional and sexual violence, but treats such violence as expected and even inevitable. The assumed inevitability of such violence then turns the responsibility back onto the victim; since gendered violence is simply an immutable part of society, it is the responsibility of women to minimize the violence they endure by behaving in ways that don’t challenge societal gender expectations.
What are the consequences of violence?
The effects of violence go well beyond the act of violence itself or the moment in which that violence occurred. Rather, the damaging effects to the individual may endure months or even years after the act itself. Effects of violence include damage to both physical and mental health, not to mention the potential professional and social damage. In all the forms discussed here, the effect of gendered violence is to silence women and remove their voices and/or person from public spaces. Not only is the woman removed, but her silencing serves to validate the violence which led to that silencing in the first place. The perpetrator of violence is then empowered to repeat the violence, towards the same and/or other women.
Physical harm can include: sexual dysfunction, somatic complaints, sleep disturbances, migraines, heart problems, GI disorders, autoimmune disorders. Mental health effects can include: anger, frustration, exhaustion, guilt, shame, diminished self-confidence or poor self-image, depression, anxiety, trauma including PTSD, body image issues and eating disorders, withdrawal from relationships, removal from public spaces, social isolation and marginalization, attempted suicide (www.who.int).
Professional consequences can include lost productivity, which leads to fewer or delayed promotions, which leads to lower income. Continued violence may lead to women simply dropping out of the academic world; this is particularly prevalent among trans women. When women leave academia, the academic community loses diversity in its voices. This lack of diversity serves to maintain the status quo and support the atmosphere which caused women to leave in the first place. And the cycle continues.
How do these play out in academia?
Academia is not removed from the world around us. We are all products of the society in which we live, and academia is a microcosm of societal misogynistic and patriarchal structures. Nonetheless, there are aspects of our academic structure that create or exacerbate aspects of gendered violence. I see two primary aspects of academia that contribute to and perpetuate a climate in which gendered violence can flourish: gender inequity and a patriarchal hierarchy.
The gender inequity and gender power dynamics that exist in society as a whole are intensified in academia by the under-representation of women in tenure-track, senior faculty, and administrative positions. In May 2016, the Canadian Association of University Teachers released a report indicating that Canadian universities are not meeting their own diversity hiring targets (www.theglobeandmail.com).
Within the Canadian Classics community, gender inequity is also a continuing issue. In July 2016, the Classical Association of Canada released results of a recent survey looking at gender and employment in Canadian Classics programs. The numbers seem to confirm that women continue to occupy fewer permanent positions and fewer senior positions. Women occupy 40% of tenured or tenure-track jobs and 62% of jobs off the tenure-track. With respect to rank, women make up 50% of Assistant Professors, but only 43% of Associate Professors, and only 33% of Full Professors. The low number of women in senior positions working in conjunction with a societal gender power imbalance necessarily places women in a vulnerable position. Women are forced into expected gender roles, with the expectation that women will be more agreeable and nurturing. This then leads to women taking on more service work and specifically taking on more emotional labour, which takes time and energy away from the research required for promotion. With fewer women in the upper echelons, the possibility of female advancement rests largely in the hands of men, who often exhibit implicit bias against women whether they recognize it or not. All of this leads to an environment in which women are dependent for promotion on a largely male group, making women increasingly susceptible to abuses of male power.
Added to the gender imbalance is the extreme hierarchical structure of academia in general. These hierarchies reinforce a patriarchal system which is difficult for women to break through. While this is an issue to varying degrees in all disciplines, I would argue that our discipline is particularly entrenched in these male dominated hierarchies. Due in no small part to the long history of Classics, particularly as compared to other disciplines (sociology, economics etc.), change in the world of Classics is slow. Change in our academic ideas is slow. Change in our social and professional structures is slower. These hierarchies give extraordinary amounts of power to those in senior positions. The fate of one’s career may very well rest in, or at least rely very heavily on, the hands of a very few individuals. And unlike many jobs outside academia, it is remarkably difficult to remove oneself from the sphere of influence of an individual or group of people. Our discipline is small, and reputations, good or bad, spread quickly and last long. Moreover, anonymity is very difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. If a junior woman has difficulty with a senior academic, be it a graduate supervisor or a senior faculty member, or even a well known person in the field in general, there is very little recourse. Complaints, particularly of a sexual nature, are often not dealt with in any satisfactory way. In addition, the anonymity of the complainant is virtually impossible, particularly for women of colour and trans women. A woman making charges of sexual misconduct from anyone, but especially from senior members of the discipline, risks 1) not being believed, 2) having no satisfactory outcome, and 3) being permanently labelled as a trouble maker. And simply removing oneself from the situation as a graduate student or faculty member is often not possible or advisable. Changing graduate programs and/or supervisors is a risk and in this job market finding another job is generally not an option. These structures then lead to further license for senior people in the field to abuse their power, and place women in a remarkably vulnerable position, in a degree to which I would argue does not exist in many other fields of employment.
Moreover, there are still those who treat sexual violence, or more specifically sex with graduate supervisors or senior faculty members, as simply the cost of doing business in academia. In an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education titled “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe”, Laura Kipnis penned a disturbingly dismissive attack on regulations around student/teacher relationships, which she mockingly refers to as the “Great Prohibition” (chronicle.com). She states outright that “when I was in college, hooking up with professors was more or less part of the curriculum.” She goes further and claims that arguments revealing the power dynamics between professor and student represent “feminism hijacked by melodrama.” As though the assumption and expectation of sex with professors (or those in positions of power) is somehow not a problem. But it is a problem and refusing to accept sexual violence is not being melodramatic. It is not melodramatic to be negatively affected by verbal abuse or unwanted sexual advances. It is not melodramatic to fear for one’s career when a man in a position of power makes clear his sexual intentions. It is not melodramatic to decry the idea that a woman’s bodily autonomy is second to a man’s sexual desire. And it is not melodramatic to rail against the notion that one’s body can and should be used as academic currency.
At the core of Kipnis’ argument is an explicit denial of the power dynamics between professor and student, and between men and women. And Kipnis is far from the only person to make this argument. But senior members of academia do have a great deal of power over those in junior positions. And in academia, as in the rest of society, men do have a great deal of power over women. To deny or dismiss these inherent power dynamics in society and in academia trivializes the all too real trauma of gendered violence.⁴ These attitudes ignore the gender inequity and the power hierarchies that can lead to serial abusers manipulating women through their position of power. A series of recent, high profile cases show that there are sexual predators in academia, who know that their behavior is not acceptable but continue to prey on young women because they can. There are also, however, a significant number of men who don’t realize that they are perpetrators of violence, particularly with respect to the subtler forms of violence. And there are many victims of violence who, through social conditioning, the normalization of violence, rape culture, and internalized misogyny, don’t recognize the acts of violence perpetrated against them. As a result, many acts that aren’t intended as violent are committed by well-meaning people. Regardless of intention, however, damage is still inflicted upon the recipient of unintended violence. Intent does not mitigate impact. For this reason, we must be more clear and open about forms and consequences of gendered violence, to mitigate and stop the damage done, and make academia a safe place for all.
- Consent laws in the United States vary considerably from state to state. Examples of factors that affect the definition and application of consent laws include: affirmative consent, age at which one is able to consent, consciousness on the part of the victim, intoxication of the victim, voluntary intoxication of the assailant, and the relationship between victim and assailant (i.e. spouse, employer, teacher). A comparison of consent laws in individual states can be found here: https://apps.rainn.org/policy/
- A 2015 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education addresses the question of verbal abuse in academia (Robert J. Sternberg, June 29, 2015 www.chronicle.com). While the article recognizes the significance of the problem, it does not address the power structures involved in verbal abuse aimed at marginalized individuals. Suggested strategies include: “react with kindness and compassion”; “ignore the abuse and, if possible, the abuser”; “listen to what is said, ignore the way it is said”; “view occasional abuse as just the cost of doing business”; “consider verbal abuse as a sign you are being creative and doing your job right”. While the suggested coping mechanism may be useful in a situation between individuals of equal or similar privilege, when applied to marginalized groups they are often not plausible or possible, and erase the additional violent effects of societal and institutional hierarchies of privilege.
- For example, the claim that “victimhood culture and its manifestations on campus threaten the goals of the academy.” (www.chronicle.com). A high-profile example of this reaction to calls for trigger warnings/safe spaces is the fall 2016 letter to incoming students written by the President of the University of Chicago: (www.insidehighered.com). See also Peter Schmidt 2015 (www.chronicle.com)
- Kipniss was subsequently subject to a Title IX Investigation based on this column. Kipness was cleared of any wrongdoing and describes her experience here: (www.chronicle.com). The dismissal of the investigation was followed by a flurry of articles attacking the formal complaint as a witch-hunt, absurd, or a betrayal of academic freedom. For example: www.chicagotribune.com; reason.com; www.thefire.org. All of this derails the conversation about abuse and violence and serves to trivialize what are serious and consequential issues.
Greer, T.M., & Chwalisz, K. (2007) “Minority-Related Stressors and Coping Processes among African American College Students.” Journal of College Student Development, 48(4), 388–404.
King, Katie (2016) “Microaggressions as Boundary Objects,” Australian Feminist Studies, 31:89, 276–282, DOI: 10.1080/08164649.2016.1254030
Louis, D.A., G.J. Rawls, D. Jackson-Smith, G.A. Chambers, L.L. Phillips, and S.L. Louis, (2016) “Listening to Our Voices: Experiences of Black Faculty at Predominantly White Research Universities With Microaggression,” Journal of Black Studies 47: 5, p.454–474.
Nocek, Stacey Moran (2016) “Dangerously Small Things: Response to Iris van der Tuin,” Australian Feminist Studies, 31:89, 267–275, DOI: 10.1080/08164649.2016.1254539
Sue, Derald Wing (2010) Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender and Sexual Orientation, Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
Solorzano, D. , Ceja, M. & Yosso, T. (2000) “Critical Race Theory, Racial Microaggressions and Campus Racial Climate: The Experiences of African American College Students.” Journal of Negro Education, 69, 60–73.
van der Tuin, Iris (2016) “Microaggressions as New Political Material for Feminist Scholars and Activists: Perspectives from Continental Philosophy, the New Materialisms, and Popular Culture,” Australian Feminist Studies, 31:89, 246–262, DOI:10.1080/08164649.2016.1254029
Watkins N. L., LaBarrie T. L., Appio L. M. (2010) “Black Undergraduates’ Experiences with Perceived Racial Microaggressions in Predominantly White Colleges and Universities” in D.W. Sue (ed.), Microaggressions and Marginality: Manifestation, Dynamics, and Impact. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 25–58.