Gender and the Academy

Harvard women’s perspective on power, norms, and harassment

Clayton Spencer, a contributor to The Chronicle’s forum on women in the academy Photograph courtesy of Bates College

The April 6 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education’s opinion section, The Chronicle Review, is devoted entirely to the theme of “The Awakening: Women and Power in the Academy,” featuring essay responses from women academics on that theme. Here are excerpts from some of those essays.

 “I have no idea what the new university will look like…”

Maggie Doherty, Ph.D. ’15, lecturer on history and literature:

“As the years went by, and I advanced toward the Ph.D., the rules for women became more numerous, and the box for acceptable  behavior grew smaller still. Do be an approachable teacher, but don’t be too friendly with your students, or they’ll take advantage of you. Don’t wear a dress to your MLA [Modern Language Association] interview; you’ll be in a hotel room, possibly proximate to a bed, and men won’t be able to stop themselves from sexualizing you. At your job talk, be sure to say ‘thank you’ after each question; men shouldn’t do this—they would appear obsequious—but women must (or so a female faculty member advised me). Be extremely careful when speaking about partners or families, or you might not get the job.…

“The historian Joan Wallach Scott once warned that scholars couldn’t insert gender into their research as though adding a new room on a house already built; they’d have to begin again from the bottom. If the university is to commit itself to gender equality, if it really wants to redistribute power, then everything must change, from the broadest policies to the smallest habits. Traditions will have to be broken; the past will no longer be perfectly reproduced. Working from a new blueprint can mean challenge and error, but it can produce unexpected success. I have no idea what the new university will look like, but I’m eager to see it take shape.”

“The most important way to advance the position of women in academe…”

Mary Beth Norton, Ph.D. ’69, Alger professor of American history at Cornell University and president of the American Historical Association:

“In 1969, I joined the history department at the University of Connecticut at Storrs. I had three female colleagues: two other junior women and a senior chaired professor, a rarity in those days. Yet that pattern was familiar to me from my undergraduate education at the University of Michigan, where the only woman in the history department was a distinguished older scholar. Harvard, my graduate institution, had just one female historian, who was untenured and had been selected from among recent Harvard Ph.D.s. I learned subsequently that both the senior women I knew had experienced significant gender discrimination during their careers.…

“In 1971 I moved to Cornell, where I was the first woman ever hired in the history department—indeed, the first woman ever interviewed for a position. The department had been training female graduate students for decades but had seemingly never considered hiring any of them. For five years, I remained the only woman in the department.…

“My prior experience at UConn helped as I coped with a chair who started department meetings by saying ‘gentlemen,’ and who once directed a memo to ‘Professor X, Professor Y, and Miss Norton.’…

“As Rosabeth Moss Kanter [Arbuckle professor of business administration] observed in her 1977 book, Men and Women of the Corporation, the presence of a critical mass of women can be instrumental in changing a work culture. As more women were hired, the department became more welcoming to everyone. More women meant that gender no longer served as an important identifier.…

“My own history, coupled with my scholarship on powerful women in the past, suggests to me that the most important way to advance the position of women in academe is to increase their relative share of appointments.”

“An environment in which claims of harassment are not swept under the rug…”

Nannerl O. Keohane, LL.D. ’93, president emerita of Wellesley College and Duke University, and a past fellow of the Harvard Corporation:

“When the words ‘women’ and ‘power’ are juxtaposed, my usual reaction is that we don’t have much of it. This has historically been true in higher education. Now, however, women make up half or more of the student body at most colleges. Women also occupy positions of power, including the president’s office. Our record of gaining and using power is positive and consequential.

“Yet even when women have significant authority, they are vulnerable to sexual predation. The primal difference between men and women in terms of ‘power,’ defined as physical strength, does not disappear just because women have gained ‘power,’ defined as formal authority. So while we must combat the problem of sexual harassment, we must also avoid relegating ourselves to helpless victimhood. We are not powerless, and we can—and should—do something about it.

“What can we do? First, women—and sympathetic men—in authority must create an environment in which claims of harassment are not swept under the rug, automatically discounted, or settled with monetary payments and confidentiality agreements.…

“Women—and men—can work together to discourage off-color jokes, call out individuals who are prone to unwanted touching, and protect vulnerable colleagues. Women who are harassed in minor ways can respond with humor or bemusement—‘What’s that all about?’—instead of accepting or ignoring inappropriate behavior.

“The #MeToo movement gives us a rare opportunity to act on such ideas. We must not let this moment pass.”

“A healthy impatience with the status quo…”

Clayton Spencer, A.M. ’82, president of Bates College and former Harvard vice president for policy:

“Let’s start with the obvious. Women have, to varying degrees, been systematically excluded from leadership positions. To this day, only a tiny fraction of Fortune 500 CEOs are women—just over 6 percent. Women fare slightly better in political life, where they constitute 21 percent of the Senate, 19 percent of the House of Representatives, 25 percent of state legislatures, and 8 percent of governors.

“Higher education has a stronger record of women’s leadership than either politics or business, but the gains are recent, and women have spent far more time on the outside looking in than on the inside exercising power themselves.…

“If you have been systematically excluded from leadership roles, you very likely have a healthy impatience with the status quo. This stance is a component of strong leadership in any organization, but especially in higher education, where ‘this is the way we’ve always done it’ is too often the prevailing, if unspoken, rational when making decisions.”

Read more articles by John S. Rosenberg
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