Confronting sexism

Via Jezebel, a recent study suggests that – at least in some situations – confronting men about sexist remarks can actually make them behave more nicely toward you (and doesn’t make them like you any less).

Show of hands: how many of us, despite our best principles, have at some point let a ridiculously sexist comment slide because we feared the consequences if we spoke up? While it’s important not to overstate the results of a single study, there’s perhaps reason to think that these consequences aren’t always as bad as we fear them to be.

And if anyone needs a reminder of strategies for confronting sexism (and other ‘ism’s), MIT has a fabulous resource on bystander training here.

5 thoughts on “Confronting sexism

  1. Yes, by all means, let us not overstate the results of a single study, especially one which STARTS off with “men collaborating with women to answer a set of ethical questions.”

    Below is a personal anecdote, which I affirm in every detail to be as true as I can say it briefly. The matter is now before the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal. Stay tuned.

    A couple of years ago, twelve women faculty and students (mostly graduates) complained of sexism in my Department. Following direction from the Associate Dean, advice from the Human Rights office of the university, and the preferred internal protocol for such matters, I filed a complaint about a few colleagues, carefully detailing 71 incidents that (purported to) demonstrate a pattern of bullying, differential treatment, and ostracism of women. (In doing so I was strictly exercising my rights under the Human Rights Code of Ontario.)

    Since most blog readers won’t know who I am, (and anyone reading the below would be justified in expecting me to be a kook), let me just preface my remarks by saying that I am a modestly successful philosopher of language and logic with a comfortable international reputation, that I have won a prize for some of my work, that I have numerous times been nominated for teaching awards and consistently receive among the highest teaching evaluations in my department, and just recently been awarded the Student Government’s Anti-Oppression Award “in recognition of [my] exemplary commitment and initiative, both inside and outside the classroom, towards fostering a more inclusive and safer campus, community and society.”

    This is exactly what ensued:

    (1) the complained-about colleagues, supported by the Ol’ Boys’ in the administration, ignored the complaint, and did not address it; then

    (2) three senior faculty women in the department together or separately sought help from upwards of sixteen of these Ol’ Boys’ to get the complaint addressed, all in vain; then

    (3) the complained-about colleagues wrote a SECRET complaint against me, which I was not allowed to know the contents of for almost a year, and which I did not know to exist until the administration began suddenly punishing me. –The complaint alleged that I was “belligerent” (evidence: “she filed a Human Rights complaint against us”), that I was “demanding” (evidence: “she demanded that we respond to it”), and that I was “threatening” (evidence: “she threatened to refer the matter to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario”); then

    (4) I was forcefully, against my explicit will, removed from all committee service, my use of email was severely curtailed, and I was banned from “engaging my colleagues in debate”, on the grounds that undisclosed colleagues, for undisclosed reasons grounded in undisclosed evidence claimed to experience “fear and trepidation at the thought of an encounter with me” (now being grieved by my union); then

    (5) I was accused of racism for referring as “the elephant in the room” to a colleague during initial discussions about the issues with the Head of my department, since the ancestors of the colleague so referred to come from a country where there are elephants; then

    (6) I was accused of issuing a public death threat six years ago during our friendly weekly colloquium when I adapted Donnellan’s Smith’s murderer example to a topical discussion, exchanging “Smith” for the name of a colleague in the room (one who, by the way, invited me to dinner at his house a few months after “the incident” which allegedly left him “shaken” although it took him five years to say so); then

    (7) I was accused of threatening (to blow up) the Department when I responded to a secretary’s stress about the conflicts in the Department that “sometimes things have to explode before they get better”; then

    (8) this witch-hunt demonized me to such an extent as a violent and dangerous person that the university, after allegedly conducting a “threat assessment,” twice hired covert security agents to be present when I attended meetings with my colleagues; then

    (9) I was formally disciplined for trying to defend myself against accusations of inspiring “fear and trepidation” by requesting character references from colleagues worldwide and former students (which letters in my possession now total 150), a discipline that could lead to my dismissal if I engage “in any other unsatisfactory behaviour” (now being grieved by my union).

    Pace the Jezebel “study” and the fact that this is the twenty-first century, I am of the view that confronting men about sexist behaviours is and continues to be very, VERY dangerous.

  2. I’m very sorry to hear about your difficult experiences, Adele. And I’m sure that no one (or no one here, at least) would dispute that the consequences of standing up to sexism are sometimes very bad indeed.

    But the take-home message of this study – which I do think is worth reporting – is that the consequences are not *always* bad for the person who speaks up, and can sometimes even be good.

    And just to be clear, this isn’t a study conduct by the blog Jezebel – it’s a study conducted by researchers at Loyola University and originally reported in Forbes Magazine (

  3. I fully support the notion that women respond to sexism regardless of the dangers, and notwithstanding my astonishment at the kind, extent and violence of the dangers, fully intend to continue doing so. But I would caution against giving women advice on the matter. “Not always” is an awfully weak quantifier.

  4. Adele, I am also sorry that you experienced such workplace horror at the hands of people who should know much, much better. And I agree that “not always” is a weak quantifier. I did once stand up to a physician who made an inappropriate remark (he was a first-year resident, which makes a difference in the strictly hierarchical hospital environment). Afterwards, the guy treated me with respect. I’m sorry to say that talking to fellow nurses about the offender brought forth agreement, but not support for reporting him to higher-ups, and I did not want to take the matter forth alone. I regret that this incident was actually one of many throughout my career. And guess what? Now that I’m 52, more experienced, with a PhD, and I no longer conform to the ideal of youthful feminine beauty, overt amorous and sexual advances no longer happen. Which doesn’t stop a few yahoos in the medical profession (honestly, no one else in the hospital does this) from demeaning nurses as professionals. The content of the harassment just changes.

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