Friday, April 27, 2012

Sex or Gender?

To brutally stereotype, men get confused about whether something is about sex or gender.  Exhibit A is the "sex" issue of Foreign Policy magazine.  To be clear, FP is a great magazine and a fantastic, award-winning website.  But they blew it on this one.  I will not get into it, as Charli Carpenter has a devastating post that lays out where the editors went wrong.  Also, see Megan Mackenzie's take on it.  Charlie's footnote is actually most instructive (and the rest of the piece is as well):
*Sex: biological maleness or femaleness. Sexuality: pertaining to sexual relations. Gender: socially constructed notions about masculinity and femininity. Gender Analysis: analyzing the relationship between gender (see above), power hierarchies and sociopolitical outcomes. "Gendered" Analysis: basing an analysis of sociopolitical outcomes on gender myths and stereotypes. EG: "We can't hire women writers because there aren't enough qualified women" or "If the issue has women in it, it must be all about SEX!!!" See also this.
When I read some of the FP issue, including the fact that it was taking seriously some of these topics (if only for one issue), I was thinking how much progress has been made--if not in the world, then at least in the academic universe in which I dwell.  Then I got a comment on a post about rule #1 of academia: I was talking about treating the staff well,* but a commenter thought rule #1 was "not to have sex with the students."  I tried to distinguish that my rule number one required actions--to be nice to the staff--and that the commenter's rule was about not doing something I had no intention of doing anyway--that I would not rank as the top rule something that shouldn't be done.  But the commenter had a point--that even if I get frustrated about all the movies depicting every male professor as a predator, I recognize that the problem of sexual harassment has not gone away.  Then I saw this piece about the continued sexual harassment that still seems prevalent and even accepted.  I am not naive, and I know of such behavior in the 21st century, but I had thought things had gotten better.  Now I am not so sure.  
* Of course, given that department staffs are almost always mostly female, there are gender dynamics here as well.
 Let me briefly chart the gender dynamics I have witnessed in my career to suggest that things are both better and the same.  I will try to be careful about not identifying evil-doers--and, yes, I consider those who prey upon students to be doing evil as are those folks who diminish people due to their gender (or race, ethnicity, religion, or whatever). 

In my first steady position, one of my colleagues informed me, as if it were a perk, "they let you screw the students here."  He was not kidding.  It was not rampant, but one member of the department was clearly and thoroughly creating a hostile environment through his predation of the graduate students and he was clearly abetted by one of the senior people in the department.  The rest of the senior faculty were blind to it and were willing to carve out exceptions for this one person since he was extra-special.  Even after he was gone, it colored everything in the graduate program for quite a while.  
     To make matters worse, every yearly sexual harassment training session (a policy for all departments at the time) became a competition among some of the faculty about how best to mock the exercise and diminish the problem.  I swore after the last session, even though I had not yet gained tenure, that if this were to happen again, I would stand up and say: "if we could agree not to fuck our students, then perhaps we wouldn't find these sessions so problematic."  I never had the opportunity as the sessions did not take place again.
     The undergraduate classroom was gendered but in a different way.  Nearly every class I taught on security issues and foreign policy had a male to female ratio of about 8 to 2.  I am not sure why this was the case, but perhaps folks in Texas or in the 1990's perceived bombs and rockets and wars and such to be men's stuff.  The women in those classes sometimes spoke up, but often not so much as they were outnumbered by the louder men. 

     In my next academic job, things got much better.  The classes always had a much better mix--men were in the minority but not so outrageously out-numbered as the women in my previous post.  Participation was much more evenly distributed so that I stopped noticing as much.  The department had and has more women at the associate and assistant professor levels.  However, there is only one female full professor.
    The problem of harassment still existed.  The punishment would appear mild to any observer.  Indeed, one of the problems with cloaking everything in confidentiality is that the students know more than the colleagues about who is, well, an evil-doer.  The students talk about these things, but the profs cannot.  Whatever punishments are levied are invisible to anyone but the punished, so it is not clear to anyone that the university cares about the problem and has done anything about it--even if the university does care and has done something about it.  So, the messages sent are opaque at best. 

  In the profession at large, the demographics have changed remarkably since the time I started: it used to be that most of the women at the ISA and APSA seemed to be book reps.  But now more book reps are male, and junior faculty and young senior faculty are much more representative of the population--gender-wise.  Not enough female full professors yet, as I have learned of the phrase--leaky pipeline.  I have not heard a faculty member say that we ought not hire a woman since her husband has a job since sometime around 1998. 

  I used to joke that one could not legislate against love, so one could not restrict faculty and students from having relationships.  My graduate school had at least two or three couples among the faculty who had met when one partner was a prof and the other a grad student.  But the reality I have observed over the years is that the interactions in this area are more about sex and power than about love.  I may be careless in posting about this stuff, but I chose the word "predation" quite purposefully here.  No matter how educated we become, no matter how much the world of Mad Men seems alien to us (and yes, much progress has been made since the early 1960's), there is much left to be done. 

It was not my intention that my last four graduate students at McGill have been women, but it is a point of pride that they are thriving and succeeding.  I know that they will face a lot of crap in this business, but I also know that they know that I will always be there for them.  In my view, agreeing to be an adviser is akin to an unbreakable vow--a magical binding contract.  And as always, with great power, comes great responsibility. 


Charli Carpenter said...

Steve, great post.

Daria said...

Definitely a great post!

Just a comment though about sex vs gender and the "confusion" some experience when having to differentiate between the two. While for some it might be genuine confusion, others might make those choices deliberately: after all, "The Gender Files" just doesn't sound as... well, sexy (or flashy, or intriguing) as "The Sex Files".