Discrimination in an inverted hierarchy

May 11 2011 Published by under ableism, academia, industry, racism, sexism

At most institutions, we have systems in place to cope with people being sexist/racist/ableist when in a position of power over us. For example, if the offender is a professor and the offendee is a student, or if the offender is a director and the offendee is a department head.

But what about the other way around? When we talk about a "harassment free" workplace, what does that mean in terms of people "lower" than us in hierarchical stature being sexist/racist/ableist to us?

Kaija's comment on FSP's recent post about student -> professor sexism said, "Would it be ok if Mr. A$$hat had said the same things about black scientists, handicapped scientists, or any other particular group of people?" This was very interesting to me. At many places, it is unequivocally Not Okay for a white student to be overtly racist to a black professor, but it is ok for a male student to be overtly sexist toward a female professor. There are dozens of articles out there about how female professors tend to get the brunt of student incivility, yet where are the institutional policies addressing this?

It's bad for institutions to accept inverted hierarchical discrimination. Attitudes like, "Oh, don't make a fuss, you only have to teach him for the rest of the semester." or, "It's not like she'll be writing your annual review, don't worry about it." are not helpful to anyone involved - they are just sweeping the problem under the rug.

I would like to see more prophylactic measures taken by institutions to ensure all incoming people regardless of rank (interns up to CEOs) receive some sort of indoctrination training. "These are the best ways to talk to people of other races / genders / abilities than you." This is especially important for multi-cultural workplaces, where employees may come from a culture where sexist/racist/ableist comments are commonplace and socially accepted.

I also really encourage institutions to take a stronger stance on how they discuss inclusion with their employees. I'd like to see policies and practices that not only offer support from a legal perspective, but also state unequivocally that intolerant behaviors will not be tolerated, and have some serious consequences beyond wrist slapping.

7 responses so far

  • Rob Knop says:

    At many places, it is unequivocally Not Okay for a white student to be overtly racist to a black professor, but it is ok for a male student to be overtly sexist toward a female professor.

    ...That's just wrong. I have to admit I'm surprised that the latter is institutionally considered OK. Not that it happens-- I know that it happens, just as racism happens. But that it's considered "OK", in contrast to something that's "not OK but brushed under the rug" (which is what happens still with too much professor-to-student sexism or student-to-student sexism). It is tricky, of course, because the power balance is reversed from the situation that's usually discussed. On the other hand, if we're even implicitly training students to believe that it's OK to overtly express sexism in science (or computer science), we're doing a disservice to the field.

  • When I was a grad student, the question about sexism/sexual harassment from student to TA came up during our training, and the official policy as stated by the training instructor was "sexual harassment can only occur TA to student or student to student--students who exhibit this behavior towards TAs or professors are just being annoying". I spoke with some of my female classmates, and we all got the message that we were supposed to just shut up and take it until the student was no longer our problem. This is a terrible thing for TAs to have to deal with, and compromises instructor safety (as a TA, I was threatened by a male student and was told not to be in my office or lab alone for a little while--thanks for the support PhD U!) This policy also sends a terrible message to the other students in the class about acceptable behavior.

  • This is just fucking wrong. Students should be held to the same social standards re. behaviour towards others as staff.

    That is all.

  • Hermitage says:

    I assure you that is not true. I posed a similar question to myself on twitter, and after reflecting on my own experiences, decided that yes, people will say exactly those same things about black people. The discussion is exactly the same as it is with sexism: Idiotic comment about blacks laziness, lack of aptitude, etc. Rebuttal from black person. Charge from non-black person that the they are over-sensitive, emotional, ignoring irrefutable facts (IQ scores, jail rates, whatever), and are playing the race card. Black person then rends their hair in frustration and is labeled 'unstable'.

    As a double minority, it is astounding the amount of stupid bullshit I hear on a daily basis that I can never point out, or risk being labeled the Angry Black Woman and being silenced entirely.

  • Kaija says:

    Hermitage makes a good point, and it is my experience that people who are willing to broadcast their bigotry about a certain group of people have whole boatloads of additionally lovely "opinions" about other groups or issues. And yes, rebuttal DOES carry the risk of being labeled "hysterical, angry, oversensitive, having an agenda, etc". I think this is because many people are confrontation averse and it's easier to shift responsibility to the reactor to minimize the incident than stomp on the provoker.

    IMHO, the only way to change larger attitudes about what is acceptable behavior in a larger society or even a subculture, is positive peer pressure...when your peers (which includes your advisor and committee as a graduate apprentice looking to join the guild) tell you that you are out of line and make it clear that such statements, attitudes, behavior are not acceptable and will not be tolerated, the message gets through loud a clear. Silence is interpreted as implied agreement or condonement. Speaking up in *some* way is powerful.

    I was on an academic conduct committee that was working on revamping the student honor code in a way that encouraged students to address academic dishonesty and poor classroom behavior directly in some way, any way...one-on-one, in a small group, in a letter or email (anonymous or not)...because those corrections and notices that "hey, this is not cool with me or us" at least plants a seed that may result in some personal growth. Some people are unreachable, but I think we have to at least try, for ourselves and our own sanity at the very least!

  • fcs says:

    My apologies, I really should have made two separate posts for these topics. I think I conflated them too much.

    I mainly have two concerns. The first is about inverted discrimination in general, and what institutions do about it. (Answer - not much at all).

    The second is that lately I feel like there is much institutional rhetoric about racial and ethnic inclusion, but concerns about sexism and abelism seem to be on the back burner. (I say rhetoric to acknowledge the difference between what institutions say on paper and what they actually do in practice, as many have alluded to above.)

    I am especially concerned about abelism, because somehow institutions think if they've installed ramps they have completely absolved themselves of worrying about making sure people with disabilities feel included and accepted in the workplace.

    I certainly agree that peers and individuals should stand up to racism/sexism/ableism as much as possible when it occurs.

    In addition to that, I'd really like to see institutions implement policies that are very clear about not tolerating such behavior, and what the penalties are for committing it. I'd also really like to see indoctrination programs for all new people joining the institution (employees, students, etc).

  • Mary says:

    I am currently having this issue with a male student of mine. I'm a young female professor and I have a student who consistently comes to my office hours, initially asks me a question regarding the course and then lets the topic stray. We are of the same ethnic background, so I think this makes him think that we have some sort of "bond," when in reality I could care less and am more concerned about my career. In less than a month, he has asked me where I live, about my relationship, and consistently asks how old I am. I am positive if I was a middle aged male professor he would not ask me these questions! I also don't want to say anything for fear of being labelled a troublemaker, but it's to the point where when he comes to see me it not only ruins my day, but also makes me question my teaching and future in this profession, and whether or not I really even care for it, if this is what I will have to deal with.

    Has anyone else had this experience??

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