More Sexism in Medieval Studies

I was attending a major national conference at the end of my MA year. In the evening, I was standing around chatting with several faculty members from my undergraduate institution. As we spoke, an eminent professor (hereafter Professor Seahorse) at my current institution, with whom I had taken several classes that year, walked behind me and ran his palm across my shoulder blades and down my arm to my elbow. He kept walking, and after a moment of puzzlement I convinced myself that there was nothing to it– after all, he was married, tenured, and several decades my senior. Surely he didn’t intend to be inappropriate.

Several years later, I’m now a PhD student at the same university, sitting with Professor Seahorse in a booth in a pub near campus (his “other office,” as he liked to call it), discussing a term paper that I’m writing for his course. By this point I’ve learned that Professor Seahorse has a reputation for inappropriate behaviour, and sometimes more, with female students. He blatantly objectifies the server to her face, addressing her as a “pouty-lipped love-goddess.” On another occasion where office hours took place in a pub, I was treated to a long account of how drunk he had been at his wedding, and how he had recoiled upon seeing his bride at the altar; she did not usually wear make-up, and her application of it on her wedding day was unskillful. This was an uncomfortable discussion, to say the least. Students should not be party to their professor’s marital dissatisfactions. What does one even say to a story like that?

One afternoon I was sitting with a classmate on the patio of a cafe next to the same pub. Professor Seahorse, who has clearly had a few, emerges from the pub and brazenly looks me up and down. “Oh… helloooo. Looking good. Oh, [classmate’s name], I didn’t even see you there. I was too busy looking at [my name].” Professor Seahorse blatantly checks me out one more time, pays another ‘compliment,’ and finally stumbles off.

Story signed by : Buddug

The story happened to me as a PhD student in the year(s) 2005-2009 around an academic institution in ‘Not in Belgium’

Sexism in Medieval Studies

I’m posting this today because, one of my communities, medieval studies, is in a bit of an uproar as sexual harassment cases are being shared publically for the first time. I’m currently looking for resources for creating safe space and building community culture around respect, support and safety. Because ultimately I think what needs to be built is a culture of intervention and support. Most of the time, bystanders don’t step in to help and the victim is left standing alone and told it’s not worth their time or energy or risk to their career to advocate for themselves.

This happened to me in 2006. Friends, family members, mentors told me to be quiet, that this senior professor, a man I was going to ask to be my supervisor, was probably drunk and didn’t remember the horrible things he shouted about me to a patio full of people, in front of an amassed group of colleagues when I was a 21 year old, first year Ph.D. student. I sat there and let him make fun of me and speculate about me sleeping with the male student I happened to be sitting with, and then worse, go on to accuse me of being no good at my work, tell me that I shouldn’t start a reading group because my language skills – in a class he had never taught me – weren’t good enough. He publicly humiliated me and plenty of people, male and female colleagues alike, sat there and said nothing. And afterwards, skepticism, excuses, apologia- phrases like ‘I wasn’t there, I can’t comment’ or ‘oh but he’s such a good scholar’, and , the worst, ‘but you should still work with him because he’s such a big name.’

This needs to stop. We need to tell students, junior faculty, all faculty that this behaviour is unacceptable. That if someone verbally attacks you, threatens you, touches you, assaults you, tries to sleep with you, it’s not okay. And there are people you can go to who will help you file the necessary paperwork and stand beside you when the perpetrator is handed their consequences.

I am angry, almost 10 years later, that I never filed a complaint. I had more than enough reason and more than enough witnesses and I didn’t say a damn thing on record.

And it is so much worse for so many women I know in medieval studies who were harassed by this man and many others.

If you have any suggestions, or just want to connect, please reply in the comments or e-mail SASSY to get my contact information.

Story signed by : Anonymous

The story happened to me as a PhD student in the year(s) 2005-2009 at an academic institution in ‘Not in Belgium’

Wil je deze academische loopbaan wel echt?

Toen mijn proefschrift klaar was, en ik op mijn 28e aarzelde of ik door zou gaan met een academische loopbaan (ik had niet veel voorgangers, de meeste vrouwelijke doctoraatsstudenten die ik kende, verlieten de academische wereld na hun verdediging), legde ik de vraag voor aan mijn promotor. Hij merkte duidelijk mijn onzekerheid. Hij voedde die en zei dat het inderdaad een grote beslissing was en dat ik die niet lichtzinnig mocht nemen, dat ik ook dringend eens moest nadenken over welk leven ik wilde, en het feit of ik kinderen wou. Ik denk dat het vaderlijk goedbedoeld was. Maar er sprak de ondermijnende suggestie uit dat ik tot dan toe nog niet echt had nagedacht over mijn leven, dat ik geen echte keuze voor onderzoek gemaakt had, dat ik gewoon dat doctoraat ‘per ongeluk’ was begonnen en ‘per ongeluk’ had afgemaakt, en dat de vraag of ik een loopbaan als academicus wilde verstrengeld was met de vraag of ik kinderen wilde. Aan geen mannelijke collega van mij zou hij dat ooit zo voorgesteld hebben. Een beetje radeloos heb ik toen contact gezocht met een vrouwelijke hoogleraar in Amsterdam (in België kon ik er geen vinden in mijn discipline). Zij was gelukkig heel vriendelijk en wist wat ze moest zeggen: dat ik zelf de keuze mocht maken, en geen bevestiging nodig had van mannelijke professoren. En dat ik zo veel kinderen kon krijgen als ik wou. Ik heb bij het FWO een post-doc aangevraagd en die ook gekregen. Ik heb ondertussen een loopbaan in de academie, en word nog af en toe gekweld door de gedachte dat ik geen echte onderzoeker ben, het gevoel dat ik hier niet op mijn plaats ben. Maar ondertussen heb ik gelezen over de werking van implicit biases, en de interiorisatie van vooroordelen. En ik besef dat zowel mijn promotor als ik er het slachtoffer van waren. Zoals de verhalen op deze website getuigen, wordt er nog ontstellend vaak expliciet gediscrimineerd, waar ik persoonlijk tot dusver gelukkig weinig van gemerkt heb. Maar de impliciete discriminatie en de impliciete vooroordelen doen minstens evenveel schade die onopgemerkt blijft.

Story signed by : K

The story happened to me as a PhD student in the year(s) 2005-2009 at an academic institution in Flanders

A female professor is apparently not real!

A student who I had supervised for his Master thesis, came to visit after his graduation and stood waiting at my (male) colleague’s office. I asked him what he was doing now and he told me of his plans to study further for which he needed a recommendation letter ‘from a real professor’ which is what he came to see my colleague for. 🙂

Story signed by: DKL

The story happened to me as a Dr. Prof. in the year(s) 2005-2009 at an academic institution in Flanders

No Touching !

There aren’t too many girls in Industrial Engineering. But as it turned out in one class, they preferred men anyway. We were split up into groups of around 25 to get a hands-on notion of the common techniques like a lathe. During our first class – we were 20 odd boys and 4 girls – the assistant had to split us up per two. He had the ungrateful job of informing us that the rules of the lab were “that no girl was allowed to work the machines by herself”, and thus had to be paired up with a boy – the rest could pick their own partners. We could do the numbercrunching, but the actual settings on the machine had to be done by the boy and only by him – NO TOUCHING! I did get up and challenged him, wether he seriously meant to tell us we girls weren’t capable of handling machines. But it wasn’t his fault and all he could do was shrug and look apologetic.

So off we went, I did the numbers and passed them on to my partner. Since this meant I was without work most of the time, I never noticed my male partner had set up the machine wrong, with the blunt side of the chisel on the metal… So he turned it on, the chisel exploded because of the friction, pieces of metal flying around (nobody got hurt thank god) but that made the professor rush towards the emergency stop, frantically looking about, yelling “Ofcourse it’s a girl!”, and when all had gone quiet again, he insisted on calling us together to prove his theory that women weren’t allowed near dangerous machinery. No matter how I protested, again I had to suffer his sexist attitude.

A month later we had done some welding. And lo and behold, girls were this time allowed to work on their own. I remember when we had to present our welded piece to be graded, he was elated when he picked up my piece, the perfect weld… Until he called forward whoever was the creator of such perfection. When he realised it had sprouted from female hands, he waved me back, and retreated into his office without another word.

And to add insult to injury, end of the year I discovered that my male partner had received double my grade…

Story signed by: Aviendha

The story happened to me as a Bachelor student in the year 2005-2009 at an academic institution in Flanders

Vrouwen kunnen ook nooit zwijgen

Zoals elke week had ik een vergadering met een thesisstudent in het labo. Het labo is een ruimte waarin studenten en onderzoekers samen werken en discussiëren. Plots komt een professor binnen en kondigt aan dat er zo dadelijk een presentatie zal doorgaan (vermoedelijk omdat hij een vergaderzaal was vergeten te reserveren). Beleefd zetten we onze vergadering met een aangepast praatvolume verder. Een kwartier later komt een eerste vermaning: “Kan dat niet wat stiller, ja?”. Een beetje geschrokken gaan we door met de vergadering op fluistertoon. De volgende dag kruis ik de professor in de gang. Tijdens het voorbijgaan zegt hij “Vrouwen kunnen ook nooit zwijgen”.
Ik was zo ontdaan dat ik niet wist hoe te reageren.

Story signed by : Tinne

The story happened to me as a PhD student in the year 2005-2009 at an academic institution in Flanders

Moeder vs Vrouw

De drie kinderen van een mannelijke collega en van mezelf zijn nagenoeg (op een paar maanden na) dezelfde leeftijd. Toch werd enkel aan mij gevraagd of ik het niet wat rustiger aan wou doen, nu ik drie kinderen heb. Toen ik de prof vroeg of hij dat ook aan mijn mannelijke collega had gevraagd, antwoordde hij doodleuk: “Waarom? Hij is een man, jij bent een moeder…” Blijkbaar stopt het vrouw zijn als je kinderen krijgt.

Het zijn trouwens niet enkel de mannen, maar echt 90% van de bevolking VERWACHT dat je als moeder minder gaat werken. Full time werken als moeder is blijkbaar bijna een doodzonde. Niemand heeft al eens tegen me gezegd: Proficiat dat je dat doet, een positief voorbeeld stellen en tonen dat het ook kan, werken en mama zijn, vele mensen zeggen me wel, dat is toch niet vol te houden en zo kun je toch niet optimaal presteren en blablabla.

In de ogen van de mannen zijn ze zeer gezinsvriendelijk, want oh zo bezorgd, ik noem dat gewoon bemoeizucht en een gemakkelijk excuus om me aan de kant te schuiven.

Story signed by : me

The story happened to me as a PhD Student in the years 2005-2009 at an academic institution in Flanders

Does getting up at night make me unfit for research?

My supervisor told me, after the birth of my second child, seeing that I was tired from getting up at night: “I will be forced to state in your application for FWO funding that you are not in optimal shape to conclude this research”

Story signed by: Getting Up At Night

The story happened to me as a Post Doc year(s) 2005-2009 at an academic institution in Flanders

A female lecturer? Unimaginable…

As a PhD fellow, I was asked to give a guest lecture in a different department. When I arrived (more than on time), and wanted to enter my class room, I was intercepted rather rudely by a secretary saying something along the lines of “where do you think you’re going, miss? Students are not allowed in the class room, you have to wait in the corridor until the lecturer arrives and he will then invite you in.”

When I explained I was, in fact, the lecturer, she shrugged, saying there was no way she could have known that. No apology whatsoever.

On that occasion (as on many later on), I realised that sexism is not just a male-vs-female problem, all too often it’s women stereotyping other women.

Story signed by : A female lecturer (yes, really)

The story happened to me as a PhD Student in the year(s) 2005-2009 at an academic institution not in Belgium.

You don’t have to go to bed with him !

Shortly after I started working as a PhD student, I became entangled in a conflict with my male supervisor about how the research should be carried out. After a long and painful struggle, arbitration settled the conflict to my advantage.

In the run-up to the arbitration I had several meetings with the faculty dean. In one of these meetings he looked at me, and sighed: “What’s the problem? You only have to work with him. You don’t have to go to bed with him”. Absolutely gobsmacked, I was. To my surprise the professor and senior lecturer, both women, who attended the meeting remained silent. I had too much on my plate already, to pursue the dean’s remark.

Until now, I still don’t understand why my two senior colleagues preferred to keep quiet.

Story signed by: J. van der Pol

The story happened to me as a PhD at an academic institution in Flanders