How to respond to a sexist dig is a topic that always generates debate and criticism on my blog. I am referring to incidents in which someone (most commonly a man) in my academic life has treated me in an apparently disrespectful way. Many of those incidents could be interpreted as sexist, but no matter what you call them, they are somewhat (to very) humiliating.
The incidents themselves are not what generates the debate on my blog. Instead, the sometimes-heated discussion focuses on how I have chosen to respond to such slights: that is, my tendency to react in a calm, polite way, perhaps with a bit of humor or gentle sarcasm. Except in extreme cases, I prefer not to respond to insulting remarks with anger, and I try to move on with the research, teaching, or service task at hand.
It is important to note that I do not let every offensive remark pass without comment. For example, if I am serving on a hiring or awards committee, I speak up when I hear colleagues make derogatory or unfair comments about female (or any) candidates. The comments I tend to ignore are the ones directed at me, when I have to make a choice about how to respond in the context of my work environment.
My choice to react calmly and politely stems from several sources, including my personality (I dislike confrontation and argument) and my belief that this approach has been effective for me over the years. Given my limitations as a quiet, noncharismatic person, I am better able to convince people of my abilities by being persistent and quietly assertive than I am by responding with anger or insults.
As a result, some commenters on my blog have accused me of being "ladylike"—in the negative sense of the word. They mean that I am more concerned about being polite and preserving decorum than I am about effecting change in academe. Well-behaved women never make history, etc., etc. Some have accused me of failing early-career women in academe. I have a responsibility to speak out, my critics say, or else nothing will change for the better for other women.
Others compliment me for "taking the high road" and being more mature and professional than the men who make the rude comments. Such commenters believe that "you can't win every battle" (or "you have to choose your battles"), but that you might win the war by being relentlessly serene. If "you don't let them get to you" and "rise above it," you can have a more positive effect in the long run than if you are confrontational.
I'll give you an example of one of these incidents: Not long ago, during a meeting of a somewhat prestigious committee, I openly disagreed with another committee member. He responded by noting that I was there only because "we needed a woman on the committee"—unlike the men, all of whom were apparently invited to serve because of their superior talents, wisdom, and experience.
He was trying to undermine me, and, therefore, my argument. My response was to ignore his statement entirely and continue to make a case for my opposing view. By remaining calm and professional, with a focus on the topic at hand, I think I was more effective than if I had acted defensively, traded insults, or walked out of the room in anger.
In fact, I think that by acting as if I belonged on that committee along with my esteemed male colleagues, I showed them that I did, in fact, belong there (in case anyone needed convincing). I spoke up, but not specifically about the insult.
So have I failed academic womankind by allowing some apparently sexist comments to go unremarked in any overt way? Or am I being mature and professional, slowly and quietly changing minds and behavior about women?
What's a well-behaved female professor to do?
I have never particularly liked that "well-behaved women" quote that shows up on bumper stickers, although I appreciate its essential point: Women shouldn't just go along to get along, be quiet, avoid making waves, and so on. Sometimes you have to get out there and stir things up to make real change. The suffragettes made history by misbehaving according to the norms of their time, and we all benefited.
There is no point, however, in holding myself or others to the impossible standard of "making history," or in conforming to someone else's idea of proper behavior and misbehavior. Sometimes, apparently well-behaved women are being unconventional (and brave) just by showing up day after day, going to conferences, serving on committees, advising and analyzing and teaching, and basically just doing their jobs.
The hope, of course, is that if enough women routinely demonstrate their expertise and skill, even in careers that are historically the typical or exclusive domain of men, there will be more opportunities for more women, and less discrimination and harassment for all. That's the idea, anyway, and I like to think that quiet women like me, by our day-to-day actions, can change the minds of people who are initially uncomfortable about working with women or treating us as equals in a professional context.
That philosophy is not unique to women; it has been applied to other situations in which people are initially uncomfortable with, or even hostile to, working with someone unlike themselves in gender, race, religion, or sexual orientation. In many respects, the pace of change—for tolerance and acceptance to be the norm—is unacceptably slow. Why are we still talking about how to treat certain types of people as intellectual equals? Perhaps that demonstrates that my win-with-niceness approach is a failure, or that it results only in insignificant, incremental change over any reasonable time scale.
Even so, no person should feel that she is failing because she doesn't "misbehave." Those of us who work in fields that continue to be dominated by men each need to play to our strengths, whatever they may be.
History-making? No. Am I setting my sights too low, being ambitious in my own career but not caring about the larger community of women in academe? No again.
By refusing to engage in aggressive verbal combat with people who insult me in my professional life, I am not "pulling up the ladder" and making it more difficult for younger women to benefit from my successes, such as they are. I am doing my work, which I love, the best way that I can, and—I hope—making it easier, not harder, for the next woman who comes along and serves on that committee, works with those colleagues, or accepts that job that was never before offered to a woman.