This Woman’s Work: The Misogynistic Realities I Face as a Female Professor


how_it_worksThroughout my six semesters of experience as a teacher at CUNY, I have come to realize that my professional interactions with my students are guided and informed by misogyny. The microaggressions I face from predominantly male students are endless, but in this article I want to share the clearer and more disturbing illustrations of this phenomenon and speak to the broader political implications of these sorts of interactions for female professors.

I have been asked out on dates by several male students and received flirtatious emails from several more. Some students are even ruder and ask me bluntly about my sexual orientation. Male colleagues tell me that they too experience this, but sexual harassment towards women fits into a larger framework of misogyny, street harassment, and rape culture. I doubt my male colleagues experience daily sexual harassment from men on the street (and yes, I mean daily). Whether with my students or with strangers, I simply do not want to be objectified in any way. They should respect my right to exist in public without feeling entitled to my time, body, space, and attention. One student even tried to impress me by telling me that he only dates feminists while explaining what a big “feminist” he is. Too frequently men have interpreted sex-positive thought among feminists to mean that they have the right to prey upon us because we are “more sexually liberated than other women.” Here, my feminism just becomes a sexual invitation and a means for exploitation. About a year ago, I received an email in all caps from a former student threatening me after I failed to recognize and greet him when I passed him by in the hallway. The same week another of my male students found my social media accounts and sought my attention there when he felt it has not been adequately given to him in class.

Students have, moreover, openly attempted to police my appearance in class. While students talk to one another during group work in class, I have overhead a few of them discussing how my expression of femininity confuses and upsets them. “Why does she dress like that if she does not shave her legs?” “She would be much hotter if she wore makeup.” “I think she might be a dyke, but she doesn’t have short hair.” I have even received comments about my body on teaching evaluations when students were asked to comment on the course material and my abilities as a teacher.

 Some of the most glaring examples of misogyny from my students have transpired during meetings concerning academic misconduct. Each semester, I have encountered instances of students’ academic dishonesty, an unfortunately common experience for teachers of writing-intensive, core curriculum courses. Whenever I suspect academic dishonesty, I schedule a meeting with the student in question to review the paper and to reiterate the consequences of the violation. Many of these meetings can be downright strange and volatile. Students sometimes cry and beg, which can quickly escalate into yelling. Male students in particular feel they can verbally and physically intimidate me into letting them off the hook. For example, during one such meeting in my third semester of teaching, one student threw down his chair, approached me aggressively, and screamed in my face when I refused to accept his excuses for committing blatant academic dishonesty. Looking back at this episode, I believe that the situation only deescalated because the door was ajar and someone was approaching our side of the hallway.

The inappropriate interactions in these meetings speak generally to the additional emotional labor that female professors must endure. Because of my gender, students expect me to be moved by their crying and also by their intimidation tactics. They expect me to assume the role of a nurturer, and ignore that I have a right to personal boundaries and safety. This same entitlement manifests when students ask me out, harass me, and police my body. It is maddening that even at work I must resist narratives that cast me as the mother, the object.

I have found that I react to these situations with my male students in many of the same ways I do with other men who have objectified me and disrespected me throughout my life. With fear, with timidity, with the wish that it could all just go away, with the feminine affect I have been socialized to take on in order not to bruise the male ego further. Even after that student physically intimidated me, I remember smiling and softening my voice to conciliate him, an instinct I have used time and again to protect myself against male aggression.

When I share these stories with my male colleagues, they are most often surprised and sometimes assume the role of devil’s advocate, which brazenly shows their complete disregard for my experiences. The misogyny I experience while I teach (or anywhere) is not a debate or a game. Both their surprise at and their refusal to concede the misogyny of these stories demonstrates an inability to understand how gender affects the ways men and women differently navigate teaching and relating to our students. The American Association of University Women cites on their website that one third of female professors have reported that they have faced sexual harassment by men in the workplace (which is a potentially conservative estimate because many women do not report it). Ninety-four percent of college-age women, according to a recent study by the American Psychological Association, have reported feeling sexually objectified multiple times a year and that these experiences continue into later adulthood. And the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in 2010 reported that more than one third of American women over their lifetimes will experience physical violence, abuse, sexual assault, or stalking from men (most likely from individuals that they know). For female professors, these realities do not vanish when we teach. The stories I have shared rest on a continuum of gendered violence and terror.

I hope this article raises awareness of the unique burdens and struggles of female professors and helps everyone to understand that misogyny only further exacerbates the stresses often inherent in university teaching.


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