How Universities May Facilitate Sexual Violence In Academia

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Dr. Adia Harvey Wingfield is a professor of sociology at Washington University in St. Louis. She is also a contributing writer for The Atlantic. Her most recent book is No More Invisible Man: Race and Gender in Men’s Work (Temple University Press, 2012).

Are Universities Enabling Sexual Harassment And Assault?

Over the last year, several news stories have surfaced describing allegations of sexual assault against professors. While the details varied, the general outlines of the stories were pretty much the same: women who were graduate students or junior faculty accused tenured male faculty members of sexual harassment and/or sexual assault. In response, departments and administrators often offered light punishments and made little effort to establish that their departments and universities were not places where the types of sexual violence described could occur with impunity.

Sexual assault and harassment are not limited to academic settings. But there are aspects of the university structure that make it too easy for those in powerful positions to abuse their status and engage in harassment and assault against less powerful groups (including, but not limited to, women).

In 1990, the late sociologist Joan Acker published a study that introduced the concept of the gendered organization. Acker argued that while we might think of bureaucracies as neutral, objective, impersonal institutions, they are actually gendered in ways that have serious implications for those working within them. Specifically, she contended that gendered organizations are structured in ways that privilege and advantage men through social processes including hiring, job expectations, culture and rewards.

According to Acker, this also shapes the ways that occupations are structured, such that organizational processes cast certain jobs as better suited for men or for women, and dictate job expectations and rewards accordingly. Acker’s framework has been widely used among sociologists and other social scientists, as this approach pushes us to think less about individual behavior and more about how gender inequality can actually be embedded in organizations’ basic functions.

Sociologists have used Acker’s framing to explore social processes in occupations as varied as flight attendants, firefighters and accountants. In most cases, they find that when occupations are gendered female or feminine (think legal secretaries), workers in those jobs are expected to be emotionally nurturing, deferential and supportive of the men in higher-status roles. In contrast, “men’s work” (think financial analysts) usually offers higher pay and status and allows for expressions of belligerence, frustration and anger.

When women are employed in “men’s” or masculine jobs, however, their gender still carries more weight than their employment category. This means that while female lawyers may do “men’s work,” they still are penalized for behavior that seems unfeminine. Similarly, when it comes to men in “women’s work,” they are viewed first as men who are therefore not expected to be nurturing or deferential.

Organizations thus shape the occupations that exist within them in ways that push men (much more so than women) into the more rewarding, highly valued positions and cushion men from the feminized aspects of their work even when they are employed in the jobs seen as “women’s” or feminine jobs. Scholars have dubbed this phenomenon the “glass escalator,” contrasting it to the well-documented glass ceiling — the invisible yet very real barrier that women face in advancing in male-dominated or masculine fields. (My own research, however, suggests that those gendered arrangements intersect with race and sexuality, among other identities; for example, Black men are denied such gendered privileges in “women’s” or feminine jobs like nursing.)

What does all this have to do with academe and sexual violence? Acker’s work can help us understand how and why sexual harassment and sexual assault typically go unpunished in academic contexts. If we think of the university as a gendered organization, it is structured in ways that disproportionately reward men with high-paying administrative roles and tenured professorships that convey autonomy, comfortable salaries, status and control over one’s time. Professors are also expected to be intellectual, dispassionate, driven by an extensive commitment to a particular field of study and willing to pass on their knowledge by training students and mentoring their junior colleagues. While those criteria can certainly apply to men or women, men are typically the ones stereotyped as more intelligent, rational and capable of the higher-order thought associated with academe. Additionally, organizational demands for achieving tenure assume a worker who is unencumbered by the sort of external demands that typically fall to women (unpaid household labor, child or elder care) and can thus devote copious amounts of time to teaching, research and service.

A professor who can fulfill these qualities is typically forgiven, to put it gently, personal eccentricities or antisocial behavior. But these protections can extend further in ways that can be damaging for those in the lower-status positions in the university hierarchy. Tenured professors may be rewarded with silence, tacit support, excuses or indifference if they engage in sexual violence or harassment toward those who are in subordinate roles that are not protected by the gendered organization. And to be clear, those vulnerable populations do not only include women. Men of color, trans men, gay, bisexual and queer men, or even men who lack the cultural and social capital to navigate the university bureaucracy may find themselves in a fragile position relative to those whom the university, as a gendered organization, is designed to protect.

This situation is complicated further by the fact that academic careers depend heavily on patronage and support from senior faculty. Recommendations, research assistantships, fellowships and co-authorships are valuable rewards that can make or break the academic career before it even begins. This puts all graduate students and junior faculty in a vulnerable position, but it leaves members of groups who are socially disadvantaged in one way or another in an especially precarious place. These are the populations that are already underrepresented in the university and more likely to be slotted into positions where they have little recourse should harassment or assault occur. Acker’s framework offers a way to think about the university as a gendered organization in which cultural norms, avenues for mobility and occupational expectations sort men into tenured professorships where they are often cushioned from the consequences of their actions if they decide to engage in sexual harassment or assault.

Viewing the university as a gendered organization does not mean that it is fixed, immutable or impervious to change. In some cases, faculty members have spoken out against fellow professors accused of repeated cases of harassment. Growing numbers of professors who stand against sexual violence can help change university culture and give this issue the attention it deserves.

It may also be the case that more women in leadership roles within university settings can help change the gendered processes that contribute to silence around sexual assault. In a 2015 study, sociologists Kevin Stainback, Sibyl Kleiner and Sheryl Skaggs found that having great numbers of women in management and executive positions can help reduce gender segregation in Fortune 1000 companies. Consequently, it may stand to reason that when more women (or underrepresented groups more broadly) are represented among the ranks of provosts, deans, chancellors and university presidents, they can change gendered organizations to ones that actively discourage and punish sexual offenders. Short of that ideal, we must reckon with the subtle, structural ways that basic university processes and norms are designed to reward and protect most sexual offenders from punishment.