Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Friday, June 16, 2017

men ignoring (as well as interrupting) women

The New York Times is wrong about a great many things these days, but it's certainly right about this: men really do interrupt women All. The. Time. (And the NYT has covered this story before.) I have seen the phenomenon myself in many faculty meetings over the years, and it's especially painful when a woman sits in silence through 45 minutes of a meeting, finally decides to say something — and is instantly cut off.

I have often talked too much in meetings, but I don't think I do this — women who have worked with me, please let me know if I'm wrong. Please. (Could you do it in an email instead of in the comments, below, though? That would be a kindness.) But interrupting is just one of many ways confident and articulate men — or confident men who just think they're articulate — can sideline their female colleagues.

Once, some years ago now, a younger colleague asked me to join her for lunch. She wanted to talk to me about something: the fact that I had not expressed interest in or support of her scholarship, even though it overlapped with my own in some areas. My first thought was that I really did admire her work and thought; but that was immediately followed by the realization that I had never told her so. I had completely failed to offer the support and encouragement that would have meant a lot to her as someone making her way in our department and our institution. So I apologized, and asked if she would forgive me, which of course she did.

In the aftermath of that lunch meeting, I thought a lot about why I had so manifestly failed my colleague, and I've continued to think about it since. I don't fully understand the complexities of the situation, and I may be looking for self-exculpation here, but I do think I've identified one element of the problem, and it involves sexually-segregated socializing.

A number of my younger male colleagues had expressed gratitude for my support of them, and when I thought about how I had expressed that support — the advice I had given, the responses to their work — I realized that that had rarely happened on campus, in our offices or hallways, but rather in coffee shops and pubs. When we met on free mornings for coffee to chat as we got through some grading or diminished the size of our inboxes, or met in the evenings after work for a pint or two — that's when I got the chance to say some supportive things.

But while we often asked our female colleagues to join us for such outings, they rarely did. I am honestly not sure whether they just weren't interested, or had conflicting obligations, or didn't hear enough to make it perfectly clear that their presence was really wanted and that we didn't desire to create a Boy's Club. But I do know that I should have been aware of these dynamics and found other ways to let the women in my circles know that I valued their work. Once that single colleague had the boldness to call my attention to my shortcomings in this area, I made an effort to compensate — though I don't know that I ever did enough.

I especially want to ask my fellow academics: What do you think about the account I've given? Does it sound plausible? What am I missing, either about myself or about the general social dynamics?


  • I have been a part of evangelical institutions as well as Roman Catholic and secular ones. In my experience, the evangelical institutions have been far more homosocial than the others (I note this not to exculpate those other places, but I have seen it). There may be a dynamic at work there related to the recently controversial Billy Graham Rule—not something I would expect evangelical faculty hold consciously, but it might influence the social atmosphere nonetheless. But I'm not really certain the cause.

  • I think that's right, Matthew — though I have already heard from a colleague at a secular institution that the sexually-segregated socializing has been very common in his experience too. One thing about the Billy Graham Rule: it's not just the men in Christian institutions who might feel uneasy about socializing with women; the women can have their own sense of propriety and impropriety too.

  • One aspect of sexually-segregated socializing, as you call it, for me is having a young child. I try to minimize my time away from him, which means that I rarely take a lunch break at work and feel guilty about the occasional coffee with colleagues. I'm sure this isn't the experience of all women, but I assume it is something some other women experience. I think some men with young children experience this as well, but perhaps not as many?

  • Emily, that's no doubt true — and one of the things I had in mind when I mentioned "conflicting obligations." Even when childcare is shared, I sense that men are more likely than women to insist that they need an evening out with friends.

  • Um. You rather missed the obvious reason we don't usually accept such invitations.

    Modern shifts in LGBT attitudes aside, most of your male associates do not have to wonder just what it is you *mean* when you ask them out for coffee or a pint. They don't have to worry about who will talk, and what those people will say, if they accept your invitations.

    You also forget the pressures women may face from their *own* lives. I know a LOT of women whose own significant others get entirely too twitchy if they engage in any sort of social activity with a male friend or coworker....

  • Vashra, if you re-read my post you'll see that I'm talking about gatherings of small groups of friends, not one-on-one meetings.

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