Check out this brief article in the New York Times about bullies in the workplace, their strategies and the toll they take on individuals and the productivity of the organizations they work for. In response to this article’s request to hear stories of workplace bullying, there are 466 comments, and they’re still being posted this morning as I write. (Don’t miss comment #53 from Liz, an attorney and Army Reservist who said she has Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder not from her tour of duty in Iraq, but rather from her civililan job!) I read the first one hundred comments, and have noticed some interesting themes:
- While careers in medicine and the law are heavily represented in the incidents reported here, the academic workplace is specifically mentioned in ten out of the first 100 complaints: see comments 2, 17, 25, 30, 44, 55, 64, 70, 86, and 96. Yep, folks, read ‘em and weep: Chairs bullying junior faculty, Deans bullying tenured faculty, professors bullying students, and in one case, students bullying a professor, so there’s something for everyone.
- The article notes that “a large share of the problem involves women victimizing women. The Zogby survey showed that 40 percent of workplace bullies are women,” and the comments bear this out. Comment 55 from Dana, a graduate student, writes that the faculty member making her life miserable “was awarded her doctorate in the late 1960s, when women had a tougher go of it in higher education. I’m convinced through my experience with her and others that that generation of feminists approach their careers with a grand chip on their shoulders – and take it out on those of us who came in through the next feminist wave of a decade later.”
- Just looking at the syntax and writing style of the comments, you can see the toll that workplace bullying takes on people. So many of the comments are in all lower-case letters (people reporting bullying seem to refer to themselves as “i” instead of “I”), and they are full of run-on sentences. I couldn’t read more than 100–my guts were churning and bile was rising in my throat, and there’s only so much rank injustice that a girl can take on a sunny, spring morning!
- There are a few commenters who try to jolly the others out of their misery (“try making friends!”), and others who claim that bullying victims are just whiners who can’t take criticism. But, those reactions seem naive on the one hand, and cruel on the other. The clear lesson is that people who are being bullied need to leave those jobs in order to preserve whatever’s left of their health and sanity.
On the question of women bullying other women: I don’t think it’s fair at all to tar a whole generation with that brush–after all, some of the most supportive, nurturing people who have mentored me and many other junior women are from that generation. Until fairly recently, it was only that generation of women faculty who were senior enough to engage in bullying. Sadly, Historiann is familiar with women bullying women–it was considered not a bug, but rather a feature of her former department. The bullying women were “useful idiots” who could be relied on to police junior women; the senior men could then hide behind their skirts and deny that gender bias was an issue. I don’t think this kind of behavior can be pinned on the generation of women who earned their degrees in the 60s and 70s–I’ve seen it in people whose degrees are from the 1980s and 1990s, too. The critical issue is power, not generation, and most regular faculty with 1990s Ph.D.’s are tenured now and therefore have at least a small purchase on power and influence in their departments.
The one advantage that academics have over people in other lines of work is that bullies aren’t as able to affect our prospects for other employment the way that bullying bosses in private industry can. If we keep publishing and maintain connections with supportive scholars outside of our institutions, we can get out of a bad job. We don’t need letters of recommendation from our department chairs–if you’re an Assistant Professor, a letter from a supportive Associate Professor will do nicely to testify implicitly, if not explicitly, that you’re not a troublemaking malcontent but rather an excellent colleage with limitless potential. The only exception to this is if your bully happens to be someone of importance in your field–but this is probably unusual: by definition, people who are important in their field spend their time writing books, working with students, and hobnobbing at conferences with other people important in their field. In general, they don’t have the time, let alone the inclination, to try to mess with someone else’s career. In my experience, the bullies weren’t exactly the brightest bulbs in the chandelier, to put it charitably. They weren’t terribly productive scholars or successful teachers, which is probably why they felt so intimidated by smart young things who were clearly going places. So, they chose to make their post-tenure careers as hall monitors rather than as scholars.
Et vous, mes amis? Any thoughts as to why the groves of academe are such fertile fields for bullies? (Or, conversely, why academics are such thin-skinned, overly sensistive complainers?) Do you have your own stories to share? Discuss.