September
29th 2009
‘Good people skills’ probably means not telling your supervisors to ‘kiss my a$$,’ unfortunately!

Posted under: Gender, jobs, unhappy endings, wankers, women's history

Susan O’Doherty at Mama Ph.D. has some interesting thoughts about the gendered expectations of women in professional leadership positions.  She writes,

A few years ago, one of my clients, “Ellen,” a brilliant and forceful young woman, informed me that she had received a negative work evaluation. I was surprised to hear this, since her reports of her achievements reflected one success after another. “It’s not my work per se,” she clarified. “My actual work is fine. They told me I don’t have good ‘people skills,’ that I’m too abrasive and impatient. They suggested that I go to a coach, to learn how to communicate in a more tactful way. “We agreed that their stated objections were code for “not ladylike enough.”

This client’s job entailed coordinating the work of a diverse and independent staff, some members of which were oppositional and even hostile. It was hard to imagine the Buddha performing her duties without occasional abrasiveness. It was even harder to imagine Donna Reed, or Betty from “Mad Men,” commanding any respect from this crew. Yet Ellen was expected to be both soft/feminine and effective. “Do any of the men get this kind of feedback?” I asked, but we both knew the answer.

What was the more personal answer, though? We talked a great deal about what it would mean to change her “style” — how, on the one hand, it might be a valuable experience to learn other ways of relating; but on the other, she felt she was being told that her personality was unacceptable, and that it was necessary to paint a new, “feminine” face over her real one.

Make no mistake, when they spend this much time worrying you about your “personality” or your “style,” it’s bullying.  The reason they’re attacking the so-called problems with Ellen’s “communications style” is that they can’t find a way to attack her actual work record.  (Furthermore, as the third commenter on O’Doherty’s post noted, this is a sneaky trick to introduce a paper trail of doubts about a person’s competence into hir work record, and it can and probably will be used against hir.)  Unsurprisingly, this happens to women much more than it happens to men, because the very professional qualities and qualifications that win us the job–impressive training, significant accomplishment, and confidence–get used against us, and we’re somehow responsible for fixing other people’s “feelings” about us. 

O’Doherty links to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Mary Ann Mason, in which Mason mulls the problems of women in leadership positions trying to pitch themselves as not too smart and aggressive, and as not too much of a pushover, but (like Goldilocks) just right.  “One day a female colleague made a presentation to a meeting of the deans and received a cursory, bordering on rude, response. Afterward, she asked me how she could have been more effective.  ‘Speak low and slowly, but smile frequently,’ I replied.”  (I don’t know about you, but if someone made a presentation to me by speaking low and slowly, and smiling frequently, I would think that person is of well-below average intelligence!)  But if you’re in an environment that scrutinizes your style to that degree, there really is no way to win.  The game is rigged to ensure that women never achieve parity with men, so to suggest to another woman that there is a “magic formula” for career success and personality modification simultaneously implies that sex bias is women’s fault, because those other dumb broads just didn’t figure out the magic formula!

I have a friend in academia who is experiencing this same kind of bullying.  “Jackie” has heard the exact same things that Ellen above did:  “It’s not your academic work we’re concerned about, it’s just that your graduate students and the staff complain about your communication style.  You don’t have good ‘people skills,’ so you need to sign this Memorandum of Understanding that says you’ll agree to seek counseling to help you communicate better.”  Interestingly, no one ever has concrete examples of her poor communications skills–the critique all hinges on how she makes other people “feel,” without ever pointing to specific interactions or language she uses that might reasonably make people uncomfortable.  My friend Jackie–who was hired to set up an innovative lab, and whose research is based on her (successful!) efforts to seek multi-million dollar grants to set up this lab, and whose grants are therefore paying in some part the salaries and graduate stipends of all of those staff and students–somehow it’s her problem that all of those people whose work she is funding find her “intimidating” to talk to.  No one says, “well, maybe it’s OK to be intimidated talking to someone with such an impressive work record and who has been so successful in her field.”  Or, “maybe it’s my problem if I feel intimidated talking to her.”  No, other people’s *feelings* are Jackie’s problem.

As you might imagine, this information came as quite a surprise to Jackie, who managed to get through 4 years of college, 4 years of medical school, a 4-year residency and the premier 3-year fellowship in her field without ever realizing she has a defective “communications style.”  She has trained and worked in the top university hospitals in her field and even served a year as Chief Resident (which, as many of you may know, suggests that her supervisors saw her leadership skills as exemplary), all without ever hearing that she was a “difficult” person to work with.

Since starting this blog and hosting a few lively discussions, I’ve also noticed that I get accused of “rudeness” towards commenters with whom I disagree.  Sometimes, there’s just no way for a woman to have a point of view and defend it, because that’s seen as a provocation in and of itself!  I’ve never been to therapy, but I’ve learned a lot from friends of mine who have been through years of counseling, and it seems to me that one of the big messages is that people are responsible for their own feelings, yet our expectation is that women at home and in the workplace will clean up after the rest of us.  (And this includes women as well as men–women too lay these unreasonable expectations on other women.)

32 Comments »

32 Responses to “‘Good people skills’ probably means not telling your supervisors to ‘kiss my a$$,’ unfortunately!”

  1. christina on 29 Sep 2009 at 8:13 am #

    The examples you cite are consistent with the definition of sex discrimination under Title VII in the U.S. — you can’t discriminate against an employee simply because she does not conform to the stereotypes associated with her gender. The Third Circuit recently upheld this definition of sex discrimination in a case involving a male employee who was fired from his job at a factory because he wasn’t acting “manly” enough, according to his employers. More information here, including a link to a PDF brief in support of the employee.

  2. Historiann on 29 Sep 2009 at 8:49 am #

    Christina–thanks for the info. I wonder, though, if cases like these, in which people don’t actually tell women they need to be more “ladylike” or use specificly gendered language, could really be pursued successfully under title VII. The thing about this kind of bullying is that while there are clearly gendered expectations in play, few supervisors are stupid enough to use gendered terms like “manly,” “feminine,” or the like.

  3. squadratomagico on 29 Sep 2009 at 9:12 am #

    Well… just to play Devil’s Advocate: if a significant number of colleagues or people under the supervision of a particular individual offer feedback suggesting that her communication style is poor, couldn’t it be a real problem? Surely there must be situations in which women workers do, indeed, fail to communicate properly, or who really are abrasive in style. I could certainly imagine a scenario in which someone — man or woman — is a brilliant data-researcher but a poor people-manager. So, how do we know that in this case it’s an issue of gender parity and not a real problem of insufficient clarity, empathy, or what have you?

  4. perpetua on 29 Sep 2009 at 9:28 am #

    Squadra: I would say that you’re right about the possibility that in this case her personal communication might be a problem. Brilliant intellectuals are occasionally, well, jerks, or at least have trouble connecting with others. But I think Historiann’s larger point still stands, because there is a systemic way in which women are and are not allowed to behave in professional contexts. They are not allowed to be angry, to be assertive, to be authoritative, etc, and they are penalized accordingly. As they say, “No one likes an angry woman.” And for women, any kind of passion, intensity, commitment, or toughness = angry.

    I remember once I looked at my student evaluations (which I usually dump in a drawer unopened) and I noticed that while my numbers were generally good (in the average-to-high range), the lowest number consistently across the board was in response to some question about how “approachable” the professor was outside of class. Now, I have an open door policy and constantly encourage students to come see whenever, without an appointment, I love to talk to them, etc. I asked a colleague how I could do all this and still be ranked “unapproachable.” He laughed and said, “Well, you’re a woman.” And it’s true – I wasn’t conforming to their gendered stereotypes of feminine behavior; therefore instead of “professorial” I was “intimidating and unapproachable.”

    I also find it interesting that the Title VII case winner was a man. I wonder if a woman could win a similar suit.

  5. Historiann on 29 Sep 2009 at 9:35 am #

    Squadrato–I agree with you that there are some people who probably do have bad people skills. The difference in Ellen’s & Jackie’s cases is that it sounds like this is something that never came up in their careers until now. People who have a record of having worked successfully in different circumstances and environments will understandably feel defensive and like they’re being manipulated if they’re all of a sudden accused of having a “people problem.” (Especially when there are no concrete or specific examples used to illustrate the problem, and there are only anonymous, undocumented references to other people’s “feelings.” It’s the squishiness of these things that I find probably most offensive. How on earth can someone address a problem if it’s unclear and undefined?)

    I’m a cheerful, get-along kind of person, but when I landed in a Bad Department, I was told that I was a “divisive” presence and (by the Dean) that I needed to understand that I “intimidated” people. When I came to my current department, I was amazed to learn that people had great confidence in me: they saw me as a conciliator, that I was able to negotiate divisions between colleagues, they appreciated my contributions in meetings, and they entrusted me with leadership positions in the department very early on in my career here. So, which person am I? Context is everything. In my experience, anyone who asks questions or stands up for herself or others can be labeled a “problem” person. (I have likened my previous department to an alcoholic family, and myself to the child who refuses to go along with the lies and deceptions, which is why I was in fact a “problem” for them! I think that’s still an apt analogy.)

    Not everyone’s style works with every environment in all cases, and sometimes (actually, most of the time) the only thing to do is to move on. That’s what I’ve told Jackie, and that’s what I did myself! I’m just sick of hearing these stories from other women.

  6. Historiann on 29 Sep 2009 at 9:41 am #

    And, perpetua: I’m glad you have a colleague who gets the gendered nature of student evals. I think it’s something we on the faculty must hold the line against–that is, we need to be aware of the unfair expectations that students frequently put on non-white, non-male, non-cis-gendered faculty. To be sure, there are some faculty who seem “unapproachable” to students. But, is that because the faculty member cultivates an air of aloofness or intimidation, or because she doesn’t bake them cookies and ask them to call her by her first name?

    Again, context is everything. (And, who cares if your students find you “approachable?” My bet is that plenty of students find you approachable and get the help they need from you. Another point I was trying to make above is that people need to pull their socks up and take responsibility for their own emotions, and not blame others for inducing emotions in them!)

  7. Ann Bartow on 29 Sep 2009 at 10:18 am #

    Being a poor people manager isn’t, at least to me, the same thing as having poor people skills. Some of the people I work with who are known as having great people skills (they are friendly and helpful toward everyone) would be terrible administrators because managing people means sometimes saying “no” or calling out bad behavior and they are too nice, and/or too invested in being liked, to do this effectively.

    One of the least effective teachers I know will tell students who are clearly not grasping the material that they are offering “interesting and unusual ways of looking at issues” because she can not bear to tell them that they are “wrong.” As you might imagine, the poor grades these students receive come as a complete shock, because “interesting” doesn’t substitute for “correct” on exams.

    People I’ve worked who had their “style” questioned are all colleagues I like a lot, because they are smart and hardworking and direct. They ask hard questions and expect answers.

    The truly mean people are the do-nothings, who want to blame other people for their laziness and related lack of success.

  8. Historiann on 29 Sep 2009 at 10:47 am #

    Ann–good point about how good people skills and good management aren’t necessarily the same thing. I think it’s an important distinction, and one that highlights the obnoxiousness of putting that kind of critique into someone’s tenure file or job performance file.

    Again, what I find so insidious about these complaints is that they’re impossible to address because they’re so vague and are all about *feelings.* I don’t have to be BFFs with everyone I work with–we just need to get along.

  9. Anastasia on 29 Sep 2009 at 11:34 am #

    I agree…what bothers me about the story in your post is that the accusations are so apparently vague. You are abrasive and make people feel bad is not helpful feedback, even if it refers to an actual problem. If the accuser can’t adduce some specific examples, then I start to have questions about the overall validity of the feedback. At that point, the negative evaluation seems more like creating a paper trail than actually helping the individual address a genuine issue.

    If the complaint is more specific–say, when you use X language, it is receive as offensive–then I think it’s worth considering. That doesn’t mean a change in behavior is necessary or that the behavior in question is necessarily wrong. But if the person making the complaint can be that specific and they aren’t extrapolating to therefore you’re a nasty abrasive person, the feedback might actually be useful.

  10. John S. on 29 Sep 2009 at 11:37 am #

    perpetua and Historiann: ahhh, student evals! You both might appreciate that our eval forms don’t just ask if we’re available for student questions (in a literal sense, I suppose). They also ask if we are “Sensitive to class response.” It’s hard to imagine a more subjective question based solely on how good you are at massaging students’ feelings. That’s a great thing to quantify, right?

    I wonder where age plays into this. I think in a rank obsessed profession like ours, being an assistant (or even an associate) professor who has opinions, assumes leadership positions, and gets involved can ruffle the feathers of people who assume deference from junior folks. Someone in Jackie’s situation would compound this situation, since she has deservedly assumed some of this authority from her great success at winning grants; professional jealousy can exacerbate all kinds of other biases and bigotry. (I’m not putting the blame on Jackie, of course–if people are jealous of her success, that’s their problem.)

    This can also hold true for staff as well. In our office at least, the senior staff are older than pretty much all of the asst and assoc profs and around the same age as the full profs. This means that they’re doing support work for untenured faculty who are younger and higher paid than they are. I’ve seen people in our office take umbrage at junior faculty when similar (or even much ruder) behavior from senior faculty doesn’t cause them to bat an eye.

    I am not suggesting that gender doesn’t play a role, it surely does. But this interaction plays a role, I think, esp. since efforts to increase the “pipeline” of junior women hasn’t lead to as great an expansion of senior women in the ranks as it might. Would this look different if women were better represented at the top ranks?

  11. Dr. Crazy on 29 Sep 2009 at 11:38 am #

    The interesting question that your post inspires, though, is what strategies might women employ either a) to head off such complaints before they find their way into one’s review, or b) to address such complaints once they have been issued in a way that is constructive and positive. Because I agree with you that this sort of evaluation is gendered, and I agree that it’s insidious. But I’m not sure it’s always possible to leave for greener pastures, and I’m not sure that it makes sense to refuse to be accommodating (in terms of keeping one’s job, in terms of making one’s life more pleasant). And sure, that might mean complicity, which is problematic, but is there another way to work through such complaints that isn’t just putting on a mask of approved femininity?

  12. Indyanna on 29 Sep 2009 at 11:55 am #

    Ah, the ever-popular “tactful.” I’ve been hit with this, in bureaucratic and legalistic, but I don’t think academic, contexts, but it’s never had any particular cost that I could discern. It’s been observed and then the observer moved on. (I did once have to learn how to spell, and even define, “acerbic,” in such a context. But this referred to written communications, where I cop to the plea). In the same situations, though even more systematically abrasive personnas than I, and men, paid even less of a price. People just stayed away from their cage, which I guess could come with a price, but they certainly stayed around, and even sometimes thrived.

    I wonder what the linguistic connections are between “tactful” and “tactical?” Oops, off to a class, where I’ll definitely be tactful with the customer base…

  13. Historiann on 29 Sep 2009 at 12:05 pm #

    Dr. Crazy: in some work environments, there may be a way, but in others (and I would say MOST environments in which you are told that you are responsible for other people’s *feeelings*), I truly think the only thing to do is to get the hell out. Clearly, Ellen’s and Jackie’s contributions are not valued or appreciated if they are being treated this way. You are correct that it is frequently difficult to find other work, especially in academia, but people in these bullying environments need to consider how remaining in that kind of environment is or has already affected their physical and emotional health. Resigning to break rocks or flip burgers for a while is probably more prudent than sticking around.

    John S.: age and envy are frequently at play in these scenarios. But, there are plenty of hotshot men where Jackie works who don’t have the problems she has. (In fact, it looks like they’ve got one lined up to take over her lab!) I should have said this in the post itself, but all of this discussion of “communication skills” reminds me of all of that crap that Clio Bluestocking went through last spring. “You need to work on commuication skills” is really code for, “You need to shut up and do what I tell you to do.”

    Clio’s series of posts are here: numbers one, two, and three.

  14. AM on 29 Sep 2009 at 12:57 pm #

    I entered the workforce in the mid-fifties and observed more than several times that any straight woman could be destroyed by being told she was acting like a dyke. Never that she was acting like a lesbian, mind you.

    To me, dyke is a word about public behavior (saying no to men)while lesbian is a word about private behavior(women in bed naked). As a lesbian I actually prefer the label dyke; partially because any word that brings up images of women naked in bed is far too attractive to men.

    Now the killer phrase is “lacking communication skills”. In a way, it’s more insidious.

    I would love to see the young women of today call themselves dykes in the academic-corporate world. Sarah Palin’s book title, “Going Rogue: An American Life” strikes me as a step in that direction, don’t believe I’ve ever heard the word rogue applies to a woman.

  15. Historiann on 29 Sep 2009 at 1:10 pm #

    AM–thanks for stopping by to comment. Yes, these are more insidious times. In the 1980s, I think people got savvier about discrimination. This is in part what gives the lie to fantasies that we are “postracial” and “postfeminist”–the style isn’t so glaringly obvious, that’s all.

    I like that distinction between “lesbian” and “dyke!” And I agree: being a dyke is awesome.

  16. Dr. Crazy on 29 Sep 2009 at 1:28 pm #

    “Resigning to break rocks or flip burgers for a while is probably more prudent than sticking around.” Well. Maybe if you don’t have student loans, you don’t have any other debt (credit card, house, car, etc.), and if you have a source of health insurance. I’m not at all saying that one shouldn’t do one’s best to get out of a bad environment, but don’t think “just quit” is really practical advice for many people.

    Here’s the thing: I think you’re right that by the time that this sort of complaint hits the performance or tenure review stage, that an individual is probably in a work environment that isn’t good for her. The question remains, though, are there things one can do on the front end so that this sort of thing doesn’t end up becoming part of the review process?

    Look, I’ve been called aloof, abrupt, intimidating, rude – you name it – by students at my current institution, particularly in my first couple of years here. I think part of this was about me needing to adjust to this university (big difference betw. R1 in the NE in Grad school and my current place), but I also think that part of it was about students attempting to put me in my place. Now, maybe this hasn’t come up on reviews for me because my colleagues aren’t jerks. But I think it also may have to do with me getting better at communicating my expectations up front, at learning how not to rise to particular kinds of bait, at learning how to be more thoughtfully direct (as opposed to irrationally explosively direct). I’m still not everybody’s cup of tea (who is?) but I think I’ve gotten better at managing people’s expectations of me, not by performing appropriate femininity but by learning how to negotiate the needs of different audiences more effectively.

    Or maybe I’m just kidding myself. But I do believe that adjusting when these kinds of comments first started happening did make me happier in my job and did ultimately serve me well. But that’s just how I happened to handle this stuff on my own, and I’m curious to hear if other people have other strategies beyond “take this job and shove it.”

  17. Historiann on 29 Sep 2009 at 1:37 pm #

    Dr. Crazy: there’s a HUGE difference between your students’ complaints and your voluntary efforts to address them, and a supervisor’s documentation of vague complaints about “tone” or “style.” You are assuming that there is in fact something wrong with the way that Ellen or Jackie are communicating with people. I don’t think that assumption is warranted based on the evidence we have here.

    (BTW, maybe you did need to change the way you present yourself to students, but in my experience, new faculty get this treatment in student evals anyway. Students know who’s new, and all new faculty get lectured that “this isn’t the way we do things around here,” and “you are totally unreasonable.” Once people get established, those complaints go away whether or not the faculty member makes self-conscious changes about the way ze teaches or behaves in class.)

    What did you think about the advice to speak in a low tone, very slowly, and smile a lot? I suppose that’s one strategy that might work in some situations, but isn’t the bigger problem the fact that women faculty are subjected to criticism for failing to hit a moving target with their “tone” or “style?” I know you are a take-charge and optimistic person, and I’m certainly not trying to bring you down. But, there are some work environments in which no one can win, and in these cases, the best thing to do is to resign and move on.

  18. Another Damned Medievalist on 29 Sep 2009 at 2:09 pm #

    Oy. I’ve been accused of this outside academia — right down to the MoU. Generally, the worst people say about me in academic settings is that I can be too blunt or tactless. Except for the people who seem really threatened.

  19. FrauTech on 29 Sep 2009 at 3:00 pm #

    Perpetua-did you compare notes with your male colleagues? I tend to think of most of my professors as unapproachable, even the ones with “open doors” and all that. I’m sure it’s more a student perception problem than a professor problem.

    This is all pretty common from what I’ve seen. If I’m not being motherly to people (despite being young enough to be their daughter) I will get called a b@#$ or told I am having a bad day as they walk off. They won’t tolerate the same kind of honesty from a female colleague that they would from a male. And yet, the b@#$ route still seems the safest route. Otherwise it’s extremely difficult to garner any respect (unless you are in an administrative position or “womanly” role). I haven’t as yet been called to account for my “attitude” but every time I have a polite disagreement with a senior colleague I expect it.

    Certainly what John S. says about kissing up to your “elders” is very true. And I do try to do that in some way, show extra respect for some people because i know their egos need it, in order to get my point of view across and make it so they can accept my suggestion without appearing weak. [they say MY generation is the most spoiled, but i've had to coddle and "compliment sandwich" everyone from X to Boomer to Lost Generation]. I guess it’s ridiculous because…my Mom certainly thought things would be different for me in the working world than it was for her. Some things have changed certainly, but why not this?

  20. Emma on 29 Sep 2009 at 3:25 pm #

    “Christina–thanks for the info. I wonder, though, if cases like these, in which people don’t actually tell women they need to be more “ladylike” or use specificly gendered language, could really be pursued successfully under title VII.”

    It makes it harder, for sure.

    “The thing about this kind of bullying is that while there are clearly gendered expectations in play, few supervisors are stupid enough to use gendered terms like “manly,” “feminine,” or the like.”

    You might be surprised sometimes.

    Also, if you’re facing this kind of below-the-radar gender discrimination at work, unless you have a workable exit strategy the best advice may be to take the bull by the horns and file written complaints of gender discrimination.

  21. Dr. Crazy on 29 Sep 2009 at 7:14 pm #

    Historiann,
    Oh, I agree that there’s a huge difference, I just think that one can give the other ammunition, and I’m all about trying to make sure there’s not ammunition available.

    I’m actually not assuming there’s something wrong with how Jackie or Ellen are actually communicating…. I think I’m thinking something more convoluted (I’ve been up since 5, had to do the copy for our changes to our major, spent the day grading and teaching, and then capped it off with a library talk). I think I’m thinking that how they’re communicating is fine, but that it helps to manage perceptions about one’s communication style before it gets to the level where a supervisor can use it against you? I think that probably you’re right that by the time it gets to that level that the ship has sailed, and there’s little one can do to recover once one has been painted with the “you have a problem communicating, you woman you” brush.

    I’ve actually GOTTEN the low tone, speak slowly advice (though I smile a lot naturally so I’ve never gotten that advice) and it was at a CONFERENCE from a senior woman in my field. I basically ignored it, after getting over my irritation at being told how to conduct myself when I conducted myself just fine, thank you very much. :) But I had the luxury of ignoring it because this is a person I see maybe once every year or two and someone who is in no way connected to my paycheck.

    I think you’re right that new faculty members whatever their gender/sexual orientation get hazed in the beginning. I think the difference is that male faculty who don’t respond in some fashion, and just keep going along, are given a pass. If they’re abrupt it’s read as rigorous, if they’re tactless and impatient it’s read as a positive indicator of how totally brilliant they are. Women, on the other hand, seem to have to address the charges in some fashion (my approach is to announce early and often that I’m the dragon lady in a happily serious fashion, to do some graded assignments early to weed out the bad apples from the bunch before they have a chance to be indignant that they had no idea I’d be tough, along with a variety of other tactics that I won’t ramble on about) so that the charges wouldn’t rear their heads in a more high stakes context later. Again, though, this probably only works because I’m in a very sane department and, ultimately, institution. Nevertheless, I also have had colleagues who didn’t address the student negativity, and at a certain point, the student perceptions trickled upward, in ways that were pretty awful. So on the one hand, yes, one has to be one’s own advocate and get out of a toxic situation if one has landed in one. On the other hand, I do think that there is a path toward a situation becoming toxic, and while we can’t take responsibility for other people’s *feelings* (I totally agree with you on that), we can powerfully manage how some of those feelings about us circulate, if that makes sense.

    I don’t know. I’m tired. Sorry for the rambling comment. The short version is, I don’t actually disagree with you. I just want for there to be options for taking control in addition to the option to get the hell out of a bad situation.

  22. Historiann on 29 Sep 2009 at 8:54 pm #

    Dr. Crazy: I hear you. But, my analysis is that if one is in a department that wants to fire you, they’ll find a way. By my estimation, Ellen’s and Jackie’s academic units at the very least want to discipline and humiliate them, and at the most want to fire them. (My guess is that they’re working to force the women to resign, by making their working conditions so intolerable that any reasonable person would.)

    There are lots of ways to address problems in your student evaluations. There are not very many options available if you’re in a department or work environment where people are grasping at any evidence or gossip they have to put it in your personnel file and to make you look bad. It can happen to anyone, because there’s always a few students who will complain about something. That’s what I think is happening here–especially given the vagueness of the complaints and the inability or unwillingness to produce a single concrete example of “abrasive” behavior or use of language that “intimidates” people.

    I will freely admit that my reaction to Ellen’s and Jackie’s stories is very much conditioned by my own bad first job. That’s where I learned that even hardworking people of good will with solid records can be made to look bad in a personnel file or annual review letter. When the chair of my former department picked out 4 of 30 student evaluations that each said something to the effect of “this isn’t American history–this class is only about blacks, women, and Indians” and told me that it was my responsibility to address their concerns, it was clear to me that I had to go. I knew that even if I did the intellectually dishonest thing and changed my course according to 4 complaints, this chair would find something else the next year.

  23. perpetua on 30 Sep 2009 at 6:25 am #

    @ FrauTech – the (male) colleague with whom I was speaking is someone who is very attuned to the gender politics of students evals. He’s noticed how much lower the evals for female faculty are at my uni, especially younger faculty. And for (female) faculty of color or foreign faculty it’s even worse (anyone with an accent, except Brits), and for any teaching intro classes it’s even worse. It also happens that the women in my dept tend to be all very take no sh*&, whereas the men tend to be more laid back and mellow. Of course I don’t think this is an accident. (White) men are accorded respect and authority in the class room 98% of the time without any trouble. They can afford to be relaxed because it doesn’t impede student respect. Whereas young female faculty can get involved in a series of power struggles with domineering male students unless she takes firm and immediate control over her class. It is interested to think about though – and I know this only one example – a department full of tough and demanding (in a good way) women and laid back and kind of grade inflating men.

  24. Clio Bluestocking on 30 Sep 2009 at 7:18 am #

    Thank you for the links to my series of posts. As I read yours, I had flashbacks!

    Your point about the nebulous criteria for this emotional caretakeing — particularly the refusal to point to actual instances of the behavior in question or to specifically address ways to alter that behavior is the key here.

    Last week I was in one of these Center for Teaching and Learning classes that we are required to take. This one was on how to prepare for our performance review. Half of the class was devoted to this tired old exercise (and by “tired” I mean that this was not the first nor the second time that I sat through it) on “what makes a good/bad teacher.” The “good” column was filled with all of these non-specific subjective terms.

    In a class about a performance review, this bothered me. Don’t tell me a good teacher should be “accomodating.” Tell me exactly what behaviors indicate that a good teacher is being “accomodating.” If something as undefined as “accomodating” or “available” or “caring” or “compassionate” is going to be part of my evaluation, well, that almost feels like a trap. The same sort of trap that Ellen and Jackie seem to have fallen into. It leaves room to assault a person for “feelings” rather than for their ability to do their job well. Plus, this feelings issue was sprung on them at the end, not somewhere earlier when, if there really is a problem of communication or lack of understanding of “the way we do things here” or so forth, it could be prevented from becoming a bigger problem — just as Dr. Crazy describes.

  25. Historiann on 30 Sep 2009 at 7:31 am #

    Clio–your experience is disheartening. This is just the kind of bullcrap I was talking about in my recent post on evaluating teaching: we really must be specific and concrete, or we’re just being 1) lazy, and 2) subjective.

    I agree that some people have a special teaching fairy dust and everything they do is totally awesome–but the rest of us schleppers need to understand the component parts of teaching effectiveness, and to do our best with what we’ve got.

  26. Comrade PhysioProf on 30 Sep 2009 at 4:03 pm #

    The notion that this is not about male privilege and acceptable feminine display is absolutely laughable. I am applauded for displaying myself verbally and sartorially in my professional milieu in ways that would bring massive unrelenting opprobrium upon any woman who did the same.

  27. Historiann on 30 Sep 2009 at 5:11 pm #

    Ha! That would be a sight to see–if all of the Ellens and Jackies out there getting criticized for being “abrasive” pulled a Comrade PhysioProf on the job! (I would hope that they would not spare the profanity.)

    Frankly, I think Jackie is getting ready to blow.

  28. Indyanna on 30 Sep 2009 at 8:41 pm #

    Perpetua: Yeah, a dangerous brew. New, younger faculty, (especially with non-western research specialties), women, and survey classes full of curricularly-coerced and predictably resentful customers. We have a watered-down Western Civ knockoff course that all students save history majors have to take, and basically everybody has to teach (and teach, and teach, and teach). We hired, say an Africanist and say an Ottomanist, both women, and the Old Guard said, sure its Western Civ but tweak it anyway you want, do your own thing. They did this and come evaluations time, it was that “Arab-loving @#$%&%*,” and this “[I can't even say it],” right there in the anonymous instruments. When they lamented about what this would do to their annual reviews or tenurability (much less their sanity), the veteran lugs just shrugged and said, wft, that course is our bread-and-butter, we have to teach it, otherwise they’d downsize us…

    As the song says, “one went to Chicago, the other to St. Paul,” literally. When they had a chance to go they went, and good for them and unfortunate for us. We still teach the bread-and-water course and we all get raked and strafed for it, but in very different ways.

  29. Janice on 30 Sep 2009 at 9:17 pm #

    It’s amazing how behaving like a human, when you’re female, gets you in trouble, time and time again. What’s expected or excused of men will get a lot more criticism for women in the professional world.

    One male colleague called me a fascist control-freak in the classroom. That was interesting since the closest he’d come to observing my teaching was walking past an open classroom door a few times. But I was not ladylike, after all, after the time I’d shut down his attempt to make awkwardly persistent comments about my dress.

  30. Historiann on 30 Sep 2009 at 9:55 pm #

    Janice: really? A “fascist control-freak?” A lot of boys will say that when you tell them that your eyes are up HERE, not down THERE. (Or, maybe he was commenting about your propensity to write lectures before class, and have discussion questions prepared?)

    I was just saying to a colleague today: the sex bias in evaluations (peer and student, unfortunately) is really disgusting. Absolutely anything can be turned into a negative in a woman’s professional record, and any potential flaw or weakness in a man’s record can be massaged to reflect his stunning awesomeness.

  31. Z on 04 Oct 2009 at 1:40 am #

    Packing up and quitting the profession because mistreatment is not worth it — valid.

    Refusing to allow oneself to be driven out by discrimination — valid.

  32. DeAnn on 27 Aug 2012 at 6:51 pm #

    I can relate to both Ellen and JAckie’s situation. After being in a department for a year I always excelled at whatever I was tasked. I’m the one out of 14 to always offer good suggestions for the betterment of the department. I was one day awarded the Supervisor of the department. Since then persons who I supervised found all the faults they could about my physical appearance. They all resorted to a rumor that I was having an intimate relationship with my immediate manager and that it was now affecting them.they all plotted and went to the human resource department and made up all sorts of stories about how rude and unapproachable I was and the fact that I tend to talk to them with a tone. Bottom line is I am a very principled person and I like for company’s rules to be upheld. To avoid getting any complaints. About them being overworked by me I have never once delegated any additional task to any of whom I surprise. They added that I do not know how to communicate to them. They didn’t stop until the hour manager stripped me of my title and duties. I was told by such manager that I needed to learn some people skills. Was basically told to stoop to my fellow teamates level as it is felt my level and standards are too high and I need to stop shining so that no one will feel as though am better off than them. So at the end of the day my skills, knowledge and expertise must be compromised so as to protect the feelings of a bunch of adults who suffer from low self esteem and who lack self confidence.