Male Anxiety in the Workplace: The Case of Academic Philosophy

In 1990, I began work at AT&T’s Bell Laboratories. My technical employment status was ‘Resident Visitor’; I was a ‘consultant’ sent to work at the Laboratories on a contingent basis. Because of this status, I was not required to attend the training sessions that were often set up for permanent employees. Off they went, while I, and the rest of the consulting crew stayed in our offices, attending to whatever it was we did. When my colleagues and friends returned, they complained bitterly and caustically about these trainings, these onerous impositions on their time and energy: they had been made to attend day-long seminars on ‘diversity,’ ‘affirmative action,’ ‘women in the workplace,’ ‘sexual harassment’ and the like.

Their contempt for these efforts was unvarnished: ‘a fucking waste of time,’ ‘useless,’ ‘just a bunch of moaning and whining,’ ‘the usual politically correct bullshit.’ They wondered, to a man–and I use that term advisedly–what would it all mean? What did ‘management’ want? How should they comport themselves? They were bewildered and anxious and angry: ‘It’s like you can’t crack a joke anymore without someone getting offended’; ‘Try being friendly with someone, and you’ll get cracked down on’. One older gentleman, with whom I had developed a bit of a friendship, complained to me that he when he called younger women ‘honey’ or ‘sweetheart’ , he meant it as a term of affection, not meant to be remotely insulting, patronizing or offensive; it was just how he interacted with that demographic. (I failed to point out to him that he used these terms more often for women of color.)

Listening to them, one would have been hard pressed to not imagine that a gigantic inquisitorial McCarthyite whip had been cracked, shedding skin and sending them scurrying for cover. Those whose protection was seemingly demanded by these trainings now became the focus for more suspicion and contempt: Will this woman complain about my language, linguistic or body? Will this black man accuse me of being patronizing? Oh, the inhumanity! The realm of social interaction, previously unsullied by exhortations to be more sensitive to assorted sensibilities, to problematic presuppositions, to the potential for prejudice-enforcing behavior, had been transformed into one of suspicion and worry; relationships, which would have flowered and bloomed without this malign intervention and chaperoning, were now doomed to wither. Why not just let things be as they are–when they seemed to have worked so well for everyone? Couldn’t the whiners and complainers just learn to live and let live?

I am reminded of that group of anxious men as I read Louise Antony‘s article at the Stone yesterday, noting the male anxiety triggered in academic philosophy by La Affaire Colin McGinn, in which a senior philosopher resigned his tenured post after being accused of inappropriate behavior by his female graduate student. As Antony notes, the MIT linguist  Steven Pinker wrote ‘that “such an action would put a chill on communication between faculty and graduate students and on the openness and informality on which scholarship depends.”’ And then, of course, there are the familiar worries from elsewhere:

Pinker’s reflexive and overheated reaction to the events in Florida is simply one precipitate of the fog of male anxiety that floats through the halls of academia. I’m always hearing from stressed-out men, worrying aloud what “all this fuss” about sexual harassment means for them. I’ve heard it at training sessions on university sexual harassment policy: “Does this mean I can’t even tell a woman that she looks nice?” I’ve heard it in coffee lounges: “Make sure you keep your door open when you’re talking to a woman student — you never know what she might say later.” And I’ve had it confided to me, with a sigh of regret, at conference happy hours: “I’m afraid now to form any relationships with female students — they might take it the wrong way.”

Unsurprisingly enough, in academia, just like it was at Bell Labs more than twenty years ago, the actual disciplinary record is the same: very few men have actually been complained about, and an even smaller number have had any action taken against them. Very few careers had been ruined; what had been, or could be, ruined was the atmosphere that had existed before, where all the squirming was done by women, or some other vulnerable minority, and where all the smirking and grinning was done by men. Yes, there was plenty of banter, some of it just the kind that adults engage in to take the edge of what might otherwise be a stilted social engagement. But in these very same engagements, the balance of power was always visible to all; if there were lines to be crossed it would only happen in one direction. How much give and take, the supposed fabric of banter, could really be spun out in these domains of unequal power?

Antony is right to note that the real effect of the heightened visibility of discourse about sexual harassment–or about other variants of discomfort and offense inducing behavior–is not as much legislative or punitive, as it is to induce an uncomfortable spotlight on the perpetrators and to place an expectation on them of real, substantive change in their behavior. That is onerous; it requires some serious introspection, some work on building new habits of speech and action, some effort directed toward sympathetic or empathetic listening; it requires working on the new, as yet not clearly understood or defined, parameters of new relationships; it requires the construction of a new space of discourse, with new guidelines and conversational implicatures. If male academic philosophers insist that ‘openness and informality’ be understood and construed only as specified by them, and that intellectually rewarding academic relationships cannot be formed in any other way, then they are guilty of several false dichotomies.

As Antony notes:

The real worry, I think, for men is that they will have to change their ways. They will have to monitor what they say to female students and colleagues. They will have to think twice before chatting up that attractive graduate student they see at a conference. They’ll have to stop relying on smutty double entendres to get laughs in their seminars.

So, yes, it is a burden. Having to change our ways always is.  So, since those folks who complain about diversity training and sexual harassment sensitivity sessions always set great store by plain speaking, it would not be untoward to direct at them, a simple and plain injunction: Deal with it. Change.

13 thoughts on “Male Anxiety in the Workplace: The Case of Academic Philosophy

  1. “Does this mean I can’t even tell a woman that she looks nice?” I’ve heard it in coffee lounges: “Make sure you keep your door open when you’re talking to a woman student — you never know what she might say later.” And I’ve had it confided to me, with a sigh of regret, at conference happy hours: “I’m afraid now to form any relationships with female students — they might take it the wrong way.”

    I’m not sure what Antony is getting at. I see nothing but prudent advice here. Is she saying that all this male anxiety is unjustified or that it’s all due to men being unwilling to change their lecherous behavior? Isn’t it possible that some of them are worried about being unjustly charged with sexual harassment?

    When I was teaching, a mentor of mine advised me to be very careful about how I interacted with female students. At the time, I was young, single, and — in his estimation at least — ‘good looking.’ He told me to be conscious of what I said to female students and advised against meeting them one-on-one (he offered to be present during my office hours). Again, I accepted this as prudent advice. Despite this note of caution, and despite exercising caution himself, he was charged with sexual harassment late in his career. To make a long story short, he was later acquitted by a third party arbitrator, but I saw firsthand the toll that even the allegation takes on one’s career and personal life. The procedure itself is punishment; the presumption of innocence, absent.

    Since that time, I’ve considered ANY interaction with a female student as a potential minefield to be avoided if possible. I certainly kept my office door open during consultation and only met with female students during office hours. I was a little more casual with male students, sometimes meeting them at a campus coffee shop if, for example, they had class during my office hours. Ironically, then, I suspect that ‘male anxiety’ does not foster more equality, but is more likely to result in preferential treatment of male students by male professors. I still consider my policy a prudent one, but it’s unfortunate that female students had less access to my time than did male students. Sadly, however, the practical effect of male anxiety might be that female students don’t get the best out of male professors which may contribute to an already existing problem: the dearth of women in the discipline.

    I’ve since quit teaching and I’m thankful not to have to navigate these minefields anymore. I note, however, that I’ve maintained friendships with several male former students. Alas, I cannot say the same about female former students. I attribute this fact to the culture of anxiety academia fosters. In my judgment, the academy is already doing more than enough to make men hyper-conscious of the dire consequences of even seemingly innocent interactions with female students. And, again, that’s to the detriment of both female students and male faculty.

    1. Wow, it did not take long for the “anecdote that contradicts the message” negation to appear. My reaction to your comment is that the restrictions you put on your contact with female students were probably good things, especially for your students.

      1. To be fair, Antony’s and Samir’s examples are anecdotal too. Doesn’t mean we should disregard them with a snide comment.

    2. And OMG the first comment on the post expresses the problem perfectly. Yes, “prudent” man who meets male students in the coffee shop and women students in his office with the door open, you are part of the problem.

      The problem is not that sexual harassment policies have imposed this standard on you. The problem is that *your* way of relating to sexual harassment policies, from start to finish, is entirely about your own anxieties about being “falsely accused.” That is the only lens through which you are capable of viewing this situation because you have no empathy for women who are your students and colleagues. That is not a problem created by sexual harassment policies. It is a problem with you.

      Also, your mentor who offered to join your office hours with young women sounds like a total creep.

      1. Your comment is completely ad hominem. You accuse me of lacking empathy for the plight of others, yet you seem incapable of entertaining any point of view other than your own. Let me be clear: I do have empathy for female students and colleagues. You seem to assume that because I dare to question (*gasp) your favored solution, that I’m tone-deaf to women’s concerns. That simply doesn’t follow. Why not find a solution that’s better than either Antony’s ‘PC police’ or a climate of informal and inappropriate relationships between male faculty and female students?

        By the way, say what you want about me, but I’d thank you to leave my colleague out of it. He was one of the most decent human beings I’ve ever known.

  2. I don’t know. As an undergraduate, my first mentor in the philosophy department (of a small, liberal arts college) was a man. He was also brilliant, funny, warm, a great conversationalist, not an ego-maniac, and not different in the ways he was with me versus his behavior with male students. In fact, we became really good friends, and would talk for hours in his office, on the quad, in cafes, etc. Was he inappropriate with me? Never. Did he ever make me feel like a lesser being by virtue of being female? Not at all. Was I ever disadvantaged in any way because I was female — in fact, the only female philosophy major in my year? Absolutely not. The point of all of this is: The whole McGinn affair can be read in two ways: The first, represented by danielmullin81, is one that fears the “chilling” of the male professor/female student relationship that might inadvertently disadvantage female students. The other, the one that I think is preferable, is that being a professor does not at the same time excuse one from simply being a decent human being, no matter one’s putative brilliance or ability to explain away one’s behavior. And no, I do not think that my use of “decent human being” here requires logic-chopping or meaning-parsing. And it certainly does not include the conclusion drawn by danielmullin81, suggesting that male faculty have no stars by which to guide their interactions with female students (because WHO KNOWS what is appropriate and what is not, right?), thus leaving them professionally disadvantaged. That in itself, I would suggest, is not a very decent conclusion at all.

    1. I’m not sure how you drew the conclusion that I’m “suggesting that male faculty have no stars by which to guide their interactions with female students (because WHO KNOWS what is appropriate and what is not, right?” I have a pretty good sense of what is acceptable ethical behavior and what is not. I’m also not defending McGinn or ‘reading’ that case in any particular way. If he’s guilty (and the circumstantial evidence does not bode well for him), then he deserves censure.

      Nevertheless, I think it’s prudent for male faculty to think about indemnification. This is routinely done in other professions. For example, counselors and therapists carry insurance in case a client makes allegations against them. They know that such incidents are rare, but also know that it only takes one. Does their prudence thereby mean that these professionals have ‘no stars by which to guide their behavior’? Or, as Samir says, that they regard all of their female clients as irrational actors? That doesn’t seem plausible to me.

      I guess I’m puzzled why making a point about indemnification against risk — commonplace in other fields — should be regarded by those in academia as an indication that I’m morally benighted or part of the problem. But I’m now an outsider looking in.

  3. Before becoming an academic, I was, for a very short time, an attorney. I would suggest that my relationships with my clients as an attorney were of a very different kind then those I have with my students: The first is a fiduciary, contractual relationship between a service provider and paying customer, while the latter is more of a combination of apprenticeship and mentoring, with sometimes friendship a part of the whole. One can indemnify oneself against a client who is displeased with one’s professional services. To indemnify oneself against the latter is, honestly, to change the entire nature of the graduate (or even undergraduate) educational model, and to reduce the mentor-student relationship to little more than a contractual arrangement for the conveyance of information. That said, I think that the best way to “indemnify” oneself, if one is concerned about stepping over boundaries, is sensitivity and anti-harassment training that is available at most institutions. Or, you can do what one of my good (male) friends did while still in graduate school: ask some trusted female friends about what they take to be appropriate and inappropriate behavior, Ask them what their experiences have been, and learn from what they say. I think that this, in the end, will offer you much more useful and honest information than any legalistic indemnification process ever would.

    1. I think the counselor case is more analogous than the attorney case. Be that as it may, that was just one example. I wasn’t necessarily recommending that faculty carry insurance. Indemnification can be accomplished by the adoption of certain rules and polices for professional conduct (whether institutionally mandated or not).

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