I was standing at the bar with the head of the department after he delivered a particularly under-prepared seminar to students. It was customary to go to the pub afterwards and whoever had delivered the seminar would usually join. His phone had kept going off during the seminar, making him agitated, but not really impacting the quality of what was being delivered.
After the seminar, and despite having only just met him the academic showed no restraint in proceeding in my presence to argue strongly on the phone to the person responsible for the offending and mistimed messages. Once ending the phone call he began to complain bitterly to me about his annoyance with the person. When I asked who he was talking about, because it felt like there was little option left for me but to engage, he spat out with venom that it was his wife, and that she knew he was teaching that afternoon and had shown a vagrant disregard for his schedule. I suggested helpfully that perhaps he could apologise to his wife for his unjustified outrage. He stopped and stared at me for a full second in a manner that seemed to be full of disgust, and then proceeded to say, “You’d be the kind of person that would apologise, but I never do.” This suggestion of inferiority left me feeling very uncomfortable. What had I done or said in the five minutes of standing with him that made him judge that I was ‘weak’? Why did he care so little as to what I may have thought of his behaviour? What I hated about this moment, just as much as the sexism of what he insinuated, was the feeling of powerlessness, that I couldn’t tell him how this behaviour towards his partner in front of a stranger, and his blatant disrespect for me during the entire event made me feel sick. That I couldn’t refuse to engage because he was the head of the department that I was now stuck with. That I had to get along with him, that I couldn’t call his behaviour unacceptable.
Having seen him on numerous occasions at university and finally several years later going to meeting in his office he opened the door and looked at me as if for the first time, asking “Have we met before?” This encounter after the seminar had been etched in my mind since then, and yet was clearly never thought of again by him. I hadn’t felt noticed when he spoke to me, and this moment standing in the door to his office confirmed it. As I was quick to discover, this would turn out to be the same academic who condoned sexual harassment of students and staff members in his department, who systematically ignored multiple complaints by female students over many years, who joked about poor staff member performance, and who wasn’t worried about what students thought as long as they weren’t blogging about it. Well perhaps it’s now time to become a little worried.