Wanting women to fail

I have three memories. The first is of a time that I emailed the convener of my PhD programme to ask a question. I was particularly stuck trying to work through an idea in my thesis, and I took the (for me uncharacteristic) chance that he might come back with something helpful, and wrote to him about the problem. He wrote back with nothing substantively helpful, but instead saying that he was “glad I was feeling uncertain.” That response stuck to me: why was he glad? I am not an overly certain person. It’s not that I needed doubt to be introduced in order to cut through arrogance, or to make me think something through more carefully.

The second memory is of him saying of his partner, another student of his, that he hoped something would slow her down professionally. It was phrased in a way to make it sound like a sort of back-handed compliment. She was smart, capable, and worked quickly. But it still wasn’t quite a compliment. Why, I wondered, did he want her to become less productive? What sort of wish was that for a partner?

The third memory is a conversation I had with a friend just after finishing my MA. I was thinking about how I felt about my work. I felt terrified. It was the first moment I was aware that even though I had done very well in the degree, the net effect of it was not confidence, but insecurity. I felt scared of showing my writing to others, and even of saying what I thought.

I’ve been talking to my friends in the department a lot, thinking about our experiences with this professor and working through the different ways we’ve felt and the different ways we’ve been handled. How have the ways we’ve been undermined worked? What happened, or what was done, to make us feel so uncertain of our own abilities?

The first one is simple. We were sexualised. And we knew we were sexualised. When we were given attention, when an interest was taken in our work, when an opportunity was offered to us, it was impossible to tell whether it was because we were qualified, competent and good at what we did, or because he wanted to fuck us. He did want to fuck us; he was trying to do that.

The second one is slightly darker: we were also treated as though things we had earned were favours that had been done for us. We were told when we earned firsts on essays that he had done us a favour. When we earned distinctions on degrees, this too was a favour we wouldn’t have gotten without his support in the decision. When we won funding awards and scholarships and research grants, he told us he had done us a favour. He had supported us. He had gotten it for us. It wasn’t a subscript or an implication. He would say, “I will get this for you,” then he would tell us he had gotten it for us, and so often he would do this in personal spaces. On trains and buses. In homes and at restaurants. Often we’d hear from him first, before we’d even been officially notified.

How could we trust anything we earned while we were being undermined like that? How could positive feedback actually come back to us as an evaluation of our work and ability when a man in a position of power was turning it into a favour he did for us in the process of trying to seduce us?

The third is the other side of it. There was the soft handling, there were the favours and the sweet talk. And then there was the sharpness of public shaming when you didn’t do what he wanted. Publicly, in institutional spaces – classrooms, lecture halls, and also in the more private space of the office – we would be shamed for being too emotional, too disorganised or slow, or just for saying the wrong thing. There was no reason given, no actual sustained engagement with our thinking or our work, but just a turning away from it. It wasn’t good; it had problems. We weren’t allowed to need to learn anything in the space of the classroom.

Not that it was really about learning anything or needing to: whether or not our ideas had “problems” depended on his mood and our compliance with him, and not on what we in fact said, wrote or thought.

And so we walked, so carefully, to stay on the right side of the bullying. To not slip, to not expose ourselves to name-calling in front of our peers and also behind our backs — because he would tell our peers, behind our backs, if our work “needed work,” or if our presentation was a “disgrace.” We had to speak and write and behave so carefully around him, trying to escape that shaming.

Wanting women to fail, he was good at making women fail.

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