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Cis White Men … Say Something.

Category: Academia

The first on-campus interview I ever got was at a school in the Midwest. After giving a job talk and teaching demo I was scheduled to go to dinner with two white men faculty members. I was informed that one faculty member would meet us at the restaurant and I was to ride to the restaurant with the other. In the car ride, the one faculty member expressed having enjoyed my research talk and engaged in a discussion about sociological theory. I was exhausted after a full day of meeting with faculty and Deans. I remember wishing he would be quiet so that I could have a moment to myself before the dinner. Obviously, I refrained from suggesting as much. Given my status, I simply did my best to remain engaged in the conversation.

I remember very little about the dinner itself. I don’t even have any recollection of the type of food we were served. I remember it was a dimly lit restaurant and we sat on a round couch, a small table in front of us held candles. I wondered how this might look to others, me, a brown woman sitting here with a much older white man on either side of me. One faculty member was focused on selling the city to me. However, he never asked what I valued in a city of residence. If he had asked, he might have known that I was much more interested in the K-12 public education system and racial segregation in the city’s neighborhoods than I was about night life. Nonetheless, he assumed I would be most interested in the city’s social scene and thus began telling me about the bars and clubs in the area. He told me about a younger woman whom he spent lots of time with going to these bars and clubs. You would like her, he said. I remember being confused about why he kept talking about this woman and their outings.

Toward the end of the evening, he suggested in front of his colleague that if I was interested, he’d be willing to take me to a club. He would call the girl, he said, and we could all three go to the club together. I politely stated that I’d had a long day and would likely be too tired to go to a club. He insisted that the club was really nice and that it was close by. When I didn’t look convinced, he said “Listen, the job interview is over. Now we can go out and have a good time.” When I still did not appear interested, he suggested I go back to my hotel, relax for a bit and then we could go out later. After dinner, He drove me back to my hotel. As we pulled into the front entrance, he got out of the car and shuck my hand. I told him it had been a pleasure meeting him and he again reiterated that the interview was over. I will call you later, he said, and see if you want to go out.

I went up to my hotel room, shut the door and tried to process this painfully awkward dinner. Did this man seriously think I would feel comfortable going out on the town with him and his “friend”? He was a tenured professor, easily twenty years my senior and I a newly-minted PhD student on a job interview. I categorized the dinner as inappropriate at best. But a feeling of dread came over me as I considered the other possibilities. Was this man wanting to get me drunk? Was he trying to hook me up with his “friend”? Was he interested in a threesome? Why the hell did this guy keep pushing me to go out with him? What did he want from me?

About 10 pm that night the phone in my hotel room rang. My stomach turned. I didn’t want to answer it and almost didn’t but then I thought “What if, he keeps calling? What if he doesn’t hear from me and decides to drop by my hotel room to “make sure I’m okay”? I answered the phone, “Hey, so the interview is over. You ready to go out?” He said. “I’m tired”, I said, I’m going to stay in”. Okay he finally said, and I hung up.

A few days later, I was offered that job. I did not take it.

In the backdrop of the metoo movement in the academy, I’ve watched my colleagues share their experiences with rape, coercion and sexual harassment. My heart bleeds for them and for all of us who have experienced unwanted sexual advances. But I’m going to venture that more of us in the academy have experiences that look like the one I describe above. I suspect that on-campus job interviews, in particular, is one of the places where these inappropriate behaviors fester.

In the corporate world if an employer is interested in hiring you, they arrange a specific time for you to meet for an hour. The end. In the academy, on-campus interviews involve spending so much more time with prospective colleagues. We pick candidates up at the airport in our cars, give them our cell phone numbers, take them out to dinner, and breakfast and a lunch. The process is elaborate and involves many moments of intimacy that reach outside the professional realm. So many opportunities for things to go very wrong.

Given the uniqueness of the academic job market, it amazes me that we don’t more openly discuss how to maintain boundaries during these encounters. At best, I’ve seen some schools pass around a list of forbidden questions (usually from Human Resources). But even that is something I’ve seen disregarded on academic job searches.

As a discipline, our organizations are coming together to develop policies around sexual harassment at our annual meetings and offering best practices for scholarly engagement. At this years’ American Sociological Association meeting, we will have a workshop on bystander intervention and another on sexual violence within the discipline. These are all good steps. But they are not enough. As a discipline, we need to unpack the climate we foster. We must pay more attention to the power imbalances inherent in our working relationships and remain mindful of those imbalances in all our interactions with one another. Most importantly, we need to be holding one another accountable for these transgressions. Accountability at the institutional, departmental and individual level is imperative.

When I think back on that dinner that night … what bugs me most is the other guy. Not the one who kept insisting I go to the club but the other guy at the table who watched this whole encounter and said nothing. The one who watched this whole encounter and still let his colleague drive me back to my hotel room that night … Men. Cis White men. You want to be an ally? You want to foster better rapport? Stop watching silently as these things happen. Stop sitting on your privilege. Say something.

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