The Harvey Weinstein scandal has led to renewed awareness about sexual misconduct in every sector, including a string of recent allegations in academe. In the past, claims by women — especially those in subordinate or less senior roles — were not always considered credible. That appears to be changing this time. Women are being believed, and predators are losing their jobs. Yet a recent incident showed me how much women’s credibility remains under siege, in subtle ways, even when dealing with faculty peers.
In an academic environment where credentials are everything, women’s credentials may still mean little.
Just a few days ago, a female professor and colleague emailed several of us to offer a handout with tips on how to write unbiased letters of recommendation for students pursuing graduate studies. Research has shown that one of the many reasons women lag behind men in academic environments is the fact that, compared with recommendation letters for men, the ones for women candidates often contain less powerful and more negative descriptions.
In essence, recommendation letters written on behalf of women are not as impressive as the ones written for men. Some might argue that women are simply less qualified but other studies have shown that women are evaluated as less competent than men even when both have the very same qualifications.
A male colleague who also received the handout then messaged all of us on the email chain to say the handout was a good resource, and that he would forward it to other professors and to graduate students. Then he added: "perhaps more effective coming from a man than a woman."
I was dumbfounded. Then the irony of his statement sunk in. Here was a man stating that he would be a more credible source about how to prevent gender bias against women.
I emailed him privately to explain that — while I knew he was trying to be helpful — he was simply maintaining beliefs that the handout was trying to dispel. I was hoping for a response like, "You know what? You have a point there. Next time I’ll ask her to send it to the other faculty directly."
That’s not the response I received. Instead, he replied: "Yes, I’d like to see that as well. But the question I raise is, ‘Is a message advocating for women more effective coming from a woman, or from a man, at least at this point in our history/culture?’" He went on to suggest that if we were advocating for a men’s issue, my voice as a woman would be more effective than his.
Granted, studies (here, here, and here) have shown that when people express a view consistent with their own self- or group-interest, their messages tend to be dismissed, scrutinized, or ignored. But does that mean we can never let women talk about their experiences, out of fear that men will dismiss the information or not pay attention in the first place?
What struck me about my male colleague’s response, however, was that he was sharing the handout with a largely female audience. These professors and graduate students were already on board with the need to reduce gender bias. Equally troubling: I later learned that when he shared the handout with graduate students, he did not credit its female author.
Let’s unpack his response because it sends messages that well-intentioned people may want to avoid if they are genuinely interested in being an ally to women.
Message 1: The status is quo is reality and that’s just the way it is.
My colleague acknowledged the problem of gender bias, which is good. However, his response and his solution sustained the problem. His response suggests that nothing can really be done. He might as well have said, "My thoughts and prayers are with you."
Message 2: I know more about your personal experience than you do.
By asking me to take his perspective, typically a good idea, he was also sending the message that I was not being objective. Perhaps I was too sensitive (as a woman). In fact, my personal experience of his initial message was not acknowledged or validated. And therefore, my personal experience as a woman is not important.
Message 3: We’re all equals (but I’m a more qualified equal).
In his attempt to educate me about persuasion, he did not acknowledge the existence of gendered power differences in academe. The example he used assumes equality where there is none, and his choice not to credit the female author of the handout is problematic.
How can we confront the credibility gap?
A first step is for men to say they hear or believe "the women," as Sen. Mitch McConnell recently said about Roy Moore’s accusers. Likewise, in the situation I describe here, men could acknowledge the experience of their female colleagues. They can invite women to participate as credible sources of valuable knowledge. All the attention this year to "manels" (all-male conference panels) also shows that men can refuse to participate in systems that perpetuate the idea that only half of the scholarly population has credible knowledge and skills.
Women and men need to work together to change attitudes about credibility in academe. Last month, for example, at the annual meeting of the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies, an all-male panel of scholars was slated to discuss the current state of the field. After a female professor of color voiced her concerns online and other women supported her, organizers decided to convert the panel into an open forum that included discussion on diversity and inclusion in the profession.
We all have to be willing to risk speaking up when we see bias, to listen when it’s been brought to our attention, and to engage in open dialogue. Those steps are key in moving toward equity and inclusion.
Of course speaking up is not without risk. Thinking about my colleague, who couldn’t acknowledge the unintended impact of his words, I also wonder about the impact of these situations on my peers and me when we raise our concerns and they are dismissed. What about for colleagues who are untenured or otherwise more vulnerable?
Why is it that we "get to" spend so much time thinking about things like this? I doubt my male colleague has given it a second thought. He has moved on to create more knowledge to enhance his credibility. In the meantime, I am expending additional effort thinking about this incident rather than writing that next scholarly publication. No wonder my credibility is at stake.