Correcting the issue of college sexual harassment

I’ve been reading a lot in these last weeks before school starts, a kind of last-ditch attempt to inhale as many novels as possible before I go plummeting back into the world of academic criticism.  But the last two books that I read were not pure escapism; instead of distracting me from the fact that in two weeks, I’ll be unpacking piles of boxes and trying, finally, to come up with a senior thesis topic, they reminded me of one of the more unsavory aspects of collegiate life: sexual harassment.

This may be the only theme that Disgrace, J.M. Coetzee’s famous novel about racial tension in South Africa, and The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen’s sprawling meditation on the American family, have in common.  But in both novels (no spoilers here, I promise – these are not surprising plot twists), a middle-aged male professor becomes sexually entangled with a female undergraduate, and high drama ensues.  I’m not finished with The Corrections, so there may be some sort of redemptive thread that I have yet to encounter, but in both books, the professor, who is somewhat pathetic but ultimately sympathetic (perhaps because he’s so, well, sad?), ends up ruined.  His career shattered, he’s not particularly sorry that the affair took place, but regrets the stupidity that led to his humiliating resignation.

The female student vanishes from the novel – she is, after all, not the protagonist.  And although the woman is either devastatingly naive (as in Disgrace) or all too experienced (as in The Corrections), she ends up relatively unscathed – that is, if the narrator bothers to return to her.  Although the professor was the predator, a connection that both authors make explicit, he is also the one to suffer the consequences.

I was bothered by both of these plot threads, but didn’t connect them to my own life until I stumbled upon a piece in the Harvard Business Review online, in which Sylvia Ann Hewlett, the director of the Center for Work-Life Policy (CWLP), lays out what she sees as the dangers in heterosexual workplace affairs.  Executive women, Hewlett claims, citing CWLP data, often assume that liaisons between female colleagues and male bosses are commonplace – and that the women involved are benefiting from the affair.  Needless to say, this does not make for workplace harmony, which is why Hewlett suggests that corporations take a more active hand in regulating office relationships.

The most interesting part of the article, though, came at the beginning, where Hewlett states baldly that if women are going to shatter the corporate glass ceiling in any great numbers, they need sponsorship and support from high-level male colleagues.  This mentorship, she warns, may be in short supply precisely because of the assumption that affairs are happening left and right.  Men, she says, are deathly afraid of being the guy who was “fired for dining alone with a junior woman.”  And they’re reluctant to spend the requisite amount of one-on-one time with women that mentorship requires.

So how does this relate to college campuses?  Well, although academia is something of a different beast, I saw many parallels between the plight of talented female executives who are excluded from this kind of buddy-buddy bonding because of fears that the relationships will look inappropriate, and my peers, who often find it difficult to find male professors who are willing to get to know them, to encourage them outside the classroom, and to go to the mat for them when law school, business school, or grad school applications come around.  This is particularly problematic considering that women are highly underrepresented in academia, as they are in the highest echelons of the business world.  So although women are entering undergraduate institutions at unprecedented rates and going on to seek postgraduate degrees, they’re still hitting a wall.  Is this one reason why?

The problem is that while sexual harassment is more common between peers than between students and professors, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.  According to a report by the American Association for University Women, 7 percent of students report being harassed by a professor, a relationship that, despite Coetzee or Franzen’s rather nicer depictions, is extremely traumatic for the student because of the severe power imbalance.  So to the extent that professors fear the repercussions of an affair with a student, erring on the side of propriety is an excellent impulse.

But at the same time, I’ve spoken to many female classmates who say that they feel excluded from the all-male networks that begin to form in undergraduate universities.  They say that their male colleagues are invited to dinners after talks and panels where they are introduced to their professors’ powerful friends; they go to office hours just to hang out, and form close relationships with their professors that prove extremely helpful during job searches or fellowship applications.  This exclusion, my friends say, is subtle.  But it’s clear that many male professors are just plain uncomfortable around their female students.  Which is a serious problem, because these brilliant women are far less likely, especially in the sciences and social sciences, to have more than a handful of female professors.

Are men eschewing close bonds with their female students because they’re afraid that the relationship will look inappropriate?  If so, how do we change that perception while still acknowledging that professors do sometimes overstep their boundaries, and punishing them when they do?  Even when the relationships are not sexual, as in the vast majority of cases, the specter of harassment lingers.  Either way, women lose.

I’ve been lucky, during my time in college, to form close bonds with many of my professors, for which I’m particularly grateful now that I’ve started staring down the barrel of fellowship and grad school applications.  But those professors are all women.  This is probably because, as a Religion major with a minor in Women & Gender Studies, I’ve encountered far more women in the classroom than, statistically, I should.

But although Hewlett’s interpretation of the CWLP data is focused on the corporate ladder, I have to say that the findings seem pretty damn translatable.  There are, of course, a vast array of reasons that women are less likely to get tenure, to make it to the Forbes 500 or become a partner in a law firm, and this theory, if it’s true, is only a small part of the equation.  But mentorship is always cited as a key to success, and I wonder whether, in academia, we need to start emphasizing other solutions for sexual harassment, ones that won’t reinforce the exclusive all-male networks that keep the glass ceiling mostly intact.

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