Be patient

A finding that will astonish no one.

Working women who engage in feminist activism report more experiences of gender harassment on the job, regardless of whether or not they identify themselves as feminists, a new University of Michigan study indicates.

“A woman who personally adopts the feminist label may not ‘out’ herself as such to others,” said Kathryn Holland, the study’s lead author and a graduate student in women’s studies and psychology. “Women openly engaging in activism for women’s rights may pose a more obvious threat to the existing gender hierarchy—a hierarchy that grants more power to men than women.”

I could give a shorter version of that. Women who engage in feminist activism experience more gender harassment. Everybody hates a feminist.

“Sexual harassment can be devastating to women, both personally and professionally. However, we found evidence that engagement in feminist activism may help protect against or remediate some negative occupational outcomes,” Holland said.

The intersection of feminism and harassment presents working women with a catch-22, she says.

“On one hand, behavioral displays of feminism could prompt sexist and sexualized hostilities from co-workers,” Holland said. “On the other hand, not engaging with feminism could increase the chance that women will suffer professionally if harassed, not to mention the fact that avoiding feminist activism diverts energy from a cause committed to advancing women inemployment.”

It will work itself out, in a few hundred years.


  1. says

    Hey, I was astonished when it first happened to me.

    You know, this weekend I had to spend a lot of time editing this book that’s taken forever to get published, and there are a lot of old essays and writing in there: stuff from back before “guys, don’t do that”, long before some people decided I was an evil feminist who must be destroyed, and I was surprised (since I’d almost forgotten what was in it). I’ve been expressing these same ideas about promoting equality and getting away from patriarchal attitudes reinforced by religion for 5-10 years.

    But I didn’t get the howling pushback then simply because I was criticizing theists — no one thought I could possibly also apply it to atheists. I suspect people are going to read it and decide I’ve always been a demented mangina.

    So another part of the story is that you can be feminist, but not too feminist; it’s ok as long as you don’t expect your peers to live up to the same standards. Your fellow members of the tribe expect special privileges.

  2. Wowbagger, Designated Snarker says

    PZ wrote:

    But I didn’t get the howling pushback then simply because I was criticizing theists — no one thought I could possibly also apply it to atheists.

    That’s one of the most significant aspects of the current ‘debate’ – that a big chunk of atheists and so-called ‘skeptics’ want to hear people like you talk about how dumb and/or evil the religious are for the simple reason it makes them feel better about themselves for being smarter, better people by comparison.

    To be perfectly honest, it’s one of the things that drew me to start reading atheist blogs in the first place; the difference is that, after a while, I started to realise that wasn’t enough – but that hasn’t been the case for everyone.

    That’s why they’re so pissed at you, PZ – after the cracker incident you were the famous poster boy for pointing out religious idiocy; however, once you turned your critical eye back onto the atheist community and asked it why it wasn’t doing a good enough job of encouraging diversity, you stopped making them feel good about themselves.

    Unfortunately, for many of them – those possessed of the mindset of spoiled, petulant children – this didn’t have the desired effect of prompting self-reflection and a move in the right direction; instead it triggered a sense of entitlement – in their minds, you write for them.

  3. rrede says

    I remember spending a chunk of the 1990s pointing out problems at my university (so not giving names), and being met with incomprehension, hostility, and the on-going question from several of my senior male colleagues: “Aren’t you just saying that because you’re a feminist.”

    Not yet tenured at the start of it all, I never did voice the reply that sprang immediately to mind: “Aren’t you just saying that because you’re sexist.”

    I remember my relief when one of the (other, not the ones above) male colleagues was with me on a meeting with the dept. head, and coming out afterwards, as we were walking down the hall, he said how amazed he was–he hadn’t really believed me–but yes, the dept. head could not even stand to look at me when I talked, and would reply only to male colleague (whom I’d asked along for that very reason). Because m.c. was willing to push for a specific action, the dept.l head finally agreed.

    I never experienced sexual harassment at all (my female colleagues and graduate students did), for whatever weird combination of luck, but there are other levels of gender harassment that went on for years, more than a decade.

    It’s better now a days–the culture is changing here–but there were some very nasty times.

    However, being a feminist gave me tools to contextualize the harassment and passive-aggressive bullshit: that is, I never once considered that I was at fault for any of it. It was still unpleasant–and there were some periods of shunning (even by some of my female colleagues)–but not self-blaming or internalizing it.

  4. smhll says

    It seems kind of fascinating to me that even atheist troublemakers (some of them), find feminist troublemakers aggravating. Hmmmm. Seems like they should understand the powerful urge to criticize the status quo.

  5. says

    The protective effect can be astounding. As rrede says, it helps contextualize what’s happening, but there are also all those moments when you stare at the harassers in something akin to disbelief and say, “Are you kidding me? Do you really think I can’t see exactly what you’re doing?”

  6. says

    It could be that feminists are more likely to label particular behaviors as sexual harassment. Non-feminists would tend to see those behaviours as acceptable (or at least see them as falling short of sexual harassment).

  7. poolboyg says

    Wowbagger hit it right on the head. Those people aren’t sceptics; they’re insecure social rejects.

  8. B-Lar says

    Everything Wowbagger said, plus an observation.

    Nobody likes being told that they are not the hero they think they are. Some people handle the news better than others.

  9. Martha says

    rrede: one of my female colleagues puts it very well: all our male colleagues are shocked at how the rest of them treat women. Thank goodness there are five of us now; when I was the only one, it was harder to remember that I wasn’t imagining things.

  10. AsqJames says

    It’s no surprise that a dominant group becomes more repressive when faced with “uppity” underlings. That does seem to be a general rule for unequal societies regardless of how the inequality is manifested and we’ve seen it throughout history (and as PZ points out can be observed in the atheist “community” right now).

    So I have no doubt whatsoever that this is a thing.

    Having said that, I just want to point out that the study appears to be (more) supportive evidence but not in itself conclusive proof. The author herself says “a possible explanation is that feminist activism is an observable behavior (which could trigger harassment), but feminist identity is not”. It also says

    In addition, perhaps other negative work experiences (such as gender discrimination or poor family-friendly policies) motivate women to engage in feminist activism and leading them to feel dissatisfied with their jobs.

    I’d add that being an activist is likely to raise your consciousness and make it more likely you’ll both identify, and recall when surveyed, negative work experiences. From personal experience I know that I notice, and can identify, various forms of sexism and other discrimination more than I did before I started reading B&W and similar blogs. And yet I would always have identified as pro-equality, anti-sexism and (if I’d actually thought about it) even feminist. I just didn’t have the tools to identify certain behaviour as sexist. While my reading B&W can’t be equated with activism, neither can self-identifying as feminist be equated with awareness of all aspects of societal and personal sexism.

    To re-iterate, I completely agree that “Women who engage in feminist activism experience more gender harassment.” I just think other factors (like experiencing gender harassment can motivate activism and activists are more likely to notice when they experience harassment) will have affected the numbers in this study as well.

  11. says

    That’s one of the most significant aspects of the current ‘debate’ – that a big chunk of atheists and so-called ‘skeptics’ want to hear people like you talk about how dumb and/or evil the religious are for the simple reason it makes them feel better about themselves for being smarter, better people by comparison.

    Not just better about themselves. Superior to others.

    It’s been my contention that those in the atheist community who do not support full human rights for everyone are the ones with low self-esteem, social skills, and emotional maturity. Yes, a lot of them were the geeks and the nerds who were picked on in middle school — and that’s where they’re stuck. They’re probably smart — just not mature, nor capable of interacting on an adult peer-to-peer level with others.

    We give them a “you’re superior” signal in one area, and they’re unable to separate that signal from their other behavior/beliefs. Being told “you need to work on your regard for the human rights of others” doesn’t sit well with them. It’s all-or-nothing. So very middle school.

    I suppose the transactional analysis would have them constantly flipping from child to parent and back. Never landing on adult. And certainly never dealing with others as an adult.

    And especially: women = child. Whether they interact child <> child (as in bullying and harassment) or parent <> child (demeaning, miminalizing, marginalizing, condescending), the end result is the same.

    The slyme pit lives in the first (child <> child). Stephanie saw the second (parent <> child) in the suggestion that her last “Nugent” response go through moderation. Oh so condescending.

    Not that I’m psychoanalyzing them or anything. Says something about me, I guess.

  12. Pieter B, FCD says

    If I could C&P from my phone, B-Lar would be QFT’d.

    Hypothesis: there are logical, rational atheists and contrarian, controversialist atheists. The CCs are far more inclined to see themselves as superior beings and react poorly to criticism.

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