A younger, male colleague and I were recently assessing a university unit as volunteers for a professional association. We met with two supervising faculty, an older man (Professor X) and a woman about my age. Throughout the meeting X angled himself toward my colleague, and rarely let the other woman answer any questions. At the end, he asked my colleague questions about his background, but did not ask me, a woman, about mine. What did I do to render myself invisible or less powerful? Does taking notes in a steno pad make me appear to be a secretary? I asked my share of questions, but not the first question. Was that a mistake? Was I right to just let it go and use it as a teachable moment with my students?
L.R. / Cambridge
Nothing is your fault. Do you really think that if you’d executed just the right set of gymnastics through Professor X’s psychosexual invisible laser security system, like Catherine Zeta-Jones in that movie Entrapment, you would have been rewarded with the jewel of his ungendered respect? Not bloody likely. Yes, there are things people can do to negate their power — mumbling, hedging, scuffling, all sorts of verbs evocative of English garden creatures — but your organization wouldn’t send you out as a representative if you didn’t have adequate leadership and social skills.
Calling Professor X out on his disrespectful behavior in the moment would have been a wonderful thing to do, but don’t kick yourself for not having done so. Who has the energy to repair every rip and stain in the social fabric? Presumably, you and your colleague were managing to accomplish the goals of the meeting — if X were being obstructionist, in addition to rude, that would be a different matter. Did you manage to talk to the other woman away from X’s overweening presence at any point? If not, and if it’s not too late, you might want to reach out and make sure that all of her concerns, ideas, or whatever are on the record.
Redeeming this awkward moment by bringing it back to your own classroom as a case study is a terrific idea. You’ve got a neat little four-character play there, and it would be interesting to ask students how their interpretation and responses would change under different circumstances. What if Professor X had also been a woman, for example? Would the same response be appropriate? What if you were going to be working with Professor X and his colleagues for a longer period of time? And what of the mysterious Younger Male Associate? (Sorry, it all started sounding like a radio melodrama for a moment.) How could he have best handled the situation?
One question for your students, and yourself, is whether you and the YMA should more clearly establish which of you is in charge on these visits. If you are equal peers, one of you could still take the lead on alternating assignments or particular topics. This could help reduce unconscious bias in people you meet with. It will also make it clear between the two of you who is supposed to step in and take control of the interview if, for any reason — implicit bias, gas leak, attack of the hangries — things start going off the rails.Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a writer with a PhD in psychology. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.