The Inevitable?: Abuse of Power and Sexism in Current Academia

Trigger warnings: abuse of power, sexual abuse, rape

If we agree with Foucault’s suggestion that knowledge is shaped by power, and that power maintains itself through knowledge, then it is not surprising that the academe, the site of knowledge production, is also a site prone to the abuse of power. The surprise is that the problematic power imbalance inherent in institutions of education is not foregrounded when we try to tackle issues of sexual violence on college campuses. While the discourse around sexual harassment is often precipitated by individual cases of sexual violation, and focuses on repercussion and punishment, it is also necessary to look preemptively at the entangled state of knowledge, power and their relationship to sexual violence and gender-based discrimination.

In the case of individual instances of gender-based intimidation and sexual violence, the community’s attention expires quickly, even though the pain and trauma stay with those affected long after the event. Discussions about sexual violence on campus often culminate in an unsatisfactory end when the perpetuator exits the school community, either as a faculty member who retires, or a student who completes the natural course of graduation. Without detracting from the discussion around pursuing justified punishment, this article asks the reader to trace the root of sexual violence embedded in systems of knowledge production, by referring to two article published in the Chronicles of Higher Education.

Written shortly after the Harvey Weinstein reports, K.A. Amienne’s article speaks of the difficulty to speak up against faculty members who abuse their power in the hierarchical sphere of the academe. The author highlights the drastic power imbalance between a professor and a student, especially in the case of a female working-class student like herself, as the foremost cause of abusive relationships that hinder a student’s work and life.

“Anytime you have a highly competitive system in which a single person has the power to make or break someone else’s career — whether it’s the crowded, greasy pole of Hollywood or a flooded Ph.D. pipeline — you will have abuse. Not only rape and overt sexual aggression, but also the many complicated and twisted forms of abuse that can sink a woman’s chances of succeeding in an already biased business.”

It is not enough to pay attention to extreme cases of sexual abuse. These infuriating and heartbreaking cases are only a manifestation of the “systemic, sexist dysfunction in academe,” which is too often felt and yet tolerated. Gender-based abuse, as a result of power imbalance, affects more widely and frequently the marginalized identities who find themselves in the power-saturated world that is the academe. To clarify the operation of this problem, Amienne names four facets that enable the culture of abuse:

  1. Abuse is normalized.
  2. Abusers destabilize their targets.
  3. Abuse thrives because co-workers enable it.
  4. It’s easier to blame the victim than change the system.

To find out about her suggestions for establishing an enabling environment on university campuses, read the full article here:

Mingwei Huang, an anthropology PhD student, emphasizes the importance of recognizing the production of knowledge as entangled with the conditions that enable sexual assaults.

While conducting ethonographic fieldwork in South Africa, Huang experiences rape by someone related to her main interlocutor and host. Huang’s experience poses a challenge to simplistically viewing the university campus as the site of knowledge production. As the researcher’s work takes her off campus, and as the ethonographer’s body, voluntarily or involuntarily, becomes inseparable from her research process, how do we rethink the spaces in/through which knowledge is produced? Her narrative further shows that female students remain especially vulnerable to layered structures of violence and injustice, despite the apparent vitality of liberal discourses in the academe.

When she returns to her university in the US, Huang’s writing about her being raped as an ethnographer is met with doubt by professors who are unaware and unsympathetic of the vulnerability experienced by those who are not normative white males. Speaking of their implicit and explicit reading of her decision to speak about her experience as careerism, the author says,

“The recasting of rape as a desirable career event serves only to silence and shame, and provides yet another example (if indeed we needed one) that academe has not escaped the insidiousness of rape culture.”

I encourage you to read Mingwei Huang’s sincere and poised article “Vulnerable Observers: Notes on Fieldwork and Rape” by following this link:


Strong and Beautiful

Every now and then, someone will tell me about some movie that they saw. They’ll say something like, “I really liked [insert character’s name here.] She was a really strong female character!” A few weeks ago, my friend and mentor, Thea, posted this article that came up on my News Feed. (Yes, I often click on the articles that come up on my News Feed.) Prior to reading it, I would have described her as a Strong Female Role Model. But now she’s got me thinking, maybe there’s more to our females than being Strong.

Step 1: Read the article.

Step 2: Contemplate.

I will first admit that I did not come to Barnard with the intention of becoming a feminist. (What? It’s true!) I came to Barnard because I wanted to a good education, a chance to be live in Manhattan, to attend an Ivy League institution. (Tangent alert: Barnard is part of the Ivy League institution that is Columbia University. Condolences to those who think differently.) But I did not start out my Barnard career embracing the idea that we’re Strong, Beautiful, Barnard women.

Let me clarify, before the dynamite of outrage and frustration explodes: I want women to be Strong. All women, in my world, should know how to fight and fight back; women should know how to use power tools and household appliances and carry their own weight, literally. (As in “literally” literally.) I want women to be Beautiful. Women—in all shapes, sizes, shades—are works of art, and the female form should be appreciated and admired (but not exploited). So yes, I want women to be Strong and Beautiful. But they should be allowed to be more.

The article points out that most leading men have an array of emotions. Take Batman: he battles, he broods, he hates, he loves, he has a duty to protect and an ever-guilty conscience. He’s Strong and Beautiful Batman, but he’s also broken, beaten, emboldened, encouraged by a supporting cast of…other men. Like Alfred, or Robin. Why can’t his lady friends be more than Strong, Beautiful romantic attachments?

Why can’t women, especially at Barnard, be more than Strong and Beautiful? Thea, the inspiration for this blog post, is indeed very Strong and very Beautiful. But she’s also a talented performer, a seasoned traveler, and a very-wise-person-from-whom-to-seek-advice. There are many men and women who are both Strong and Beautiful that are none of the above. I’d also like to think that I’m Strong and Beautiful, but more importantly, a writer, a scientist, a teacher.

So instead of fighting for a generically Strong and Beautiful woman—whose claim to fame is “ability to kick ass while wearing strapless dresses”—let us fight for women who are also Vulnerable and Insecure and Angry and Frustrated and Confused and Smart and Good at What They Do.

An argument can be made that many women already are more than Strong and Beautiful, but we need more. We especially need more role models than the ever-strong, ever-sexy females we see on television, in magazines, in movies. We should look to Strong Female Characters as role models like we should look to Brenda Song in The Social Network as a Typical Asian Woman. (Another tangent: Have you seen her character? She’s crazy. But more on lack of Asian women in the media another time.) If being a man can look like a whole array of character types, then being a woman should look like more than just a girl that’s really Beautiful and also good at Fighting, but usually gets relegated to Supporting Character in Story Titled after Male Main Character.

One of my favorite stories as a child was that of Cinderella, who is arguably not a Strong Female Character. She doesn’t walk out of her beloved childhood home into the dark unknown, just to show her stepfamily what’s what. She dissolves into tears and asks for help from some strange magical beings. She gets married, which is basically admitting defeat and succumbing to society’s role for women. She, in no version, fights in combat or distracts an evil villain with her sexy leather pants, so she may not be the Strongest role model. But Cinderella is a housekeeper, a social outcast, a mouse whisperer, a great singer, and a genuinely nice person. She has garnered international fame as a “timeless” character and she ends up with a pretty nice life. (She’s technically a monarch at the end, if you think about it. In a monarchy. Which means she technically rules. That’s pretty cool.) She’s more than a Strong Female Character, she’s more than a Beautiful face; she’s a main character. She’s a legend, for crying out loud! With that in mind, it’s time that more women, instead of becoming only Strong and Beautiful Supporting Roles, became Legendary Leading Ladies too.

TED Talk Alert: Amazing Male Feminism

Check it out here:

Jackson Katz, Phd, is an anti-sexist activist and expert on violence, media and masculinities. An author, filmmaker, educator and social theorist, Katz has worked in gender violence prevention work with diverse groups of men and boys in sports culture and the military, and has pioneered work in critical media literacy.Katz is the creator and co-founder of the Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP) program, which advocates the ‘bystander approach’ to sexual and domestic violence prevention. You’ve also seen him in the award winning documentary “MissRepresentation.”

To learn more about TEDxFiDiWomen, whether to attend, volunteer, speak or sponsor, please click on the following link!

To learn more about Jackson Katz, please visit

The Future of Feminism: Some Musings

Women’s History Month at CU/BC is having their first event, “The Future of Feminism,” tomorrow. You should definitely go to hear some good conversation about an important subject.

The Speaking Fellows Program is working on a multitude of different sessions that cover different subjects for students, and one of them, which I happened to be writing last week, was about the art of negotiation. One of the most important elements of negotiation is framing: learning how to present an idea in an amicable way. Framing is essential for positive reception of solutions to problems by the parties involved. When I considered “The Future of Feminism,” I immediately questioned the framing of the ideas presented. A panel full of women, commenting on how women need to move forward, presenting their ideas to a room full of women: something seems very one-sided in this scenario.

Whenever I go to an event about women, I always wonder: where are all the men? Presumably, men raised in this generation are taught not to be explicitly sexist at the very least; a great many believe in choice and women’s rights. So, where are they when discussions like these happen, or when there’s a protest or march? And most infuriatingly, why are women still a small percentage of the top players in the game – any game (Congress, business, medicine, etc.)?

Everyone seems to be talking about women in the media and on campus, but no one is getting it right: not Sheryl Sandberg, not Anne-Marie Slaughter, not anyone. Many present different, sometimes opposing approaches to reaching gender equality, but one glaring factor runs through every narrative: women have to close the gap. Women have to fight. Women have to break the glass ceiling, for the betterment of womankind.

We need to re-frame this idea, this sentiment, this urge. We need to shift the dialogue from discussing how breaking the glass ceiling will benefit women, to discussing how breaking the glass ceiling will benefit everyone. Why aren’t men questioning traditional patriarchy and masculinity when it clearly leaves them sacrificing wants and needs for performance-based esteem? Men’s movements compete with or oppose feminism under the guise of ‘misandry,’ and that’s partially our fault. We’re creating a movement that has unintentionally dismissed male accountability and participation, and it’s high time we bring them back into the conversation.

President Spar wrote an article in September 2012 about how women can’t have it all, and it’s true, we can’t – and shouldn’t desire to – have it all. No one can achieve the impossible, and the ‘all’ is impossible; it’s something that I never considered before I came to Barnard. However, as a black Latina woman going into medicine, I am constantly told I can’t have it all. Successful minorities, especially black women, have to settle for marrying someone with lower income or date outside their race or get comfortable with being alone or even raising children alone. And with these messages constantly berating my conscious, I’m starting to worry about them, even though they were never a desire or consideration in the first place. And furthermore, I start to devalue myself because of it. As President Spar says, women are held up to a standard of perfection at all times, and when you hold yourself to such an unrealistic standard you are going to underrate yourself. How can I feel content with my achievements when I don’t possess enough valuable attributes to get ahead in life? The underlying problem in this is that the attributes we as a society have deemed valuable are male-oriented, and I’m a woman.

The mission of re-framing, then, must start with ascribing value to female characteristics. We live in a capitalist, patriarchal society that values male characteristics (the gendering of personality traits is something I’ve already written about on this site), and society thus far has attempted to even the numbers under this unbalanced system. We need to shift the onus from ‘fair’ to ‘valuable’; from a superficial equality in numbers to a true equality in which female attributes and qualities are viewed just as beneficial and useful as male ones.

I’m sick of having to prove that I am worth it, and I’m sick of being told to change my everything to fit the mold. We – women and men – need to reform and restructure both the professional and social system to value people, male and female. It’s time to take feminism a step further.