Wednesday, June 01, 2016

This is what sexism looks like, # 3

I spend a lot of time in technical meetings. This is no one's fault but my own since these activities are purely voluntary. At the end of many meetings, though, I vow to never attend one again. This story is about one.

There was no ill-preparedness or bad faith on the part of either the organizers or the participants at this meeting. There is, however, reality, and no amount of good will changes that.

This took place at a working meeting that was not a library meeting but at which some librarians were present. At lunch one day, three librarians, myself and two others, all female, were sitting together. I can say that we are all well-known and well seasoned in library systems and standards. You would recognize our names. As lunch was winding down, the person across from us opened a conversation with this (all below paraphrased):

P: Libraries should get involved with the Open Access movement; they are in a position to have an effect.

us: Libraries *are* heavily involved in the OA movement, and have been for at least a decade.

P: (Going on.) If you'd join together you could fight for OA against the big publishers.

us: Libraries *have* joined together and are fighting for OA. (Beginning to get annoyed at this point.)

P: What you need to do is... [various iterations here]

us: (Visibly annoyed now) We have done that. In some cases, we have started an effort that is going forward. We have organizations dedicated to that, we hold whole conferences on these topics. You are preaching to the choir here - these aren't new ideas for us, we know all of this. You don't need to tell us.

P: (Going on, no response to what we have said.) You should set a deadline, like 2017, after which you should drop all journals that are not OA.

us: [various statements about a) setting up university-wide rules for depositing articles; b) the difference in how publishing matters in different disciplines: c) the role of tenure, etc.]

P: (Insisting) If libraries would support OA, publishers like Elsevier could not survive.

us: [oof!]

me: You are sitting here with three professionals with a combined experience in this field of well over 50 years, but you won't listen to us or believe what we say. Why not?

P: (Ignoring the question.) I'm convinced that if libraries would join in, we could win this one. You should...

At this point, I lost it. I literally head-desked and groaned out "Please stop with the mansplaining!" That was a mistake, but it wasn't wrong. This was a classic case of mansplaining. P hopped up and stalked out of the room. Twenty minutes later I am told that I have violated the "civility code" of the conference. I have become the perpetrator of abuse because I "accused him" of being sexist.

I don't know what else we could have done to stop what was going on. In spite of a good ten minutes of us replying that libraries are "on it" not one of our statements was acknowledged. Not one of P's statements was in response to what we said. At no point did P acknowledge that we know more about what libraries are doing than he does, and perhaps he could learn by listening to us or asking us questions. And we actually told him, in so many words, he wasn't listening, and that we are knowledgeable. He still didn't get it.

This, too, is a classic: Catch-22. A person who is clueless will not get the "hints" but you cannot clue them or you are in the wrong.

Thanks to the men's rights movement, standing up against sexism has become abuse of men, who are then the victims of what is almost always characterized as "false accusations". Not only did this person tell me, in the "chat" we had at his request, "I know I am not sexist" he also said, "You know that false accusations destroy men's lives." It never occurred to him that deciding true or false wasn't de facto his decision. He didn't react when I said that all three of us had experienced the encounter in the same way. The various explanations P gave were ones most women have heard before: "If I didn't listen, that's just how I am with everybody." "Did I say I wasn't listening because you are women? so how could it be sexist?" And "I have listened to you in our meetings, so how can you say I am sexist?" (Again, his experience, his decision.) During all of this I was spoken to, but no interest was shown in my experience, and I said almost nothing. I didn't even try to explain it. I was drubbed.

The only positive thing that I can say about this is that in spite of heavy pressure over 20 minutes, one on one, I did not agree to deny my experience. He wanted me to tell him that he hadn't been sexist. I just could't do that. I said that we would have to agree to disagree, but apologized for my outburst.

When I look around meeting rooms, I often think that I shouldn't be there. I often vow that the next time I walk into a meeting room and it isn't at least 50% female, I'm walking out. Unfortunately, that meeting room does not exist in the projects that I find myself in.

Not all of the experience at the meeting was bad. Much of it was quite good. But the good doesn't remove the damage of the bad. I think about the fact that in Pakistan today men are arguing that it is their right to physically abuse the women in their home and I am utterly speechless. I don't face anything like that. But the wounds from these experiences take a long time to heal. Days afterward, I'm still anxious and depressed. I know that the next time I walk into a meeting room I will feel fear; fear of further damage. I really do seriously think about hanging it all up, never going to another meeting where I try to advocate for libraries.

I'm now off to join friends and hopefully put this behind me. I wish I could know that it would never happen again. But I get that gut punch just thinking about my next meeting.


Anonymous said...

Do you think the person would have acted differently if it was to a male librarian?

Anonymous said...

Perhaps I missed some other interaction, but, nowhere in your post does anything suggest sexism until you used a blatantly sexist term. "Mansplaning"??? What the heck is that? Nothing that "P" said even suggests "P" was a man, let alone being sexist. Clearly "P" was rude and thought he knew more than you did, but nothing he did or said, according to your writing, was sexist.

If you're concerned about sexism, perhaps you should start by looking in the mirror.

CL1945 said...

This isn't always a man/woman thing. I see it happen at almost every conference I go to and almost every meeting I attend. Sometimes it is men behaving badly towards men, women or a combination. Sometimes it's a woman behaving badly. I wasn't there so I can't comment on the specifics of this interaction, but it seems to me that in an forum such as this a participant, especially a speaker, should be able to take criticism and not whine about it.

Anonymous said...

Reading your post. Speechless. I cant believe that this man sad what he said despite you all explaining what has been going on in libraries regarding work in this area. Im sorry that happened. It doesnt take much to listen even if he doesnt get it.

waltc said...

Shameful. (P, not you.) Also. sigh. not surprising. (Well, the grotesquerie about the "civility" code--that's surprising.)

FWIW, I felt compelled to post:

Anonymous said...

Yeah it is crummy this is my experience pretty much all the time. If you dare note something is sexist you're the problem, not the person being sexist.

Emily said...

I'm both saddened and happy that you posted this because as a solo lib for a while, I had to put up with so much of this, among many other things, and it really angered & upset me so much that I thought about leaving the librarian profession. It was my first job outside of grad school and now that I'm at a position that I feel comfortable at but those thoughts still linger. The one good thing that came out of it was that I became a stronger person and one that is willing to stand up for what I know is right. Do you have any advice on how to deal with moving past it and maybe while interviewing/searching for positions how to avoid a toxic work environment?

Jessamyn said...

Such incredible bullshit on his part. I am so sorry you had to deal with it.

Maverynthia said...

Sucks that women can't speak their mind without having a billion and one Manons jump in to continue the mansplanation with the "we aren't sexist you are totes sexist." Just proves the whole point here that women can never know what they are talking about. =_ =

Bob Kosovsky said...

It's tough to catch these moments while at the same time having the emotional distance to know how to react. When I have been able to recognize that I'm being talked down, I take a long pause and rephrase a question to put the person in my place. Sometimes I ask the famous leading question "So exactly when did you stop beating your spouse?" Most people don't realize they're talking down to others, so (after my leading question) I calmly explain to them. Some people still won't get it. They need to be educated.

I'm a busy guy, so when someone says "I should..." my first reaction is defensive and I ask why can't they do it themselves or participate in accomplishing with others what they think should be my responsibility.

I used to think that racism was curable through education. But as I get older I see that often education is not nearly enough for beliefs which are highly internalized and a part of one's identity. Sadly it probably is similar with sexism.

Autumn said...

Yes, people who are suggesting otherwise, of COURSE this was about sexism. Sure, some women also behave this way. But that is a specious, dishonest, and damaging response to situations like this. It is no coincidence that a man is MUCH more likely to do this than a woman; it is no coincidence that women are much more likely to be the recipients of such "explaining"; and it is clear that society greets this behavior in men with much more tolerance than it does women.

Karen, I'm sorry this happened. It happens to all of us. It happens all the time. It helps to hear someone else say "It happened, it was wrong, and my experience is valid." Thanks for doing that so determinedly, even though you pay a high cost in stress and frustration by doing so. You're a stone cold killer. Keep it up. :)

Erik said...

Sorry that you had that experience. I think perhaps the most jaw-dropping aspect for me is that this man, after being rude and sexist and "mansplaining" to you, then went and invoked institutional power in order to enact emotional violence on you as an attempt to silence your voice. Even if someone isn't convinced by the conversation that the man was silencing women, his actions afterwards clearly show sexism. A true non-sexist ally would sit back from a charge like that, reflect on their actions, and see how they created that experience for someone else. Good on you for not backing down.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, it's pretty much par for the course for someone acting on internalized sexism to say that you are the problem - otherwise he'd be forced to ask some hard questions about the unspoken assumptions he was making while he was dominating the conversation.

On the other hand, I commend your patience with the matter. Without calling folks on their assumptions, there is no examination of the flaws in their assumptions and no basis upon which to engage with the question of flawed assumptions and argue for change. The generation of activists who came of age during the civil rights movement of the 1960s classified these acts under the concept of 'speaking truth to power'.