Bricked in by the walls of patriarchy

By Prof Srila Roy is an associate professor of sociology at Wits

The story of fighting sexual harassment in the university tends to be a story of failure. It is a story of trying to address complaints, giving voice to victims, changing the institutional culture — and of being met with walls and silences.

As feminist Sara Ahmed has repeatedly reminded us, walls come up from the moment a student or staff member tries to complain and stay up well after their complaint is registered. (In 2016 Ahmed resigned from Goldsmiths, University of London, in protest against the institution’s failure to address sexual harassment of students.)

Walls are at work, even in the rare cases of termination of employment on the grounds of sexual harassment, because confidentiality and non-disclosure clauses mean that perpetrators cannot be named.  They are, in fact, free to go and seek employment elsewhere, in what has been called the “pass the harasser” phenomenon.

What would it mean to tell a different story of tackling sexual harassment on campus? A story of institutional resources and commitment; of independent offices to deal with complaints alone, to counsel and care; and of feminist leadership?

A story where it would be obvious that intervention must mean the transformation of entire institutional cultures and not merely of individuals (through discipline and punishment)? Where, through measures such as advocacy, counselling, gender training and the creation of safe spaces, the silence of sexual violence could be made speakable? Where the effects of such speech would be concrete, material and transformative — formal dismissals, not just quiet resignations?

This could indeed be a story of feminist success. But feminist success is invariably its failure.

For, in the garnering of actual institutional capacity and power lies the undoing of feminist resistance and its promise of an alternative future.

We often hear of the threat of co-option, of feminist forces being co-opted by a range of structures, from the state to the market. Think, for instance, of how the slogan “Girl Power” adorns T-shirts made by underpaid precarious female workers — usually girls — of the Global South. Co-option has become so pervasive in our times that it becomes difficult to discern feminist from nonfeminist politics in the mainstream — everyone from a Hillary Clinton to a Beyoncé is, after all, now a feminist.

Universities, too, co-opt sexual harassment work for various agendas and ends.

Professor Alison Phipps of Sussex University describes how the neoliberal university uses campaigns run by students about sexual violence to draw in other students to enhance the university’s own attractiveness.

Unlike previous historical conjunctures, ours is one in which universities cannot ignore the “problem” of sexual harassment in their midst. They must learn to “manage” it through, for instance, what Phipps calls “institutional airbrushing”, in ways that ultimately serve to preserve the reputation of the institution at the cost of victims.

But when feminist sexual harassment work becomes too successful — when it doesn’t merely chip away at walls but begins to shake the foundations on which those walls rest — it is not simply co-opted, it is undone.

The same mechanisms of investigation that served to establish the university as a champion of sexual harassment work are now deemed as putting the university “at risk”; victims’ voices are replaced by those of perpetrators who speak, unchallenged, of injustice, wrongdoing, unfairness; new procedures emerge overnight whereas existing procedures are erased; external expertise is called upon when, throughout, internal expertise and voluntary labour has run successful institutional work; whisper networks emerge to instil uncertainty where there was once confidence, to undo the building of trust and to dismantle safe spaces.

Eventually, individuals are “redistributed”, or let go of. These are the feminist troublemakers; they are the killjoys of institutional life, who were originally brought in to chip at the walls of the institution but not to take it down. When they act in other ways — consistently in favour of victims — they become “rogue feminists”. Their detractors label them as “unprofessional”, as shooting from the hip, and not working within a rule-of-law framework. Complainants are left wondering why their words did not count for those making these kinds of assessments.

What, might you ask, transforms co-option into the active undoing of feminist work? The evidence comes from various quarters with the same implication: it is all right to challenge sexual harassment, bullying, even rape, when it occurs among students or between junior staff and students. Senior management, star professors, are another matter altogether — letting them go is too costly, too difficult when it comes to fragile egos and male entitlement, and too threatening for the boys’ club they are part of and whose interests they represent. When their position and privilege are challenged, it is as if the rogue feminists are taking over.

Another contributing factor is the expansion of the category of “sexual harassment” and the material effects of such expansion. In expanding to include, for instance, gender-based bullying, we move away from spectacular forms of violence against women — rape — to the everyday acts of sexism and aggression that constitute the bedrock of patriarchy.

As sexual harassment redressal work reaches deeper into the behaviours, cultures and psyches of the workings of patriarchal power, a panic ensues. In an act of undoing (not just co-option), the panic transforms victimology from being at the hands of sexual predators into the hands of rogue feminists.

It is the killjoys and rogue feminists that we are now warned against, not male perpetrators of injury and not institutionalised sexism or patriarchal power. It is no longer sexual harassment that places the institution at risk but the impulse of transformation and the effort to stop it.

The institution acts swiftly: it exiles the firebrand. Much like how it individualises the systemic nature of sexual violence, it shifts its own accountability on to a singular person, the feminist leader-turned-rogue. It appoints in her place someone whom it knows will work within walls, in the belief that such walls can be chipped away at, but not broken or rebuilt.

Now that the feminist rogue has gone, all procedural inconsistencies, all forms of “risk” and accountability (or lack thereof) can be attributed to her, and the project of co-option can resume. The university can be lauded for yet another successful measure in the fight against sexual harassment.

Such success is not just feminism’s failure, but its undoing.

This article was first published by the Mail & Guardian.

Supervisors are like coffee…. See why!

By Roula Inglesi-Lotz

As a student, I thought the most important element towards completion of a PhD is… Who else? The student. Only after wearing the famous red cape at my PhD graduation, did I started realising how much a supervisor is a “make it or break it” factor. No, it is not because nowadays I play for the other side! It’s mostly due to discussions with other doctorate holders or PhD students. I found out that my progress and excitement for my PhD was highly due to my supervisor (thank you Prof James Blignaut!); others also identified mentorship as the reason for completing their PhD fast, or slow, or enjoying the process (from a 2017 postgraduate experience survey).

From the other side of the field now, we heard as academics many times the statement, “We are the lecturers or supervisors we had.” I find more inspiring, “We strive to be the lecturers or supervisors we always wanted.” For a few years now, hence, I have been wondering what type of a supervisor I am and what my style is. I compared myself with my supervisors, my experienced colleagues, and I analysed my personality to understand better. Within this introspection and analysis, I concluded that supervisors are like coffee… Let me explain myself.

They come in different varieties.

If you thought, that all supervisors are the same, you will be in for a surprise. Supervisors are human beings (surprise?!?!?!) and they come with their own experiences background and beliefs. The Ethiopian coffee blend is not the same as the Kenyan, for example. One is not superior to the other; they are all different. Do you remember the last time in your life that you became obsessed with drinking that special macchiato from a specific shop EVERY SINGLE DAY for months because you loved it and you swore that is the best for you, and then you did not want to even see it? That is sometimes the case with supervisory (and lecturing) styles too – you might swear that this one is the ultimate for you until you try another one.

They can be stronger, weaker or even decaf.

Continuing within the concept of diversity, the strength of the coffee or the choice of decaf can also be linked to supervisors. Some are definitely stronger and more disciplined. They expect the students to work autonomously and take criticism and upsets in the research process with equal strength. The “espressos” plan in advance, work on schedules and are not flexible. They can work well with students that are equally structured, but might restrict a free spirit. The “decafs” on the other side tend to be more relaxed, give more freedom both in context and in time, and do not check on progress regularly.

Same coffee, different preferences (milk or sugar)

Most academics have established through the years their own supervisor personas (variety of coffee and strength of the blend). BUT, what helps tremendously is the adaptability of the coffee to the consumer’s personal preferences: sugar or not, and how much, brown or white sugar, or milk, maybe cremora? In essence, the supervisor has some core characteristics, but they do adjust (somewhat) to the needs and particular conditions of the student. When the student is an introvert and likes to work independently, the supervisor will not assist much if he/ she checks the progress frequently; on the other side, a student might need a constant support both academically and personally (add some sugar and milk extra, please).

 They get bitter if you do not stir.

Self-explanatory characteristic of the metaphor, right? Disappearing for months and then trying to pick up where you left it might create uneasiness with your supervisor (same from the other side, of course). Frequent communication and collaboration is essential in the relationship supervisor- student. “Like a marriage”, says Darce Gillie, from the University of Sheffield, a supervisor-PhD student relationship needs “honest communication, trust, understanding, shared goals, and the ability to compromise”.

If you don’t have one, you get headaches.

From the coffee-side, the doctors might diagnose caffeine addiction, while from doctoral studies perspective; there is absolutely no way to complete a PhD without a supervisor, or with an absent one. If the student knew everything in advance or had confidence that can surpass all the uphills of research, then why do a PhD? Ready-made academic! Some will argue here that their supervisor was mostly absent from the process and hence, no particular contribution should be attributed to them. I have one thing to tell them: the days I do not drink coffee, I drink tea or water, meaning some way or another, we all had a mentor whose experience, advice, and knowledge contributed to our PhD research.

Choosing coffee is of course much easier than choosing a supervisor.

Firstly, it is the start of a long-term relationship and secondly, you do not know someone until you get to work with them. If you need to choose your supervisor, the first step is to have an idea of the research topic that interests you, even broadly. Next, look for the experts in this field that are willing to supervise PhD students. If the topic interests the supervisor as well, mission accomplished. Supervisors tend to work more with students when they are also interested to answer these questions AND the extra bonus, the students learn more from informal discussions.  If you find one or two that have what you want, go see them all. You will get a better feeling of them as people, and personal chemistry plays a role. (Find your supervisor Table)

Finally, just remind yourself, a PhD journey is difficult. It has ups and downs, that is a given. As a PhD student, make sure you choose the right coffee to give you energy, excitement, inspiration, and keep you awake and focus. However, the coffee is not really, what makes you accomplish anything that day – it’s your own drive and persistence.

Dear fellow supervisors, my suggestion is not to be stiff “coffees” that leave their drinkers with the jitters. Try to be warm and boosting ones.

Let’s serve coffee with a little – or even better, over cake – to make the journey enjoyable.