Guest post by Liz Jackson: Theorising Grabs: The gendered experience of unwanted touch at conferences

In this piece Liz Jackson explores the gendered nature of unwanted touching at conferences and reflects on the publication of her recent article “The Smiling Philosopher: Emotional labour, gender and harassment in conference spaces”

Liz conf
Liz conferencing

At a recent conference, I began to note various episodes of flirtatious behaviour among men colleagues, many of whom I had known for many years. In one instance, a colleague held my hand for a few minutes while discussing our past academic collaboration. In another, a colleague who had clearly been drinking more than I had that evening kept embracing me at my waist. I left these events feeling disturbed, wondering when I had become a piece of flesh to my peers who, I felt certain, would not be holding the hand or waist of academic men.

These experiences made me feel strange. I wondered if things had always been this way, and I had tolerated it before. Perhaps moving to Asia for my career had made me less touchy-feely. I also wondered if I had caused a change in behaviour among others—i.e., if it was my fault. I mentioned my perceptions and experiences to others. A few colleagues who are demographically similar to me—white, cis, youngish, junior women—nodded, sympathised, and shared horror stories in turn. But others reacted with a sense of shock, as if my experiences were incredible. A few were explicitly dismissive, rebutting my suggestion that some parties might not be safe spaces for women. These latter kinds of response kindled and lit a fire.

In my paper, ‘The smiling philosopher: Emotional labour, gender, and harassment in conference spaces’, I discuss my conference ‘horror stories’ and those of peers, in relation to theories on how women engage in emotional labour in the world of work, including in academia. Likening women academics to the flight attendants that Arlie Hochschild studied in The Managed Heart, I noticed how women can struggle to be authoritative while friendly with men, especially in the vulnerable early years of an academic career.

In her study Hochschild describes a few postures women flight attendants tend to use: one sought to gain authority and control over men customers through flirtation (the ‘sexy girlfriend’), and another was motherly and sympathetic, with men customers who might take out frustrations on her, over things like flight delays or food choices. I argued in relation to flight attendants that while few women academics want to be sexualised by men during conferences, they nonetheless face sexualisation, particularly if they are young women. In other cases, women might be treated not like ‘sexy girlfriends’ but like ‘sunny daughters’ or ‘little sisters’. In these postures, women academics, particularly students, are given advice and mentoring when they might like to be treated more as peers, with their own research and views. The ‘little sister’ is treated this way by men at her own rank or lower. As I recount in the article, I personally endured several men students give me very specific advice about tenure track and my career when I was an assistant professor. I have asked a handful of men colleagues if they have ever been advised by students of any gender, and all of them grimaced at the idea.

It was not easy for me to write the paper and share my experiences. First, I never saw myself as a feminist scholar. As I have typically written about multiculturalism, post-colonialism, and around race and class in education, I often bristle against the idea of a gendered position. Certainly, this paper could only scratch the surface of some complex issues impacting people who are like me, while ignoring other ways people experience harassment, social stress, and exclusion in academia due to factors like race and ethnicity, language and accent, culture and religion, ability, and sexual orientation and alternative gendering [For further examples see James Burford’s Conference Inference post Sex and the academic conference]. I was and am reluctant to be the ‘white woman feminist’, who I have critiqued in the past for essentialising diverse experiences in harmful ways.

In addition to this, I struggled in the article with the burden of proof and issues of accountability. One of the points I aimed to make in the essay was that, although few men intentionally engage in flirtatious, sexual, or sexist behaviour toward women academics, women can still commonly experience a lot of ‘grabs’ from men. To the extent that discussing these experiences is taboo, she is likely to question herself, and her own perceptions—otherwise, she is pressed to launch into a critique of others, on a sensitive issue, without solid empirical data. This issue gives the paper a fun challenge, and it is an issue that I have discussed with many women in person since writing it: Do men know that they are even holding hands or waists? Some ‘offenders’ are incredibly kind, gentle, sympathetic men in many ways beyond a few grabs. How could we begin intervening in these cases? Are they accountable, if no one has told them their behaviour is problematic before? On the other hand, isn’t it victim-blaming, or at least victim-burdening, for women to have to prove they endure unwanted grabs? What about experiences some women have with overfamiliar colleagues who are women, rather than men? Is this not just as bad? Only some of these puzzles could be adequately explored in the paper.

Some of these worries have been alleviated in part, as I have found that the paper has struck a chord with many young women academics. Shortly after the paper was published I gave some talks on other topics in different universities in New Zealand. Several women approached me during the events saying they had found the article on feminist websites and forums, and just wanted to meet and thank me for writing it. On my own social networks doing self-promotion, I have very positive responses from dozens of women colleagues in my own field and in other academic fields. So, while my experience is of course not universal, it was gratifying to discover I was giving voice to an issue many are/were struggling with—and I was critiquing institutions in a way that maybe feels impossible for some who are younger and more junior than me.

Sadly, I have not had much feedback from men colleagues on the piece. A few senior colleagues have read it at my recommendation and given positive responses. However, my feedback has been overwhelmingly from other women, which has led to more than a few conversations regarding the cause for this discrepancy. Is this just read as work that is for women? Does it pain men, or do they think I am exaggerating? What positive roles and diverse experiences might men academics have, in relation to conference gender dynamics?

In relation to men’s experiences and roles—and to the issue of diverse experiences of harassment at conferences, beyond the ‘woman’s view’—I am seeking out colleagues for further collaboration on these topics. If you enjoyed the piece and would like to write something together on a similar theme, that adds a different perspective, feel free to contact me to discuss possible publications on this topic. Or, if you want to rebut, challenge, or give an alternative or other men’s view, I would also like to hear it. Theorising conference grabs is hopefully just beginning, with articles like my own and other work featured on this blog.

Liz latestBio: Liz Jackson is an Associate Professor of Education at the University of Hong Kong and Vice-President of the Philosophy of Education Society of Australasia. She publishes in the areas of moral education, multicultural and civic education, and global and comparative education. Her book Muslims and Islam in US Education: Reconsidering Multiculturalism (Routledge, 2014) won the Research Output Prize for Education and the Philosophy of Education Society of Australasia Book Award. She also publishes work in Educational Philosophy and Theory, the Journal of Moral Education, Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, and other journals.


Author: CI_Jamie

Academic at the University of Warwick. Interests: higher education, sexuality, gender, equity. PhD in Doctoral Education from Auckland University.

9 thoughts on “Guest post by Liz Jackson: Theorising Grabs: The gendered experience of unwanted touch at conferences”

  1. I must say that as a white, male, (older 😉 ), cis academic, I feel very uncomfortable discussing this issue. Especially, I anticipate that any perspectives I have will lead me being labelled as ignorant, biased or worse.

    I entirely empathize with the ‘woman’s view’ [sic], and don’t doubt these experiences at all. I also appreciate how the whole feminist issue arose, how valid and needed it was (and in some instances still is), and I don’t think any of these behaviours is acceptable or should be dismissed lightly. However, for me, generalising them to a gendered discussion is not necessarily helpful. This is not a denial or rebuttal of individual instances (I also dislike touchy-feely men or women), but men also experience gendered instances where they feel type-cast or unfairly treated. IMO (and I say this just as a member of society), if people invade others personal space or touch them in ways they feel are inappropriate (I have experienced both), then the behaviour might have roots that go beyond gender. When you have been abused or treated disrespectfully by someone who just wants to stamp their authority on you, then it is unpleasant, regardless of your gender. However, as a man, you often feel that to raise any counter-gender argument is going to lead to you being labeled as either a ‘typical ignorant bloke’, or as someone who is weak and should ‘just get on with it’. Personally, I don’t want to be either weak or strong … I just want to be seen and treated as a decent member of society, who treats others as they would be treated themselves. These behaviours do go on at conferences, but I have had ladies and men flirt and touch inappropriately, seen ladies and men dog-drunk, heard ladies enter into sexist tirades under the guise of feminism, and men voice all manner of sexist, racist and unacceptable things … you remove the hand, divert or withdraw from the conversation, keep your judgements to yourself (unless it is morally wrong to let the issue pass) , and unless you want to add fuel to the fire, you tend to retire feeling poorly used by someone who should have known and behaved better, and treated you and the community with more respect. There is a time, place and manner for confrontation, so (IMO) people choose where, when and how to fight their battles. So, when a ‘chap’ reads this type of reporting, I think it very likely that they will empathise and even share your experiences. However,from a male perspective it is sometimes difficult to feel that there is a genuine aim of equality and fair treatment, when all of the research, argument and literature has traditionally placed one group in opposition to another – one group wronged by another. I wish we could go with a more societal judgement, when not discussing issues that have a clearly defined and substantiated gender angle.

    I definitely feel that there is a ‘male’ side of the argument, but I am not so sure we are comfortable or feel able to express it, without coming across as negatively ‘fighting back’. Which sort of leads us back to the beginning again …

    So, I am not sure if I have contributed a voice, how valid the voice is, or whether I have just shown my own ignorance and misunderstanding … I am sure someone will let me know 😉


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