I am a professor at Kansas State University. I grew up in the southeastern part of the United States. I am a white, cisgender woman. I am married to a man who is also a professor. I am a sociologist. I teach research methods and gender inequality courses. My research focuses on gender injustice at workplaces and home. In 2018, I went up for promotion to full professor. My case for promotion was denied twice by my colleagues, but I was promoted the second time after pursuing an extensive grievance process.
Original photo by Eugene Lim
This is just the most basic of information about that experience. It does not provide much detail about the amount of time, energy, and effort that went into crafting and compiling the documents for the appeal. Nor does it express my feelings about it all. How many times I screamed, hyper-ventilated, cried, tried to release my anger, wrote about it, thought about it, or talked about it. How many times I found myself responding in my head to things they had said/written. How many times I found myself talking to someone and realizing I had not listened to what they said, but rather was back in some part of the battle I was fighting. How pissed I was that I had to waste time responding to them. How pissed I was that “I was letting them get to me” because “they were not worth it.” It does not include details about my colleagues’ rationales for denying my promotion the first time or what they added in the grievance hearing and the second time I went up for promotion. Or the incredulity I continued to feel throughout it all.
During this time, I was open with my friends, family, and colleagues about what was happening. Many told me that I seemed to be handling it well and wondered what I was doing to be okay during this time. Some asked me to write about it. This essay is my “answer” to that question. I am not sure I was all that well during this time, as the previous paragraph likely reveals. Even now, writing about it, I feel the rage, again, in my chest. But, I did make some decisions immediately, that I went back to again and again. Principles that helped me persist. In this essay, I share those 12 principles and try to articulate what I meant by them.
Principle 1: Do not turn on yourself.
I, like many others, particularly members of historically underserved groups, suffer from imposter syndrome. Being denied promotion to full unanimously by the full professors in my department seemed likely to dredge up feeling like an imposter. I feared that I could start to believe what they wrote and said about me and to me, even though I knew what they said was not accurate. From the very beginning, I promised myself that I would not turn on myself.
I was not constantly successful about alleviating self-doubts. And as the battle wore on into 2020, it got much, much harder. One day, I broke down crying when talking to a colleague and started to say, “It is true that I can be….” She shut it down, immediately, informing me that her experience with me was the exact opposite of what they had told me. I had begun to believe the hostile reports. And those who denied my promotion adversaries seemed to feel emboldened by it. They had “won” in the grievance hearing; they anticipated their victories would continue. One department head told me before the hearing that he did not understand why I would pursue a grievance, given that I was not going to win. After the grievance hearing, he wanted to know what it would take for me to believe all the feedback I was being given about what he perceived to be the deficiencies in my work.
Not only did the gatekeepers’ boldness threaten my belief in myself, my supporters’ responses also did not work for me. They expressed sadness, sometimes devastation on my behalf. I appreciated their support, and still do. I understand that for many, my case felt like a sign of what was going to happen to them. But I sometimes felt as though they expected me to be devastated—like that is what I should have felt. I did not feel–or want to feel–sad or devastated. I felt enraged. Sadness feels internal to me, something you feel when something is your fault and insurmountable. But I wanted this to be external. I was not the problem. They were. I felt confident (impostor syndrome aside) about my tenure and promotion packet. I felt proud of my packet. I refused to let that change. I resisted the urge to blame myself, to devalue my work – as if I had to cross my arms, stamp my foot, shake my head back, and puff up. If I was going to have to expend energy on this, it was going to be in my own favor. I was not going to be the target of the anger I was feeling. I was not going to turn on myself.
Principle 2: Trust the empirical work in your scholarly area—you are not going to be an exception.
My area of expertise is gender injustice in the workplace and in the home. I promised myself that I would trust the empirical work on implicit bias, chilly climates, division of labor in the home, the double bind, teaching evaluations, etc., and how this plays out in policies and everyday interactions for members of underserved groups in the workplace. It is smart, convincing, solid work. When it is happening to you, it is harder to remember all that work. It was easy to convince myself that the empirical research happened to other people, but not here, not to me. But why would my experience be the exception to all that empirical work?
I kept reminding myself to take what I called the view from above. And, when I was looking down on my experience from an empirically informed perspective, there is absolutely no reason to expect that I would be an exception. Of course, as a strong, smart woman with a broad and deep skill set, I would be challenging to even those people with implicit, unintentional gender-based schemas. Of course, that would be threatening. Of course, if I was doing work well, I would face the double-bind. Of course, I would get “dinged” for not being a good woman (kind, sweet, passive, deferential). Of course, they would take the opportunity to try to make me feel small. They would not be able to say that they wanted my deference or for me to be sweeter (at least, not openly), so they would have to criticize my work. I was not going to be an exception to the empirical patterns of gender inequality, even though my adversaries kept telling me that they can’t be “doing gender inequality/inequity” because they are sociologists, because they study it. Their denials were not supported by the empirical work either. I was going to trust the empirical work.
Principle 3: You are not going to win, but you are not going to make it easy on them.
I had a colleague who said this to me once about some other issues we were raising in the program. I took him to mean that when you are up against the powers-that-be, the powerful often win, even when they are wrong. But, you make progress, and potentially change, by resisting. I was not going to be the only one that had to do work as a result of their wrong-headed decision. They were going to have to do work. They were going to have to stand up and make their claims in front of a room of people. And while I did not want to have to make it hard on them—I would have much rather gotten my raise and promotion when I first deserved it—it did feel good to stick up for myself. It did ease the burden to know that they were going to have to work to defend their decision.
They kept trying not to do the work. But in the end, they had to write a response to my appeal for the grievance hearing. They had to show up to meetings before the grievance hearing. They had to prepare for the oral arguments in the grievance hearing. They had to attend the grievance hearing. Witnesses for their side (and mine) had to spend the day waiting to be called to the grievance hearing. They, finally, had to listen to me tell my story. The whole story without interrupting me or only “skimming” it. I did not win, in the short term, but I did not make it easy on them.
Principle 4: You have a lot of privilege. Use it.
As I read about what many people who are members of historically underserved groups want those of us who are overserved to do, I understood the request to be that when you are a member of an overserved group(s) in a situation, you should fight injustices. Hopefully, I would not mess it up for everyone. In this situation, I am even privileged by my area of expertise—at least I could use it as a resource for myself. I do believe it is likely that part of the reason my promotion was turned down is because I do research on gender inequality. We are supposed to want these inclusion and diversity, but I often feel the undercurrent of irritation, placating, if not outright resentment and hostility when I raise inequality and inequity. One colleague told me that I “always played the inequality card.” But, because I know the gender inequality and inequity research, it was easier for me to follow principles 1 and 2. Ironically, part of my job description was to pursue university-sanctioned policies and processes to remedy inequity. I mean, if they were doing this to me, what were they doing to people with less privilege? Of the groups of people who are excluded in universities, they are the least resistant to letting white, cisgender, able-bodied, women in, aren’t they?
Principle 5: You owe a debt to those that came before you. The fact that you are even here to fight this is a result of what they endured.
I feel this principle deeply. One of my mentors talked about how she joined a class action lawsuit filed against her university for gender pay disparities when she was an assistant professor. She would joke about the bad timing for her career. She told us she would not recommend doing it. I took her word for it and I was quiet as an assistant professor. I was afraid to speak up in my department. I remember speaking up one time about inequity issues when I was pre-tenure. A faculty member of equal rank said that a female graduate student should “strap one on” in her relationship with her faculty advisor. I asked, “Strap what on? A gun? I certainly hope she will not do that.” Everyone in the meeting stayed quiet or nervously giggled and then we moved on. So, I spoke up, but I knew he meant strapping a penis on. It was not a gun.
I stayed quiet long enough. Once I earned tenure, I could not keep quiet for one more second. The previous generation of women was so isolated in universities, particularly if they were not white or heterosexual or cisgender. They must have spent most every day being not heard, dismissed, gaslighted. And those may have been the “good” days at their jobs. So many of us still experience this, even now. There are more of us now, at least there are more white, cisgender, heterosexual women. We must keep speaking up. We must back each other up. And we must make a longer table, not a higher fence. It was worse for those that came before us. They made it better for us. We must repay that debt and make it better for those that come after us. When I told my story to some white, cisgender, heterosexual women at my university, some said something to the effect of, “I should start speaking up. I’m near the end of my career now.” That is how risky it feels—they can only do it when they feel like they have less to lose.
Principle 6: You have already made change through this process.
My case did produce some changes in the institution. There are some changes to the university handbook. There are people who intend to speak up more. I focused on the changes that were (or seemed to be) linked to my case through the process. I kept looking at the changes. I kept thinking about what that would mean for others. But, now? All I see is how easily all the change could be just temporary or swept under the rug. If an administrator had not taken up what the grievance panel recommended, or had only worked on it perfunctorily — their recommendations for change could have very easily been forgotten. (There are a few that have made no progress, to my knowledge.) I emailed the university president multiple times to ask how he was going to ensure that the grievance panel’s recommendations were pursued. I asked how relevant parties would be informed about the outcomes. He did not respond to me. Once the dean involved in my case moves out of the position, will the next person even know what the grievance panel’s recommendations were and why?
As another example, the department head during my promotion process in the second year told me that I could pull my promotion packet before it went up to the college level. That is not in compliance with handbook policy. The first department head told me the same thing. They are both wrong. They know I am paying attention. The dean and the second department head had access to my complaint. I pointed out how this policy was not being followed. The dean still did not ensure that the new department head knew this. As one of my mentors said, you must always keep injustice on the table. At the time I was going through the promotion process, it sustained me to see the change. Now, I am discouraged. The change is so easily dismissed. “Why” the change matters is so easily lost. You must be tenacious. You must follow up, and follow up, and follow up. And you likely will be doing that all by yourself, which they like to use as evidence that you are the problem, not the system.
Principle 7: This is not the worst thing that has ever happened to you.
It is sad that it helped for me to remember that worse had already happened to me. I used the fact that my father and grandfather drowned on our summer vacation when I was nine years old as a source of strength to take on this fight. My brother, who was four at the time, almost drowned with them. Obviously, that is so much worse than not getting a raise or a promotion in rank. I had lived through that and even gone on to be happy. I would do that again, I told myself, because what I was experiencing now was nowhere near that bad. It is complete and total bullshit that my childhood tragedy would serve as a resource for me in my promotion fight.
Principle 8: Learning about the struggles of others makes it easier to face one’s own struggles.
The most focused way I did it, was by listening to the Undisclosed Podcast on wrongful convictions. The people Undisclosed focused on, when we could hear from them, were infinitely more gracious than I felt. I grappled with that graciousness at the time and I still am.
Where I landed then and am still landing is that people must deal with the consequences of their decisions/behavior. I will not tamp down my anger and put it into a calm, reasonable package for the oppressor. I know the research showing that people are more willing to learn/admit wrongdoing when they are not faced with anger. I think that is something we need to really work on, culturally, in the U.S. I can already hear the outcry to this statement. People – particularly those who know they are going to face some anger because of what they have done – will immediately go to what-aboutism, drawing on extreme cases of physical violence. I am not talking about that, and I will not get distracted by that framing. The point, as I see it currently, is this: there are consequences to behavior. When people in less powerful positions than you are raising issues and are angry, shut up and listen. Monitor your own anger and tamp it down for us/them. (I add “them” because I am in tons of powerful positions at this point. Just because I am in one less powerful structural position does not mean that I get to respond with anger–or tears–when confronted.) I am sick and tired of centering the feelings of the powerful over the less powerful. The powerful/us are safer. They/we can do the work.
Principle 9: Radical optimism.
After the meeting with the provost about my appeal the second year, I felt pessimistic. I was sick exhausted. and not at all hopeful due to his arguments throughout the process. In the grievance hearing, I made the point that my colleagues were creating moving targets about the reasons for denying my promotion. Whenever they provided some reason for not promoting me, I would come back with evidence to the contrary. Then, then they would essentially say, “That reason we gave before isn’t the real reason, this new thing is the reason.” They even added a reason in the grievance hearing for why they denied my promotion. Up until that point, they had argued I did not have the quantity of research they wanted. In the middle of the hearing, they added that my work also “lacked quality.” I pointed this out in my grievance hearing and the provost’s response was something to the effect of “Now she is saying that she isn’t aware that her work has to be quality.”
So, in that context, I was not optimistic about my meeting with the provost in year two. After the meeting, I told people I felt it was likely to go the same way as last year, but “here’s to radical optimism.” And, I realized in some ways I was optimistic. In the first year, I kept thinking the issues were so obvious once it got to someone with a broader perspective, they would want to get my department to cut it out, to stop embarrassing itself and the college and the university. Even before that, when I went to the department head to show them all the ways they had erred, I thought they would be horrified once they saw the mistakes they were making.
At every single phase, I was shocked but not surprised. It was all right there in front of them. Had they not gotten training on these issues? I mean, the organization I run on campus had put on some trainings on for administrators and many of them had attended. Were they unable to do what we are trying to teach our students to do? Application in slightly new settings?
The radical optimism was that I had believed in them at first. They seemed to take my coming to them, face-to-face, and showing them their errors as challenges, a lack of deference. To me, it was respect. I expected they would be dedicated to the principles they espouse in public and, for the sociologists, that they study and teach in their classes.
The radical optimism was that I kept going because I thought they would be persuaded by evidence. What we, supposedly, highly value in academia.
The radical optimism was that we have made so much progress. I was able to talk to members of historically underserved groups about my experience because they were actually in the halls of the university now. You can see them, at least periodically. There is an entire professional organization in my discipline whose mission is equality/equity for women. We know so much about how this all works. We do not have to be quiet anymore. We do not have to accept it anymore. Right?
The radical optimism was that I refused to give up on them learning from their mistakes. I still refuse to give up on them learning and growing from their mistakes.
Principle 10: Don’t let them take what you love about sociology and being a professor from you.
I find this principle harder to articulate. Maybe it is just that I did not want to get bitter. I live in a university town and live near the university. It is almost impossible to avoid the university when I leave my house. I didn’t want to see it and have the injustice burn, nor did I want to always try to avoid it. I did not want to let my anger, disappointment, disillusionment, and resentment get too big, like those clouds that roll in when Voldemort returns in Harry Potter book 5/movie 5.
I love being an academic – or perhaps more accurately stated: I love the ideals of academia. There is much to criticize about academia, and to those reading this that have also been harmed by academia, I am sorry. I acknowledge that I put on some rose-colored glasses during my battle to find my way through.
One of my favorite parts is that I – for the most part – do not feel like I am part of the “problem.” I am not marketing products to people that they do not need. I am not squeezing every last ounce of humanity from employees by treating them as only money-making machines, nor am I having every last ounce squeezed out of me (well, at least in principle). My values and the values of academia align. I appreciate the continuous learning and striving to understand. It is stimulating to serving on the committees of students outside my own discipline and learning about those disciplines. The guiding principle of tenure is to allow academics to push on conventional wisdom and be safe. We are supposed to be able to say the world is not flat! and prove it without being killed. With more experience, I understand that academia is more a part of the problem than I had hoped. And my own experiences have forced me to see that even sociologists, the ones that supposedly care the most about equality and equity, sometimes only care about it just on the surface. But, the ideals of academia are still there. And I value them.
I did not want this process or my colleagues to take all that love from me. I fought to remember this and hold on to it.
Principle 11: It is happening to me, but it’s not about me. This is the time we are living in.
I said this out loud a lot to people. I do not need to revisit the point I made in principle 2 about the scholarly literature about white women’s experiences in academia. But that is what I mean by it not being about me. I was experiencing what smart, challenging, “threatening” people experience. Backlash. They were attempting to put me back in my place. To tear down my work and remind me that I needed to be a better woman – be more deferential and passive. I do not know if they knew this was what they are doing. I have heard some tout their lack of bias, but they say lots of things, in passing, that align quite well with the literature. I do not know what caused the provost to overturn the full professors in my department’s denial of my promotion in year 2, but my appeal letter to him argued that they were having to perform “mental gymnastics” to justifying denying my promotion. I wrote that they did so by reconstructing credentials and making claims that were not data driven. What was happening to me was not just about me.
We also live in a time when a presidential candidate can be recorded saying that he can grab women by the pussy, and they let him do it because he is a celebrity. The reporter who was with him can giggle and appear impressed by it, maybe even jealous. People will still vote that man into office, because that is not disqualifying. For some, the fact that he says what he is really thinking won them over. Or maybe because what he was thinking and saying was what they agreed with and wish they could say.
In this time in our history, yes, this was likely to happen to me, but it wasn’t just about me. Being denied promotion to full professor was a badge of honor, actually. What would I have had to be for them to want me in their full professor club, I wonder? Something I have no desire to do or be, of that I am quite sure.
Principle 12: Standing up for yourself feels better.
Because of their decision, I was going to have to do work, at least emotional, whether or not I fought. I was either going to have to have conversations in my head or have those conversations out loud. Sure, in every interaction, they said or did new things that were extremely frustrating that I had to deal with. But, once I started standing up for myself and saying it out loud, things were not just my problem anymore. It felt better not to take it and deal with it alone or with my loved ones. I say “better” because it was not “good” to have to do any of this at all. I found it “better” to stand up for myself, out loud, than to keep it inside or “outside” only with my loved ones who were also experiencing their own feelings.
In conclusion, I do want people who are in similar situations that I was in to fight too. I am not sure how that has influenced how I explained my experience in this piece. Perhaps I put on rose-colored glasses when I looked back. It is extremely likely that because I “won” in year 2, I can write more defiantly and positively than I would have been able to do if I had been writing this piece while going up for full promotion for the third time and possibly starting legal proceedings. I really do hope people will continue to fight back against the injustices they face within academia, but it is not an easy road, even when you have as much privilege as I do/did.