I never felt sexism directed at me until I became a dean of students. I had seen it impact others, I knew it existed, but it was always in the society beyond my job, beyond my immediate work. I had observed how stereotypes and gendered expectations impacted my mother and grandmother, so I worked incessantly to resist gender roles in my own home and in raising my children. My partner and I have an equal relationship, we both hyphenated our names when we married, and more often than not, he takes on the caregiver role in our household while I am the one running late from work and missing dinner. I have always been proud of the feminist life I had been living and felt that somehow I had been able to resist the sting of sexism.
In my work life, I have been mentored and encouraged by men. Often they were the ones pointing out strengths in my skill set and pushing me to take on expanded roles. I never before felt the impact of my gender on my work until last year, my 18th year as a working professional. The difference is that last year I was asked to take on the role of Interim Dean of Students at my institution and I wasn’t prepared for the backlash that I would experience.
Same speech. Different results.
As an Assistant Dean of Students, I had spent several years being the communicator on behalf of the dean of students, including creating presentations and encouraging the using of social media as a division. In this role, I created the Prezi that the former dean used in his orientation presentation to students and parents. I also encouraged him to use a “twitterfall” during the presentations to engage with the audience. Although there were a couple of hiccups that we had to work out, by and large the twitterfall was a success for him, and he used it for two years.
As Interim Dean in the summer of 2012, I used the exact same presentation that I had created for him and also used the twitterfall. It was a disaster. At first the tweets were all about my outfits. I wore a black and white skirt outfit one night and made the “mistake” of wearing red shoes. The twitterfall was full of comments about my shoes and the Wizard of Oz. Brilliant. Later that week, a new student tweeted, and excuse the language, “does anyone else want to bang her?” Someone else tweeted something inappropriate the next night, and when I tweeted back challenging the comment, I received a “eff you.” These kind of experiences did not happen to the former dean.
Let me be clear, I addressed every single one of the students and inappropriate tweets I received. But, I was getting tired and frustrated. As a result, I started adjusting my behavior. We started taking the twitterfall down once I took the stage, and I started dressing in less feminine clothing. I started, quite unconsciously, wearing pant suits and down playing my feminine side. I spent some time reflecting on how I was feeling and realized that I didn’t like the way I was reacting. I have since recalibrated and this summer I was more myself, although the pant suits did come out occasionally. Lesson learned. Don’t let the sexist backlash dictate who you are.
He was like our cool uncle. You are like our mom.
In the spring of 2013, I was interviewing for the opportunity to become the permanent dean of students. A couple weeks before the interview, a student had tweeted on the anonymous “Confessions” account that he/she was experiencing suicidal thoughts and didn’t know what to do. I responded to the account hoping to talk to the account holder and find out who the student was. I wasn’t able to, but my response and advocacy for mental health and supporting fellow students on twitter became a beacon for our students. Within the week, I had 5-10 students reach out to me either directly by coming by the office, or indirectly through twitter or email seeking help. I was asked about this during the student open forum at my interview, and I had mentioned that I was surprised at the reaction I had received. One of the male students said in response, “Dean Lombardi was like the cool uncle, but you’re like our mom. I’m not surprised that more students come to you for that kind of help.” He wasn’t surprised. I was.
Personality vs. Gender.
Last time I took the Myers-Briggs personality inventory, I was an INTJ and I believe that still reflects my core. My StrengthsFinder top five are achiever, adaptability, responsibility, learner, and self-assurance. None of my top-five are in the relational, empathy areas. If you are familiar with True Colors, I am an orange – an adventurer/risk-taker. Unlike most student affairs professionals, I have to work to build relationships and to be empathetic. I don’t pick up on subtle emotional cues, and can be so busy during a meeting or accomplishing a task that my colleagues will have to point out to me that someone was feeling left-out, angered, or even excited about something. It’s not that I don’t care, rather I just don’t naturally pick it up.
My point being, I don’t exude “motherly love.” When my boys would fall down and get hurt during their bumps and bruises years, I was the one cheering about the spectacular fall and telling them that it wasn’t that much blood. That was me. That is the kind of mother I am, the kind of person I am, the kind of Dean of Students I am.
Yet, the fact of the matter is that I am getting more homesick phone calls than my male colleague ever did as dean. I am getting more parents calling me for help with homesickness, with mental health issues, and for help figuring out if a withdraw from school is warranted. I’m also noticing that most of the students walking in the door depressed and worried are men. The women are walking in for leadership opportunities and mentoring. The men are walking in for help.
I don’t think this is because I gave an amazing speech at orientation and made them feel like I would be an emotional support to them – it was the same speech my colleague gave with the same “success, partnership, and reach out if you need help” messages. I believe it is because I’m a woman. This is a benefit to being a female dean that I wasn’t expecting.
What have been your good, bad and ugly experiences related to sexism, gender and perception of gender? I’d love to hear them. Let’s connect.