While working in residence life, I once had the enjoyable experience of supervising three young college men who supervised seven RAs each. To this day, I’m still a little confused about how I ended up in this particular situation, but it was an awesome experience and I reflect back fondly on these three young men and my journey as their supervisor.
While making rounds through the buildings one day, I saw a sign in one of the women’s hallways that had been defaced with the following phrase, “Feminists suck!” The young woman who was the RA was on the floor and I asked her, “Do you have more of these signs? Let’s take this one down and put up a clean one.” She was an excellent RA so, naturally, she was planning to do that anyway and had a spare sign ready. I asked, “Do you know who wrote this?” She laughed and said, “YES!” She then disclosed that it was her male supervisor who had written his, he thought it was funny. He was joking, of course.
I had a really great working relationship with this young man. As a young woman and new professional, I realized that I wanted to talk about this with the staff member but, I was afraid to talk to him about it. I was afraid that if I spoke to him about writing “Feminists suck!” on a flyer in a woman supervisee’s floor, he would think “that I only care because I’m a girl” or “of course I’m getting in trouble, because my boss is a woman” or that somehow, by brining this up with him, I would undermine our relationship and my legitimacy as his boss.
I broached the topic with him by asking him if he wrote “Feminists suck!” on his RA’s flyer. He said yes. Then I asked why. His response was what I expected, it was a running joke between him and the RA, he thought it was funny, he thought she thought it was funny, it wasn’t a big deal, etc. I then expressed that I was disappointed that he wrote this and that as his supervisor, my expectation was that he would support and empower all of the people in the environment and on the staff that he was responsible for a supervisor. I explained that writing this phrase could be perceived as disempowering to the women in the building, as offensive to people who passed by, and that personally and professionally, I felt it was not appropriate. I wanted him to role model the amazing things I know he believed and his capacity to be a caring and supportive individual. I tried to say all of this with kindness.
I waited. I waited for the eye rolling, the loss of interest in the conversation, the automatic responses and head nods that suggested he had completely checked out of the conversation and other cues that I had just thrown my professional relationship with this student under the proverbial bus because he was mentally reducing this conversation down to “well of course, because she’s a girl”(and now she is going to hate me because I wrote this stupid phrase on a piece of paper).
Instead, he told me that he didn’t really believe that feminists or feminism sucked, but that he thought it was funny. He reflected on his role in the community and how powerful his position as a model was in the community. He shared what he really thought, about supporting equality between men and women. About the women in his life that he has the upmost respect for and wants the best for. He talked about how, as a future doctor, he would need to be sensitive to who he was caring for and that included men and women. We had one of our usual, awesome, educational conversations.
Having a pre-established relationship with this person allowed me to express my thoughts on his behavior, as his supervisor express my expectations and give him feedback, and as role model to engage him in conversation. Through our relationship, we were able to communicate about this topic and both be taken seriously. I did not undermine my relationship with him as a female supervisor, and in the words of @StacyOliver, I “said something”. But, I wonder, what would have happened if it had been sooner in the year before I had a positive rapport with this person? Would I still have said something? Would he have reacted as well as he did? Would the conversation have been as educational (for both of us)?
How do you engage with students, staff, and professionals about topics that are relevant to campus and important to you without appearing “on your soap box”(and is this even always a bad thing)? How do you utilize your relationships to spread awareness and increase tolerance and understanding?