Sexism, CRM archaeology, and the Male Response

A few weeks ago, I received a lot of input from other female archaeologists because of some comments I made about Episode 18 of the CRM Archaeology Podcast. Nearly all of these comments were negative (including the ones from my non-archaeologist wife).

Every female CRM archaeologist I’ve spoken to thought my comment on the podcast website was insensitive and derogatory. (These criticisms were warranted, which caused me to remove my comment from the website—the first redaction I’ve ever done online). Some of the participants in that episode contacted me. They all said the same thing, although in a more unsatisfactory and angry tone. Despite the fact that I really enjoyed this episode (and was correct in predicting that it would be one of the most downloaded and most resonant episode of the year), the comments I’ve made about the show on the internet have been lambasted because they came across as sexist and damaging to women.

I honestly had no intention of offending anyone. Initially, I did not realize the things I wrote were sexist or negative. But, upon reflection, they really were. Much of the blowback I received is based on the fact that writings online do not convey the intonation and nuances that are easily conveyed in spoken conversation. My comments and summary of Episode 18 on my blog were taken the wrong way because they were published online where nobody could hear what I actually meant to say. It was easy for readers to get the wrong impression.

My coverage of the podcast on my blog was also interpreted as derogatory, even though I was just trying to create a scintillating summary that would help drive traffic. As a man, I am largely unaware of feminist issues and my own sexism until situations like this catapult them to the forefront of my mind. I enjoyed how the podcast brought to light several interesting issues women face in the workplace. I wanted to add to the conversation, but quickly learned I do not have the vocabulary to do so in an appropriate way.

By simply writing an online comment and a review of Episode 18 that I thought was interesting, I opened myself up to negative criticism. It did not feel good to hear that others had been offended by something I’d done. At first, I felt like retreating– withdrawing from conversations on gender and feminism in CRM archaeology and heritage conservation. But, after a long conversation with a close colleague, I realized that this is really a teaching opportunity. In order to address lingering issues in archaeology, I needed to stay in the conversation and learn how I can better understand the situations women face in the industry.

I posed several questions to my friend, former co-worker, podcaster, and archaeologist Ashley Morton in hopes that I can learn how to better combat sexism in the workplace and online CRM archaeological community (her comments are in red):

AM: Thank you Bill for taking this uncomfortable, yet important opportunity to talk about your comments and the subsequent backlash. Before I address your questions I just wanted to mention this conversation can be just as difficult for women as it is for men. In recognizing that difficulty and my desire to frame my answers as best as possible, I consulted a professor of sociology who specializes in gender and diversity. So, it’s important for me to say the answers I give are my opinion alone but were weighted by advice from a professional.

BW: How can men recognize their own sexism?

AM: I preface my response to this question by stating it’s not the responsibility of the subordinated to teach those subordinating how to correct their behavior. However, I knowingly take this opportunity to “teach” because keeping the conversation going, to me, is more important than not doing anything at all. With that, recognizing your privilege as a man is perhaps one of the most important but painful steps men can take towards recognizing their own sexism. Remember, the fact that you felt you could just “opt out” or retreat from touching sexism or feminism again is a kind of power. I and many of my female colleagues don’t get to “opt out.”  Recognizing your male privilege can be done in multiple ways but a good start is listening to women and recognizing women who have authoritative positions. You or other men may not have any problems with women in positions of power but might not recognize certain interactions can undermine these positions for women.

To illustrate: I recently was out at dinner with my husband, boss (male), and a (male) colleague at another archaeology company. I had offered to buy my colleague dinner and drinks if he would help me out by being a guest speaker for a lecture series I had organized. He kindly accepted to speak and subsequently went out afterwards. I had tried to discreetly offer to pay for my colleague’s dinner and my boss’s drinks however my husband (who is a very generous person) took the opportunity instead and would not let me pay. Not only was I the only woman at the table but I was the reason for having the dinner in the first place as a way to offer kindness to my colleague and my boss. My husband was not in any way trying to thwart my position. He merely was enjoying the company and wanted to show his kindness like many times before at happy hours with fiends/work colleagues but it did undermine the role of my position as someone with authority.

Another suggestion is being more conscious of group dynamics and body language. This can be challenging in an online forum, but the following are still applicable:

  • taking notice of who first talks in a group,
  • who speaks the longest,
  • what kinds of questions do different groups get asked,
  • who is someone constructed as an expert, or who is being talked down to?

BW: How can men constructively add to conversations regarding sexism in archaeology?

AM: Be an active listener/ online conversationalist. And, when you offer your thoughts try to frame them more as “I think, I feel, the way I see it, or it appears to me…” This allows for room in the conversation. The post that got you in trouble was more framed as “this is how it is” and it caused problems (for multiple reasons but) because it was more asserting your opinion over those of the female panelists thereby making some feel you had undermined their opinions.

Another is to not be defensive and be willing to give up space in the discussion for people pulling back. The sociologist I consulted said (and I agree) that it’s not so much or always a specific behavior but patterns of behavior and to think about why some people are pulling back. A scenario the sociologist offered was the frequent “good girl”–ing she and/ or other female colleagues of hers have received:

“I get “good girled” at work, so by the time I’m at a meeting with you I might be feeling a little on edge about that—you didn’t “good girl” me, and I don’t hold you accountable, but I’m probably feeling a little defensive about it happening again…”

BW: How can women include men in the conversation without making them feel uncomfortable?

AM: Again, I would say it’s not the subordinate’s (in this case women) responsibility to make those subordinators (here, men) comfortable about an inappropriate action (i.e. sexism). HOWEVER, I would say, we all can benefit if women speak up more about these issues. Ultimately, I would say get ready to become comfortable with the uncomfortable. And, to not assume all men are uncomfortable with sexism. When I took a Sociology of Gender class most of the men in the class were the ones who were interested in weighing in on topics from the Vagina Monologues to pregnancy and labor. That professor offered this to say about “-ism” conversations:

“Conversations about “-isms” are uncomfortable conversations, if you are being offensive (remember intent is different than impact), it should be uncomfortable. The better question is: Why are we so afraid of making someone uncomfortable? (Why is the subordinated person always concerned about the discomfort of the dominate person, but not the other way around)? I’ve screwed up lots in class and said things people found offensive. And, it felt awful, but it made me want to do better. It made me consider what my values are and who I want to be and then I did better next time.”

Perhaps one of the best archaeology analogies I can offer is to consider Carol McDavid’s argument on racism in her chapter article, “Beyond Strategy and Good Intentions: Archaeology, Race, and White Privilege” in Archaeology as a Tool of Civic Engagement (Little and Shackel eds. 2007). In arguing for the use of critical race theory in (public) archaeology, McDavid opens the floor for discussing white privilege in archaeology—that is the assumption that white histories are normative because we archaeologists typically don’t discuss “White (often presumed “Euro-American”) Archaeology” as we do with all the kinds of archaeologies of  ethnic groups (and increasingly genders and sexualities) such as “African American Archaeology” and/or “African Diaspora Archaeology ” or “Native American Archaeology” or “Japanese American Archaeology”. By separating these groups out in a way we perpetuate these histories as distinct from those deemed normal in the past i.e. white, heterosexual, and male. What I took away from this article and want to impress upon both male and female archaeologists is by not talking about my white privilege I continue to perpetuate it as the assumed experience of being an archaeologist; and likewise not talking about your male privilege perpetuates male as the normal gender experience of being an archaeologist.

I would like to sincerely thank Ashley for her awesome responses. They are truly appreciated and will help improve my conduct in the future. They are also great ways to expand discussions of sexism and discrimination in a constructive manner.

I had long known sexism is a lingering issue in archaeology, but I had no idea that I could very easily come across as sexist. The only way we can eliminate gender discrimination is through an open dialogue between both sexes; however, all need to feel welcome to comment. Also, when we put both feet in our mouth like I recently did it is important to use the resulting comments as a way to reflect upon our own behavior and thoughts, even if the response is negative. Blog posts like this one and podcast episodes are simply one way to expand the discussion to a wider audience.

Please add to the discussion of sexism in archaeology. If you have any questions or comments, write below or send me an email.


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