A female instructor has had conflict with a much younger male co-instructor and has complained to her chair and associate chair about what she experienced as sexist and other difficult behavior. When the new schedule for the following year again has her paired with the same co-instructor, she asks for a different assignment. The entire message is very short, basically, "Oh, please don't pair me again with X. He's an uncooperative young male. You said you'd pair me with Y." Y is also a much younger male, only slightly older than X. She's worked with Y in the past and it's clear she likes him.

Unfortunately, instead of replying only to the associate chair, she accidentally reply-alls to the entire department. She apologizes to the department a few minutes later for copying everyone on what was intended as "a private response". In a private email to the associate chair a few hours later, she makes clear she's complaining about gender bias, that she believes her co-instructor disrespects her in part because she's a woman. (Complaining about gender bias is a protected activity in the US, meaning, e.g., it can't be used as a reason for an "adverse employment action" like denying promotion.)

Most recipients of the reply-all did not know about the previous complaints. The chair and associate chair both knew about the complaints. Only the associate chair also knew about the later email.

A few hours later, the promotion committee begins discussion of her major review, leading up to a vote on her contract and possible promotion. The unfortunate reply-all is discussed and some of the members express shock. Only the chair and associate chair are aware of the previous complaints and neither reveals that information. To the contrary, the chair uses it in his words as an "opening" to argue she was involved in lots of conflict and that questions of who "instigated" the disagreements should "explicitly" be set aside, remarking, "We're really not trying to adjudicate any of the disagreements." So, different people knew different things. In a split vote, the review fails. (Months later, everything becomes more widely known.)

Was it appropriate to discuss the reply-all and did that taint the process? To answer, you may need to decide if it was a protected complaint about a gender bias or perhaps something else, and whether the chair and/or associate chair should have disclosed the previous complaints or the follow-up email declaring it to be a complaint about gender bias.


5 Answers 5


Edit: The question has been modified 19 times so far.

How important is it to know about the previous complaints and the later email to be able to decide she was probably complaining about sexist behavior?

If you are a member of the department who receives an email like this, it is not important because the whole situation is none of your business.

would you likely regard her characterization of her co-instructor as an "uncooperative young male" as a merely an unflattering description, a personal attack, unprofessional, a protected activity, or perhaps something else?

I would describe the inclusion of the words "young" and "male" as both bigotry. Bigotry is unprofessional. Imagine how people would react if the email said "It is fun to teach with this cooperative young male." The implication seems inappropriate.

Complaining that someone's behavior is sexist is fine. Implying that someone's behavior sexist because they are young or male is wrong.

You did not ask, but my advice to the female instructor would be:

  • Apologize for mentioning the other instructor's age and gender in that way.
  • Pursue complaints about sexist behavior, difficult behavior, and teaching assignments through university policy or legal mechanism.
  • Carefully consider the risk of libel/slander accusations before making public complaints.
  • 11
    "Young males are not a protected class." Bigotry is bigotry even if it's legal. May 30, 2022 at 15:03
  • 13
    @NicoleHamilton drawing attention to a colleague's age and gender clearly indicates some kind of bigotry, since it shouldn't really matter whether he is young or male. Implying that all, or even most/many people of similar age and gender demonstrate similar behaviors is bigotry as well. The fact that this particular age/gender combination doesn't usually face gender bias doesn't make this any less biased.
    – Esther
    May 30, 2022 at 15:29
  • 6
    "men don't generally face bias from women." Not true. Try being male and applying for a job in child care. "one is a protected class and the other is not" Not true under US federal law. eeoc.gov/employers/small-business/… "connecting up his uncooperative behavior to a gender bias sometimes seen in young males?" That's bigotry. All sorts of people are prone to gender bias. May 30, 2022 at 15:42
  • 7
    @NicoleHamilton “Young males are not a protected class.” Say what? Age and gender are both protected characteristics, so young males are in the intersection of two protected classes. You seem to be implying that committing two simultaneous and distinct acts of bigotry is somehow less bad than committing just a single act. Care to clarify what you meant?
    – Dan Romik
    May 30, 2022 at 16:14
  • 6
    @NicoleHamilton "Protected class" is a legal term, not a set of people you can't be rude to. May 30, 2022 at 17:24

Edit: the answer below answers OP’s original question, which she has now edited, clarifying that the actual main question of interest is substantially different than what was originally posted. My original answer now appears to be less relevant, but I’m leaving it up since it may still contain some useful insights.

Original answer:

I have been a witness to many embarrassing situations stemming from someone’s unintended use of “reply all”. I have often thought that the prevalence of such incidents is largely due to the poor design of email software that should make it more difficult to send emails via reply all. So perhaps we should point the finger of blame where it rightly belongs: software designers. :-)

That being said, there is an aspect of the instructor’s behavior that would be unprofessional even if she had sent the email as a private message. It is never appropriate to imply that a colleague’s gender, age, or combination of gender and age, or combination of gender and age together with certain personality traits, is a valid reason for not wanting to work with the colleague. So, complaining about a colleague for being “uncooperative” is fine. (And complaining about a colleague’s sexist or harrassing behavior, if that’s what she meant, is also perfectly legitimate of course, if she indeed experienced such behavior.) But complaining about an “uncooperative young male” is unprofessional, either in a private message or a public one.

I wish for your instructor female to find a way to move on from this incident. I wish for all of us to be more tolerant of slight human mistakes and transgressions (and I say this as someone who has said some embarrassing things myself on occasion, as I’m sure everyone has), more willing to apply the principle of charity and give people the maximum benefit of the doubt about their intentions being good, and less quick to judge others and cast blame.

But in order to move on, I think it’s important to recognize the facts and not seek shelter in denial and excuse-making. The instructor’s choice of words was unfortunate and wrong, and she would do well to acknowledge that fact when dealing with the aftermath, rather than defend her behavior with the claim (even if it’s a correct claim) that the email was “intended as a private measage”.

  • But has she implied that the reason she doesn't want to work with X is gender and age? Both X and Y are much younger males but she likes one, not other. So isn't it more likely she's commenting on the combination of uncooperative and young male, that as she declares later, she's complaining about gender bias? If you think it's a complaint about gender bias, I can see why she should still apologize for the accidental reply-all, which she did. But why should she apologize for the complaint? Women have to apologize when they complain of gender bias? May 30, 2022 at 18:24
  • 4
    @NicoleHamilton I didn’t say she should apologize. She can do whatever she wants, I’m merely providing feedback on your question about whether the language in the email was unprofessional. Yes, it was. Generally I stand with any woman who steps forward to complain of gender bias, but that doesn’t logically imply that the way this particular woman expressed her complaint was appropriate and not itself tainted by bias. Two wrongs don’t make a right etc. Just because you have a valid complaint doesn’t mean you have free license to ignore norms of conduct we are all bound by.
    – Dan Romik
    May 30, 2022 at 18:51
  • Can it be considered in the promotion discussion? If it is a factor in the outcome, does that taint the outcome? May 30, 2022 at 19:04
  • 1
    @NicoleHamilton "But has she implied that the reason she doesn't want to work with X is gender and age? " taken at face value, yes, the email does imply that. "But why should she apologize for the complaint?" is anyone saying she should? If an apology was necessary it would not be for the complaint but for the wording of the complaint and the accidental reply-all. I don't think it would be necessary though. May 30, 2022 at 19:33
  • 2
    @NicoleHamilton oh dear. She should get a lawyer ASAP. This is getting way above my pay grade, or above the pay grade of academia.se. Of course it would be in her interest to argue that this was retaliation. Whether she can argue that successfully, I can’t say.
    – Dan Romik
    May 30, 2022 at 19:37

My first impressions are that it had something to do with gender (and by extension gender bias). This is for two reasons:

  • If details aren't necessary, they won't be given. If the focus of the phrase is on 'uncooperative', then 'young' and 'male' would not be necessary. In the same vein, this is why the phrase is 'uncooperative young male' and not 'uncooperative young human male with a height of [1.8 meters] and who was wearing [a blue blouse] today'. The fact that 'young' and 'male' are given implies they are important to the context, so this had something to do with either gender or age, possibly both.
  • The fact that the word used is 'male' instead of the more common 'man' implies the gender angle is more probable.

However: since I lack the details to draw any firm conclusions, I am likely to brush the incident off (unless I am the co-instructor, in which case I cannot predict how I will react).

  • 2
    This is correct, but it's unclear what your answer to the question is. May 30, 2022 at 16:15
  • @AnonymousPhysicist Allure may correct me, but they appear to be saying they would interpret the reply-all characterization as very likely a complaint about gender bias, even without the additional information. May 30, 2022 at 18:31
  • @NicoleHamilton I would understand this answer as exactly the opposite: stating that clearly she is biased against "young males" rather than complaining about gender bias. Specifically, the implication that "young males" are generally biased against females is itself a gender bias.
    – Esther
    May 30, 2022 at 21:58
  • @NicoleHamilton I wouldn't say it is 'very likely', the total odds are probably still against it. It would make me think there is a gender angle, but that's all.
    – Allure
    May 31, 2022 at 2:52

I am a male and I have been in power position. If someone below me, with whom I do not have much personal relation but only professional relation would write me what the complainer wrote, I would think "wow, she wrote this impulsively, she must really feel uncomfortable working with X".

Additionally, I would see a clear try in avoiding offensive expletive words, I would read young as immature and male as sexist ... so the complainer wrote impulsively, but trying to avoid slandering and defamation.

My (not asked) verdict: possible but unlikely bigotry, more likely impulsive writing moderated by 5 seconds thinking, instead of being stopped by overnight thinking.

Sum-up: I think the chair was correct in bringing up the reply all as an evidence of " she was involved in lots of conflict ", but it may be a classic case of "can't see the wood for the trees": if the "median" instructor is a young, narcistic, male chauvinist person, whoever tries to fight back the "median" instructor attitude would come out as a conflictual person.

Necessary reading: Science falling victim to 'crisis of narcissism'

  • Necessary disclaimer: I unfortunately do think that by enforcing gender quota we are just promoting the same narcisistic behavior, just in a feminist flavour. And from narcisistic behavior comes bullying, gang-like behavior. We may realize with great pain that the gender discrimination (specifically male vs female) is only a consequence of certain psychological traits, not the driver ...
    – EarlGrey
    Jun 1, 2022 at 7:58

The questions asked are not about the contents of the email reply but rather

Was it appropriate to discuss the reply-all and did that taint the process?

Hard to tell. A candidate's professionalism matters when making personnel decisions, and the language in the reply-all suggests some doubt (not much in my eyes). So perhaps discussing it in the meeting was appropriate.

But if it is to be discussed then the whole history should be known. That didn't happen.

Did the discussion taint the process? I can't offer a legal opinion. Nor can I tell from the data in the question whether the discussion switched votes in the split decision.

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