Recently I was at the periphery of a conversation in which women, in a completely different field than mine, were talking about an experience one had during an interview, during which inappropriate comments were made. While completely sympathetic, another woman said: “You were lucky you weren’t at University X, where it would have been much worse.” That conversation and recent events in the online science community got me thinking about how often these quiet confidences are exchanged.
While I have only heard a few stories of sexual harassment or assault in my field, I’m not naïve enough to think that I’m in the one profession in the entire world that is entirely populated by people who behave appropriately at all times. So it seems like only a matter of time before I hear a story, or stories, that hit close to home professionally…before I hear a story where I have to ask myself “What do I do now? Now that I have this knowledge that I can’t unknow about the unacceptable behavior of someone in my field, what do I do?”
Let me make clear a couple of assertions that undergird my thoughts. First, the instance of “false positive” harassment accusations is vanishingly small, so there is absolutely no reasonable excuse to doubt the story I hear. Second, the number of harassers is (hopefully) reasonably small, but the number of women who have experienced is overwhelmingly large, and given that I will never hear most of the stories of harassment and assault, there is no reasonable expectation that someone who has been named as a harasser was “just having a bad day” or that it was a “one-off thing,” even if he is “a good guy.” Basically, if I hear one story, I can take it to be true and know that there are likely to be others involving the same person.
Below I’ve tried to talk myself through a range of hypothetical scenarios to prepare myself for that unfortunate day when I need to figure out what to do. I’m nowhere near sure I’ve got good answers for any of these scenarios, so I’d welcome them as jumping off points for discussion in the comments.
Very often, women quietly tell their stories without naming their harassers. They have good reasons for not wanting to name the harassers, and as a listener, my role is to offer unconditional support (see here and here for how to do this, but shorter: don’t rationalize or make excuses, don’t minimize, don’t “solve” the problem). I can offer options, including filing a formal complaint, but I shouldn’t tell her what to do. That would be a complete violation of the unconditional support I’m trying to offer.
If I was told the name of the harasser, as a faculty member at a university, if either the victim or harasser is a student, staff, or faculty of the university, I have a legal responsibility to report the behavior to the Title IX coordinator on campus. Somehow, I’d have to try to walk the tightrope of that legal responsibility and my goal of unconditionally supportingthe woman who confided in me, recognizing that those two things might be at odds. Reporting sexual harassment or assault is often a very long, damaging process for the victim, and the investigative process can be more about protecting the university than about helping the victim. The intent though is to keep the harasser from attacking other women, which is I think the goal of the required reporting. It would be lovely if there were a way that the victim could be empowered to choose whether she wants to go through the process, and for the system to prevent other attacks even if the victim chooses not to participate in the investigation, but I don’t think we’ve come up with that system yet.
But I might hear a story involving someone who isn’t at my university, but with whom I or my students might interact at a conference or another venue. My goal of supporting the woman who told me her story would be coupled with an intense desire to keep any women in my sphere of influence away from the named harasser, in order to keep more women from being harmed. At a minimum, I would not be alone in a room/at a bar/at a cafe with him. I would not allow my female students to be alone in a room/bar/cafe with him. In the situation where I knew that a woman was about to head off alone with him, I would attempt to maneuver in such a way as to prevent that from happening, either by going with them or attempting to distract or dissuade her from going.
I feel fairly confident in the reasonableness of all I’ve written above (but you can tell me I’m wrong in the comments). What I’m struggling with is what my ethical responsibilities are to women who are outside of my sphere, but who might end up in a position to be victimized by someone I know to be a bad actor not at my university. What do I do, for instance, if I know that the harasser is in a position to chair a search committee or advise female graduate students or post-docs?
This seems really gray to me, and, for now (until you give me better ideas to ponder), here’s what I’m thinking. If I heard one story about a harasser, I would heighten my alertness for other signs of trouble. I know there are probably other stories, but I don’t know them yet, and I may never know them. But my job of supporting the person who told me the story and letting them decide whether and how to report it, greatly exceeds any responsibility I might feel to “solve the problem.”
But what if I hear more than one story about the same person? What if I’m hearing about a pattern of behavior that is unacceptable and repeated? Do my ethical responsibilities change when multiple victims go from probable to definite? I think they do, especially given that I am always going to be hearing an under-count of the true episodes of harassment.
In the case of hearing multiple stories about the same harasser, I think I would try to discretely find out if action had been or was being taken by the university where the bad actor was employed or a student. If it sounded like the university was in the dark and nothing had been reported, then I feel like I have a responsibility to report that exceeds my responsibility to be a good supporter of any individual who had experienced harassment. I don’t know what would happen if I called up another University’s Title IX coordinator and gave them second hand information about one of their faculty members or students. Maybe nothing, but at least I would have tried to protect women who I might never meet. Maybe it would turn into a long, awful process that produces no results. Maybe my intention would be good, but my impact bad. I could be really screwing this up.
In the end, this is all analysis that I hope like hell I never need to put into action. But if I do, I hope that thinking it through ahead of time, and discussing it with you wise folk, will give me a place to start when it gets real and I have to take actions that matter. I have a fervent wish that we, as an academic community and as society more broadly, can move past these conversations of “how do we respond” to how do we reduce, eliminate, and make a relict of the past any form of sexual harassment and discrimination in academia. We can talk about those things now too, but as recent conversations have reminded me, the dark is still very in need of responses.