Dismantling a culture of discrimination

Many of us have been part of a department that contained problematic faculty with obvious gender biases against women. If you have been lucky, those faculty members have been in the minority and not in a position of significant influence in the department (i.e. Chair, Dean). Of course, even one sexist person in a position of power over students is problematic. One-on-one sexist communication between faculty and female students can negatively affect students’ performance and mental health. Just as important is the example such faculty present for others in the department. If newer faculty and students see others get away with sexist behavior, it’s more likely to be seen as acceptable and even sanctioned. This perpetuates the problem, and creates departments that have a culture of discrimination. In those departments we can’t just wait for the problem to disappear with time as older faculty retire. Some fields are more likely than others to have individuals and departments with gender bias problems – STEM fields are particularly problematic – but these issues are in no way field specific. Any department that houses a culture of discrimination is less likely to attract, nurture, and graduate female students.

Since I started my faculty position last year I have been mentally cataloging sexist instances (both hostile and benevolent) that I’ve experienced, witnessed, or heard about secondhand. As a mentor and role model I see part of my job as doing what I can to make my college a place where women are treated equally and fairly. I have been brainstorming with colleagues how to push back against a culture of discrimination present in one particular department. It has been challenging to think of meaningful steps that we as untenured women faculty in male-dominated departments could achieve to make a difference in our students’ lives.

In the process of brainstorming and talking with other professors, HR, and other people in academia, we’ve talked about some ways forward in changing departmental culture.

  • Encouraging women who have experienced specific, actionable instances of sexual discrimination or harassment to come forward. Administrators can’t act on hearsay. Of course, the issue with this is that ultimately there may be a ‘trial’, which can be stressful and embarrassing for the student. This can be a particularly large problem when a student needs letters of recommendation from other faculty in the department or from committees. Most students prefer to just get through the class or program and move on with their lives.
  • Developing a portfolio of evidence that there is a problem. We are working with human resources to develop anonymous surveys that would allow us to quantify the extent of the problem. One problem with this strategy is if we don’t get a high response rate it will be quite easy for the naysayers to say that the survey takers don’t speak for most of the students. We’ve also thought about having recent alumni file letters of complaint after they have successfully moved on to a job or graduate school.
  • Requiring sexual harassment/discrimination training. Our institution has no discrimination or harassment training, whereas my previous academic institutions have required yearly online lessons. I’m not sure these do much good, but perhaps they are better than nothing?
  • Developing professional development opportunities. We are planning to organize lectures and workshops to engage faculty in a discussion about these issues. With the support of the Dean, who can suggest attendance by all faculty, perhaps we can even reach those who most need to be thinking about these issues, rather than just preaching to the choir.

In the interim, how can we work within or around problem departments or individuals? We’ve thought about reducing the likelihood that problem faculty interact with the most vulnerable students (freshman and sophomores) or are the primary advisor for female students. Of course, this is basically a reward for bad behavior – not having to teach introductory classes and not having to advise students. At a more personal level as advisors we can gently nudge students away from problem sections or classes whenever possible.

Another critical piece of the puzzle is to provide a safe space for students to talk about discrimination and harassment they have experienced on campus. When I arrived at my institution, the first thing I looked for was a local chapter of one of the groups focused on issues of women in academia, such as the American Association of University Women or the Association for Women in Science. I had a positive experience in one such group in graduate school, and I highly recommend them for students and faculty that would like to talk about issues they’ve experienced. They can also provide a great place to brainstorm potential solutions. Our institution had nothing of the sort, so we have been developing one of our own, starting by organizing some informal meetings to see if there is a need and interest. I’ll write about the complexities, successes, and pitfalls of that process in a future post.

I’d like to hear from all of you – what are some solutions or work-abounds for problem individuals or departments? How do we best support students and peers that have experienced harassment or discrimination at our academic institutions?


9 thoughts on “Dismantling a culture of discrimination

  1. +1 for safe spaces to discuss possible harassment cases. Rare is the student (or post-doc, or junior faculty member, or lab tech, or etc) who is knowledgeable enough about the system and confident enough in her- or himself (sexual harassment can happen to men too!) to report an instance without support. Having someone in the work environment validate your experience and help you brainstorm ideas is really, really important, and without at a minimum the promise of confidentiality, many would be scared to seek that support.

    My department does, I think, an average job at this, in that I have a good idea of who I could go to if anything happened, but this is not the case even across my university — a good friend of mine ended up in a really terrible situation where the “graduate harassment officer” had to refuse to take her case because of a conflict of interest (and did not suggest an alternate person she could approach), and the department forbid her from discussing the matter outside of the department. Between that the person she was having the problems with was threatening to ruin her reputation in the field if she told anyone at all what had happened, she dropped the issue, and is, in fact, currently still working with said person.

    Also, on the student level — students, talk to other students! Faculty, encourage your students to talk to other students! By the time you’ve been a year or two or three in a department, particularly a small department, you know of all of the red flags, and students are always happy to share gossip. (Trust me. We know everything.)

    • your friend needs to contact the Dean of Graduate Studies immediately- she should be able to talk the him/her confidentially and decide if she wants to pursue something officially. Her department has no standing to tell hernot to talk to anyone outside the department- shameful! She needs to use terms that indicate that she is being harassed and her work environment is hostile. If she has any ability to talk to a lawyer, she sould do so as well.

  2. Yes, group discussions work – but I’m wondering if the people who need it would attend a discussion if it were advertised as discussing discrimination. I had a very positive meeting once, where it was just coincidental that only women were present (it was a workshop for grad students about TA matters). The topic of discrimination and harassment just came up, and the discussion that followed was very powerful for all of us. So maybe, this topic should be put on the agenda in other meetings designed to foster women in STEM, and then more – or dfferent – people (women) may attend who would not otherwise put themselves forward.

  3. Thank you for going beyond characterizing the issue, and offering some solutions.

    My graduate department did a terrible job of (1) protecting trainees from retaliation for reporting misconduct, and (2) holding faculty and staff accountable for misconduct.

    I’ve seen junior female scientists experience sexual harassment, sexual assault, data theft, having authorship taken from them by advisors *after* they’ve done all of the data analysis and the paper has been drafted, etc.

    These women lost papers, data, advisor references, and credibility. They lost time (to whatever judicial process there was), and experienced retaliation (immediate termination, blocked collaborations, etc.). I can’t think of one case where a student or trainee had a positive outcome, having approached their department or ombudsperson for help.

    And the faculty? They suffer some embarrassment and stress when an ombudsperson or the department chair asks them for their side of the story. But beyond that, business (and in some cases misconduct) has carried on as usual. Even in the sexual assault case, the person was banned from the field station where it occurred, but continued receiving promotions, grants, etc. at his home institution.

    It sends the message that the students/postdocs have everything to lose by coming forward, that under no circumstances will the outcome be positive, and that the department is going to stand by its faculty (so long as they’re bring in grants and high profile publications).

    What could make the situation better?
    (1) The responsibility of seeing the judicial process through to the end should be on the university, not on trainees.
    (2) A formal process for handling complaints should be invoked from the beginning, overseen by someone outside the department (no conflicts of interest) who has the authority to hold faculty and staff accountable. This makes it harder for the advisor (or the department) to pressure the student to drop the complaint before there’s a record of it, via implications of retaliation, and gives the student hard documentation of their complaint from the start.
    (3) Universities should share records of complaints if staff members move. (In a couple of cases, a lack of records and communication prevented each new institution from learning of prior misconduct.) One or two complaints can be chalked up to poor fit and miscommunication, but if a pattern of problems emerges, action can be taken.
    (4) Consequences for misconduct should have teeth. Otherwise students and staff alike see that people “get away with” misconduct.
    (5) Universities should have policies and a small pool of independent funds to protect trainees (e.g. trainees with complaints shouldn’t be terminated or lose their salary or visas until there’s been a judicial process). Having independent funds protects trainees (in legitimate cases) and protects the advisor’s research funds (in cases where the complaints aren’t credible).
    (6) Tenured faculty across institutions should communicate. In several of these situations, trainees later learned that established people in their field knew of previous cases of misconduct, but kept the information to themselves. Having seen the cost of that discretion, in the form of derailed promising careers, it seems like such a pity. In clubby academia, even tenured faculty don’t want to make enemies, sure. But if even they won’t speak out for fear of backlash, what can we really expect of the students and postdocs themselves?

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