Show me the money: Sexual misconduct after the headlines

Jason Lieb. Christian Ott. Geoff Marcy. Timothy Slater.

Four well-respected scientists, recently outed as having had repeated sexual misconduct violations, often at multiple institutions. Four names that have come out in just a short time, and one wonders who’s next. Because we all know there will be another name. And another name. And another name.

And what about the names we don’t know? The missing stairs? Calling attention to these cases often comes at an incredible personal cost to the women filing reports. That cost — to personal health and safety, to careers, to well-being and livelihoods — is rarely if ever balanced by the repercussions for the person committed the misconduct in the first place. Can we blame women for not coming forward when coming forward is personally risky and has a low likelihood of making a difference?

I’d like to think that this is changing. That the Liebs, Otts, Marcys, and Slaters are sending a message. That the NSF’s recent statement of non-tolerance for harassment will scare universities into doing what Title IX apparently failed to do — prevent sexual misconduct.

I’m a mandatory reporter at my institution. That announcement came without any training or guidance. Having sat through the University’s lengthy sexual harassment webinar, I still don’t have a clear understanding of who to report to if something happens. I have heard horror stories of Title IX coordinators routinely discouraging reporters, and it’s generally understood that Title IX is, in practice, designed more to protect universities than it is to prevent or prosecute sexual misconduct.

The system, cobbled together as it is, feels broken to me at every level. Reporting is often unclear, and the people you report to have a conflict of interest in protecting the university of litigation. Once you do report, you jeopardize your career, and risk being branded a trouble-maker. If you’re a student, jumping ship midway through the trans-oceanic voyage can be tantamount to career suicide. And it’s not like you jump to land on solid ground; that water is full of sharks, frenzying at the first scent of blood in the water.

Because when people do report, we’re terrible to them. We accuse them of being selfish, of having an agenda, of being vindictive, of making it up for attention, or playing a gender card. We call them sluts, whores, bitches, cunts. We harass them, stalk them, bully them, blame them for our team’s bad season or for losing a beloved professor. If you’re a student, there’s a strong likelihood you’ll end up in the same class as your rapist. If you’re a grad student, you may end up blackballed. If you’re a professor, your colleagues and upper administration may retaliate or freeze you out. Who knows what happens to the staff.

And then, over and over again, we see so little justice. Offenders get their wrists slapped. They get suspended. They may, in rare cases, get fired, but even a national social media backlash is not enough to offset three NIH grants, apparently.

So, what do we do? Making reporting easier isn’t enough if you’re reporting to a lawyer at the university (which my Title IX coordinator is) who is more invested in preventing you from suing than giving you support. How can we have any hope that repeat offenders are going to respond to any sanctions at this point?

There’s also a broader issue here, which is one of focus: Why are our policies retroactive? Why aren’t we talking to men about harassment and assault? I’m not talking about the cheesy training videos that people fast-forward or play Solitaire through. I’m talking about conversations, among men, about sexual misconduct? Why aren’t university and society leadership taking a more proactive stance, and coming out publicly and unequivocally against sexual misconduct? Why aren’t men holding each other accountable for this behavior? Why are hiring committees knowingly hiring serial predators? Why aren’t men evaluating their behavior and seeking help if they need it?

Because here’s the thing: I sat down to write a post with some answers. Terry over at Small Pond Science has a lot of questions, too — I stumbled on his post as I was writing mine. And I thought, “Okay, yeah, let’s brainstorm. Let’s figure this thing out. Let’s crowd-source some solutions.”

Except: it’s not my job.

It’s not my job as a junior female academic to figure out how to fix this. I’ve got tenure to earn, and a career to protect. I’ve got papers to write and students to mentor and classes to teach and research to do, and a body to take care of that’s always getting neglected. It’s not my job to make my workplace safer for my students and me, when I didn’t make it unsafe in the first place. It’s not my job to change someone else’s bad behavior, to stop their bad choices, to clean up their messes, or to be proactive about preventing behavior I can’t control.

I want to see department chairs, society presidents, editors-in-chief, deans, and university chancellors deal with this. Write essays, come up with task forces, hire outside consultants, and put all that administrative bloat to good use for a change. Stop talking about diversity like it’s some nebulous ideal, and not a life-and-death issue. Get a damn plan, and implement it. Don’t stop at words. Don’t wait for NSF or NIH to take your toys away. Don’t wait for Buzzfeed or Slate or the New York Times or a social media brigade to embarrass you.

Because we’re naming names, now. If you’re a predator or harboring a harasser, we’re going to find out. That is the reality of the world we live in, where social justice is in the news every day, and this story is not going anywhere any time soon. If you’re in a position of academic leadership, you should be concerned. Because every university– almost every department — has a Lieb, an Ott, a Marcy, or a Slater.

What are you going to do about it?

Show me the money. 

I’ll wait.

16 thoughts on “Show me the money: Sexual misconduct after the headlines

  1. At some level, this is also up to us junior people to stand up and report. Having been blatantly plagiarized by a group of senior men, I also found there was very little I could do, but I decided to report anyway. The report didn’t go far, but at least going through the process may have sent a chill through the offenders spines. Maybe next time, they might think twice when they assume that a junior woman wont react. Will this cost me my career someday? Maybe, but there are other jobs waiting for us and there is always a light at the end of the tunnel. We’ve got PhD’s and we CAN re-invent ourselves if we have to. At least we will know we went down for a worthy cause. I’ve stopped believing that our older colleagues who are tied so deeply in academic structure will do anything. The revolution starts with the seeds😉

    • I agree, but I never blame people for not feeling like they can report. Everybody is going to make that calculation differently based on circumstances. You may be right about our older academic colleagues, but I’m hopeful that if I can get to that stage, I can rock the boat from within!

      • I agree entirely Acclimatrix and indeed didn’t mean to blame those that feel that they can’t report. I do understand what they are feeling: its not easy to step up given all that is at stake.

        • No worries! It’s a complex situation, and a personal one. Our latest guest post is a really good example of that. But as more and more people report, they pave the way for others. Hopefully one day it will be a moot point.

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  3. It’s not solely our job to figure out how to fix this, but there’s no question some of us are unduly burdened/charged in bringing these issues to light. I’m accepting the fact that this kind of activism is part of being a good scientist and professor. The timing can be terrible, there might be unjust damage to our careers, but like Anonymous 8:11 writes, we need to do this, and it’s not like we’ll starve if we lose our jobs. As a junior professor, I’ve been struck by how many senior professors (of both genders) want to sweep these kinds of problems under a rug. I think this comes from some deep entitlement or expectation that they should only have to be concerned with research. Older women, in my limited experience, can be among the most eager to downplay real or potential harm. Their attitude is obviously adaptive, and it’s so sad and frustrating.

    • Some of us (and our families) may starve, though. That may be a legitimate concern, and I think it’s okay to protect that. I come from a working class background and there is no family safety net for me if I lose my job. I am MY family’s safety net.

      I would never say we should only spend time on research. But I spend a lot of time on diversity issues, both under my “real name” and in writing for this blog. And my male academic colleagues do not have the same opportunity costs. I do expect top-down approaches to dealing with this, and I don’t think that that is unreasonable.

    • “I would never say we should only spend time on research.”

      I know, and I didn’t mean to imply that you had. It’s unquestionably unfair that some of us have to spend more time on these kinds of things. Our actions will slowly promote fairness. I hope others can step up, as you advocate.

      As to starving: Like Anonymous wrote above, I just meant that we can probably get other jobs. (I don’t have a safety net either–I’m actually supporting my mother.) If professional success comes at the expense of perpetuating particularly shameful parts of the status quo, I don’t want it. Ultimately, I’m a consequentialist, so I appreciate arguments that claim we do more good by getting promoted to full/dean/etc. and then changing institutions from on high (especially by doing good research)… but this is obviously a very risky (moral) strategy too.

      • To be clear, I’m not advocating professional success at the expense of perpetuating an abusive status quo when I say “it’s not my job.”

        Supporting and advocating for my students and colleagues are definitely part of my job. I’m talking about the institutional and structural changes that aren’t in my hands to make, and shouldn’t be my job to brainstorm. I sat down to write this post and come up with some concrete answer’s to Terry’s Small Pond Science post, and then I got angry. The most vulnerable among us (and I count myself in the vulnerable category) shouldn’t bear the burden of making our workplaces safe. Asking the upper administration to be accountable is reasonable.

        Would I knowingly harbor a serial rapist or harasser? Absolutely not. But I am very interested in hearing how the upper administration plans to prevent Otts, Marcs, and Liebs from being hired again and again, or funded, or retained in positions.

        Because reporting is retroactive. I’d like us to be thinking about proactive strategies to prevent assault and harassment, too.

  4. The lesson I’m taking home is how absolutely important collaboration of stories has been in the outing of the harassers. One woman, alone, gets pulled under by the sharks, who are out to undermine, and even the minnows, who’d rather believe it isn’t true. That’s a reason why I’ve come to believe that reporting is so important, enough that I do believe there is a moral imperative (well, imperative is too strong a word, let’s just call it a nudge) to report. As long as every person thinks she’s alone, the offenses go on and on.

    For those who are too vulnerable to report (and I know many are) — I suggest transmitting the information — document and collate, contemporaneously. Send it to a friend (maybe someone outside academia). Tell them you can’t do anything about it now, but that you want them to know what happened.

    • Yes, good point. Exactly. I have seen collaboration work in other situations too (either formal reporting or informal discussions about a particular person, student or incident). One person CAN be pulled under: collaboration by several people can make a case that can fly – or at least be noticed.

      On another matter in the original post. It distresses me that there are no clear legal reporting lines – but it does not surprise me. Again, in other situations (eg safety issues), I tried and tried to find out our Institution’s legal position on reporting, and whom to report to, and who was legally responsible – and after 2 summer courses and reading all the safety booklets the Institution provided, I was none the wiser. Neither was the head of department, who was distressed in one instance that he wasn’t informed of a “situation”, and it turned out that the guidelines specified that he didn’t NEED to be informed. So I am not surprised that this lack of clarity in reporting lines occurs in harassment situations too – but as I said, it does distress me that it seems to be so widespread across different institutions and different continents.

      Is this something “we” can do? Can we agitate to have clear reporting lines and clear outcomes to be expected if something is reported? I know it is an administrative nightmare and seems to be time-wasting, but if a procedure can be implemented in one or two places, that can serve as role models for other places, maybe, due to people talking to each other about “what happens at my place”…..just a thought.

  5. Your last line “Show me the money” gets right to the heart of why all this social media firestorming will go nowhere. When I have told victims and potential victims on twitter that they should SUE the UNIV SUE the harasser or in the case of things that were really sexual assaults report it to the cops. What did I hear?

    It is too onerous to ask women to go to court. (Hello we have three current supreme court justices who are women. )
    The punishment would be too much (Really I thought the guy in question tried to touch your special place.)
    It is misogynist to say that women should need to go to court to get more than suspension and firing of harassers, a title IX investigation is as good as court. Why can’t you all just believe us an hang the man? (Ok the last sentence is an overstatement but the rest is true).

    The harsh reality is if the victims of sexual harassment in academia want redress they have to SUE IN COURT. Only the legal system can make lasting changes, protect the victims, potential victims, and the rights of the accused to a fair and impartial hearing. Only the courts can impose lasting and painful sanctions in the form of money damages, and even jail time.

    Only the courts can do these things so for the life of me I can’t understand why anyone would not be in favor of lawsuits. The only thing that makes me doubt the accusers in the cases where the facts are contested is their reluctance to be cross examined.

    I am a rape survivor and I did eventually report it the perp went down for something else. I a transgender woman (a “boy in a dress” of sorts at the time) could do that at 14, in 1994. If rape survivors can testify then full grown, mostly white, privileged, well educate women certainly can about someone touching them in appropriately. Something which while bad is nothing in comparison to rape.

    • There are good reasons why a woman may not sue even if she was obviously wronged. She may be blacklisted in her professional circles even if she prevailed in court and as a result she may not get responses when she applies for positions that she may well be qualified for. Also while the courts may “impose lasting and painful sanctions in the form of money damages, and even jail time” that may not compensate for the victims loss of wages and future earnings as a result of being blacklisted. These are things that she has to consider before going the lawsuit route.

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