Academics and Deplorables

As an academic blogger, I hoped to never write the words Donald Trump, but I need to talk about sexual harassment, sexual assault, and the ubiquitous threat that men like Trump and his apologists pose to women’s wellbeing in the workplace and the world. Since the video exploded all over my Twitter feed on Friday evening, I have been troubled by how familiar Trump’s words are to me, and to the many talented women whose work I read on the internet. Kelly Oxford solicited stories of women’s first assaults. The resulting thread is agonizing in its chronicle of casual violence against women and girls.

 

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Anne Helen Petersen pushed back against the tendency of many men to challenged Trump’s definition of “locker room talk” with their own stories of male only spaces where women are respected. As a subtle version of #NotAllMen, this line of argument allows men to ignore their unwillingness to acknowledge or intervene against misogyny.

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And Jessica Valenti wrote perhaps the most poignant statement of all in her column in The Guardian. She says the video is “painful to watch not just because Zucker doesn’t know what was said about her, but because this is what women are afraid of. That the men we know, the men we work with – or even love – say horrible things about us. That despite assurances that they respect us and consider us equals, men are secretly winking behind our back. That we are not really people to them, but things.”

In short, Trump’s gleeful, self-aggrandizing admission of sexual assault is not shocking to me. It is all too familiar. Off the top of my head, I can think of a dozen professional and educational contexts from my childhood to the present where men have said or done horrifically inappropriate things to me. But I want to revisit one instance from my Middle School pre-Algebra class. Avoid that boys will be boys impulse, y’all. Men of all ages move through the world with power and privilege and need to be held accountable for their actions.

I was in seventh grade and taking pre-Algebra. I was relatively new to my school as an army brat who moved every two years or so, but I was starting to make some friends in the class. We had taken a quiz and the teacher was handing it back with a grade. I got a 98% and sheepishly placed the quiz on my desk while my nosy classmates looked over my shoulder. Two boys near me began laughing and asked me if I had given the teacher a blow job to get that grade. This became a running joke for the rest of school year with a growing cadre of participants. In this way, my good math grades became shameful to me. In retrospect, I realize this is the year when I decided I was not good at math, a myth that I kept with me until very recently when I began learning about stereotype threat around STEM for girls. I’m an English professor now, and I teach about stereotype threat in my writing class. We watch Debbie Sterling’s excellent TED Talk about her invention Goldiblox, an engineering tool for girls. It was not until I watched this video that I realized: actually, I am good at math. I finished 2 semesters of College Calculus my senior year of high school. How can I carry around this belief that I can’t succeed in that subject area? I wonder how many women have been sexually harassed out of STEM fields by mediocre men.

I love writing for a blog with a large readership of women scientists, because I get a better sense of what women are up against in male-dominated academic fields. In some ways, I am privileged as a Humanist, but even in a field where the gender balance is more equal, my women colleagues and friends face ubiquitous sexual harassment at their colleges and universities. One of my acquaintances quit her tenure-track job due to sexual harassment. Another had to change dissertation advisors when her chair began relentlessly propositioning her. My point is, Trump’s treatment of women in general, or of Arianne Zucker at her workplace in the video, is not unique to the deplorables. Sexual harassment and assault determine the fields where women pursue their talents, determine our career outcomes, determine our mental and physical health. I hope this election makes academics rethink our comfortable superiority in relation to the mass of Trump supporters and look more deeply at how we got here, and what we are going to do about it.

Guest Post: The Storm Is Coming

Today’s guest blogger, Fernside, is a PhD student in Ecology


This past year has brought an increasing number of highly visible cases of prominent male professors accused of sexual harassment and/or assault. First it was astronomy with Geoff Macy and Timothy Frederick Slater. Then Christian Ott in Astrophysics. In February it was Jason Lieb, molecular biologist at the University of Chicago, and paleoanthropologist Brian Richmond at the Museum of Natural History in New York.

I watch the media storms getting closer and closer to my own discipline and wonder whom it will hit first.

Believe me, in ecology we have stories too. The lack of public stories does not mean we do not have them. For every Geoff Macy or Jason Lieb there are dozens of cases that get hushed up, settled quietly, swept under the rug. And for every formal report that is filed, hundreds of incidents are never reported. They range from a senior male professor physically blocking you in a corner while talking during a departmental happy hour to inappropriate comments about a student/employee’s looks or sexual activity. From the supervisor who stares at his post doc’s breasts during meetings to the guy with wandering hands at conferences and retreats, to attempted rape, to rape, and everything in between. Continue reading

Guest Post: Implementing boundaries as a PI

Graduate school was a rough transition. After college, I struggled to find my footing with the relative lack of structure of a graduate curriculum. The lab I chose for my thesis research turned out to be a powerful source of support that grounded me as I navigated this transition. The incredible group of grad students, post-docs and research technicians in this lab made failed experiments and projects, uncertainty about whether I could be a successful scientist and other struggles more manageable. They also contributed to a fantastic intellectual environment that was utterly rigorous, willing to question accepted scientific premises, pushed members to think critically and deeply about their own projects and celebrated hard-earned scientific accomplishments. This environment seemed to me the best of what science could be and convinced me that if I could, this was what I would want to do as a career.

The lab that I performed my post-doc convinced me that my experience in graduate school was not an anomaly. I joined a young lab, which included one other post-doc, a graduate student and a research technician. I confronted additional failures (an inability to get funding in my first year, dissatisfaction with my project and its progress, difficult conversations with my advisor). However, being able to talk about these issues with the other members, who were experiencing similar challenges, eased any sense that there was something wrong with me and my approach to thinking about and doing science. In addition, as my and other projects in the lab began to blossom, the intellectual excitement and thrill were palpable and cohesive forces.

This emotional reliance on other lab members, people who were usually at somewhat similar life and career stages, became obvious to me when I began staffing my own lab as a PI. I was suddenly aware as PI that I occupied a very different place in the relationships amongst the members of my lab. Continue reading

But what about the collaborations? Going forward after an allegation of sexual misconduct

Today’s post is a follow-up to a recent post by Dr. Rebecca Rogers Ackermann, a Biological Anthropologist at the University of Cape Town. You can read the original post by Dr. Ackermann, detailing her personal experience with harassment in anthropology, here

Since the recent news story broke about sexual misconduct in my discipline, I have been in many conversations with colleagues and students about both this specific case and the issue of sexual misconduct and gender bias more generally.  In one extended email exchange with my colleagues – some of whom are collaborators with the recently accused – we were discussing the best way to move forward with collaborations with someone who has a demonstrated history of sexual misconduct. All agreed that they would not begin new collaborations with such a person.   But the question of what to do with current collaborations – ones where the work is in progress, or the research is completed but remains to be disseminated – raised a diversity of opinions. The primary concern raised by some was a need to keep the science separate from the behaviour, and resist the slippery slope that might result from mixing the two (e.g. do you take action for more minor transgressions or disagreements, or for other misdemeanours?). In this light, one possible route forward has been outlined in a recent blog post by Bernard Wood. Our conversation, and that blog post, resulted in me writing the email that I have copied below.  I have left it in its original form, only making minor edits for clarification and to protect people’s identities. I hope this helps to stimulate further discussion going forward (see also this post by anthropologist Katie Hinde).  This isn’t a settled matter, and we all need to keep talking about it.

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IT IS TIME: My personal journey from harassee to guardian

Today’s guest post is by Dr. Rebecca Rogers Ackermann, a biological anthropologist at the University of Cape Town. Dr. Ackermann’s story accompanies this article, out today in Science.

When I was 15, my high school history teacher asked me out on a date (I declined). In first year as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, I had a graduate student tutor invite me to a party at his flat, and when I (fortunately, and to the tutor’s surprise) showed up with a friend there was no one else there. When I was near graduation the Dean ‘joked’ about how he had assumed I was just there for an “MRS degree”. In second year graduate school at University of Arizona, I went to the office hours of a professor I was taking a course from. He asked me to close the door, then aggressively propositioned me. That same year, my supervisor at that institution grabbed my ass at a conference event. I moved to Washington University in St Louis for my PhD, where I was lucky to have really great, completely professional relationships with my advisors. Then I went into the field. For the very first time I had the pleasure of handling and studying hominin fossils. When photographing a famous one, the professor responsible for access starting photographing me from behind, and commenting on the “light streaming through my golden hair.” As I quickly gathered my things to leave, he blocked the doorway and gave me a juicy ‘goodbye’ kiss. Back in St Louis, a peer of mine told me that at a bar the previous night one of the evolutionary biology professors had engaged in a conversation with the other (male) graduate students about whether they would have sex with me if my husband were watching. Just a few years ago at a conference, a senior male colleague told me out of the blue that I was “too good looking for my own good.” This is just a sampling of the things that have happened to me in my post-pubescent life that might be construed as sexually inappropriate or sexual harassment. I am certain many people in my field can make a comparable list of their own.

Why didn’t I report any of these incidents? Or confront the deliverers? I have been thinking about this a lot these days in the wake of all of the revelations in science, and given that this question is frequently posed to me and others. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Men: if you really want to support women, take your feminism to eleven

Dear Well-Meaning Feminist Male Friends and Colleagues,

We need to talk about what happened. I’m not talking about the incident when when our co-worker cracked that inappropriate comment at the holiday party, or the faculty meeting where Prof. Curie was asked, again, to take notes, or when that high-profile Nobel laureate said something really offensive at his talk. Remember the other day, when that guy started yelling abusive language, got up in my face, threw some sexist slurs my way, and wouldn’t back down? It was a situation that could have easily escalated, but didn’t. I was glad you were with me afterwards. The glass of water, the cookie, the comforting words, the advice on how to handle it with HR — those were all really helpful. Thank you. But that’s not the part I want to talk about.  Continue reading