Let’s talk about sexual harassment in academia

[Content note: In addition to the potentially triggering nature of the topic at hand, I’m probably going to curse a lot.]

It’s been in my news feed again.  Two cases of sexual harassment by professors—one recently at Caltech, another a decade ago in Arizona—came out in the same week.  Both were in the same field—astronomy—that was shaken last fall by the news that a prominent professor at UC Berkeley had been harassing women for years.  All of this, of course, spawned a flurry of pieces about “the sexual harassment problem in astronomy,” as though it’s something that’s contained to one distasteful little community that hasn’t caught up with the 21st century.

So let’s get one thing out of the way before we go any further:

Sexual harassment isn’t limited to any one field.  It isn’t just astronomy.  It’s anthropology.  It’s physics.  It’s philosophy.  It’s everywhere.  This happens all the time, people.  All the time.

It happens outside the academic world too, of course, because people suck and society isn’t nearly as enlightened as it likes to think.  But the way careers are structured in academia makes those lower on the hierarchy particularly susceptible: students and postdocs are typically supervised by a single advisor, and their careers depend on that advisor’s good word and networking connections.  While it may be hard to quit a regular job and find a new one when your boss is an asshole, it’s nigh on impossible to do so in academia.

One more preliminary note:

People of any gender can harass people of any gender.  However, I’m going to use pronouns that assume the harasser is male and the harassed is female.  Why?  Because that’s what all the recent examples have been.  And because loads and loads and loads of studies have shown that that’s the most common scenario.  And because the societal response to sexual harassment stories tends to be very gender-biased.

That response is one of the things I want to talk about, actually.  This next point is addressed to men in general, and particularly to men who want to not be assholes:

Dudes, you have to stop getting defensive.  (Or, as Hope Jahren puts it, calm the fuck down.)  When a story comes out about a male professor sexually harassing a bunch of students, that’s not an attack on you.  If you take it like it’s an attack on you, what you’re actually saying is that you would prefer to continue telling sexist jokes and hitting on your underlings and generally not having your power threatened in any way.  When you say, “Enough of talking about this, let’s get back to research,” what you’re really saying is that you’re an asshole.

“But I’m not an asshole!” you might say.  “I’m just worried that I’m going to say something that gets taken the wrong way!”

No.

Are you sticking your hand up grad students’ skirts?

Are you holding meetings at strip clubs?

Do you tell your underlings they would teach better without underwear?

(All of the above are real examples from the three recent cases in astronomy.)

It’s not about innocent actions being misinterpreted.

We all know that there are a fair number of people in academia who are socially awkward, and that people sometimes unintentionally say things that can be taken the wrong way.  New flash: women can be awkward and nerdy too!  We get it!  When we talk about ending sexual harassment, we don’t mean kicking you out because you complimented us on our shirt that one time.  If you read the cases linked above, these are all people who persisted in creepy, manipulative, intentional behavior for years.  They were all told—often multiple times—that their behavior was inappropriate.  They were also all found, after full investigations by their universities, to have violated campus policies.  They got due process.  They’re already swimming in the benefit of the doubt.  Nobody owes them any more.

Another thing that seems to get men all up in arms is the belief that anti-harassment policies will cramp their dating style.  Here’s a hint, dudes: if your dating strategy constitutes sexual harassment, you are doing it wrong.  I can speak from experience on this—I managed to date and marry someone in my field without anyone being creepy or anyone getting harassed.  I know quite a few grad students who’ve dated other grad students, in their own departments and elsewhere.  And heck, I think half the faculty in my department are married to each other.  So go ahead, have relationships, fall in love.  Just don’t be a fucking jerk about it.  Don’t feel like you’re entitled to women’s attention, or that you have a right to keep making flirty comments if someone asks you to stop.  And definitely don’t try to date your students.

Whew.  OK.  Moving on.

A lot of the narratives about sexual harassment in the news of late proclaim that we are making progress.  That we are going to Stop The Harassment from here on out.  “Astronomers are finally doing something about sexual harassment,” proclaimed The Atlantic in a piece that came out, rather ironically, a week before the latest two cases were revealed.  I suppose the academic world has made some progress—we’re actually talking about this stuff.  There exist offices at universities to whom one can report issues.  But…

Departments aren’t doing anywhere near enough.  In the sexual harassment cases at Berkeley and Caltech, there were great big shining fat red flags that were ignored.  Over the course of seven years at Caltech, the professor in question had graduated just two PhD students.  Which is maybe not that odd, given how long PhDs take to complete, except for the fact that nine students had started working in his group and then left.  Some report that they left because he was a jerk; others were “fired” (which isn’t a normal thing at the PhD level).  Even without any of the sexual harassment, the man was clearly a terrible advisor.  And yet he got tenure.

At Berkeley, the situation was even worse.  Students reported multiple instances of harassment to the department chair back in 2005 and were waved off; a year later, they tried complaining at the university level and were ignored.  Even when the university finally did get its act together and do an investigation, the results of that investigation were kept under wraps.  It wasn’t until BuzzFeed broke the story months later that the man was actually asked to resign.

I know of many more cases like this, some because they’ve been shared publicly, some because they’ve been spoken by people I know.  For all the hype about how prestigious it is to be a university professor, departments do an awfully shitty job of getting rid of people who don’t deserve to be there.  It often seems like the powers that be don’t give a damn about junior people.  They certainly don’t listen to us.

(Why yes, I am bitter about this.  I have thankfully not had any personal experience with sexual harassment, but I have had the lovely experience of working for an advisor who was absolute crap at their job and yet got promoted anyway.  Meritocracy, my foot.)

To wrap this up, I’d like to make a point about how this fits into the bigger picture of women in science.  Which is to say, it’s only one part of the story.

Sexual harassment isn’t the only thing driving women out of science. (And math, and tech, and various other traditionally male fields.)  Not that it isn’t a big problem.  If you think of the “leaky pipeline” metaphor for women in STEM, sexual harassment is like someone chopped off a fire hydrant and now water is just spraying everywhere into the street.  You’ve got to cap that off or all of your other efforts to fix leaks are useless.

But all the other leaks are still there.  Regular ol’ sexism is still there.  The whole structure of an academic career, which expects you to be unattached and willing to work 80 hours a week, or else have a stay-at-home spouse who doesn’t mind your long hours and is willing to move around the country (or world) with you every few years, is still there.  Imposter syndrome is still there.  If you write an article talking about how sexual harassment is The Thing keeping women out of science, then you are wrong.

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