How to be an ally—an example

I want to tell you a story about how a white man in a position of power used his white male seniority for good.  It was not a huge thing—there was no marching on the streets, no boycotts, no petitions—but it made a great deal of difference to this junior-level woman.

I am a graduate student in a university department that works closely with several other departments, sub-departments, non-profit organizations, and related groups.   It’s very common for emails of professional relevance to go out to all of these groups at once.  (It’s not uncommon for different people to send the same email to everyone, resulting in us all getting the same message about NSF funding three or four times, but that’s another story.)

Last week, one of these out-to-everyone emails stirred up some controversy.  The head of Dept. A decided that the email (about a petition to our national professional society) was overly political and therefore should not be sent over Dept. A’s email list.  This ruling seemed inconsistent with Dept. A’s prior practices, and in the resulting discussion, the head of Dept. A decided to retroactively disapprove of emails that had been sent in the past.

Specifically, the head of Dept. A decided that he was no longer OK with a month-old email that had urged senior employees to take steps against sexual and racial harassment.

After a few more general affirmations from mid-level staff on the importance of diversity and human rights, a different mid-level employee told us we were all being idiots to even care about this, and the email chain went silent.

It hurt.  When the senior people don’t stand up for you, it hurts.  When you’re a woman or other marginalized person in a junior position and the message you hear is “don’t talk about harassment, don’t talk about human rights, don’t talk about diversity”—it hurts.

I waited for someone to say something.  For hours—an eternity in email time—no one did.

I emailed the head of Dept. B, my department, and got back a wishy-washy bureaucratic brush-off.

I guess I wasn’t really that surprised.

Then, almost out of nowhere, the head of Org. C stepped in.  We rarely hear from him; he is one of many white men who hide in the upper floors of our building and are very busy with their own things.   This time, though, he was emphatic.  He pointed out, politely and firmly, that combating sexual harassment was not a political statement and he was very concerned that Dept. A’s new interpretation of the email rules would affect the safety of his colleagues.

I actually cried.  OK, I cry a lot, and had already been crying throughout this incident, but now I was crying out of a huge sense of relief.  Somebody out there has my back.  Somebody in charge actually cares. 

Some might say that the head of Org. C could’ve gone further, that he should’ve stood up for the spirit of human rights and diversity presented in the original email, the one that first set off all the controversy.  I disagree.  Had he done so, I think the arguments would have continued, the point would not have been made so strongly, and the result may not have been as useful.  By choosing to fight for the older email, the one specifically about harassment, he was able to draw a clear, hard, and basically unarguable line that talking about harassment has to be OK.

The head of Org. C was an ally.  He used his status—as a white person, as a man, as a head—to stand up for the rest of us.  It was just an email, and yet it had an enormous effect on my comfort level at the university.

I wrote him a thank-you, not because allies need thank-yous, but because I like thanking people who’ve had an impact on me.  I also think it might help down the line: if he ever has to defend his position, he can say that he heard from grad students about the importance of the issue.

Has anyone been an ally for you lately?  Tell me about it in the comments.

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.