Monday, February 17, 2014

Sexual Harassment: A Call to Shun


Some months back, I came face-to-face with one of the astronomy community’s most notorious sexual harassers. There I was, minding my own business, making my way through the coffee line, when BOOM! He turned around, and there was no escape. I’ve known about him for years, listened with sympathy to the stories from his victims, trying to figure out how to help. I understood the damage he had done to the vulnerable young astronomers who found themselves in his sights. I’ve talked to CSWA, AAS council members, and his university/laboratory/institution colleagues about what to do and how to stop him. I always come away empty – he’s too powerful, too popular, and too successful.

People had told me that he was charming, and he started working it as I got my coffee. I could feel the waves of it rushing over me – and it made me angry. This is what his victims faced, I realized. How are we ever going to stop him?

I refused to smile, my jaw set and my body rigid. I was strong in the face of the charm offensive, but he wouldn’t just leave it be and walk away. Instead, he doubled down.

“How do I know you?” he asked.

I’d like you to know me as the woman who helped expose your crimes, I thought, but I didn’t say that aloud.

“CSWA,” I replied, and recognition dawned.

“You’re famous!” he exclaimed.

He started complimenting me on the work of CSWA, on the success of the AASWOMEN newsletter, and the good job we were doing. I ignored the chatter. A retort was bubbling up from my unconscious. As it reached my lips, I couldn’t hold it back.

“And you’re infamous!” I replied.

Could I detect the slightest bit of shock in his eyes, or was that just wishful thinking?

After the encounter was over, I second guessed myself, wondering if I had wasted an opportunity to make a more powerful statement. If I hadn’t been taken by surprise or if I were faster on my feet or if I were more clever by half, could I (would I?) have done something different? I’ve thought a lot about this since the encounter, and I keep coming back it an item published in the AASWOMEN newsletter on April 1, 2011. The title was, “Sexual Harassment: A Call to Shun,” and it was submitted by Caty Pilachowski, professor at Indiana University, former president of the AAS, and former chair of CSWA. The item began, “There is a relevant post by Scott Jaschik in the March 30 issue of ‘Inside Higher Ed’ about sexual harassment in the field of philosophy.” Here are the first few paragraphs of the article:
Let's say there is a scholar in your field who is known to harass women. Maybe you witnessed an incident. Maybe you heard from friends who were his victims. Maybe you heard from friends of friends. The person is known (among women at least) as someone to avoid, but he continues on in a professorship at a top university, serving on influential editorial boards, turning up on the programs of all the right conferences.
If the man has never been convicted by a judicial body or punished by a university (at least not that you know of), is this just a case of "innocent until proven guilty"? Or does this suggest disciplinary negligence – or tolerance of serial harassment.
That is the question being debated this week by philosophers as a series of blogs and websites have responded to an online project in which women in philosophy have shared stories of the bias and harassment they have experienced. The stories are anonymous, but the philosophers who have taken up the cause say that the accounts ring true, and that they personally know of many similar cases. And a number of philosophers are now calling for some form of shunning to take place -- for scholars to take a stand by refusing to interact with or honor those of their colleagues who have reputations for being harassers. These philosophers charge not only that harassment is widespread, but that departments and colleges have looked the other way, and that the problem includes some of the top figures in the field today.
I encourage you to read the whole article, which is excellent, but I want to jump to the suggestion about what I could have done (and what you might still do if you ever find yourself in the same situation) if I had had the chance to ponder the situation before the encounter. The author makes a strong case for a good old fashioned shunning:
Mark N. Lance, a professor of philosophy at Georgetown University and one of the authors of the post, said in an interview that he is advocating the use of shunning. He said that over 25 years of teaching philosophy, he has become "completely disillusioned" with the way colleges handle complaints. Before coming to Georgetown, he saw a case in which he had direct evidence of the accusations being "open and shut," but the professor received only "a slap on the wrist." 
It's time, he said, for philosophers to take a stand against "the many people in the profession believed by wide numbers of people to have engaged in horrible behavior on repeated occasions." 
Lance said that "of course" one has to be careful about believing unsubstantiated rumors. But he noted that what he and his colleagues are calling for isn't sending anyone to jail. "Five women tell you roughly the same thing they have experienced. Maybe that's not enough to convict someone in a court, but it strikes me as perfectly reasonable grounds to think someone is behaving badly. I think if such a person walks up to you, you can say, 'I'm sorry, but I don't talk to people who behave the way you do.' " 
Added Lance: "We make judgments on far less -- we decide that so and so is an asshole and you wouldn't want to invite him to your dinner party." Why are such people honored at gatherings of scholars? he asked.
'I don't talk to people who behave the way you do.'

I could imagine myself saying these words. They seem appropriate for an encounter like mine, which took place at a professional meeting in the coffee line with colleagues nearby but not necessarily within earshot. I cannot imagine myself making a scene. I do not think it would have been appropriate to thrust my palm in his face (like the cartoon above) and declare boldly, “You have done serious damage to the lives and careers of countless young women. I shun you.” Such a display might not be right for me, but what about you? What would you do if you came face-to-face with one of astronomy’s sexual harassers?

6 comments:

photon said...

Joan, I really admire you and how you handled this situation.

On the other side of this, how do you get out the word that certain astronomers are harassers? How do you put the "bell on the cat", so to speak? (Especially the ones who think they're great feminists and yet are the embodiment of entitlement and patriarchy?)

Anonymous said...

Yes, naming and shaming is a risky, dangerous business, particularly for vulnerable young professionals.

But the grapevine is also completely inadequat: I have no idea who you are talking about in your anecdote, and no way to find out. And I'm decently connected to the grapevine---generally the more vulnerable an astronomer is, the less access she (or he) will have to the necessary information.

-J

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with the previous anonymous poster.... I was unaware there were any well-known sexual harassers in astronomy! However, I agree that any official kind of rumor mill for disseminating such information would be equally inappropriate, unless there was some official process of conviction and judgement involved. At the same time, if people know of seriously serial harassers, I suspect a lot of the time people will not say anything about it to avoid sounding "gossipy".

Mireille said...

From your description, I can feel that this guy is my Dr Charming.

I'm cute, female, young and will improve his publication output better than any radical feminist if he picks me as his postdoc.

Anonymous said...

We talked a bit about this, and some of the ideas listed on the Astronomers facebook page, and had an idea.

Based on the suggestion of giving people in the AAS the ability to become an #ally, and part of a group who get to wear the ally tag. Since some of the worst perpetrators fancy themselves "allies" who are anything but, so what about implementing a sponsorship / vote-in ally group? Start with a core group of trusted people, and then allow those people to nominate other allies and let people vote (with the possibility of discussions of the nominees, including the ability to anonymously comment). It's true that allies would begin as "elitist," but as time progresses this would become less and less of a problem, as the group nominates and votes in new members.

Anonymous said...

I'm concerned that we may be over-interpreting. What if Dr. Charming is just a kind person, with no further expectations? I actually appreciate it when I can talk to a faculty member and have them treat me as a human being, rather than as another set of hands to crank through the data. A world where pleasantries and helpful conversations are considered to be sexual harassment seems too extreme to me. It would feel like a very cold world if kindness and conversation were turned away on the assumption that they equate to sexual harassment.