Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Making Our Workplace a Place of... Work

I have been thinking recently on how different my perception of my workplace is from the one experienced by many of my junior colleagues who are women.

For myself and (I think) most of my senior male colleagues, the Observatory is exclusively a place of work. I type on my computer. I discuss ideas with colleagues. I participate in committees. I attend seminars. OK, that's sounding awfully dry! But of course it isn't dry at all: Many of my colleagues are also friends, and over coffee, lunches, and hallway conversations, I take joy in their company as we work together on astronomy and the general educational mission of an academic department.

However, for many of the junior women in our department, I worry that the Observatory isn't just a place of work. Yes, they also type on their computers, discuss ideas with colleagues, and attend seminars. But, some of them tell me, they need to become adept at dealing with occasional amorous advances (I'm using amorous here as it appears in the policy I'll discuss below.) Sometimes these are from their academic peers, and, yes, sometimes these originate from those who are higher up on the academic ladder. For these junior colleagues, the workplace isn't just a place of work. It's a place in which a seemingly normal day (or week, or year) of work can suddenly be interrupted by attention of a sexual or gendered nature.

I would like to invite my senior male colleagues to reflect on how differently they might view their workplace from the perspective of such a junior position with relatively little power who is occasionally forced to navigate these difficult and emotional moments. I would also like to invite my junior colleagues to think for a moment how they might feel if they knew that day in, day out, there was a guarantee that their work day would be, well, just work. The same building (and, by extension, other professional venues, notably conferences) would present quite different realities.

My university, Harvard, has recently revised its sexual harassment policy. Included in the new document is a clearer and more thoughtful description on sexual relationships. Here's the preamble:

"In the academic context, sexual harassment often involves the inappropriate personal attention by an instructor or other officer who is in a position to exercise professional power over another individual. This could include an instructor who determines a student’s grade or who can otherwise affect the student’s academic performance or professional future; or a tenured professor whose evaluation of a junior colleague can affect the latter's professional life. Sexual harassment can also occur between persons of the same University status. An example would be persistent personal attention from one colleague to another in the face of repeated rejection of such attention. Both types of harassment are unacceptable. They seriously undermine the atmosphere of trust essential to the academic enterprise.

Amorous relationships that might be appropriate in other circumstances have inherent dangers when they occur between an instructor or other officer of the University and a person for whom he or she has a professional responsibility (i.e., as instructor, advisor, evaluator, supervisor). Implicit in the idea of professionalism is the recognition by those in positions of authority that in their relationships with students or staff there is an element of power. It is incumbent upon those with authority not to abuse, nor to seem to abuse, the power with which they are entrusted.

The consequences of asymmetries can be felt in many different contexts and types of relationships. What constitutes “power” varies according to context and individual. For example, although the university may not recognize a student in an extracurricular organization to have power over a student who would like to join that organization, one or both of the students in question may perceive their relationship to be affected by a power dynamic. As members of a community characterized by multiple formal and informal hierarchies, it is incumbent upon each of us to be aware of and sensitive to the ways in which we exercise power and influence and to be judicious in our relationships with others."
Harvard places a categorical ban on sexual relationships between faculty and undergraduate students. There is no such ban, however, between other university ranks, including graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, other than in cases of a supervisor or evaluator.

Does your University ban any relationships outright? Should it?

In the wake of Geoff Marcy's resignation from UC Berkeley last week, I have had several senior male colleagues engage me in a conversation about these issues.  To be clear, if the attention is unwanted, it is harassment. But what about consensual relationships?

My view is that consensual sexual relationships between members of different university status should be avoided all together. The power asymmetry is too large, and the risk to the junior person's career too great. Almost always, the junior member is a woman. Our academic system is extremely hierarchical, advancement often hangs on the evaluation of senior colleagues, and trust is paramount. Even if there is no supervisory relationship at a given moment, there is a reasonable chance that one will exist in the future: a faculty member can be asked for a letter of recommendation, or the senior person might find themselves considering whom to invite to speak at a conference, or the junior person might, some years later, seek a faculty position in the department of the senior colleague. There are countless other examples, and our community is pretty small, after all.

Relationships between those of different university status also undermine the trust in the department generally. Junior members may rightfully wonder whether the attention they receive is due to their research, or not. Junior colleagues who themselves are not involved in such a relationship may simply not trust their senior colleagues who do, thus reducing the pool of potential mentors. My view is that it isn't sufficient to avoid such relationships, but to avoid also the perception of such relationships.  This might, for example, place restrictions on social activities with junior colleagues.

Important to this discussion, I have seen that graduate students and postdocs often are not as accustomed as faculty to thinking of themselves as holding positions of power. But it is paramount that they, too, recognize that they are often more powerful, or viewed as more powerful, then they perceive themselves to be. Our system emphasizes mentorship at all levels, and so we should be more explicit about the power and responsibility that are inseparable from mentorship.

Some of my senior colleagues disagree with me, stating that they generally are not in favor of restrictions, or even discouraging relationships. We are all adults, they say, and while they favor open discussion, they don't want to see recommendations or restrictions. I realize my view could be paternalistic. But I think a view that fails to acknowledge the deep power asymmetry inherent in such consensual relationships is awfully naive, shortsighted, and one that is at best careless for the careers of our junior scientists.