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.


11 comments :

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

As a member of a dual career couple (both faculty), I support the right of my wife's ability to go back to school to get a second degree at the same university where I am faculty without having to give up our preexisting relationship. In my current case, we're in different colleges, so there's relatively little concern about conflicts of interest.^1 However, if she had decided to get a second degree in my field, I would have supported that, too.^2

^1 = In principle, either I could be a jerk to one of her mentors on some university committee. Or vice versa.

^2 = Of course, we should disclose and the department should take reasonable measures to mitigate conflicts of interest.

Anonymous said...

Charbonneau's senior male colleagues sound conveniently artless. Only academics could be so clueless.

How can any relationship between a tenured faculty member and post-doc/graduate student be consensual within the same department? These positions rely upon each other for career advancement. There should be some degree of mutual distrust whether any relationship could be pure.

It sounds to this anonymous reader that some astronomers are being purposefully dense here. If you want a love life, go somewhere else. Work is work: don't shit where you eat.

Rosemary Mardling said...

Such a ban will perpetuate and even exacerbate the problem so often encountered by women that male supervisors feel free to invite their male students, postdocs and colleagues to a beer after work (where lots of work and non-work networking takes place), but feel completely not free to do this with their female students, postdocs and colleagues (unless “chaperoned” by others).

Sarah Rugheimer said...

@Rosemary Mardling. I think that Dave isn't saying there should be no socializing between faculty and students, but that it should be done in proper settings (i.e. a pub after work is fine, but perhaps a dance club is not) and with a large enough mixed gendered group to be above reproach. This protects both the professor, student and the scientific environment while still allowing for valuable networking.

Rosemary Mardling said...

@Sarah Rughemier. I didn't take Dave to be saying there should be no socializing - far from it! I am saying that one-on-one work lunches, drinks etc which are normal for men to have with each other will not be possible for women (except with themselves). With any scheme like the one proposed, all men are tarred with the same brush as those few who transgress. I think it is a great pity to separate the sexes in this way because of the actions of a few. Better to educate all and to make it clear that there will be serious consequences for those who don't play by the rules - the latter is what has been missing until now. If we don't do this, women will continue to be left out of one-on-one networking.

Sarah Rugheimer said...

@Rosemary Mardling, fair point. But again, I think one on one meetings, lunches, coffee are also fine as long as they are in appropriate settings. Dave mentors his female students and post-docs in one one one meetings. That is not by itself is not a problem. I think networking and socializing are still possible but it just requires 30 seconds of thinking first. And there are always creative and appropriate solutions! No one need miss out.

Anonymous said...

I think the idea of banning consensual relationships between university staff is a very strange one, and is wildly impractical given basic human behavior. Humans are social animals, and the reality is that when people are spending upwards of half of their waking hours in a work environment, and are having the majority of their daily human interactions inside of work, then friendships and romantic relationships are going to develop. A significant fraction of people meet their partners at work (See for example the first survey in http://mic.com/articles/112062/the-way-most-people-meet-their-significant-others-is-not-what-you-think). Indeed, a number of my colleagues are happily married to other university employees, and many of those relationships involve participants at different stages in their careers.

I don't want to sound overly dramatic here, but in a world where these people's employers would have banned their relationships from happening, what is the proposed punishment for those who pursue their forbidden love in secret? Sacking? For both, or just the most senior staff member? Again, getting a bit over-dramatic, but forcing people to choose between love and their career seems like a bad idea. We get enough of that with the two-body problem. The assumed hypothetical scenario here is a more senior male staff member and a less senior female staff member: so in this scenario which do you think is most likely to feel under pressure to sacrifice their career for their relationship? Undesired consequences, eh?

(Note: the rest of what I say may be extremely country dependent. I work in a country with a body of workplace legislation comparable to most Western democracies. The experience of others may vary).

I think we in the academe are as susceptible as anyone other group to being trapped in the echo chamber, and feeling our particular place of employment is special in some way and needs special rules. In every work environment (in my country, at least), be it a university or anything else, there is the potential for romantic relationships. And in every work environment, it is expected that such relationship doesn't interfere with one's professional life. And in every work environment I've been in there are clear guidelines regarding professional conduct, abuse of power, conflicts of interest and so on; and it is clearly that for some particular subset of work relationships, such as with someone who you are line-managing, a relationship beyond the professional is inappropriate. Extending this to all-relationships-are-banned-because-even-though-you-are-not-managing-them-now-you-might-at-some-point-in-the-future, seems to me to be rather over-egging the pudding.

In my country at least, and probably most countries which have a large community of astronomers, there are rules on conduct in the workplace which apply to all workplaces, public and private sector alike. If women are being sexually harassed at work, the solution is to crack down on the harrassers, not to ban all relationships, just as the solution to verbal bullying is to take down the bullies, not to ban all talking. In an idealised workplace we would all be just drones who interacted with each other on a purely business level. But in the real world, one must have a pragmatic view of human behaviour.

Sarah Rugheimer said...

@Anonymous from Nov 4th. Yet it is the junior (and often female) astronomer who is left with the consequences. And is it ever ok for a undergrad and a professor to "hook up"? Now saying that I recognize there are some times that the line isn't so clear. I know a happily married couple where she was a student in his class as an undergrad, though she was also the same age after serving 15 years in the military. But that case simply could have ended the same happy way once the class was over. But in the case of a 20 year old with a professor...I am not sure that the power dynamic is ever appropriate for a consensual relationship given the concerns Dave raises in the article. Consider the Bill Clinton / Monica Lewinsky scandal, perhaps the ultimate example of an extreme power differential. She was ultimately the one often blamed, the power differential completely ignored, and has had trouble *to this day* getting a job. Her recent TED talk is very interesting and relevant to this issue. Though their relationship was consensual, what does that even mean given the vast power dynamic? I hear your point that people working together may fall in love because we are human, but I think there should be a limit as to what level of power differential. Undergrad to professor is too great a gap. Postdoc to professor is perhaps more debatable. But still I think this article's point of caution, due to the safety of the junior and most likely female burgeoning academic, is wise.

Anonymous said...

As a non-American who comes from a culture where it is normal to hug and/or cheek-kiss as a friendly greeting to a colleague (given one is already acquainted), I am always taken aback when some of my American male colleagues pull back rigidly when I go to do this.

Anonymous said...

@Anonymous from Nov 4, 2015 at 9:52 PM: being from Latin origin, working in a US-managed organization I can completely relate to this...