Monday, May 2, 2016

"Mistakes were made": The case for proportional response to harassment

EDITED: As of 10:30CST, to deal with my failures of intersectionality and racism.

This year has led the “revelation” (in quotes, because y’all… we knew) that sexual harassment in the academy is alive and well. Through the heroic efforts of some, in the most egregious occurrences sanctions have been enacted. But we are left with a question - How do we prevent history from repeating?

In particular, how do we not end up in the situation where we are cleaning up 10, 20, or even 30 years of ongoing harassment that *finally* culminates in disciplinary action. Due to our current system much of the process is opaque even when people are found to be repeat offenders. How do we not take part in the institutional shuffle that so often follows revelations of harassment? How do we protect our community? How do we expose the systemic harassment that is happening to people who are not white women? How do we *change*? 

We still are very stuck focusing on heterosexual relationships when we talk about sexual harassment. But as the recent American Physical Society report on climate for LGBT physicists exposes, we are doing only a mediocre job at making our workplaces safe for people based on sexual orientation and gender minorities. People who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, agender, transgender, genderqueer, or non-binary face very mixed environments at work, and that experience is worse if you identify as a minority on more than one axis. This is often left out of our stereotypical vision of sexual harassment. Yet in report after report, such as the one above, we see the deeply damaging consequences of this harassment we rarely speak of.

Our current system appears to be predicated on the wildly inaccurate assumption that the job of the system is to protect poor hapless male faculty from the devious Lolitas (and they are always young women) that fill their lives (and of course their classrooms and labs). These assumptions are built on an outdated (as if it was ever otherwise) cisgender heterosexual fantasy world. Like so many things these days, we fail to protect those we claim to be thinking about, we endanger people we never imagined we would endanger, and we don’t know how to move forward. Huge swaths of harassment go ignored because they do not fit into the stereotypes we imagine, or fit cleanly into past experiences. People who are minoritized among several axis often find they are heavily discredited or disbelieved when it comes to reporting harassment. Perhaps it is not entirely surprising that the majority of "headline" cases we have seen about enforcing harassment have had white women at their cores (As so eloquently discussed here by Sarah Ballard). We need to extend and expand to keep our vulnerable community members safe.

I think we’re going about it a bit wrong.

I want to make something *exquisitely* clear here at the start. I believe people who harass should have consequences. I do not regret the actions that have been taken against our notorious harassers. I think the system does too little, too late. I think many people, especially junior or other vulnerable people have their careers derailed or destroyed before anyone knows to worry about it, and that is extremely unacceptable. I also believe that the way we’re dealing with it now doesn’t, in the end, fix that. I want to think about what we’re missing in this "all or nothing" framework and how we might repair or rebuild our approach.

As these news stories broke (news stories always, because our institutions operate under shields of impenetrable silence), I had more than one person ask me, as these harassers were being exposed and dealt with, “Oh god, am I harasser and I don’t even know it?”

The short answer is yes.

The slightly longer answer is - You are, but. You are likely not a predator. You do not believe you are above repercussions. You forget, sometimes, that you have the potential to be a bull in a china shop when it comes to issues of gender, race, and sexuality. You do harm without thinking because you are not a “male astronomer” or a "white astronomer" or a "straight astronomer", you are just an astronomer. Maybe you were young, maybe you made a mistake. You misjudged a flirtation, or you were a jerk. You crossed a line you thought you could get away with. You pushed your luck. You did not imagine how offensive your question would sound. We’ve been there. And so, the power built into the kyriarchy of our system means that you can do damage without batting an eye, and inevitably you have. Those mistakes have very real consequences. We need to hold ourselves accountable.

Some might think of what I’m discussing as microaggressions. And it is true that microaggressions are a part of this. It is important here to recognize that the theory of microaggressions was developed by Chester Pierce in his revolutionary work at Harvard and Mass. General regarding racism and health effects in the United States. Although racism & sexism are still very much embedded in our society, they are not the same, and the way we both deal with them and react to them is different. His work on microaggressions was extended by Mary Rowe to expand the application beyond race. But I am including things beyond microaggressions.

This is a conversation I think we are afraid to have, in no small part because our systems are so skewed in how they deal with any sort of complaint. How many times have we heard “He made me really uncomfortable, but it isn’t something to ruin a career over.” Holding someone accountable for their damaging words or actions should be a thing we can do without “ruining” their career. Our current system deals so poorly that it puts the onus entirely on the person being harassed to do a terrible kind of accounting. Who has more value? Your mental and physical health? Or the career and wellbeing of your harasser? And because the stakes are set to be incredibly high, people in power seem to find it easy to dismiss complaints out of hand. Mix that in with unconscious bias and you begin to understand the truly toxic environment academia has become.

I want to see a system where a careless sexist remark, a lingering touch, or an email asking a student out for a date can be reported, can result in protection and satisfaction for the victim, as *well* as a learning experience and proportional consequence for the offender. I want to not keep sheltering faculty who constantly question the competence of our students of color, or who make "offhand" racist comments in class - but are excused because "They're old." or "That's just how Y is, you know.". I want us to be able to hold people to account for harassment in a straightforward way. And then perhaps we teach *most* people that respect and communication is crucial, and that power differentials do matter, and society and its ills don't get left at the door when we enter our buildings. Our current options of endurance or scorched earth are unsatisfactory and problematic. At its worst, our system converts possible abusers into confirmed abusers, because there are almost no consequences for most of their inappropriate behavior and abuse.

What could this new system look like? Fundamentally, it will have to be rooted in our institutions but I believe we could test drive something locally within departments. It will require a lot of community buy in and cooperation. New things are hard, and we will screw them up. It will mean signing on as a department (for example) to have *meaningful* trainings about inclusion, racism, and sexism. It will mean equipping all of us with tools for bystander intervention (training which some Universities already have available) so when mistakes are made we can intervene, discuss, apologize, and learn. The system will require meaningful and increasing consequences, some as small as requiring apologies, or mediated meetings, or attending trainings. And some as severe as fines or firing. I think we have to base it in the work being done in the restorative justice movement. I think we need to move as much power and agency as we can back to the people who are experiencing harassment.

We have relied for too long on the “whispernet” because our current system continues to fail us, but unfortunately whispernet hasn’t protected us adequately either. In particular, early career field members often do not feel like they are valued - by their senior colleagues, or by their institutions. They see the value is placed on their senior colleagues, even those who behave reprehensibly (“But he is such a great physicist!”) and learn very quickly the implicit message about their value. This valuation is always colored by the inherent biases that we carry in our societies, and so unsurprisingly we see the reflection in our constantly disappointing demographic reports. People who are minoritized are not thriving in our field because we are repeating the failings of our society, instead of creating systems that will support their voices and prioritize their survival.

Returning to those people who ask me “Am I a harasser?”. Many of these people also ask me “What can *I* do?”. Add your voice and your hands to instituting systemic change, in your department and in our field.

These systems and teachings CAN NOT only come from the work of minoritized people and communities. Those of us who have some privilege need to take on the work of supporting programs to protect minoritized community members and create change.

Does all this change seem unlikely? Maybe. But maybe to me it is worth imagining that we can learn and grow, rather than accepting that we will just continue on, pushing out marginalized colleagues through our carelessness and contempt. I’m not interested in accepting that, and will continue to try and fix it. I do hope you’ll join me.

Author's Note: When I wrote the first version of this, I handled poorly issues of intersectionality in harassment. I apologize for harm done for those who read it, and hope in its revision it speaks better to the future I'd like us to strive for. I used old and lazy framing, which in and of itself is racist. I forgot the fundamental rule that work worth doing is worth doing correctly the first time. I aspire to do better in the future, and appreciate being called in to make corrections in the present.

7 comments :

Anonymous said...

Proportional responses are a good idea. What we have seen lately is not that. Faculty members have been forced out or given leave without pay for relatively minor offenses, like touching someone on the shoulder when saying goodbye 10 years ago, or admitting that they are attracted to someone. These infractions are not rape, nor are they even close. They do not deserve the professional death penalty.

There has been much discussion about women leaving the field because of harassment, but the high-profile cases don't bear that out. The complainants continue as grad students or post-docs at some of the best universities in the country. One of the complainants in the Marcy case noted that he had been very supportive of her throughout her career, nominating her for a departmental award (which she won) and congratulating her on her publications and presentations. In the Ott case, Ott seemed to be concerned about his ability to be a fair research advisor because he was attracted to his student, so he went to the department to determine how best to extract himself from a supervisory role. He was proactive in trying to solve a problem in a way that wouldn't hurt the student.

So yes--proportional responses are needed. But we aren't there yet.

Sarah Tuttle said...

I'm going to make a guess here that you are not involved personally in these cases, so you actually have very little knowledge of what may have occurred save the limited amount of information that has been exposed in the media.

I feel quite confident that the small number of cases that have resulted in more serious repercussions have done so fairly. And as for proportional - Just off the cuff, several of the documented offenders have been told time and time again in a documented fashion at a high level that they their behavior was unacceptable and needed to change. In my experience, documentation is the last refuge of our current system. The issue had to do with a failure to enforce meaningful consequences.

That some students are harassed and continue on in our field is not some magical vindication of our process. It is fundamentally impossible to quantify the harm done to students who have left along the way, either from direct harassment or from a hostile climate. We can however quantify the harm to the people who have stayed - and time and again they have made clear the mental & physical toll of harassment. Seeing as our field is littered with people like you who call into question the experiences of harassment, I'm impressed at every story of triumph I hear, and at every department that decides to pursue a new way of working.

All I see in your comment is the hope that bad behavior will continue to be excused, not a real hope for meaningful proportional and timely consequences for harassment.

Good day.

Anon2 said...

Though it's a month past the deadline, this is a reminder that the AAS Ethics Task Force is writing the policy on how the AAS deals with ethics violations. If readers of this blog want to see an effective policy which encourages complainants to come forward, ensures proportional response, and prevents serial harassment, they should make sure their voices are heard on the matter.

https://aas.org/posts/news/2016/04/aas-ethics-task-force-invites-comments-suggestions-revised-ethics-code

Although they wanted responses by April 4th, it may be useful to continue to submit comments and suggestions on the draft.

Estrella Oscura said...

Response to Sarah Tuttle:

"Our current system appears to be predicated on the wildly inaccurate assumption that the job of the system is to protect poor hapless male faculty from the devious Lolitas (and they are always young women) that fill their lives (and of course their classrooms and labs)."

I am curious if Sarah can identify for us those sets of policies and practices that support this claim? I think there are quite a few reasonable people are quite frankly under the exact opposite impression. The system gives accusers – Lolitas and non-Lolitas alike – phenomenal power to destroy a person's career.

"I'm going to make a guess here that you are not involved personally in these cases, so you actually have very little knowledge of what may have occurred save the limited amount of information that has been exposed in the media."

Are you suggesting we should form our opinions not on carefully vetted and sourced reporting, but on hearsay? That may do fine on a personal level, but in the court of public opinion, I think we owe it to the accused to base our opinions not on what Sarah Tuttle says some other person maybe heard from somebody else's officemate's friend, but on carefully sourced material. But if you are for opening up the entire process to public scrutiny, then yes by all means I am with you.

"I feel quite confident that the small number of cases that have resulted in more serious repercussions have done so fairly."

Oh well then I rest assured. Sarah says it was fair, so it must have been fair. Pray tell, how can we be sure, given that proceedings are generally closed-door, in direct conflict with the basic principle of Open Justice (that is, open proceedings, not star chambers) that as a matter of English-speaking cultural heritage predates the Magna Carta?

"our field is littered with people like you who call into question the experiences of harassment . . . All I see in your comment is the hope that bad behavior will continue to be excused"

Please point to where Anonymous called into question the experiences of harassment. I don't see it. Or is truth not relevant unless it's on your side? What Anonymous wrote is there for anyone to see. Enlighten us all by showing us how Anonymous “question[ed] the experiences of harassment” or expressed hope that bad behavior should be excused. Please. I'm eager to hear it.

"In my experience, documentation is the last refuge of our current system."

No. Documentation is the cornerstone of all respectable proceedings. Try brining an action against an employee of yours in the private sector without documentation. Good luck.

John Debes said...

Response to Estrelle Oscura:



I am curious if Sarah can identify for us those sets of policies and practices that support this claim? I think there are quite a few reasonable people are quite frankly under the exact opposite impression. The system gives accusers – Lolitas and non-Lolitas alike – phenomenal power to destroy a person's career.


I think the structure of how policies are enforced gets at the crux of Sarah's argument here. There is ample evidence of institutions ignoring claims outright (http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/ucla-students-sexual-harassment-complaints-lawsuit-article-1.2259833), providing very shoddy harassment training to people in power, and resistence, foot dragging, and delays in Title IX investigations. Thus, the structure of the system is weighted toward senior people in the academic setting. The claim that people have great power to destroy careers is completely invalidated by the 10+ (or perhaps greater) year, documented history of Marcy, and the multi-year behavior of Ott. Since this is firmly in the public domain, people need to read beyond the headlines before making unfounded critiques of the original post.

Also, anyone who has devoted time to listening carefully to the stories of survivors there is not one of them who feels overly powerful during the process. Let us be clear here, the power lies with the people who hold the purse strings, the letters of recommendation, and the performance evaluations. The people who hold that power should be in a position where they spend a lot of brain power doing no harm. That is their job and why they enjoy the benefits of additional power.

Anyone who doesn't take that seriously and responsibly should not be in a position of responsibility. As a manager of a team I welcome an environment where people feel empowered to address grievances and I want that feedback because that will give me the best performance from the employees and students I am responsible for.

Prof.dr. Scott Trager said...

It's clear that "Estrelle Oscura" and the first anonymous poster have missed Dr. Tuttle's point - moreover, they seem to have proved it rather thoroughly. It is up to us, white male astronomers - who still hold the vast majority of power in the field, in Europe as well as in the USA and Canada - to acknowledge that we must be those who go out of our way to make our field a model for the academy, a model in which all participants are treated with respect and understanding. As Dr. Tuttle says, "new things are hard, and we will screw them up." But we must try. We owe it not only to those who have been unnecessarily pushed out of astronomy and, often, the academy in the past merely because they didn't fit our view of what an "astronomy" should be, but perhaps especially to those that are coming up now who haven't yet been brutalised by the current system. We will find this very hard, and we will make mistakes. Let us be scientists and learn from our own mistakes and those of others so that we won't repeat them in the future, and protect coming generations of astronomers, no matter who they may be. I will try, especially in my coming role as Director of the Kapteyn Astronomical Institute; I will sometimes fail; and I will continue to try to learn. I hope that others will as well, for the good of our field and society as a whole.

Daniel Kelson said...

I am intrigued by how

One of the complainants in the Marcy case noted that he had been very
supportive of her throughout her career, nominating her for a departmental
award (which she won) and congratulating her on her publications and
presentations. In the Ott case, Ott seemed to be concerned about his ability
to be a fair research advisor because he was attracted to his student, so he
went to the department to determine how best to extract himself from a
supervisory role. He was proactive in trying to solve a problem in a way that
wouldn't hurt the student.


is supposed to absolve someone who, according to the results of official
university Title IX investigations, was a serial harasser who made no efforts
to reform their workplace behaviors.

I don't remember anyone accusing the perpetrators of being pure evil. People
in workplace situations are human beings, expressing a broad range of urges,
both intellectual, emotional, and physical. At lunch time I get hungry. I
express this physical urge in a workplace appropriate manner (usually). My
ten-year-old is still learning how to contain inappropriate expressions of
such things.

In a professional workplace such as Berkeley or CalTech, these institutions
are legally required to provide workplace environments where employees are
able to perform their jobs and duties without inappropriate attention or treatment.
The urge to send love poetry can be controlled if you are an adult. The desire to
have conversations about one's subordinate's intimate relationships in
confined spaces like automobiles, well, that can be contained as well,
especially if one has already had it pointed out on numerous occasions that
such attentions are inappropriate.

Clearly there are adults who disagree with whether hese things are appropriate
conduct – and that actually does not matter. The rules are exceedingly clear that
what seems reasonable to the perpetrator is not relevant.

In fact, let me be blunt and say it again: What seems reasonable to a perpetrator is not
relevant. THAT MEANS EACH OF US ACTUALLY PASSES IN AND OUT OF STATES
WHERE WE HARASS THOSE AROUND US. MOST OF THE TIME IT APPEARS NOT TO
MATTER.
BUT GUESS WHAT: IT DOES. Open yer ears, make the person next
to you feel comfortable, listen to the person next to you, and don't
misrepresent their points using strawmen.


Nobody is being taken out and shot on their first offense. Nobody is actually
taking revenge out on these specific perpetrators. We all, always, must be
asking ourselves: what do we tolerate in our workplaces? If I were to have
a coworker who continued to spill toxic chemicals on the floor (near) where
I work, my employer is responsible for making my workplace safe. If their
investigation found out that this coworker had been doing it for a long time,
then what should the recourse be? Does it matter if it's the first time they got
caught, if they had been doing it for years and years? Sure, there are the
occasional, accidental spills that all my coworkers have had over the years,
and that's just what happens from time to time. But why does this one person
keep knocking over the Mercury all over the floor? Surely someone should put
a stop to it because whenever we've told that person that it's pretty nasty, and
such spills are easy to avoid, it just keeps happening.

Nobody is coming for you because of the occasional spill, so none of us in
positions of privilege should be afraid or worried. YES, I AM MILDLY WORRIED
I'M GOING TO MESS UP. Hopefully I will stop, listen, pay attention, learn,
work a little harder to stop spilling Mercury on the floor, and try to be a heckuvalot
more inclusive. Wish me luck.