Monday, August 22, 2016

The Price of Stories

Do you believe that racial discrimination and harassment occur in your department? Do you believe that sexual harassment has impacted the careers of its victims? Do you believe the climate in your department is safe for our LGBTQIA colleagues and students?

Your belief is irrelevant. We have facts at our disposal. Yet we extort a high price from those who experience harassment and assault in our community. 

“I need to hear it from the horse’s mouth.” 

“Why did it take so long for her to say something?”

“His story is fishy.”

“I don’t know why they wouldn’t just come talk to me.”

“It just didn’t seem like the guy I know.”

Studies and statistics tell us harassment, abuse, and discrimination are occurring frequently. But too many people seem unable to identify the need to act when confronted with the very data we’ve been trained to treat as evidence. Instead we demand stories. We require victims and survivors to lay themselves bare. We want the opportunity to try them in the court of our human feelings. 

Do you understand the cost of retelling for the sake of your consumption? It is yet another way that minoritized community members are required to renew their “membership” in a way that applies only to them, and continues the violence of the initial abuse. 

There are different kinds of stories. There are the stories we choose to tell, about ourselves. These are stories that serve many purposes. Perhaps they tell the people we care about where we come from and what our context is. They are a shorthand to try and explain a small piece of ourselves. There are the stories we tell to ourselves, our personal narrative that shape us - our narrative path that helps us make sense of the world. There are the stories we tell that empower us - that help us take back the events in our life we don’t control in their happening but can shape in some small way by sharing them after the fact. There have been some powerful projects of people using a supportive group to testify, to remove stigma, and to expose abuse. In the arena of sexual harassment in astronomy we have seen a small group of survivors take on this roll - sharing their stories to try and pry open our field, to confront our community with the need to repair ourselves, and to regain agency.

But then there are the stories we extort. These stories become the price of admission, the cost of doing business. These stories are demanded before belief or assistance are provided. These stories are shared and gawked over. These are the crocodile tears cried when war is reduced to a picture of a dead or wounded child. You know the price of war. Worse, you know the price of war and *even* this picture (heartwrenching though it is) will not change anything about your behavior, belief, or life. 

These are the stories that lately have really started to chafe.

Do you need to hear a student in tears in your office to understand that rape is wrong? How many colleagues need to tell you that sexual harassment has derailed their careers? How many students need to tell you they experience racism every single day, on campus and off, before it becomes worth acting on? And who are you to judge the right way to experience that discrimination? 

“She didn’t seem upset enough.”

“Why wouldn’t she just drop the class?”

“Why did he drop the class instead of sticking it out?”

“Why was he so hysterical?”

Indulging our desire for narrative context is damaging and wrong. It centers us, the observer, where we do not belong. If someone is coming to me to get help, my needs *are not* the thing we need to be focusing on. Harassment and abuse are wrong, even if you don’t have a redeeming back story. And I’m unwilling to put people in the position of needing to perform victimhood for my support. 

The studies provide the answers to the questions above. Sexual harassment is happening in all of our workplaces. Racial discrimination shapes our society and our departments.  Our LGBTQIA colleagues do not feel safe. We have the data but we cling to our ignorance in the face of all evidence to the contrary. We are failing to meet our remit to build a creative scientific community that cherishes and protects our members so they can do revolutionary research. 

I am here for stories. I am here for people accessing their power and agency, and for sharing their wisdoms through stories. But I need us to put a halt to requiring performative victimhood before progress is made. We have the research. We have the insight. The change needs to come from us. We need to stop asking our minoritized community the bear the burden of our ignorance and laziness and do the work to transform our institutions. 


Thomas said...

Sexual harassment undeniably happens in astronomy as it does in most, and probably all, workplaces. We don't need data to tell us that, just as we don't need data to tell us that street crime happens. What we do need data for is to tell us where and how often it occurs and, importantly, whether it's on the increase on or the decline.

That's why I'm trying to draw attention to a recently published study by Rachel Ivie, Susan White, and Raymond Chu, which offers what I take to be good news for women in astronomy. The study didn't look directly at sexual harassment, but focused on the forces that condition attrition, i.e., factors that causes people to leave the field.

Two results stood out for me. First, at a general level, "the respondents’ sex had no direct effect on working outside the field" (p. 9). That is, there is no gender-based effect on overall attrition rates. I would expect to find a "harassment effect" on this measure if there was a high level of harassment. Second, and even more encouragingly, "the sex of the respondent was not a significant predictor of the respondents’ thoughts about leaving astronomy" (p. 6). That is, women are no more likely to even think of leaving astronomy than men are. Again, this is a measure in which I would have expected to find some gender-based harassment effect.

I stress that this data seems to me like good news, at a time when astronomy has been getting a lot bad press. (It's sort of like pointing out that violent crime is generally on the decline at a time when there have been some high-profile cases in the media.)

Obviously, this is just one set of data--though it seems very well done and, when compared to the report Sarah links to, has what looks like a much more representative sample and more rigorous methodology. There are, of course, the stories that Sarah reminds us of. But I agree with her that these need to be put into perspective by data. This is important when deciding on the kinds of action that need to be taken. Is it really true that our institutions are broken? Or is it something more subtle. Is it more about honing our intuitions to better deal with rare cases. In that case, it really would mean getting into the details of the stories.

Anonymous said...

i believe you've misrepresented the results, and recommend anyone interested read the linked study for themselves. in particular it reports that "women were less likely to report positive relationships with graduate advisors," which affects attrition, as well as higher levels of impostor syndrome and turning to an outside mentor, all of which can have obvious links to harassment.

Thomas said...

Hi Anonymous, I also recommend people read the whole study. I wouldn't call emphasizing two results as "misrepresenting" a study, though.

You're right that the study found that women rated their advisors, on average lower, and you are right that this could be an effect of harassment. I would point, however, that the difference, while statistically significant, is not dramatic: on a 4 to 16 scale, women rated their advisors, on average, at 13.2 while men rated theirs at 13.9. I think we can agree that the study shows that astronomy graduate students, whether male or female, are generally happy with their advisors.

(It would be a different matter if men were generally happy and women generally unhappy with their advisors. It would also be interesting to know whether very low ratings occur much more frequently among female respondents. Such very low scores could certainly indicate harassment, but would not be distinguishable from perceptions of incompetence or ordinary indifference.)

In any case, assuming that there are more male advisors, this difference may be the result of gender "chemistry", let's say, but does not immediately suggest "rampant harassment" (a frequently used phrase). Like I say, I would expect any harassment effect to show up all the way through to the actual attrition rate, and certainly at the level of thinking about leaving the field. But here gender was not, it turns out, a predictor.

The greater likelihood of imposter syndrome among women, and their (slightly) less favorable view of their advisor, are both important results and worth thinking about. The study does show that there are differences in the experiences between women and men. But these differences are not evidence of rampant harassment in astronomy.

My only "representation" of this study was that it paints a generally hopeful picture of the field. Which is something the parents of daughters with an interest in astronomy might like to know, given all the recent press.