Monday, September 8, 2014

Fed Up with Sexual Harassment II: The Solutions Series

The Fed Up with Sexual Harassment series included some of the most viewed posts in the history of the Women in Astronomy blog. In the wake of this series, those involved in its production wanted to follow up with a second series focused on solutions.
 
Since blogging about my own sexual harassment experience and talking with many of you about yours, I have been amazed to learn how common harassment remains in the astronomy community. Of course there can be a whole range of sexual harassment experiences – from a one-time creepy encounter, to surviving in a toxic environment, to career threatening repercussions. I personally came all too close to having my career destroyed because of sexual harassment.

Two questions always seem to drive the discussion following one of these posts. The first is why victims don’t just file a formal complaint and let the system handle it. The second is why we don’t name the harassers. One commenter sums it up: “This is criminal behavior no less serious than abuse or assault. We don't slink around giving perpetrators of assault a pass, so why do it for serial harassers? Why protect them at the expense of their prey? If someone assaults someone else on the street and the assaulter is called to account for his/her actions, their name is given. Same here.”

In an ideal world where the complaint process was well laid out and the system actually worked, I would agree. But the world is imperfect, the process is murky, and the system is broken. In a sexual assault case, there is indeed a he said/she said, but there is often forensic evidence as well. This helps tips the scales of justice. Assault can also be student on student, so the victim and assailant have relatively equal status in the community. Victims of sexual harassment often have no forensic evidence, no witnesses, and the harasser has much more power. When it comes right down to he said/she said, the burden of proof is on the victim. If that burden can’t be met, victims often remain silent. If they choose to tell these horror stories to people they trust, it is still their story to tell. It is their option to name the harasser, but given the burden of proof and the retaliation experienced by those courageous enough to come forward, this is often a difficult decision to make.


The legal bar for sexual harassment is set way too high. With all of my experience and insider information, I know of exactly zero cases in astronomy where a professor has received more than a slap on the wrists after a sexual harassment complaint. The traditional course of action often doesn’t work. For example, if you strip away Anonymous 2’s powerful words, all you have left is a creepy encounter. No witnesses. No evidence. To whom should she report this incident? Her advisor? Department chair? Campus police? Victims have tried it. Victims get labeled as troublemakers. Victims loses support, and that puts their careers in jeopardy.

In one well-publicized incident, Colin McGinn, a tenured philosopher at the University of Miami, resigned his position after allegations of sexual harassment brought by a graduate student. This was no straightforward case, however, and McGinn’s arrogance appears to have been his own undoing. In my (much simplified) understanding of philosophy, it is all about winning the argument. McGinn actually wrote about the situation on his blog, using the language of analytic philosophy to justify his actions. His so-called defense seems to have backfired. This case is unusual because there is a record of the harasser’s actions. Apparently, it was this record, not the original complaint, that led to his resignation.

In another recent case that made headlines, a freelance writer publically accused Bora Zivkovic of sexual harassment. Zivkovic ran the blogs at Scientific American and was arguably one of the most influential members of the science blogging world. Zivkovic admitted to the incident, apologized, and later resigned from Scientific American. In this case, it was a victim who decided to name her harasser, but there was a lot pushback. Why, I wonder, did Zivkovic admit to the incident when he had so much to lose? Were there emails that could have been made public? Did the accuser have other evidence? What would have happened if a second woman had not come forward?

Imagine a case where the evidence is clear, the witnesses are all lined up, and the courageous victim is willing to step forward. Then, by all means, report the harassment and file a formal complaint. But suppose the case is weaker; suppose it is just he said/she said with no incriminating emails or recorded conversations. Then the decision to file a complaint is not at all straightforward.

Suppose there were a way to take sexual harassment out of the legal realm where the burden of proof is on the victim and Title IX officers have a vested interest in making sure that the University is not sued, and instead treat sexual harassment like an ethics violation. Here’s a situation that academics are familiar with. A professor can file an informal complaint if a student is caught cheating or plagiarizing. The student has to sign a form that goes into a confidential file. The file is purged when the student graduates if no other complaints are filed. But if a second complaint is received, then the process becomes more formal and the ethics council gets involved.

How might this work for sexual harassment? Tomorrow’s post by Mordecai-Mark Mac Low describes Information Escrows, an interesting option on how to structure harassment reporting. Allow a complaint to be made privately that will only be examined and acted upon if some designated number of other people make similar complaints. This way there is not just one person making the complaint, reducing the chance of targeted response, and increasing credibility. Given the evidence that harassers (and rapists) tend to be repeat offenders, and that the large fraction of women harassed are experiencing the problem from a small fraction of men, this seems like it might be a useful tool.

Students may experience stalking, unwelcome advances from senior (and peer) astronomers, casual racism and homophobia, and in many cases, have nowhere to turn for help. As a result, their experiences are either discovered after the fact when the victim shares the information or never discovered at all. Suppose these experiences happen at an AAS meeting, in a student’s first exposure to major-league astronomy. Such experiences can have a huge negative impact on the student’s feelings about continuing on in astronomy. Therefore it is essential for the AAS to create the safest possible meeting space, ensuring students have the most positive first exposure to astronomy possible.

Wednesday’s post by Katey Alatalo and Heather Flewelling describes the new Allies Program, which is seeking CSWA endorsement and AAS Council approval. Allies would be recognizable as a person anyone in need can approach and ask for help; provide confidential advice, support and resources; create an environment at AAS meetings where the perpetrators of harassment feel they can’t get away with their behavior, thus preventing problems before they start.

Suppose a student experiences sexual harassment at an observatory. Thursday’s post is by new CSWA member, Christina Richey The "Survey of Academic Field Experiences (SAFE)" study that was published by the team of Kathryn Clancy, Robin Nelson, Julienne Rutherford, and Katie Hindle revealed several issues relating to harassment and assault within the field of anthropology, including a lack of awareness on codes of conduct and sexual harassment policies, and many reports of harassment (71% of women respondents and 41% of men respondents) and assault (26% of women respondents).  Dr. Kathryn Clancy is interviewed for lessons learned from the study, how this results may impact other scientific fields (like astronomy), and next steps for solving the issues at hand.

Friday’s post comes from CSWA’s STATUS Magazine. The article by Sheryl Bruff and Bernice Durand is entitled, “Building Respect and Inclusion in Astronomy: Strategies for Addressing and Overcoming Harassment.” The article is based on material presented at a special session of AAS meeting in Seattle in Jan 2011. It was developed to further the AAS membership’s knowledge of what constitutes harassment and how individuals and institutions should respond to it.