My dad, a tenured professor at a public state university, shook his head at the Silence Breakers staring from the cover of TIME’s Person of the Year 2017 magazine. He glanced at me, a newly-minted Ph.D. student, and said, “It’s interesting that this kind of thing never happens in academia. I wonder what the fallout of that will be.” He flipped the page and took a sip of coffee.
This kind of thing, I thought. Speaking out? Of course it never happens — we have too much to lose.
Two months later, my neuroscience Ph.D. cohort and I landed in a government-mandated research ethics course. In theory, the course, led by professors called upon by the university to fulfill their services to the institution, teaches us how to navigate the idiosyncratic world of academic research. These professors are handed a syllabus and a handful of course materials targeting a range of issues regarding scientific conduct. The syllabus deliberately excludes case studies about sexual harassment, since most professors recruited to teach research ethics are not trained to facilitate sexual harassment prevention sessions — fair enough.
But, predictably, one high-ranking senior professor took advantage of his tenure and departmental sway and veered off course. During one discussion section, he led students through a case study about a male principal investigator making sexual jokes about his female postdoc. Rather than emphasize the case study’s negative example, he asked, “What? Are people supposed to stifle their desire for the opposite sex, just because they’re at work?” Ninety minutes of heated, cringe-inducing discussion revealed his full endorsement of institutional systems of oppression.
When we met with the course coordinator to report his problematic behavior, she let us in on an open secret. “He was on my thesis committee,” she said, “and he was a sexist jerk back then, too.” We responded that we would feel most comfortable if he did not teach the course in the future, given his repeated inexcusable behavior. But we were told another secret: he’s been a passionate teacher and advocate of this ethics course for years, and with his experience and senior status, he has more power over his lesson plan than the course coordinator.
We thanked her and left, knowing that nothing would happen.
While #MeToo and #TimesUp tore down celebrities faster than social media could track, academics remained largely silent. Academia is not Hollywood, but both worlds revolve around power dynamics that enable and normalize sexual misconduct. A-list comedians and R01-funded principal investigators both have the power to advance or destroy careers, while up-and-coming stars and scientists depend entirely on the favor of their superiors for success.
In these worlds, influential, primarily male elders have intimate, unregulated control over the futures of their hand-selected apprentices. They hold the power to singularly determine who “makes it” and who falls behind, and women are particularly vulnerable to the gender-based discrimination and violence afforded by this dynamic. When the personal interests and desires of an eminent faculty member conflict with the autonomy of trainees, their professional leverage enables abuse to occur unchecked.
To illustrate the depth of the issue, let’s turn to my home institution: UC Berkeley. We’re famous for our student activism, but despite (or perhaps because of) student efforts, UC Berkeley has been slammed with public sexual harassment scandals for the past five years.
Here are three stories.
In 2015, Sujit Choudhry was a highly-decorated Dean of the UC Berkeley School of Law, the first Indian-born person to hold the prestigious title. Tyann Sorrell, a UC Berkeley graduate and mother of five, was his executive assistant. Choudhry repeatedly demoralized, touched, and sexually propositioned Sorrell at work, causing her to suffer insomnia, anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation.
She followed the rules and filed a formal complaint with the university. The university failed to respond, Dean Choudhry was unscathed, and Sorrell was forced to use personal sick days to avoid harmful contact with her boss. It took a lawsuit and months of legal proceedings before the university took action and compensated Sorrell. Even then, Dean Choudhry, a prominent figure both within the university and his academic field of study, maintained 90% of his salary, travel funding, and research grants for two years following the allegation. He is still a Berkeley professor, and he has not yet admitted responsibility.
Geoff Marcy was a Professor of Astronomy known for his award-winning discovery of exoplanets. In fame and in power, he’s one of academia’s Harvey Weinsteins: he raked in millions of dollars of federal and private research grant funding and over a dozen major awards, and UC Berkeley reaped the fruits of his labor. And where there are conflicts of interest, there are opportunities for power abuse.
It was an open secret that Marcy engaged in misconduct. Between 2001 and 2014, multiple women reported his inappropriate physical, sexual behavior. Female astronomers from other institutions knew to avoid applying to UC Berkeley if they wanted to avoid workplace harassment. Despite multiple formal reports indicating Marcy’s clear violation of the university’s sexual harassment policies, he received little more than a slap on the wrist. It took a sea of allies, including Associate Professor of Astronomy Aaron Parsons (quoted above), turning the department inside out before the university took action. Though pressure from all sides eventually forced the university to publicly denounce Marcy, he was not fired — he graciously resigned, and was granted the honored title of Professor Emeritus at UC Berkeley.
Several years and at least seven formal Title IX complaints later, Marcy still denies the seriousness and validity of the charges. In an interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education, he said, “I hope people will look back and see there were hundreds of students who loved my warm, human mentoring style. Here we are talking about a hug and a kiss on the cheek from fifteen years ago, and I’ve lost my job.” Much of the astronomy community rallied around him.
Their response is a chilling reminder that, in a society steeped in toxic masculinity, people who have been accused of sexual harassment can remain entirely unaware that their actions were abnormal, unacceptable, or deserving of punishment.
John R. Searle, world-renowned philosopher and UC Berkeley professor, was also an open secret. Rumors about his public porn-watching and sexist, racialized comments echoed throughout his department. His colleagues and students knew that he coerced undergraduates into sexual relationships in exchanged for academic and monetary benefits. Joanna Ong, Searle’s former student and employee, brought her case to the university, reporting that he locked her in his office, groped her, and later halved her salary, feigned ignorance of the incident, and ultimately fired her.
One again, the university failed to respond. Ong said, “I didn’t feel like my complaint was taken very seriously…I don’t even know if it ever went anywhere.” It took a California lawsuit, filed almost one year ago today, for the case to be seen. Around this time, Searle stepped down from his teaching position and the university never explained why. Today, his reputation remains relatively untarnished. Searle, like Marcy, continues to enjoy emeritus status, and he is still the namesake of the John Searle Center for Social Ontology.
Some women, such as writer Ephrat Livni, argue that anti-discrimination laws are sufficient to close the gender gap and level out power imbalances. From this perspective, women who complain about sexual harassment are simply weak, lazy, and incapable of keeping up. The feeling is pervasive: across industry and academia, many believe that systems of oppression are built upon self-victimization, rather than abuse of imbalanced power.
If only women would toughen up and stop indulging in their femininity, we wouldn’t need to discuss sexual misconduct in the workplace.
If only people of color would try harder in school, we wouldn’t need affirmative action.
If only neurodivergent people would try yoga, we wouldn’t need insurance packages that cover mental health treatment.
But why accept a work environment where women, especially women who hold other marginalized identities, work twice as hard to receive half the credit of their white male counterparts? I extend my respect to those who rise to the challenge, but I admire those who refuse to live in a world that constantly challenges or fails to acknowledge their accomplishments.
Unfortunately, the academic world is notoriously change-resistant, and institutionalized systems of oppression in academia are particularly tenacious. Anti-discrimination laws, increased representation in the media, and recruitment programs geared towards traditionally underrepresented minorities have all helped to balance gender ratios in a handful of academic fields. In biology, social sciences, and some humanities, for example, Ph.D. student cohorts and new postdoctoral hires largely skew female. However, tack on the words “computer,” “computational,” or “theory” to any field, and the scale flips in the opposite direction. Believe it or not, computer science has become more male-dominated over time, with women comprising a mere ~25% of the workforce.
Gender is unrelated to intelligence or work ethic, but it is often linked to self-perception. Catherine Hill, director of research for the American Association of University Women, says, “Male students overestimate their skills, while female students underestimate their skills…these kinds of errors can result in missed opportunities, wasted time, and poor choices.” From early childhood, society fosters personal misevaluation, and it’s a sneaky, ever-evolving beast.
Underestimation manifests as impostor syndrome. Meanwhile, overestimation progresses to entitlement, stoking the existing belief that women in academia exist by the grace of their male colleagues. And so begins a dangerous positive feedback loop: entitlement nurtures overestimation, which in turn feeds entitlement, which ultimately enables men in power to control and abuse their perceived subordinates.
It’s death by a thousand cuts — small, relatively harmless discomforts compounding upon themselves, reminding you of your place. It’s being one of a handful of women attending a 100-person theoretical neuroscience workshop, afraid to raise your hand and admit ignorance (thus justifying other’s biases). Or showing up to a networking event, only to be thrust into an unwanted sexual conversation with a tipsy professor (who happens to be on your thesis committee, so you don’t report the incident). Over and over and over again.
Can women and traditionally underrepresented minorities work their butts off and succeed in academia anyway? Absolutely — we can and we do. But academia’s deeply rooted, highly imbalanced power structures are uncomfortable at best and dangerous at worst. Sexual misconduct afforded by academic feudalism can be a career-halting barrier for many women in higher education.
Academia must follow Hollywood’s lead and embrace the opportunity to clean house. We need to remain engaged and outspoken and willing to take back power from our own Weinsteins and Moores. Universities need to ensure that everyone has the power to report misconduct and tell their stories without fear of professional repercussions. Just today, after years of scandal, UC Berkeley reached a resolution agreement with the Office for Civil Rights regarding their campus Title IX process. While this is certainly a long-overdue step in the right direction, it fails to address the root of the problem.
The toughest change to implement is also the most important: shifting self-perception, from childhood onward. As Uncle Ben says, “with great power comes great responsibility.” Older white men in academia must learn to acknowledge and regulate their power, to elevate rather than exploit their trainees. Career prospects must not be contingent on an employee’s willingness to work within an abusive hierarchy. Toxic masculinity must be abandoned as a benchmark of success.
#TimesUp, and it’s time for academia to join the fight.