Recently, while browsing Twitter, I saw a few machine learning researchers post about an incident at one of their big conferences (NIPS) in which a band performing at the closing party made jokes about sexual assault. This is a band that is composed mostly of famous academics in machine learning and statistics. I was completely unsurprised to learn that a person involved in making the troubling comments is a well-respected academic who is widely known to behave inappropriately at conferences.
Right before I ever attended my first conference, one of the women who was a year ahead of me in my program pulled me aside to warn about him. She told me to do my best to avoid him at the conference but “every woman has a story about him, so it’s only a matter of time.” Of course, she was right. Months before my defense, while at a poster session to present my dissertation work, he touched me on the leg and told me that my dress was “way too sexy for a poster session.” I remember feeling deflated.
In the years since, he’s sent me several inappropriate private Facebook messages. In the first, he responded to a Facebook post I had made asking for people’s experiences with Lasik eye surgery with a message that some activities would become much better. Trying to deflect what I thought was going to be an awkward interaction, I responded that I was looking forward to better bird watching. He followed up with a private message that “the activity [he was] thinking about was sex, but bird watching would be better too ;)”. I ignored him. On another occasion, I posted about some data visualizations using data from a medical journal that involved the relationship between age and pubic hair. He sent me a private message explaining how the data is corroborated by his own experiences watching a certain genre of porn. What his personal preferences regarding porn are is something I definitely did not want to know. Perhaps I shouldn’t have posted about the data given the racy topic, but I thought it was in-bounds since it was a comment on data in a medical journal. I guess I was wrong. I responded but tried to end the conversation quickly. On another occasion, he sent me a private message out of the blue to let me know that there was another researcher with a name very similar to my own who published an article that “is even about sex, broadly defined (fecundity). You guys related?”
The thing is, he’s not even the worst in our field. At ISBA 2010 (the same conference where the comments were made about my dress), I saw and experienced things that, in retrospect, were instrumental in my decision to (mostly) leave the field. In my opinion, the worst offender is S (full name left out intentionally). He spent the first half of the conference befriending my friend and me and acting interested in our research. He would occasionally say things that were questionable but would immediately follow up with pictures of his young daughters or stories to make himself out to be a doting husband and father. I now believe this was to gain our trust.
One night after the conference talks were over, a bunch of conference participants and I went for a swim in the ocean. While I was swimming around, S repeatedly grabbed me under the water, putting his hands on my torso, hips, and thighs. I tried to play it off and swim away. He picked me up and pulled me into his chest. He then started to carry me away from the rest of the group, presumably to have some sort of private moment with me that I had absolutely no interest in sharing with him. I struggled, gently at first and then more forcefully, and he let me go.
As I swam back to the group, I remember again feeling totally humiliated. I felt that this was evidence that, like S, all of the other more senior men who had showed interest in my research must actually have only been trying to sleep with me. I felt embarrassed that I had been seen being friendly with him, like everyone else was in on it and they all thought I must like this sort of attention. I felt that I had brought it on myself by actively participating in the conference culture that rewarded provocative comments and excessive drunkenness with social approval and acceptance into an old boys club of sorts. I felt like a joke, and I carried this feeling with me for years after.
I was not the only person who was bothered by S’s behavior. He relentlessly pressured my friend, a female graduate student, to have sex with him by saying that because he was married and she was engaged, those two things “cancelled each other out”. Therefore, he argued, they should have sex.
At this same conference, the morning after a particularly debaucherous night, a married professor was overheard imploring other people to smell his fingers following an encounter with a junior colleague. With the benefit of hindsight, I now recognize my experience at that conference as a critical moment in my career, one I looked back on shortly thereafter when I decided that perhaps this version of academia was not for me.
At JSM (another stats conference) a few years later at the Google reception, S was standing right behind me talking loudly about “banging smokin’ hot chicks.” I turned around to give him a look that I hoped would tell him to knock it off but he replied that I was just jealous that he wasn’t talking about me. The group he was standing with laughed, and I felt disgusted that he actually thought that I’d liked how he’d groped me at the conference years before.
I debated saying something about him at the time, but who would have cared? It was a story passed down among female graduate students in my circles that when one woman graduate student was groped at a party by a professor and reported it to a senior female professor, she was told that if she wanted to stay in the field, she’d just have to get used to it. On many occasions, I have been smacked on the butt at conferences. No one ever seemed to think it was a problem. I knew it would be even more difficult to get people to find S’s behavior problematic since he is employed by a large tech company and his participation in academic conferences, I have heard, often comes with sponsorship money.
About two years ago, there was a turning point that made me decide to start speaking up about what I’d experienced in statistics. I made it a point to privately tell anyone I felt I could trust in my field about all of my experiences. Privately, I named names. I told my male friends and colleagues in the field about how these experiences had impacted my career trajectory in hopes that they would be vigilant for this type of behavior. I told women who the bad actors were, hoping they would be able to avoid them.
I started doing this because I heard that S (for the second time to my knowledge) had taken advantage of a junior person who had had too much to drink. This time, his act had been witnessed first-hand by several professors at the conference. Since then, I have heard one professor who witnessed the incident openly lament that he’ll have to find a way to delicately advise his female students on “how not to get raped by S” so as not to lose promising students.
To say that S’s bad behavior is an open secret in the community is an understatement. With the current turning of the tides in regards to how seriously sexual harassment in professional settings is taken, I’d been hoping that this behavior would stop and that those who were known to have engaged in this behavior would not be elevated to positions of prestige and authority. But, a few weeks ago I received an email announcing that S was up for election to the ISBA Board of Directors. I appealed to two incredible friends/colleagues with more senior standing in the organization (who have always taken complaints about these things very seriously), and at their urging, he was removed from the ballot. This makes me hopeful that change is coming.
However, the fact that he even made the ballot, combined with hearing that jokes about sexual assault are brazenly being made by a person we all know to be one of the harassers is the second turning point for me. It’s clear change isn’t coming fast enough. I don’t want to only speak quietly behind the scenes, hoping that someone with more academic clout than I have will do something about it. While comments alone certainly do not rise to the level of assault, they normalize the hostile atmosphere, particularly for women, in the field. The fact that people are comfortable publicly making jokes about sexual assault on stage at a conference reveals how toxic the environment remains.
We need to start holding prominent individuals accountable for how their inappropriate behavior negatively impacts the careers of their junior colleagues. I’m saying this publicly because whenever I have shared these stories privately with my colleagues, both men and women, they are appalled. It is time for us to be publicly and openly appalled, not just attempting to tactfully deflect inappropriate advances and privately warning other women. We need to remove the power of the “open secret” that these people use to take advantage of their respected positions in our field. We know who these people are, and we should stop tolerating this culture of harassment, or else we become complicit in it.