Some things an academic community can do about harassment

Commitment from every level is needed to make a safer culture

When I was in my twenties and thirties, I experienced the everyday sexual harassment of the science and business worlds at that time, and also had some experiences bad enough that I spoke to an ombudsperson for advice. People close to me had more serious experiences still.

At that time we were all junior in our organizations, and we were all concerned about harming our careers by making formal complaints. Even the ombudsperson warned me, “We can take legal action on this, but you may find it hard to get a job in academia if we do.” So, when people tell me they are afraid of retaliation or of being labeled as troublemakers if they report, I get it.

But now, I’m in my early fifties, and I’ve been in leadership positions in academia and research for about a decade. I’ve needed to take action when people in my organizations were harassing others. As I’ve gained experience, however unfortunate, in this area, I’ve also been asked to intervene on behalf of people in other organizations. So, I’m now experiencing another level of commitment to fixing this problem, the level of the person receiving the complaint and taking action on it, rather than the person being harassed deciding whether or not to report. Taking effective action requires the support of leadership above me, and I’m hugely fortunate to work at a university committed to ethics and inclusion. No institution is perfect — all are made of imperfect people — but it’s good to be at a place where the leadership is actively trying to do the right thing.

Now, I have the responsibility to think about all the ways we can improve our communities, and I think about it a lot. Academia can be a place where we create and share and help make the future of society, where we teach and experience and practice a sense of personal agency and discovery. It can also be a place where the medieval structure of one powerful professor having graduate students as apprentices, and controlling their careers, exists. This can certainly lead to caring and meaningful collaborative relationships, but it can also create a culture of secrecy, bullying, and powerlessness. And when this latter protected structure exists it is often reinforced by department chairs who have no training in leadership or management, and who are returning to professorship in five years and are therefore often loathe to censure colleagues.

I’m convinced that, along with a committed leadership, the key to a better community is its culture. Culture is, by definition, the display of behaviors. What behaviors are tolerated where you work? Where you live? Do bystanders tolerate bullying or harassment? This becomes the question: How do we re-create the cultural norms?

Last February I sent out a highly unscientific Twitter poll. This is the question I asked, and these are the results:

In these results, 56% of respondents feel that they have been harassed badly enough that they could have filed a complaint. Though statistics indicate that sexual harassment is more often committed by a man and experienced by a woman, but to be clear, my position is that all people need to be united in a positive culture, and all should realize that anyone can be targeted for harassment, and so I am not dividing by gender. My goal is to make an inclusive culture where every voice can be heard, and where people succeed on their merits.

From this little poll and my own experiences, the majority of people in academia who have experienced harassment have either not reported it or they have had a bad experience reporting it. We have a very long way to go. Here are some thoughts on ways we can make some progress.

  1. Leaders: Talk about civil behavior, collegiality, and the problems of harassment and your intolerance of it. Talk publicly. Talk frequently.
  2. Everyone: Bring in trainers and speakers regularly. Invite in your Title IX staff and have them speak with faculty, staff, and students. Have bystander training. Have role-playing training.
  3. Leaders: Be willing to sit down with people who misbehave and compel them to behave. Be committed to this. If your faculty member swears at your business office manager, sit down with the faculty member and explain that is not acceptable. By constantly emphasizing good manners, some harassment will be stopped before it begins. And, we hope, more serious harassers will be surrounded by a community who will help stop them.
  4. Everyone: Be a good bystander. Speak up when something is wrong.
  5. Everyone: If you experience harassment: report. Report. Report. Without reports leaders cannot take action; what we do not know about, we cannot fix. So leaders, and peers, support those who report. Support their courage, and preserve the confidentiality on both sides.
  6. Leaders: Protect those reporting. If a graduate student who reported, for instance, finds that their advisor is no longer supporting them, be willing to write letters for them. Get on the phone with possible employers and support their employment. Discuss with all parties that retaliation is illegal and will not be tolerated. The ability of a department chair to protect the career of a graduate student who has had to report against an advisor is not discussed enough — we can do this.
  7. Everyone: Reporting should be confidential, both for the accuser and the accused. Allow the necessarily private due process to occur. Avoid sharing third-hand rumors. These weaken the confidentiality of the case, and they weaken any ensuing case against a harasser (multiple overlapping rumors, when shown by a defense council to be just one event, already reported, makes the case against the harasser much weaker).
  8. Everyone: Press your professional societies to take action the way the American Geophysical Union, the American Physical Society, and the American Astronomical Society have done. Harassment is an ethical violation.
  9. Faculty: Treat graduate students as employees, rather than apprentices or family members. Clarify expectations on both sides and manage for results.
  10. Everyone: Please treat everyone else with the same respect. Senior faculty should not feel free to be dismissive to staff and students, for example.
  11. Leaders: Make a central repository of university resources and keep it updated and distribute regularly.
  12. Leaders: Communicate. Remember that every year new students and staff arrive who have not experienced the norms of your culture, and need to hear that your organization is actively trying create an inclusive, positive, and supportive culture, and that you will not tolerate harassment — and if it occurs, they will be fully supported in their reporting of it.
  13. Leaders: If you need to push your upper management on the importance of correctly following through on a harassment case, remember you can use three arguments. 1. Ethics: Allowing harassment to go unpunished is simply unethical. 2. Productivity: Allowing harassment to go unpunished harms the culture and lowers the value and quantity of work being done. And 3. Legal: Allowing harassment to go unpunished places your organization at risk for damaging legal action.

Good luck, and be committed: make a good culture. Keep it alive. Culture doesn’t change on its own, or through retirements. We need to make it every day. Be bold, and be kind.