Gender activism in Australasian Classics and Ancient History

Fiona McHardy
Jun 19, 2018 · 5 min read

by Maxine Lewis

2017 and 2018 have seen important developments in gender-related activism in Australasian Classics and Ancient History, especially in the arena of anti-sexual harassment measures. Some of the plans and projects which were incomplete in October 2017, when I spoke at the Women’s Classical Caucus panel at CAAS, have since came to fruition. The major developments are that the Australasian Society for Classical Studies (ASCS) has adopted a Code of Conduct applying to all its events and business along with a policy for reporting Code violations; and that Australasian Women in Ancient World Studies (AWAWS) ran an anti-sexual harassment workshop at Australasia’s largest ancient world studies conference (itself run by the ASCS).

These developments point to a sea-change occurring in our professional bodies and our communities. Less than two years ago, I wrote about sexual violence in Cloelia that:

Abuse thrives in the dark, and all too often well-meaning people in our field (I count myself among them) have perpetuated a culture of silence that allows abuse to continue, not because we think it is just or fair, but because we do not know what to do, or how to help, and in many cases because we are also in vulnerable, junior positions. (Cloelia, emphasis added)

This culture of silence that I spoke of was not one of silence between individuals. In Australasian Classics and Ancient History, we had been — like the women in many other professions — using a ‘whisper network’ to try and protect ourselves and others in the profession. It was quietly acknowledged that a good deal of sexual harassment occurred not just within individual institutions but at conferences, and that younger, more junior, female members of the field were most at risk. It was not uncommon to see more experienced ‘old hands’ steering women new to the field away from certain male academics at conference functions. Many of us had been quietly naming the problem for years, but were faced with institutional disdain or indifference. The culture of silence was institutional and systemic; even people who knew that sexual harassment was a problem did not know what to do, who to approach, or how to help change the landscape.

In late 2016 the executive of the ASCS broke that silence in a special section of the regular ASCS newsletter. They informed the members that sexual harassment had occurred at the ASCS conference in February 2016:

We were appalled to receive reports from a number of members about acts of sexual harassment, including instances at our most recent conference in Melbourne. Some of this information came to us via the postgraduate questionnaire conducted by the 2016 student representatives, some via the campus representatives when this topic was opened for discussion in the April consultation process. (ASCS Newletter)

They also made it clear that this problem was not a new one:

On making further enquiries, it became clear that the types of unprofessional behaviour which were tolerated decades ago but which we thought had disappeared have continued.

The executive announced that they planned to address the situation by creating a Code of Conduct and a set of policies to address misconduct at its events.

This news item and its dissemination among ASCS general members itself constituted a significant event for anyone interested in gender equity in the profession. The newsletter goes out to all members and is also freely accessible on the internet from the ASCS’ homepage. It constitutes the first time to my knowledge that sexual harassment at ASCS’ conferences had been acknowledged as a systemic problem, and the acknowledgment came in a public forum.

Since 2016, the Society has had great success in transforming itself, from an organisation with no official stance on harassment and gendered violence (and that thus tacitly allowed harassment at its events and in the running of its business), into one that both acknowledges and tries to eradicate the problem. The ASCS’ Code of Conduct, passed at the AGM of the Society held at the annual conference in 2017 (Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand) acknowledges sexual harassment specifically, but also aims to make cultural change that goes beyond that. It names and defines specific behaviours that the Society deems inappropriate to its events and in the conducting of Society business, including bullying and harassment. A provisional draft of an Implementation policy was passed at the 2018 AGM, to make clear how people can report an incident and how the Society will assess and track complaints. This means that in 2019, for the first time, attendees at the annual ASCS conference will know what behaviour is unacceptable, and how to report any grievances that arise at events, including instances of sexual harassment.

The creation of the Code and its related policies required ongoing work and dedication, primarily from the ASCS’ President and Secretary and from other executive members, the general membership, and the executive of AWAWS. In an unprecedented development, members of AWAWS were invited to contribute to the drafts at various stages. During the course of the project, in 2017, a new position on the ASCS’ executive was created, that of an AWAWS liaison to ASCS. This marks the first official point of connection and collaboration between Australasia’s largest peak body for Classicists and Ancient Historians, and Australasia’s only organisation dedicated to fostering gender equity in Classics and Ancient History. It opens a direct line of communication between the two organisations and allows for future collaboration on matters relating to gender equity and diversity in the profession.

One such collaboration was an anti-sexual harassment event that AWAWS ran in 2018 at the 39th ASCS meeting (University of Queensland, Brisbane). As well as hosting its usual research panels, social networking event, and AWAWS meeting, the AWAWS executive ran an information workshop on sexual harassment in universities. After much deliberation about format and potential guest speakers, AWAWS invited an expert from The University of Queensland, Jordan Tredinnick, to present information on sexual harassment, and to share strategies to deal with it (as survivor or bystander). Ms. Tredinnick has been involved with the University of Queensland’s response to a well-publicised report on high levels of sexual assault and harassment on Australian campuses (‘Change the Course: National Report on Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment at Australian Universities’). Ms. Tredinnick’s research-based presentation included concrete advice on what sexual harassment is, how and where to report harassment, and how and when to intervene on someone else’s behalf. Importantly, Ms. Tredinnick highlighted that male bystander intervention is a crucial factor in preventing further instances of sexual harassment and changing workplace culture; given this we were pleased that some men were present at the workshop. Approximately eighty people attended (over half of the conference attendees). Materials from the workshop will soon be available on the AWAWS website, allowing the conversation about stopping harassment to continue.

Feedback was extremely positive, with workshop attendees informally requesting that similar workshops be held in future; AWAWS are currently making plans for future events that will bring experts to the table and provide people with concrete steps that they can take, whether on bullying, harassment, sexism in the profession, or other problems.

Collaboration has been the watchword of these developments. The workshop’s success stemmed in part from the ASCS’ willingness to foster the event; the conference organisers helped to incorporate the AWAWS workshop into the program, secure a venue, and advertise the event. The Code of Conduct involved cooperation between the two Australasian organisations (the ASCS and AWAWS), along with advice from related organisations such as the Women’s Classical Caucus and the Society for Classical Studies.

Less than a decade ago, AWAWS did not exist. Less than two years ago, an open, ongoing conversation about sexual harassment in our profession seemed like it would be decades away. There is, at last, real hope for change.


The publication of the Women’s Classical Caucus

Fiona McHardy

Written by

Cloelia Editor, University of Roehampton


The publication of the Women’s Classical Caucus

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