Monday, April 11, 2016

Sexual Harassment – Changing the System I


[This post is Part 1 of an expanded version of my World View column in NATURE, Change the System to Halt Harassment from 08 February 2016. Universities and their senior staff must do more to deter, detect and punish all forms of inappropriate behavior – JTS]

With the issue of sexual harassment in the news, one hopes that student groups, academic departments, and university administrators are discussing what can be done to eliminate this vile plague from our community. There are fundamental flaws in the current system where Title IX offices are set up to protect the university, where all the pressure for righting these wrongs is placed on the shoulders of young women who are often in the most vulnerable stages of their careers, and where such harassing behavior can remain an “open secret” for years if not decades. In short, we have to find a way to change the system – to train those with privilege, especially senior men, to become not only allies who can support individuals but advocates who will add their voices and prestige to fight for right, to create a “safe space” where anyone facing sexual harassment can get help and advice, and to shine a light on the harassers who still operate in the shadows, destroying careers with their unprofessional conduct.

The Women In Astronomy Blog has already published advice for anyone facing sexual harassment, but here I focus on what can be done by people with power to begin to change the system. The target audience for this post includes senior academics and department chairs, but please don’t stop reading if you are not one of these! Sometimes senior people might want to help but don’t know how, or don’t consider this is a priority, or don’t think they have time. It might be your job to show them how to help, or convince them that this is important, or persuade them that they need to make time for this. Also, if you are not a senior person now, you will be some day. When you are chair of your department, will you know what to do? 

Becoming Allies and Advocates

Many senior members of our community admitted to knowing the “open secret” mentioned above. How can it be that so many did so little for so long while so much damage was being done? Think of all those young women, undergrads at a nationally renowned university, who left the field because their professor made a creepy advance. Think of all the discoveries they could have made but never will because they left astronomy before their careers had even begun. 


For those who turn a blind eye, how do we make them see the damage being done by one of their colleagues? For those who knew what was going on but felt powerless, how do we provide them with the means to make a difference? How can we turn spectators into allies and allies into advocates?

Here are a few simple tips on how to get started. You can communicate to students that you are a safe person to come to for advice (and to improve your department’s climate along the way) by simply interjecting, “I disagree,” when the inevitable inappropriate or sexist comments come up in group discussions. This small phrase can go a long way. Know your university’s harassment policy, resources, and its mandatory reporting requirements. If someone comes to you with a problem, don't immediately question their story.  Instead, listen respectfully. You can be certain that if action is going to be taken, all of the appropriate questions will be asked later.  

An important step in becoming an ally is Bystander training. It is a variation on the, “See something, say something,” slogan from Homeland Security. That is, if you see inappropriate behavior, it is your business to intervene. Bystander training is designed to change social norms like “mind your own business” or “you’ll just make things worse” and encourage people to find ways to speak up, intervene, and make a difference. There are several good Bystander training programs, which usually aimed at undergraduates. A good example is Step UP! Also check out this NPR report on campus training.

Find out if your campus offers Bystander training. If it does, take the training. If it does not, work with campus resources to set it up. Training is often focused on students and topics can include, but are not limited to, Academics, Alcohol, Anger, Depression, and Discrimination. Once you get some experience and know how it works, design and facilitate a session on stopping sexual harassment.  

How do we improve sexual harassment training? Most official training given by corporations is describes as a waste of time, superficial, obvious, or even, most regrettably, an instruction manual on how to “improve my technique,” “stay off the radar,” or “not get caught.” Has anyone even participated in sexual harassment training that was useful and informative? If not, why not? Do we have to create such training?

Department Chairs

Chairs are the first line of defense. They have power to change the climate and create an environment where everyone can do their best work. This is a fundamental component of their job description. They should embrace it, but in reality, too many chairs choose to ignore it. They can, unfortunately, convince themselves that they’re too busy: they have reports to file, budgets to balance, proposals to write, postdocs to hire, students to supervise, etc. But if they let these tasks, however important, take up all their time, then they become part of the problem. We can only hope that the majority of department chairs want to be part of the solution.

Chairs should be familiar with the anti-harassment policy and the resources available across campus. Review the policy and introduce these resources to department members. Post the policy and resources in a prominent place in the department. Make sure they are clearly identified so everyone has access when they need it. These postings make the statement that the department thinks that this issue is important and takes it seriously. 

Convene a department meeting on the topic of sexual harassment. Use campus resources to help design and run the meeting. The chair and the university hierarchy should affirm that harassment is not tolerated. The current policy and available resources should be discussed. Everyone should be encouraged to share their views on the workplace climate, either with the entire group, in smaller targeted meetings, or anonymously. Conduct a department survey of gender climate and implement the suggestions.

It is also worth reiterating how much the power differential can make it difficult for students to stand up to their harasser and/or report their harassment. This is not the same situation as harassment from a peer.

Understanding Title IX

The law defines sexual harassment as behavior that is “sufficiently severe, persistent, OR pervasive to limit a student's ability to participate in OR benefit from an educational program, OR creates a hostile OR abusive educational environment” (emphasis mine). Students, faculty, and staff sometimes misinterpret these words to mean that that the severe, persistent or pervasive behavior is the definition of a “hostile environment” and do not understand that these terms can stand on their own. Behavior that many people might regard as relatively innocuous but is persistent or targeted or timed to have a negative desired effect can limit a student's ability to learn. 

Students who were harassed to the point of tears, who were afraid to return to class, or who were even considering dropping out of school might still think that the behavior of the harasser wasn't severe enough. Another misunderstanding might be related to making a case against sexual assault rather than reporting sexual harassment. For example, a counselor might ask, “Did you tell him to stop?” but a careful reading of Title IX will show that law does not define sexual harassment as behavior that was objected to or even as behavior that was refused or resisted.  A student may even comply or go along with behavior that is unwelcome out of embarrassment, fear, shock, or confusion. Behavior that was not unwelcome the first time, or not immediately recognized as unwelcome, may become very unwelcome the second or third time.

Look out next month for Part II of this series, which targets university administrators and leaders of our professional organizations. Contributions from Anne Byrnes, Ruth Murray-Clay, Megan Reiter, Mike Simon, and several anonymous sources are greatly appreciated.