On Friday, I saw people responding to reading a New York Times Op-Ed piece (published September 18, 2014) about the Sexual Assault Problem in Science. In late July several major news outlets reported on this problem, too. Women in the Sciences Report Harassment and Assault (July 24, 2014) is the most ground-breaking and important research related to the culture and environment of the sciences and academia I have seen. That study has forced many people who have willfully buried their heads in the sand to acknowledge the truths that had been whispered in the hallway of conferences and secretly shared among colleagues for a very, very, long time: Women were being harassed and assaulted when they were away doing field research.
I saw Twitter comments of people who exclaimed of being deeply moved as they read a narrative of a woman scientist being harmed while doing science. I found the first third of the article pretty compelling, too. I had to go back to finish it. When I finally finished reading the entire essay, I didn’t walk away with the same ground-shaking experience I interpreted others were having. I got distracted by the transitions in the narrative. Many disagreed and reasserted that the piece is bringing important fresh attention to the Survey of Academic Field Experiences (SAFE) research work by Clancy et al. I agreed with the second half of that statement. Friends, esteemed researchers, believed my comments were derailing in fact. I didn’t intend to derail and I apologized.
But I thought and thought about it and I have to admit, “Self, well, yea, you kind of are” – derailing, that is. I wasn’t talking about the SAFE research or directing people to it or the authors or engaging in a discussion about it. Frankly, I didn’t see other people talking about it either – other than one of the co-investigators. I saw (as limited and narrow as my sphere is) people talking about the NYT piece, me included.
What I was doing was kvetching. Kvetching that it took someone sharing a very personal painful account to ‘shock people’ into awareness about a problem (and a need to address it) that had already been successfully rolled out to the media and public two months prior. Kvetching that people were acting like they had heard something brand-spanking new. Like these stories haven’t been told many times before and by all stripes of women, women of color, LGBT individuals, those with disabilities – basically anyone who knows:
There is a fundamental and culturally learned power imbalance between men and women, and it follows us into the workplace. The violence born of this imbalance follows us also. We would like to believe that it stops short of following us into the laboratory and into the field — but it does not. ~ Hope Jahren Science’s Sexual Assault Problem New York Times Op-Ed September 18, 2014.
I’m finger wagging. But I am not attacking SAFE or the brilliant researchers of that study or the author of the recent New York Times Op-Ed piece. I’m waving my finger at the science-news consuming public – which includes scientists, higher education admin, and science communicators – who were (seemingly) newly inspired to care about the safety of junior-ranking women scholars – or at least in a way that generated so much social media buzz.
How I see it, there’s been too little sustaining rage about the overall cultural environments of science & academic science, in particular that fosters and empowers (often) male senior colleagues to harass and haze junior scholars long before they travel to far-away places to do field work. It took a team of Anthropologist women, who temporary put aside their primary research interests –studying lactation, reproductive physiology, family caretaking strategies, maternal physiology – to apply a scientific lens to bring this already apparent issue to the fore. And they had to work upstream to do it, to fight for the ‘worthiness’ of this topic as scientifically important, let alone culturally important to the field of science itself. Before they got the IRB approval to collect these stories, folks dismissed accounts like this as anecdotal. Now, I see people applying the same logic – that with the correct and powerfully applied anecdote the data become relevant. <_<
My ire is with the consumers of this story. That because of platform, positionality, whom they know, and yes, who they give their attention to drives so many, many important stories that have to do with fostering safe, inclusive and welcoming environments in STEM and everywhere else. That anyone needed the data generated by SAFE in the first place and another story to get them to care about the SAFE study makes me cringe and purse my lips. Applauding the bravery of one scientist for speaking up while simultaneously remaining oblivious of the bravery of so many other women (and men, LGBT, disability and other ‘othered’ individuals) who share their harrowing accounts of harassment and assaults that has led them to switch majors, transfer schools, refuse independent research opportunities – even in supposedly safer places such as in labs on campus is quite deflating.
The misogyny and racism I experienced and saw at MIT became more and more concerning, between professors making "get back in the kitchen jokes" and hearing about what seemed to be legions of male PhD student sexually harassing woman undergraduates. I watched as many of my women of color friends seemed to switch departments and heard horror stories of their advisors pushing them to do so…How on earth were my female and classmates of color expected to go on and get doctorates, masters' degrees, and jobs in industry, when the people passing out graduate school admissions, grades, and recommendation letters and our future colleagues see us as "pieces of ass" and/or genetically inferior? ~ Jennifer Selvidege Pushing Women and People of Color Out of Science Before We Go In September 18, 2014
Published on the same day, this essay speaks to the heart of what I interpreted the SAFE research to be about – cataloging the harassment STEM women experience in scholarly spaces and places at the hands of colleagues, often senior to them, and how it drives them away from science. I know the SAFE research focused on field research experiences – mostly abroad, away from home institution – but many women are getting harassed out of science before field research opportunities become available to them. You don’t have to go far away to experience this pain, and too many divert their research interests to lab spaces to avoid it. You don't need a New York Times Op-Ed or Huffington Post published piece to hear these stories. Just listen to your students/academic advisees, especially the ones who may suddenly stop coming/going to class or students who refuse to go to office hours to see certain instructors or those that flake out on attending after hours social events or if you notice several students en masse avoid a certain instructor or adviser or section of a class/lab offering. These scholarly environments that indeed do exist, that the royal we have not proactively and deliberately made safe -- this is not fair to them or science, either. I wager we are losing some great minds.
The SAFE study was the very first of its kind to document and comment on abuse within field research sciences. When news of this research first hit I remember many critics claiming it wasn't comprehensive enough, more detailed questions should have been asked, *exact* details of unwanted encounters should have been parsed. Like any 'first of its kind study' those comprehensive details are not included. Moreover, I say demanding this amount of detail from subjects is unethical and unnecessary. I have a problem with how easily and quickly fellow scientists can be to harm human subjects because of 'for the good of science notion'. No, what more detail do you need? I'm mad that we needed data in the first place in order to have a conversation about doing something. If you or our institutions demand this much research, detail and investment before half-way committing to doing something to establishing safe places and spaces for people, then it means they aren't really, really interested in creating these safe places/spaces. It shouldn't matter how often or intense the abuse is or when a 'not who we expected' victim speaks up that people in power finally create safe places and spaces. Period.
I fully acknowledge that this kvetching and finger-waving can be derailing. I truly don’t intend for it to be. I intend for it to be a deeper, thorough conversation about a culture change – creating safe and inclusive scholarly spaces. To me the first and most important thing we can do to create SAFE scholarly spaces for women is to cultivate everyone’s ability to inclusively listen. Listen to everyone, know how to recognize power abuse when it’s happening at on your campus and away in the field and demonstrate the political will to pluck it out no matter the relate-ability of the person telling the story.
Voices to tune in to on this and related topics of safety and inclusiveness in scholarly spaces please follow the Scholars below.
Alice Pawley's work related to Feminist Research in Engineering
The community blog Tenure She Wrote
Plus the scholarly work on assault and harassment by Rebecca Campbell and Lilia Cortina