Making Academia Safe

On Tuesday, Science published a lengthy and detailed article by Michael Balter about “the sexual misconduct case that has rocked anthropology.” The whole thing is worth a read to understand the latest in a series of sexual harassment or assault incidents in academia in general. Just last week molecular biologist Jason Lieb finally resigned amidst accusations of misconduct, and the subject has been gaining more scrutiny as people continue to push for better policies and mechanisms through which victims can seek redress, abusers can be held accountable, and departments can prevent these types of incidents from occurring.

The recent anthropology case stems from a research assistant who has accused paleoanthropologist Brian Richmond of taking advantage of her in his hotel room while she was drunk in late 2014. Richmond, a curator at the American Museum of Natural History (and a former professor at George Washington University), has been placed on leave from the museum while investigations are under way. The entire story is very much worth reading, but I want to highlight one thing that stands out in the article: the decision by some academics to directly respond to the allegations. All of the details below draw from the Science article, linked above.

While the incident with Brian Richmond is still playing out, I want to highlight the article’s focus on the institutional response by GWU. Some people involved have not hesitated to take action to ensure that other targets of harassment can come forward, to signal to students that these issues are a serious matter, and to, as the article puts it, “do battle against sexual misconduct”.

At AMNH a lawyer reached out to anthropologist Rebecca Ackermann to help investigate Richmond’s actions. She found three undergraduates who gave accounts of inappropriate behavior. AMNH is still investigating him (he was placed on leave after the initial investigation, and no other punishment was added when Ackermann submitted the other three accusations).

Richmond had already left GWU, but continued to teach at the GWU-run Koobi Fora Field School in Kenya. According to the Science article, immediately after finding out his former co-worker and pupil was accused of sexual misconduct, GWU professor Bernard Wood decided that he wanted to be sure that Richmond’s presence at GWU was not marked by the same type of activity:

In St. Louis [at the conference where the research assistant first came forward], Wood canvassed younger researchers about their experiences with Richmond. He asked everyone the same question: “Does this alleged behavior come as any surprise to you?” But he didn’t get the “yes” he was expecting. Nearly all said that they were not surprised, and two individuals told Wood that they had been the direct subjects of unwanted sexual advances by Richmond.

Wood continued asking questions back at GWU’s Center for Advanced Study of Human Paleobiology (CASHP) that yielded similar responses. Rebecca Ackermann, an anthropologist asked by AMNH’s lawyer to help investigate Richmond’s history, found three undergraduates who gave accounts of incidents of harassment and unwanted contact that occurred at the field school.

The CASHP faculty informed Richmond that he was “no longer welcome at the Koobi Fora Field School and was no longer part of it.” Wood penned several blog posts and op-eds about about sexual misconduct in academia, one of which was published at the same time that Richmond was vying for a seat at a scholarly association’s governing board, and refused to chair a panel that Richmond was supposed to speak on. In one of the op-eds, Wood sketches out his motivation by saying that “male professors have a special responsibility to be strong allies of the women affected by sexual misconduct [and] we should not wait for traumatized junior colleagues to demonstrate the greatest courage before those with the greatest power show any.” He continued:

At the very least, any scientist should think twice before collaborating with those who use their research reputation to harass female colleagues, and before inviting them to conferences. Why? Because every paper they publish, talk they give, and conference they attend enhances the influence they have abused. If perpetrators are made to pay a professional cost, their influence will wane, depriving them of further opportunities to prey on women. More importantly, male faculty must report concerns to institutional authorities. The more frequently a department head or a dean learns of concerns, the more likely it is that behaviors will be recognized as a pattern of misconduct.

Sexual harassment in the sciences occurs in many circumstances and settings, but the silence of the past must be replaced by action. The untenured are brave to speak out, but powerful male voices must join in to make sure we level this particular playing field. Alpha males are the problem. Alpha males need to be part of the solution.

Wood’s actions, and his thought process behind them, are really important. It is vital for professors to help make campus safe for students. And this means more than passing a resolution or appointing a committee. It also means standing against those guilty of abusing the power and influence they have over their students.

Compare this to the situation that unfolded at Northwestern: in an article ostensibly about her university’s ban on sexual relations between professors and students (and the implicit acknowledgement of the power relations involved in such a relationship), Northwestern University professor Laura Kipnis described the misconduct accusations that philosophy professor Peter Ludlow faced as mere “melodrama.” Kipnis ridiculed students and activists for suggesting that a professor-student relationship might carry with it unequal power dynamics, arguing that “it’s just as likely that a student can derail a professor’s career these days as the other way around, which is pretty much what happened in the case of” Ludlow. (For more, see this overview of the Ludlow case).

This was an instance of several failures. Ludlow’s punishment for misconduct was a pay cut and a denied promotion and little else. The graduate student’s information was not kept confidential, and she faced harassment because of her actions. The university failed to protect her or sufficiently deal with the incidents. And Kipnis’ framing of the situation was misleading and the graduate student involved has stated that the article felt like retaliation for filing a complaint against Ludlow. When the university failed to respond, student activists intervened, making it impossible for him to teach and even preventing a job offer, eventually forcing his resignation.

When UC Berkeley astronomy professor Geoff Marcy was accused of repeated harassment and misconduct, his university did very little. His colleagues, however, responded swiftly by punishing him professionally by un-inviting him from conferences, publicly naming him, and pushing for his ouster. He eventually resigned. When the university failed to respond, other astronomers stepped up.

Looking over the current situation with Richmond, I’m glad that George Washington University’s Anthropology Department – a place I currently call home – has taken the actions that it has. It’s critical that faculty stand behind students in such positions, and it’s critical that those who abuse power face consequences.


Let’s Stop Telling Women How to Speak

Apparently there’s a new Chrome extension that will cut out words and phrases like “just” and “sorry” from e-mails. The app is aimed at women and is being marketed as a New Year’s resolution to help them stop using gendered words that temper their assertiveness. It’s the textual version of leaning in, I guess. From the article linked above:

The Just Not Sorry extension, which is downloadable at the Chrome app store, underlines self-demeaning phrases like “I’m no expert” and qualifying words like “actually” in red in Gmail like they’re spelling errors. Hover your mouse over the red words, and you’ll see explanatory quotes from women like Tara Mohr (“‘Just’ demeans what you have to say. ‘Just’ shrinks your power.”) and Sylvia Ann Hewlett(“Using sorry frequently undermines your gravitas and makes you appear unfit for leadership.”).

I’m all for an extension that links us to some cool quotes or whatever, but an app that tut-tuts people for using language that is labeled as “female” and therefore demeaning is, uh, problematic. I don’t think we need someone to tell us that using “sorry” makes someone unfit for leadership – maybe I want to sound empathetic. (Also, side-note that I’m totally aware that I’m a guy and this is totally different from my point of view, I promise).

Telling women to stop using qualifying words like “just” or “actually” is a coded way to telling women to talk more like men. Hidden under all that less-assertive-language policing is the misogynistic structure of, you know, everything.

This app is just another one of the ways in which women’s behaviors are deemed problematic. The impulse to tell women to stop using uptalk, for example, “implies that if women just spoke like men, our ideas would be valuable. If women just spoke like men, sexist listeners would magically understand us, and we would be taken seriously. But the problem is not with feminized qualities, of speech or otherwise, the problem is that our culture pathologizes feminine traits as something to be ashamed of or apologize for.

Uptalk and vocal fry, along with other speech patterns, get associated with women (and are subsequently denigrated). When it comes to whether or not we encourage women to change their speech, we become complicit in supporting a system that says to be successful is to behave according to a specific set of gendered ideals. This is just the sexism of our society manifested in a feminism self-help book whose goal is to act more like men. What we should be doing is carving out spaces where different language and speech patterns are all accepted in a more inclusive society that doesn’t try to mold people’s speech to a norm.

Here’s a brilliant quote from Debbie Cameron (who has also previously written about qualifying language and gender) on the new app:

Apart from being based on naïve and simplistic ideas about how language works, the other big problem with the ‘women, stop undermining yourselves’ approach is that it presupposes a deficit model of women’s language-use. If women use the word ‘sorry’ more than men (and by the way, that’s a genuine ‘if’: I’m not aware of any compelling evidence they do), that can only mean that women are over-using ‘sorry’, apologizing when it isn’t necessary or appropriate. The alternative interpretation—that men are under-using ‘sorry’ because they don’t always apologise when the circumstances demand it —is surely no less logical or plausible, but somehow it never comes up. As I said back in the summer, the assumption is always that ‘a woman’s place is in the wrong’.

And if we expand our scope a little bit, her point on arguing the alternative is really important. The extension is based on the huge assumption that qualifying or deferential language is somehow a bad thing, even though it has many uses. As mentioned above, I use this qualifying language a lot, and I know it might “seem less assertive” or whatever, but I am aiming to be more inclusive, more empathetic, less of a douchebag.

This is why I really liked this article by Adam Gopnik on “The Conscientiousness of Kidspeak,” in which researchers found that teens’ use of “like” or “you know” or “um” is actually a sign that the speaker is more thoughtful and considerate of the listener and is trying to convey additional meaning beyond the words in between. Instead of telling young girls to cut out these markers, we should try listening to them. The assumption is that teens and the internet are ruining the language when maybe they’re making it better.

The point is, we shouldn’t be telling women to speak more like men – that won’t lead to any change. But if we can create spaces where women can talk like women and not be chastised for it, we can hope for an entire society that is more equal and in which women can just be accepted regardless of how they act. Why say “sorry” less when we could just empathize with people more? Why lean in at the boardroom when we could ask everyone else at the table to lean back a little and include those who don’t have a seat? Why tell women to change the way they speak when we could just actually listen?