On the Aftermath of Sexual Misconduct
March 13, 2012 7:01 PM   Subscribe

Having heard way to many similar stories, Dr. Kate Clancy, author of the popular Scientific American blog Context and Variation, has recently run two accounts written by graduate students about their experiences with sexual harassment in the hopes that they will spark a wider discussion. The comments in the second article are uncharacteristically amazing and include several more women sharing their experiences. posted by Blasdelb (94 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
The other day while I was canvassing, some French guy from the JPL just flatly denied that there was any sexism in science or at the JPL.

"Well, there used to be, but it is long gone and the programs now, they go too far."

He was a young guy too, in his 30s, and when I said that he had a normative privilege — which I described as a cognitive bias — he said I was insulting him and stormed off. It was by far one of the most frustrating conversations of the day, but the part that really stuck with me was him saying that he knew there wasn't sexism (or racism or homophobia) there (or in France) because his female coworkers would sit down and have a beer with him and discuss things.

I can only hope that things like this will get enough blog press inside the science community to prompt more, and more pointed, discussions.

(I hate it when scientists deny their own biases.)
posted by klangklangston at 7:12 PM on March 13, 2012 [11 favorites]

I was sitting in class on the first day of Human Anatomy and the professor flashed up a bunch of 'funny' slides. One of them was 'To fully understand a woman, it is necessary to dissect one.'

I dropped the class the instant that hour was over. It still bothers me, profoundly, that an adult would think it acceptable to do something like that in a class that was more than half female students. No, mister creepy man, it's not okay to tell a bunch of eighteen-year-old girls that you think it's a funny joke to talk about cutting us open instead of talking to us. It's not okay to model that behavior for eighteen-year-old boys, either.

This was 1997, by the way, which seems like ancient days to me now but was not that long ago in real terms.
posted by winna at 7:46 PM on March 13, 2012 [4 favorites]

It's incredible to me that this kind of shit still happens.
posted by rtha at 7:50 PM on March 13, 2012

It's incredible to me that this kind of shit still happens.

Unfortunately there's enough assholes running departments, and leading by 'example,' that set up an organizational culture where this is tolerated all too easily.
posted by carter at 7:53 PM on March 13, 2012

Firstly : blech! Depressing when you see 'your own' act so disgracefully.

If you want to see a good dramatization of sexism in academic science, I recommend Jenny Connell's play The Scientific Method - not sure if it has been produced yet.

Intuition by Allegra Goodman - a novel - is also good.
posted by lalochezia at 7:54 PM on March 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

Unfortunately there's enough assholes running departments, and leading by 'example,' that set up an organizational culture where this is tolerated all too easily.

It's depressing that this is still so true. I thought this commenter put it well:
I am a graduate student and a man, and I know many of my female graduate students have encountered similar situations: as a man it is frustrating for a number of reasons. The first is that it is a terrible thing, and I can tell that it has a detrimental effect on their lives, let alone their research and careers. Second, is that it is a terribly frustrating element of academia for men who are NOT doucheclowns. Men who engage in harassment hurt my reputation as a student and a scholar because I’m a man in a male dominated field. They hurt my discipline because they make it an unsafe place for half the population to participate, and discourage the best and brightest to enter my field. And, most importantly, they hurt women. Period.
posted by rtha at 8:07 PM on March 13, 2012 [10 favorites]

He wasn't making a joke.

In the context of female anatomy, to fully understand the uniqueness of the gynecological apparatus and it's potential I'm afraid a dissection is quite, quite, so very necessary.
posted by Renoroc at 8:12 PM on March 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

As a woman and an engineer, I have too many of these stories. Because my friends (mostly the males, but some females as well) do not see this in their own lives, they do not believe it is still a problem. On top of dealing with my coworkers, it is exhausting having to continually teach the "good guys" that, just because they are not harassing women, it us a rare event. These posts help, so thank you.
posted by blurker at 8:16 PM on March 13, 2012

Renoroc, as winna was there, I would respectfully suggest that she has more context and would know whether this was meant as a joke.

If, in fact, you were making a joke, I apologize for my sensitivity on this subject.
posted by blurker at 8:20 PM on March 13, 2012 [5 favorites]

"He wasn't making a joke.

In the context of female anatomy, to fully understand the uniqueness of the gynecological apparatus and it's potential I'm afraid a dissection is quite, quite, so very necessary.

Gynecology has a deeply horrific history with regards to vivisection, that is the dissection of living people with no medical purpose, that is in no way funny. But aside from that, I hope we can skip the whole 'Everything women perceive is suspect and can be better analyzed by their male readers anyway' routine.
posted by Blasdelb at 8:21 PM on March 13, 2012 [37 favorites]

In the context of female anatomy, to fully understand the uniqueness of the gynecological apparatus and it's potential I'm afraid a dissection is quite, quite, so very necessary.

....And the male reproductive apparatus and its potential are *not* unique, and do not require dissection to be understood. Ok.

Just like there's no long history of hilarious jokes about how hard it is to understand women. Right.
posted by rtha at 8:36 PM on March 13, 2012 [23 favorites]

I don't in any way wish to deny that this is a very real problem – I am quite aware that it is. I would like to say, though, that the biology department where I work and take most of my classes (as far as I can tell from my admittedly male perspective) is one of most refreshingly sexism-free environments I have ever had the pleasure of being associated with.

The instructors and researchers in my department are a pretty even mix of men and women. The dean of the college is a man, but the chair of the department is a woman. Both of my PIs in the labs I have worked in so far have been women (they've been excellent bosses, too) and the people I've worked with have been an amazingly diverse group of men and women from a wide variety of cultural, ethnic, and economic backgrounds. I myself am more or less an exception as a white heterosexual cisgendered male, which is kind of novel and fun (albeit not as novel as it would have been before I moved to New Orleans).

As far as I've been able to tell (and I try to be aware of these things) everyone is treated the same – that is to say, what matters is one's willingness to work hard and carefully, ability to give and accept advice graciously, and awareness that one is part of a team. I'm sure there are things that I miss simply because my privilege allows me to be unaffected by them (I can't imagine how the many single mothers at my school are managing, when it's all I can do to get my homework and maybe the dishes done at the end of the day) but in a relative sense the amount of sexism that I notice during the day is much lower than what I see going on around me in other parts of my life.

It is an amazing environment to be able to work in, and I feel proud to be part of it even at the bottom level (though I've carved out a little niche in my lab as the resident tech support and handyman, and it's nice to feel that that's valued). It's the most supportive and encouraging work environment I have ever known, and the first place where I felt like I might really fit in. (I have plenty of my own idiosyncracies, after all.)

I guess I'm not totally sure where I'm going with this, but I felt it was important to point out that sexism is not universal within the sciences. As I said at the beginning, I'm quite aware that there is significant institutional sexism in the sciences (I have heard that biology is one of the better fields for women to work in, and that's where I work so I may be a bit biased) and I think it should be stamped out wherever and whenever it can be found. I feel strongly that the scientific community ought to actively seek out and police sexism and uproot it wherever possible.

Much of it is hiding up at the higher levels of the hierarchy, where senior scientists who worked their way up the ladder at a time when sexism was much more acceptable are still sitting. Wherever possible, these people should be firmly asked to step aside, because they are holding back the field by making it an unwelcoming place to half the population. To those who are coming into the field now and who still hold shall-we-say "retrograde" attitudes toward women, I would like to say: you are not wanted. Take your prejudice elsewhere. We don't want it here.
posted by Scientist at 8:42 PM on March 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Its not just the ancient days, and for every dramatic example we do hear about there are of course so many we don't, and so many more that just become mundane.

Just last year in a 650 student course I was TAing for:
  • The professor put up a slide, as he fumbled over trying to explain sexual selection, showing a picture of college age women in sweatpants with PINK written across the backside next to a picture of red-assed baboons. He tried to explain fertility advertisement along with a quip about how much he likes to read

  • As he pretty badly failed to describe the shift from animistic to mechanistic explanations for natural phenomena, he kept referencing how it was like the shift from polytheistic religions to monotheistic religions, as if they were somehow inherently better and the world's billion Hindus had somehow just not gotten the memo.
  • I heard from two female students and another female TA independently that they felt uncomfortable around him.

  • At my old undergraduate institution, there was this one Organic Chemistry professor in particular. In my whole four years there I never once saw him look a woman under thirty in the eye, not once, and no one I asked could honestly say they had either. It was almost a running joke. Only it wasn't funny to the women in his classes, or the students who felt they needed to flirt with him, or anyone male who couldn't, or the students unwilling to flirt with him. His interests and how they were received were more plainly reflected in how he evaluated students than their understanding of Organic Chemistry. I was in some position to know, I was an O-Chem tutor, and the stories from his classes were always the same.1

    As I talked to the professors I got to know better, it became clear that a weird kind of co-dependence had formed between him and the institution. Everyone knew there was a problem, they could all at least guess at how bad it was, and when prodded even predict that his career would end explosively someday but no one could or would take any action. They all knew about the two professors in the institution's short history who were dismissed for sleeping with students currently in a class they were teaching2, though they would not name names, even if I knew them from articles in the local newspapers archives.3 How the administration felt about harassment was made abundantly clear when one professor was found guilty of a felony for masturbating while staring at students in the gym's locker room, he was back teaching classes the next year. It was clear that, in the eyes of the administration, the fact that he was on the faculty was not the problem, the potential for a embarrassment was.*

    1Except the classy one about him making out with a current student who was in a class of his the previous quarter at the local Safeway, that I only that one heard once.
    2Amazingly, at the tiny institution only this was against the rules, he openly dated current students he had taught as well as ones he reasonable expectation of teaching.
    3With victim blaming so thick you could eat it with chopsticks
    posted by Blasdelb at 8:43 PM on March 13, 2012 [4 favorites]

    Hmm, the "fun and novel" line is faintly embarassing upon non-preview. I meant it in the sense that it is fun and novel to feel like I'm finally working in the real world with a bunch of mature people who realize that not everyone is just like them and that they can just say any old thing and expect people to nod and smile because their white male perspective is obviously just The Way it Is.
    posted by Scientist at 8:46 PM on March 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

    Slightly off-topic, Kate Clancy is also awesome as Anthrobrawlogist, member of the Twin City Derby Girls.
    posted by daisystomper at 8:54 PM on March 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

    For those wondering how to make the joke of vivisection still creepy but not sexist: "To fully understand a person, it is necessary to dissect them." See? Then it doesn't sound like you specifically want to cut open women.

    (Also, this is bringing back memories of my girlfriend's sister being told that women didn't have the brains to do science… by a department head who was nominally connected to her graduate research).
    posted by klangklangston at 8:55 PM on March 13, 2012

    Hmm. There is actually one professor in one of my lab classes who I've locked horns with a couple of times this semester over his jokes about "chivalry" and such. I can't speak for the experience of anyone else in the class as I haven't asked them (I've heard a lot of complaints about his being an ineffective teacher, none about sexism, though as a random male student I'm probably not the one that people are going to with complaints of that type) but it made me a bit uncomfortable when in a class of three male students, one male instructor, and about twenty female students the instructor made a joke to the effect that if one of the ladies breaks some glassware I might take it upon myself to prove that chivalry is not dead and clean it up for them.

    It actually became a running thing between him and me for a couple of classes (I'm not sure he realized that I was genuinely annoyed, he is probably a little bit socially inept in general) until I flat out said, "Chivalry is just the other side of chauvinism. I prefer politeness. Politeness is gender-neutral."

    After that he left off it. I still felt weird for being a guy and speaking my head out against perceived sexism among a class of mostly women none of whom had asked me to do so, but it he was needling me and I felt I had to stick up for myself.
    posted by Scientist at 8:57 PM on March 13, 2012 [6 favorites]

    I will probably not get much support when I say that sexual harassment cuts both ways. I was in a woman-dominated degree program, with a woman as Dean. Power corrupts. Women received favored treatment and men were marginalized to the point that of the maybe 200 students I saw in the MA program over several years, only maybe 5 of them were men. I will never forget the day I was called into the Dean's office during my first semester. She read me the riot act, she insisted that I never ever socialize with any of the women in the department, and if she ever caught me dating one of her girls, I'd be drummed out of the program. I was innocent as the driven snow, I didn't even think about socializing with anyone, and I lived a lonely student life. But still, she was suspicious of me and would not let me continue in the grad program, she drummed me out anyway. She told me I had to ace a particular seminar in order to continue. I got an A, I went and told the Dean so she would sign off. She said, "oh the teacher was just being nice to you." I told her that was an insult, not to me, but to her teacher, who would not give me a grade that I did not deserve. The Dean would not sign off on my advancement. I went to the teacher (a woman) and told her what happened, but she begged me not to make an issue of it, it would ruin her advancement. She left for another school after the next semester. I did some of my best work in my final semester with that teacher, and she seemed sad that she could not help me, and I was sad I could not fight for my own position without ruining hers.

    Meanwhile, one of my best (male) friends was dating the Dean's favorite student. I didn't know this, he kept it a secret from me, and everyone, until they both graduated (a year apart). Then they revealed they were secretly married two years ago. I had no idea, I rarely saw them together and even then, I thought they were not even acquainted. The woman had already received the Dean's recommendation and was offered several positions at other universities on the research circuit that would have taken her around the usual universities and lead to a tenure track position. But the Dean thought she was deceived (well of course she was) and the poor woman's recommendations were withdrawn. Her career was ruined. My friend could not get a recommendation to continue in the grad program. The Dean took out her anger on both of them for defying her orders.

    And the Dean was an angry woman. I often saw her rage at other professors, particularly the male tenured professors who were older than her. She even raged at one professor who was famous for writing the textbook in the field, until he resigned and left to another university (ironically, a private women's college, one of the Seven Sisters) who was glad to have him. Another professor left and became one of the most important men in the field, but only after he got away from the Dean, who was suppressing his research. Eventually the Dean was fired and lost her tenure (officially: resigned to take a lower grade position at another university) for some reason that was covered up and everyone pretended nothing was wrong at all. I couldn't get a single word out of the usual rumor mill. Her wrath extended throughout the field, and nobody would speak ill of her, out of fear of retribution.
    posted by charlie don't surf at 8:58 PM on March 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

    I, like Scientist, have had the benefit of "growing up" scientifically in relatively sexist-free environments. But I am a woman, and there is most definitely unique pressure on women, in several non-obvious ways.

    Several times I have had my suggestions ignored/downplayed by male colleagues, only to have the same comment acknowledged when coming from a male.

    I have had to be very careful about how I present myself, and the way I speak, and the way I deal with issues if I am upset. Because if a woman gets upset, or god-forbid teary eyed, it wasn't because there might be a good reason...but because she couldn't handle the stress.

    I was in grad school in Boston the same time Larry Summers made his ridiculous comments at Harvard, and had to listen to some of the lame debate centered around that crap.

    I have heard stories of how faculty at a nearby institute would find ways to dismiss pregnant graduate students that seemingly had no reason to do with said pregnancy.

    I am grateful to have been where I was, but these are the things I have observed in a benign environment.
    posted by nasayre at 9:08 PM on March 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

    It's delightful that we got an illustration in the thread itself about how women's concerns about hostile environment are trivialized and the historical context of sexism is erased.

    And by delightful I mean deeply sad.
    posted by winna at 9:11 PM on March 13, 2012 [14 favorites]

    charlie don't surf, that definitely sounds like a toxic combination of sexism and favoritism, but I would draw a distinction between that and sexual harassment. Especially since your story includes a number of female teachers and students who seemed to be equally afraid of that Dean's wrath.
    posted by Ragged Richard at 9:12 PM on March 13, 2012 [10 favorites]

    I just need to say, when you're trying to teach someone how to use a laboratory safely and they consistently have no interest in listening to you, but will accept the same direction from your (less experienced, taught by you) male colleague... you kind of start to wish they'd just spill HF on themselves.
    posted by six-or-six-thirty at 9:13 PM on March 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

    Something weird about the links---all but the first two went to the same story.
    posted by leahwrenn at 9:15 PM on March 13, 2012

    charlie don't surf, I'm not sure that that was only sexism you were dealing with, though it was certainly an awful situation. The woman in question seemed pretty indiscriminately awful to everyone around her, female or male. I can certainly see sexist elements though, and I think that the important lesson to take from that is that the patriarchy hurts everyone.

    Perhaps if this woman hadn't grown up and built her career in a society and a profession that is dominated by men, values the contributions of men over those of women, and is often actively hostile and dangerous to women, she would not have felt the need to set up a mirror image of the patriarchy on the microcosmic scale of her department. She certainly sounds like she had issues well beyond that, but misandry among women is often a reaction to widespread misogyny among society at large. If we could remove the latter, the former would no doubt become much weaker as well.
    posted by Scientist at 9:22 PM on March 13, 2012

    "Something weird about the links---all but the first two went to the same story."

    All but the first two go to the same page but to different comments in the comments section, if it isn't working for you (mobile site?) the same effect can be gotten by scrolling down.
    posted by Blasdelb at 9:25 PM on March 13, 2012

    I will probably not get much support when I say that sexual harassment cuts both ways.

    Forgive me, but - was anyone arguing otherwise?

    If you're contending, beyond the non-sequitur, that sexual harrassment against men in academia is endemic on the same scale as that which women experience, than I would suggest you're totally wrong.
    posted by smoke at 9:27 PM on March 13, 2012 [10 favorites]

    Yeah, the comment links don't work if you're on your phone reading this. Wait till you get home.

    I dunno, I think at least some of charlie don't surf's dean's vitriol does sound like it was directed at him For Being Male. Doesn't mean the dean wasn't fucking crazy and doesn't mean she didn't hate everyone (sounds like both were totally true), but it sounds like he did get targeted for something gender-specific.
    posted by jenfullmoon at 9:34 PM on March 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

    I'm trying to wrap my head around what it is that makes sexism so difficult to police and what causes sexual harassment to go unpunished, specifically in academia. I think that part of the problem is similar to one of the main causes of police corruption, namely that academia is a small and largely self-contained community, and that networks of interdependency are very tight.

    Grad students depend on their mentors for training and funding. Senior scientists depend on each other for collaboration to get their research done. Administrators and department heads depend on their faculty to bring prestige to the university. And everyone depends on everyone else to create a united front to the rest of the world, to maintain a clean and respectable image for their institution and their field, because the public disgrace of any one of us reduces the credibility of all of us.

    This probably goes a long way toward explaining why it is that when senior academics are punished for sexual harassment, it is often done very quietly and those around them (both their victims and their erstwhile peers) are frightened into silence. It is also why junior scientists (students and grad students) are often simply run out of their programs or told that they are acting crazy and are endangering their careers when they try to stand up for themselves, because it is a lot easier and from some (wrongheaded) angles less costly to silence or remove a grad student than to deal with a problem professor.

    This goes some way toward explaining why it is that sexual harassment is so often tolerated or minimized in the sciences (as was the case for "Lady", the woman in the second linked article) but it doesn't do much to explain why sexism in general is so prevalent. I think some of this comes down to the fact that a lot of people in the sciences are a bit socially awkward to begin with, and when these people manage to achieve positions where they are valued and respected for their contributions, they often become arrogant and decide that they no longer need to try to please anyone because they can stand on their reputation as a researcher. For what it's worth, this is not always true – my PI collaborates extensively, and will freely admit that she tries to avoid collaborating with people who have reputations as being pains in the ass.

    Anyway though, I think the experience of the woman in the first article linked ("Haze"), stems in part from these people who decide that they can more or less say and do whatever shitty things they feel like because they carry a lot of weight in their little subspecialty; as PIs they have a lot of ability to define the culture of their teams. They get to decide who is in and who is out, who gets funding and credit on papers, and what kind of behavior is acceptable. There's not a whole lot of oversight for this unless things get really extreme, and then you're back dealing with the problems I was talking about earlier.

    Anyway, a lot of this is sort of speculation and second-hand information coming from me, but if there are people here who can shed the light of first-hand experience on my thoughts I would love to hear about it. This is a very important problem in the sciences right now (well, it always has been but there's more awareness of its importance these days) and I think that the first step in solving it for good is to really understand what the institutional patterns are that drive it.
    posted by Scientist at 9:54 PM on March 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

    Perhaps if this woman hadn't grown up and built her career in a society and a profession that is dominated by men, values the contributions of men over those of women, and is often actively hostile and dangerous to women, she would not have felt the need to set up a mirror image of the patriarchy on the microcosmic scale of her department.

    Oh! Oh! if you get to make that argument do I get to say that all she really needed was a good fuck to chill out?

    No...no I don't. Because they're both speculative, demeaning evasion.

    The idea that women are morally superior to men, individually or as a group, is a type of sexism that isn't good for anyone. Her actions were despicable. Men can act well. Women can act poorly. Attempts to say that women's poor actions are somehow the fault of men is to infantilize them and strip them of their dignity as moral actors. According to charlie don't surf the other women in that program somehow managed to act well. The men in the program somehow manged to act well.

    One thing all of us need to accept is that some women, like some men, are just horrid human beings.
    posted by bswinburn at 9:55 PM on March 13, 2012 [8 favorites]

    Her actions can be despicable and at the same time be rooted in a life experience that involved being dominated, harassed, demeaned, and belittled by men. The two are not mutually exclusive. I very specifically said "perhaps", because after all I do not know this woman or what she has been through. Do you deny the plausibility of it? Do you deny that women ever develop a dim view of the male gender due to being poorly treated by the men in their lives?

    I made no accusations that women as a group are misandrist, though I think it's uncontroversial that some are. There are three and a half billion women out there, after all. I don't think that accusing someone of sexism, regardless of their gender or the gender of those who the sexism is targeted at, denies their agency. People should definitely be held responsible for their sexism, men and women both.

    How controversial is it though, to say that we live in a male-dominated society where misogyny is much more prevalent and damaging on the whole than misandry, that from a systemic point of view it makes sense to think of some of the misandry as a reaction to the misogyny, and that if we could somehow extirpate misogyny from our culture we would likely see a marked reduction in misandry as well? Is that really a controversial statement? Because that's really the entirety of what I was saying. I wasn't trying to shift blame or reduce anyone's agency. People are still responsible for how they interact with the rest of the world.
    posted by Scientist at 10:04 PM on March 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

    I just realized that I am being super male and dominating the shit out of a conversation about a topic with which I have little direct experience. I'm going to go do the dishes now, calm down, and let y'all get on with it. It's a fascinating thread and I don't want to make it less fascinating by getting up on a hill and taking on all comers.
    posted by Scientist at 10:07 PM on March 13, 2012 [8 favorites]

    I just realized that I am being super male

    posted by eddydamascene at 10:23 PM on March 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

    Aaaaand welcome to another round of blame the victim, musical chairs edition! Remember, the only thing you have to lose is the chance for a productive discourse.
    posted by andorphin at 11:20 PM on March 13, 2012

    Oh! Oh! if you get to make that argument do I get to say that all she really needed was a good fuck to chill out?

    No...no I don't. Because they're both speculative, demeaning evasion.

    But in this particular instance, you might be right. Her husband was on the faculty at a different university and she saw him about 3 times a year. She moved to his university because they had a policy that they would accommodate married faculty whenever possible. But more likely, that was probably the only place she could go, after getting kicked out.

    Hey I didn't mean to hijack the thread here, but I seem to have. And I will accept that she made her own weird mirror image of the patriarchy she had previously encountered. But I often hear the theory that oppressed classes cannot, by definition, be oppressors, and I disagree.

    Now the tales I've heard from women are far worse than mine, and I do not mean to minimize them by using my experience as a false equivalence. For example, I know of one of my male professors (in another department) who basically didn't mentor anyone but women that would sleep with him. But that was back in the 70s, when this crap was suppressed, if not actively condoned. One of his famous students (now dead) has her affair with him described extensively in her biography, it was an open secret at the time. And that was exactly the kind of shit he pulled on women, year after year, that got his tenure revoked and he was kicked out, although it took decades to do it. And he tried to take down as many women as possible with him, lashing out at the wrong targets, in the belief they blew the whistle on him. Recently there have been other similar cases of other harassing professors at my university, but the policies are so strict now, that one guy committed suicide before the hearings commenced. Yeah, he was guilty as sin.
    posted by charlie don't surf at 11:21 PM on March 13, 2012

    Too much the animal still, it would seem.
    posted by Slackermagee at 11:33 PM on March 13, 2012

    As an older person than most of you, I have to say that even in the face of the new, bizarre "war on women" it is heartening that more of these conversations are happening because it seems to me that for a long time we coasted on some (wishful?) post-feminism assumption that I never understood because I kept looking around and seeing every list of Top/Best/Most Important/Most Influential contributions/voices published anywhere populated almost entirely by white males. This is still the case, but now we seem to talking about it again, and I'm grateful for that.

    Also as an older person, I feel very conflicted about saying that I am rather eager for the people in power my age and older who have been complacent about these sorts of abuses to be retired out and replaced by men and women who are shocked and nearly unbelieving about the sorts of stories that have been shared in the posts and comments linked in this post. I want everyone to be so taken aback and aghast as to be almost disbelieving that such things happen in this day and age. But as long as it's still happening, they need to believe. And then change all the things.
    posted by taz at 2:25 AM on March 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

    I didn’t realize that many research projects are run like pyramid schemes

    Umm, pretty much all research projects are run like pyramid schemes. Everything works out as long as there is growth. If this were not the case each professor would have only 1 PhD student during his entire career. There's the siphon valve of industry of course (for the technical fields), but academics don't seem to be actively aware of this.
    posted by Chekhovian at 2:34 AM on March 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

    These stories are awful, as mentors, teachers and faculty, these people have a duty of car towards their students and staff to create an environment that is free from harassment. That they don't is appalling. Good on Dr. Clancy and her readership for shining a light on it. We need to keep doing this as much as possible, silence helps nobody.
    posted by arcticseal at 2:39 AM on March 14, 2012

    Hey I didn't mean to hijack the thread here, but I seem to have.

    And that's why smart men don't post about their experiences with "reverse sexism" on threads that are about sexism. They're irrelevant, derailing and disruptive.

    I'll leave the generalisation of this rule to the reader.
    posted by MartinWisse at 4:18 AM on March 14, 2012 [4 favorites]

    I'm female. I had been lucky enough to grow up academically in women-friendly environments despite being in a male-dominated field (I'm a physicist). A woman taught my first physics course at university, there were several others in both my undergrad and grad departments, a woman was chair of my grad department.

    I was one of those who thought only subtle things happened these days. You know, the still-possibly damaging but well-meaning remarks, such as "Oh, you should apply for this fellowship-- since you're female, you'll have a better chance". Or the odd effect of being one of the small number of women at a conference, and thus more recognizable. Things which aren't fair and aren't good, but aren't exactly blatant sexism, either.

    But then that changed. I didn't tell anyone at first, I still don't tell any information to anyone publicly or in my field unless I have no choice (and occasionally, I have no choice). The first friend I told- his response was "What? it's two-thousand-fucking-seven!"

    Yes, and now it's two-thousand-fucking-twelve, and this Unfortunate Experience will follow me around forever (well, as long as I'm a scientist). I managed to finish up, but these things never really end in academia-- we are small, insular communities. Everyone knows everyone else and goes to the same conferences and so you can't avoid people; and you need rec letters and support in your career and so on.

    I did what I could to prevent a repeat with the same exact details as mine, but of course somewhere, someone will be treated exactly as I was. And they may not have the lucky background I otherwise had, the support I otherwise had, to survive it. They might just quietly leave the field.

    Telling the stories, ensuring people know that they are not alone, is a terrible combination of critical and essentially impossible. I do not know who Z. and F. are, but I promise you someone who read that article has figured it out. How can you speak out, and also be protected from repercussions? How can we support those who are on the receiving end, and give education to those who are the harassers?

    I dunno. Time to go to work and keep on.
    posted by nat at 5:34 AM on March 14, 2012 [3 favorites]

    martinwisse - I disagree.

    They're irrelevant - hardly.
    derailing - sometimes, but it's not comments like charlie don't surf's that cause this. It's the knee-jerk reactions - such as yours.
    disruptive - what's disruptive about this in a thread about harrassment, sexism, and bullying? It's still on topic, and it was an interesting anecdote. Similar to some of those comments from the Scientific American article.

    I'll leave te generalisation of this rule to the reader.
    uh, no you didn't. You made the generalisation yourself, very clearly and broadly.

    If you want to fight against the kind of situations described in the article and throughout this thread, you can't come down like a ton of bricks on any male who makes an honest attempt to engage in conversations about sexism. And one perfectly reasonable approach people use to engage in a dialog is to relate the topic to their own experiences.
    posted by joz at 5:41 AM on March 14, 2012 [5 favorites]

    This article is Relevant To My Interests. When I was initially applying to graduate school, my (awesome, male) advisor went through the list of professors I was interested in working for and told me that two of them had reputations for sexually harassing their graduate students. In fact, when I met one of them at a conference, he had a wonderful conversation with my chest as I was giving my poster presentation.

    I've been lucky in my choice of professors; however my research requires that I leave the country and work in isolated locations, usually as the only female (and, so far, the youngest person) at the station or site. I've been sexually harassed in all three places I've worked (though not by professors, but by other researchers, field assistants, or staff at the station). And I've never felt comfortable enough with my PIs to discuss the situation with them - in some cases, it didn't seem like an important enough incident to bother people with, in other cases, it was an extension of the way men in the country treat women. When I was raped, I didn't tell anyone because I didn't feel there was anything that could be done to salvage the situation and keep me safe. When the field assistants discussed the various contours of my body in a language I spoke but the PI didn't, I just pretended I didn't hear, because again, it didn't feel like there was any way to salvage things. Etc. etc.

    What I would really like is to have advisors be the people to initiate the conversation about harassment and sexual assault - whether in the sense of professors sexually harassing students, or safety in fieldwork. As a graduate student, the power dynamics in the are already skewed against me, and starting the conversation ("So, how concerned about being raped should I be when I start working in isolation in Developing Country Emerging From Civil War?") is more than I felt I could do, even with my awesome advisor. But if this was a conversation regularly being held within departments, it would make things SO MUCH BETTER. I've e-mailed Dr. Clancy's article to the president of our grad student association with the suggestion that we make a conversation about sexual assault and harassment part of the grad student orientation in my department. And I really appreciate having a professor broach the topic in a way that opens up more conversations.
    posted by SockMarionette at 5:48 AM on March 14, 2012 [8 favorites]

    Oh- I meant to add that even in my relatively gender-equitable field, there's a strong element of machismo in the subset of us who do fieldwork. You don't want to be perceived as weak in any was, particularly as a female graduate student just starting out on the path of long term fieldwork in developing countries. Wanting to avoid the label of "wimp" is part of why I was so reluctant to begin the conversation ("If she was a male graduate student, this wouldn't be a problem. Maybe she'll think it's too dangerous and drop out in the middle of her fieldwork.") - as well as (hopefully misguided) sense that by letting sexual harassment and sexual assault bother me, I was being weak.
    posted by SockMarionette at 5:58 AM on March 14, 2012 [3 favorites]

    Scientists thinking that women are too wimpy to do fieldwork is just the stupidest thing I have ever heard, and here's why:

    Birutė Galdikas
    Dian Fossey
    Jane Goodall

    Seriously, you'd have to be a special kind of idiot to think that women can't do fieldwork.
    posted by Scientist at 6:12 AM on March 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

    Actually, I'm surprised it took this long for an "but what about the men??" comment in a thread about sexism. It is derailing. It is frustrating. It is just one more example of men's issues being perceived as more worthy of debate. Dealing with sexism without invoking the but-that-one-woman-in-power-hated-men exception would be so incredibly refreshing.

    Look, no one thinks it isn't horrid when women do it to men. But the discussion was about the prevalence of sexual harassment in academia, sexual harassment that has been normalized and is still hushed up and ignored. So what do we do? Talk about men who once had a problem with a prejudiced woman, obviously. Or even, as much as I know none of this is meant to be mansplaining, about the experiences of men dealing with sexism around women in academia.

    The patriarchy hurts everyone, but could we for once focus on how it especially hurts women?
    posted by lydhre at 6:36 AM on March 14, 2012 [12 favorites]

    Someone mentioned having male colleagues not take their suggestions until they come from a man (exact same suggestion) and also when men don't look you in the eye when speaking. These are good barometers of how to tell men who don't acknowledge or respect women from those that do. The eye contact test when I am speaking is my number one gauge to tell if a man is worthy of respect or not. It's particularly invalidating to be the only woman in a group of men and not only not be listened to, but talked over as if you aren't there.
    posted by agregoli at 6:50 AM on March 14, 2012

    I like how a couple of the very early comments were about women having to continue to explain to their male colleagues that just because they don't practice sexual harrassment it doesn't exist anymore and then a whole bunch of men parade in to see how sexism free their depts/experiences have been. It's hilarious. Although, not as hilarious as the absolutely tone deaf and horrid comment about the female gynecological system. And by hilarious I mean absolutely not fucking funny or entertaining at all.
    posted by spicynuts at 6:56 AM on March 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

    Clearly I fucked up that first sentence. Just because they don't...DOESN'T mean it doesn't exist anymore.
    posted by spicynuts at 6:59 AM on March 14, 2012

    lydhyre, thank you. You are absolutely right. (This is why I'm now trying to tone down my enthusiasm, despite obviously having some rather strong opinions on this subject.)

    If we can pretend for a moment that we have solved the two problems that this thread displays -- namely that there are some who don't believe sexual harassment of women is widespread in the sciences, and others who think that it's appropriate and relevant that the discussion of such should be dominated by male opinion and experience (yours truly included, in my less self-aware moments) -- where should we go from there?

    I would love to know why this stuff continues to happen in this day and age, and what is to be done about it. I posted some conjecture about the former above, but I realize that conjecture is all it is. I have no solid ideas with regard to the former.

    Of course, I don't have much experience dealing with this stuff and I would really love to hear from people who do, particularly if anyone has any success stories where they came up against this sort of disgusting behavior, fought it, and won in a satisfactory way. What sorts of individual and institutional strategies are most effective here? Someone mentioned trying to get this discussion to be a formal part of grad student orientation, whish seemed like a smashing idea when I read it. What else can be or is being done in this area? Is there any way that I, as a relative outsider, can be of help?
    posted by Scientist at 6:59 AM on March 14, 2012

    spicynuts, my first comment (where I talked about how little sexism I'd found in my department) was regrettable and tone-deaf, but I hope you don't think that I was saying that I feel my department is free of sexism. All I was trying to say (and perhaps I wasn't clear enough) was that relative to other parts of my life, I have noticed very little sexism. I have still noticed some, and I'm sure there is plenty that I don't notice. Still, if you compare my job in the lab to my job in the cigar factory, there's no fucking contest. Only one of those jobs makes me want to curse people out for being ignorant patriarchal shitfaces on a regular basis.
    posted by Scientist at 7:05 AM on March 14, 2012

    "This goes some way toward explaining why it is that sexual harassment is so often tolerated or minimized in the sciences (as was the case for "Lady", the woman in the second linked article) but it doesn't do much to explain why sexism in general is so prevalent."

    Of course academia is weird and eccentric and in a lot of ways antiquated, but I've always felt that the primary cause of awful fucking shit happening, is that it is allowed to happen. Creepy professors didn't become professors by being idiots, or by being socially clueless, they are as clued in as they need to be and predatory. They will be precisely as creepy as they are allowed to be, will get caught when the lines in the sand are crossed, and go on when they arn't.

    The institutional problem is with the lines in the sand, we need to hold them accountable regardless of the consequences to us because that is the right thing to do. We will also all be better off when more people take Professor McStaresAtChest aside and say that it isn't cool, graduate students are believed and their careers protected from Professor GradRomeo, when no one collaborates with Professor Deuchecakes at the creepy field station because he won't even fire Dr. FuckingRapist who works there, when Professor CreepsOnStudents is not only passed over for tenure but fired, and all of the deuchenozzels stop getting invited to conferences.
    posted by Blasdelb at 7:09 AM on March 14, 2012 [12 favorites]

    I would love to know why this stuff continues to happen in this day and age, and what is to be done about it.

    It continues to happen because people let it happen. I don't mean to be glib, but that's the basis right there.

    Instead of warning off your female students from a particular PI or advisor who has a rep for harassment, it should (in the ideal world where there are unicorns etc.) be announced publicly that you will not recommend any students, male or female, to a particular program until they get rid of the jerk(s) or make them stop. This kind of behavior will stop when department chairs, other faculty at the institution, other faculty in the field, etc. make the perpetrators into pariahs.

    The guy I quoted above also points out that it would be really helpful if fellow (male) grad students called out this behavior when they see their peers engaging in it.
    posted by rtha at 7:15 AM on March 14, 2012 [9 favorites]

    Ha. Lack of preview. Jinx, Blasdelb!
    posted by rtha at 7:15 AM on March 14, 2012

    Creepy professors didn't become professors by being idiots, or by being socially clueless

    I'm actually not so sure about this. I've met some extremely socially clueless academics. But most departments are willing to overlook this if someone's work is good. Just last year, my department hired a new professor. He is the single most socially awkward person I've ever met. His job talk actually made me uncomfortable, not because of anything he said, but because his manner was so off-putting. But his book is going to set the field on fire, so he got hired anyway.

    I think this sort of thing doesn't cause the problem we're discussing, but it does make it much worse, for two reasons. 1 - The academy has become accustomed to tolerating all sorts of weird behavior from its professors, and so has difficulty distinguishing between creepy/predatory and creepy/odd. This is especially the case because of reason # 2, which is that the academy is also well stocked with people in positions of power who are really bad at reading social cues, and so do recognize problematic behavior when they see it, or are not aware that someone is visibly uncomfortable.
    posted by Ragged Richard at 7:16 AM on March 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

    OK, so why is it allowed to happen? Is it lack of awareness of the problem, or is there some powerful incentive which pushes people in positions of academic power to downplay and minimize cases of sexual harassment?

    Are there no policies in place, or are they simply unenforced, or is it a combination of both? I feel like I know some of the answers to these questions, but surely not all, and I'm at a bit of a loss for how to change the situation for the better.

    Blasdelb's proposed reforms would make a big difference were they to be implemented, so how do we go about getting them implemented? Is it enough to simply make choices on an individual level to create a better environment for women in science, or should we be organizing a movement to generate a paradigm shift in the halls of academia such that reforms like this would be implemented as a matter of course, and policies against sexual harassment would be enforced consistently and decisively?

    What do we actually do about this to see through the changes that need to be made?
    posted by Scientist at 7:29 AM on March 14, 2012

    When I was in grad school, one of my friends was sexually harassed by a professor and filed a complaint according to the university's (quite progressive) guidelines. Since the professor, unsurprisingly, was a serial offender, other women joined the complaint, and it received considerable publicity, due to which my friend was so vilified and shunned that she dropped her complaint. This was quite a while back, but somehow it doesn't feel like ancient history.
    posted by languagehat at 7:56 AM on March 14, 2012 [6 favorites]

    Do you know what happened to the prof afterwards, languagehat? I'm curious if the prof actually had to face any consequences.
    posted by nat at 8:29 AM on March 14, 2012

    OK, so why is it allowed to happen? Is it lack of awareness of the problem, or is there some powerful incentive which pushes people in positions of academic power to downplay and minimize cases of sexual harassment?

    Here's the real answer. There are too many grad students. We have a science bubble. When supply goes up, price goes down, its as simple as that. Say an advisor does terrible things to his students and those students leave his group, well there will always be more grads lining up to take those places.

    Have you read this article? Lethal Chemistry at Harvard.

    This guy has had 3 of his students kill themselves (not due to sexual harassment), and nothing has happened. Reading the article, he seems like a reasonable guy. There are plenty of people that testify about how caring and wonderful he is. But 3 of his students killing themselves...that sends some kind of message...oh, wait, he has a Nobel prize, NVM.

    is there some powerful incentive

    Yes, its called cheap labor. Academic research is built on what is basically voluntary enslavement. The way the economics are setup right now it simply wouldn't work otherwise. And you wonder when the Profs go on power trips...
    posted by Chekhovian at 8:37 AM on March 14, 2012 [3 favorites]

    Have there been too many grad students for the last 40 or so years? Because it's not like sexual and other forms of harassment are new.
    posted by rtha at 8:40 AM on March 14, 2012

    Have there been too many grad students for the last 40 or so years? Because it's not like sexual and other forms of harassment are new.

    The grad school bubble is post 60's or so, so yes. Colleges did expand a lot then, so the surplus got used. Then new PhDs starting doing postdocs, then multiple postdocs, etc.
    posted by Chekhovian at 8:45 AM on March 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

    I'd bet it has an awful lot to do with the fact that a lot of those too many grad students are too female.
    posted by rtha at 8:57 AM on March 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

    That's just ridiculous. Grad students may be undervalued due to there being a glut of them (or maybe not, it's actually irrelevant) but it in no way follows from that that we should be unsurprised that their abuse is tolerated. We should be surprised, shocked, and disgusted by abuse of grad students because they are people, and should enjoy protections that ensure their humane treatment. We should be on top of this. For fuck's sake.
    posted by Scientist at 8:59 AM on March 14, 2012

    I don't think Chekhovian is saying this behavior is *ok*, I think Chekhovian is just giving us a possible reason. Crappy treatment of junior-level folk in academia of all sorts (be it low payment, long hours, or things like sexual harassment) does at least partially continue to happen because of the glut of young folk.

    Think of it this way: if you are a young person being harassed, are you less likely to report it if you know you're easily replaceable?

    Yes, of course.

    No, that doesn't mean you *should* be treated poorly, nor does it necessarily address the root of the problem to comment on the glut, but it is part of the reason people dont' always stand up and complain about the poor treatment.
    posted by nat at 9:03 AM on March 14, 2012

    a lot of those too many grad students are too female

    Look I've been in lab for about 30 hours straight, so maybe I'm misreading this, but if you're making an insinuation here, its really a rather crass way to do it.

    So let's try the economics of it again (role play that you're a college admin type, one the most amoral types of toad-like humanity around):

    Important money-bringing-in person has complaints lodged against them by unimportant easily replaceable person...what do you think is going to happen?

    We should be surprised, shocked, and disgusted by abuse of grad students because they are people

    How fucking earnest can you be? Humans do bad things given the opportunity, film at 11!
    posted by Chekhovian at 9:05 AM on March 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

    nat...thank you.
    posted by Chekhovian at 9:05 AM on March 14, 2012

    Reducing human beings to featureless economic units denies human agency, cultural bias, nonfinancial motivators such as status and fear of confrontation, and a whole host of other critical social factors. Applying that kind of market-reductionist approach to situations like this one is one of the greatest intellectual fallacies of the modern age.
    posted by Scientist at 9:30 AM on March 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

    What do we actually do about this to see through the changes that need to be made?

    I don't agree with it, but Listen. Just listen to the stories, listen to the concerns, listen to the outcomes. Maybe it's a starting point, maybe it's also the ending point, but that is what I have seen is supposed to be what to do. Listen.
    posted by cashman at 9:35 AM on March 14, 2012

    I'd meant my question to be rhetorical, but I'm glad that you apparently did not discern that intention. Now I need to go register "Featureless Economic Unit" as a sock puppet. That's worth $5.
    posted by Chekhovian at 9:35 AM on March 14, 2012

    Also, I believe the "too female" comment was in regard to the fact that there are a lot of sexist, misogynistic assholes in the higher echelons of the scientific community and that female grad students are therefore at higher risk of abuse than male ones. To use your metric, female grad students are considered less valuable than male ones. Why should this be? The discussion here is not about abuse of grad students in general, but about the disproportionality and sexualization of abuse of female grad students in particular.
    posted by Scientist at 9:42 AM on March 14, 2012

    Look I've been in lab for about 30 hours straight, so maybe I'm misreading this, but if you're making an insinuation here, its really a rather crass way to do it.

    I didn't mean to insinuate. I meant to be crystal fucking clear: Too many PIs/advisors resent their previously all-male boys' club being "invaded" by women. These PIs and advisors may well treat their male grad students like shit at least sometimes, but in addition to expecting their female grad students to put up with the "you must spend one million hours in the lab or you are not serious about this" bullshit that they hand out to their male students, they will also do the "sleep with me or else," or "laugh along with me as I make jokey remarks about your tits" or "too bad you're not as committed to this as all the male applicants I passed up in order to give you a spot, I'll never make that mistake again."

    This is stuff I got as an undergrad at a previously all-male college, which had been coed for about 20 years when I started. We got this shit from some students, a ton of alums, and not a few faculty (especially, though not exclusively, those in the sciences, from what I heard from women friends who were majoring in chem, geology, etc.).
    posted by rtha at 9:43 AM on March 14, 2012 [5 favorites]

    I will probably set the cat amongst the dogs again with a followup. I have been denounced on MeFi in the past for expressing an opinion that situations like institutional sexism against women are an instance of greater social inequities. My "humanist argument" was denounced as a way to minimize feminist arguments, when I meant it in quite the opposite manner.

    But the criticism might be valid, I don't know. What I do know is that there are changing demographics in universities that have drawn focus on the problem. The cost of higher education is rising and fewer men are choosing to go to college. Some schools that were gender balanced 50/50 are now as high as 70% women, and men are, for the first time, finding themselves in a minority. This demographic shift is spreading to professors as well, and as a wave of women graduates come into the faculty, they are confronting the existing power structures. In the personal case I described, they merely adapted the power mechanism to their own ends. But it would be preferable to change the power dynamic entirely. That is harder to do.

    I once heard very interesting lecture by a woman professor I studied with. In fact, I returned to school to finish my degree so that I could study under her, but she was generally disinterested in teaching. She was outstanding in her role, but a poor teacher and generally spent most of her time working on grants, to the point where she had fellowships that allowed her to travel and avoid classroom work for 5 out of 7 years at one point.

    One day our classroom was closed for repairs and we had no place to go to do our work, so she convened a discussion session outdoors. At one point, she described how the previous generation of faculty was over-represented by men, largely because their education was funded by the GI Bill. Men had easy access to education, from the WWII era through Vietnam. WWII vets were retiring, and the wave of Vietnam vets had achieved their positions and would gradually decline. But now women were choosing academic paths in college, while men were largely abandoning college and choosing what were essentially blue collar jobs like computer maintenance. So her conclusion was that academia had been inadvertently hijacked by a bunch of macho ex-soldiers that were not particularly representative of academic ideals. But now the demographic shift meant that women were joining male-dominated specialties and able to confront these inequities for the first time, due to mass of numbers. Her final point was that the department was searching for a new Dean, and it was her turn. Well, the department did select a woman as Dean, but not her. AFAIK she was the first woman Dean in the department.

    Anyway, the shift in demographics is bringing gender discrimination to the forefront. Perhaps the problems are even becoming apparent to clueless men (like me) who encounter these inequities, and are puzzled at their sudden lack of privilege, and even its reversal. You might argue that the power structures aren't going to change until even the privileged become a victim of those same inequities. What's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.
    posted by charlie don't surf at 10:05 AM on March 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

    Wow, how totally awful to read. I'm a woman grad student in the sciences and I am SO GLAD this hasn't been my experience. I've encountered a small amount of obvious/overt sexism, in older professors (none of whom I've really had to work with), but for the most part my gender has been a total non-issue in grad school. I had an even mix of male and female professors, and I work with two PIs - one male and one female. People seem to expect the same of the women as of the men.

    Unfortunately, life gets a lot more complicated for female grad students if they become pregnant, both at my school and at most others. My school finally implemented a 2-month maternity leave policy this year after MANY years of delay, and several women in my department have had kids and successfully returned to work. But despite those advances, the view of graduate students as mothers is still pretty dim. It seems that many people assume women will somehow lose their ability to do science and think critically once their brains have gone to mush due to 8 weeks of absence from the lab.
    posted by Cygnet at 10:31 AM on March 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

    I have three degrees from Technical Universities and am pursuing the fourth from the fourth. I have seen this in the past, but see much less of it now. I originally started school in 1982 and now am back at the same University as a graduate student. One of my best friends is a medical doctor who was sexually harrased at her job at a public water utility. This is why she finally got up the nerve to go to medical school. While in medical school and serving a summer internship, she was then harrased again by a newly widowed older doctor. She tried to think that the supposedly inadverdent brush across her chest as the doctor reached for a chart was not what she thought it was. I, being blind, explained that I know the difference between reaching for a clipboard and reaching for the goodies!
    I still think the major solution to this problem still rests with the men who don't harrass women, but know it actually happens. My friend, never told me who the perpetrators were, because she knows that I would have dalt with the "bully" in a different manner. I also don't condone this type of behavior or talk when othe men are in my presence.
    That coule be my mother, sister, wife, or dog forbid, my super wonderful 22 year old wonder niece that they are talking about or harrasing. I don't claim to be a saint and know that I do have my faults, but I respect my mothe more than any person on the planet and have tried to treat other women accordingly as I have grown and matured. This has been even afforded to women who were not acting in a manner that warranted that they get treated as well. I have only given them this because of the high regard that I hold wome in my life. Otherwise, I would have treated them like like a man when they ack like an ass!
    posted by strong persuader at 11:00 AM on March 14, 2012

    charlie don't surf: In the sciences as a whole we are nowhere near parity of the genders among faculty, let alone a female majority. Even in the biological sciences, while most graduate programs have reached gender parity, I am not familiar with any department where women have parity, let alone a majority. My guess is that you were in the humanities perhaps ( but not philosophy, of course)?
    posted by hydropsyche at 11:39 AM on March 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

    Right, hydropsyche, gender parity is greater in humanities, to the point where women are often a majority, even if the faculty isn't. And that is where the faculty of the future comes from.

    I don't want to really call out my professors or departments specifically by name, so I'll just say yes, I have two degrees in the humanities. I was originally on a science track, but I believed that any environment that was so hostile to women would also be hostile to a renegade like myself. I could not work with people who could perpetuate institutional discrimination. So I switched to departments in the humanities. One department was vaguely at gender parity in both students and faculty, the other was disproportionately populated by women at all levels, like about 90%, as I have previously described. In both departments, I was mentored by women seeking advanced degrees on a tenure track.
    posted by charlie don't surf at 12:09 PM on March 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

    > Do you know what happened to the prof afterwards, languagehat? I'm curious if the prof actually had to face any consequences.

    I'm afraid he didn't. (I'm actually kind of surprised at the question; the fact that you ask it shows things have come a long way since then.)

    Also, Jesus fucking Christ I'm sick of women's issues being dismissed as not really about women or put in some larger context where it's all about the economy or some damn thing. Anyone who doesn't understand that women are in fact treated badly because they're women, in academia as elsewhere... hasn't been paying attention (he said, redacting his original ending to that sentence in order to maintain a healthy, respectful discussion).
    posted by languagehat at 2:03 PM on March 14, 2012 [6 favorites]

    You might think "the faculty of the future" are going to reflect the rising parity seen in grad schools. But it really hasn't happened yet. I interviewed last year for a biology job where the only woman scientist ever was retiring (they also had all-male chemistry and physics departments) and they were looking for her replacement. This is a perfectly well thought of liberal arts college, but I repeat, in 2011, they were hiring their second woman ever in science, and she was to replace the first, who was retiring. They acknowledged that more than half of their majors are women, and seemd to recognize that it was a problem, but this was the third year in a row for them to be hiring new biologists, and I met the nice men that they had hired the last two years. Parity, my ass.

    Not really wanting to have to spend all my time representing all women, I took a job where there are a number of women in biology, chemistry, and physics, but our departments are also larger, our school is newer, and of course our academic reputation is not as high faluting.
    posted by hydropsyche at 2:20 PM on March 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

    lh, ever heard of the Poor People's Campaign that MLK Jr was trying to launch before his tragic murder?

    And the point is that if you're going to fix this with some kind of oversight/regulatory/watch dog/something that will fight against these basically criminal PIs on this issue...that opens up a big can of worms of other questions of PIs behaving badly.

    You know one of my friend's Advisors begins all of her meetings with a group prayer? I don't think that participation is exactly mandatory, but its highly encouraged, so to speak...
    posted by Chekhovian at 2:30 PM on March 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

    Also, Jesus fucking Christ I'm sick of women's issues being dismissed as not really about women or put in some larger context where it's all about the economy or some damn thing. Anyone who doesn't understand that women are in fact treated badly because they're women, in academia as elsewhere... hasn't been paying attention (he said, redacting his original ending to that sentence in order to maintain a healthy, respectful discussion).

    Also, Jesus fucking Christ I'm sick of people who say that women's issues are being dismissed when they are not. Women can, as you say, be treated badly just because they're women, and that treatment can also be exacerbated by bad economic times that increase inequities of power. Perhaps that is one reason this issue is coming up now.
    posted by charlie don't surf at 2:38 PM on March 14, 2012

    This issue isn't "coming up now." This issue has been coming up for a long time. It's been talked about and written about and had laws and regulations and department policies made (and ineffectively enforced) about it for a long time. It may be new to some people, but it ain't new. It's not like women have had to patiently wait for tough economic times in order to suffer sexual harassment; the power inequity is always there.
    posted by rtha at 3:04 PM on March 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

    Coming up now? Allow me to introduce you to someone called Rosalind Franklin.
    posted by Scientist at 3:10 PM on March 14, 2012

    Honestly, to the extent that this is becoming a more talked-about issue right now it is probably due to the fact that things have finally gotten just good enough for women in the sciences that some of them feel they are able to share anonymized versions of their stories without fear of having their careers destroyed. In the past, things were so bad that you just didn't talk about it because if word got out then your career was done for.

    That we can talk about it more now (and that we now have forums on the internet where women can talk about their experiences in a safe and supportive environment) hopefully signifies that we are reaching a tipping point where sexual harassment in the sciences can no longer be swept under the rug with impunity, as has historically been the case.

    This is a hopeful sign, and we should strive to create more space and more opportunity for open discussion of this serious problem because the more we talk about it the more quickly things will be done about it.

    As rtha says, this has been an issue for decades and efforts have been made to counteract it, but we have a long way to go before most of those measure can been considered more than just token efforts to give lip-service to protecting women from sexual harassment in the sciences. There needs to be serious, painful reform if things are to start coming right.
    posted by Scientist at 3:20 PM on March 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

    Can we please find another patron saint of discrimination against women in science other than Rosalind Franklin? Surely there have been enough. Joyce Bell Burnell maybe? Lise Meitner? These are just the women I came up with by reading Wikipedia's page of "women in science" in the 20th century.

    I'd keep going, but I've a bus to catch.
    posted by maryr at 4:00 PM on March 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

    Coming up now? Allow me to introduce you to someone called Rosalind Franklin.

    Allow me to introduce you to someone named du Chatelet. I didn't even have to look her up in Wikipedia.
    posted by charlie don't surf at 4:24 PM on March 14, 2012

    Those are both better examples maryr, and I'd not even heard of Lise Meitner before. Thanks very much. Reading on Meitner led me to the page on Ida Noddack, who I'd also never heard of (physics isn't really my thing) but who first proposed the idea of nuclear fission, an incredibly momentous idea. She was nominated three times for Nobel prizes, but never won one. Given that it was the 1930's, one suspects that surely she'd have won one if she'd only been male.
    posted by Scientist at 4:28 PM on March 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

    Anyway, my point was that discrimination against women in the sciences is hardly a new thing and that it's silly to say that this issue is a new one or that its putative novelty is due to the current economic situation.
    posted by Scientist at 4:30 PM on March 14, 2012

    > lh, ever heard of the Poor People's Campaign that MLK Jr was trying to launch before his tragic murder?

    Uh, yeah. Ever heard of Pericles's Funeral Oration? No, I don't know what that has to do with the issue of women getting harassed, any more than I know what the Poor People's Campaign does. But anything to change the subject, I guess.
    posted by languagehat at 5:08 PM on March 14, 2012

    Alright, please allow me one last attempt to explain my point:
    lh: "These people committed terrible crime A"
    me: "Yes, along with those other crimes B, C, and D. Some kind of protection type thing would be good, wouldn't it? Because those people can do lots of terrible things of many varieties."
    lh: "You just don't want to talk about A!!!!"

    For me at least, outrage is not a conserved quantity. Hearing about some new offense does not diminish the absolute badness of old offenses.
    posted by Chekhovian at 9:27 PM on March 14, 2012

    The problem is that there is a consistent pattern in society of women trying to speak up about issues that affect them specifically (e.g. sexual harassment, nearly all of which happens to women) but being drowned out by a bunch of men who want to change the topic of the conversation to something more relevant to their own experience. Notice that this thread has become progressively more male dominated as it has gone on. (I have contributed to this, I am sorry, it happened despite my best intentions which is certainly a lesson in itself.)

    Notice also that the male insistence that the conversation should be about abusive advisor/student relationships rather than sexual harassment of women in science has forced the conversation to be about neither, but rather has turned it into a meta-conversation (one we have had on MetaFilter many times before) about what is the appropriate subject of discussion for the conversation itself, which is now probably irretrievably dead in any case thus rendering it all moot.

    It's frustrating and could be easily avoided if people would just stick to the original topic -- a worthy and important topic -- rather than trying to broaden it out until it is something that men can personally identify with. It's OK to be on the listening end of a discussion, or even the question-asking end (though nobody should feel obligated to give an impromptu Women's Studies 101 lecture or anything). It's OK to not always be part of the directing and explaining aspect of a conversation, but rather the receptive and reflective aspect.

    It's sometimes good to just kind of sit back and listen a bit, but it's something that men often have a hard time doing as they are enculturated to expect that their opinions and experiences will be validated and valued in conversation, to the point where it only feels natural that one should speak one's mind about whatever subject is at hand -- regardless of one's degree of personal experience relative to that of the other participants. It's something that I struggle with myself and I'm not very happy with how well I managed it in this thread, but, well, here I still am. Digging that hole.

    The fact of the matter is that I believe that the topic at hand -- sexual harassment of women in science -- is an incredibly important one to my chosen field and one of the most shameful and disgusting systemic patterns in the scientific community. That it in part stems from the same kind of power dynamics that lead to abusive relationships between advisors and grad students is actually irrelevant, though the power dynamics themselves may be relevant. We are meant to be talking about a very specific and special kind of behavior that stems not just from power imbalance between advisors and students but also from centuries of ingrained misogyny that has been until recently (and in many ways still is) simply the norm within certain corners of academia.

    There is a difference between being pressured into working 70 hours a week for no extra pay , and being raped in a foreign country and having nobody to turn to because everyone around you seems like they might be complicit. There is a difference between being shut out of a credit on a paper because of an advisor's greed for notoriety, and being told that your career will be ruined unless you have sex with your advisor -- and then having your career ruined anyway when you report your experience to the people who are supposed to be looking out for your best interests. They share some underlying causes, but not nearly all, and it is important to recognize that this is a special class of problems which go above and beyond the tough and sometimes downright exploitative environment that all graduate students must survive. It's not just that female scientists have to deal with the same stuff that male scientists do, or even that they have to deal with the same stuff that male scientists do only tougher. It's that they have to deal with a whole other class of nasty horrible shit just as their special prize for being women.

    Female scientists often have to contend with a culture in which harassment and sexism are the norm and coercion and rape are realistic fears, and where there is no realistic recourse and nobody to turn to for help. It happens more often than you would think, because (as you hopefully know, having read the articles above and the stories told here in the thread) students are pressured not to bring it to light, and when they do manage to gain some recourse it is usually at great cost to the student and it is hushed up as best as possible by the administration. It is exceedingly difficult to figure out what must be done about this, because short of a mass, grass-roots community effort (which would probably cost many of its initial organizers their careers) to put sustained pressure and publicity on science departments around the world to enact real and lasting reform and to remove problem professors, it seems unlikely that it will be possible to overcome the bureaucratic inertia, incestuous politics, and ass-covering maneuvers that make up so much of what holds science departments together.

    Yes, there is a place for talking about exploitation of grad students in general. Yes, some (not all) of the solutions to that problem probably overlap with the solutions to the problem of sexual harassment of women in science. No, this is not the time to talk about them in that context. This is something different.
    posted by Scientist at 10:24 PM on March 14, 2012 [8 favorites]

    We are meant to be talking about a very specific and special kind of behavior that stems not just from power imbalance between advisors and students but also from centuries of ingrained misogyny that has been until recently (and in many ways still is) simply the norm within certain corners of academia.

    There's two points here, why do these assholes do these terrible things and how are they allowed to get away with it. The why is pretty clear...they're sexist assholes and monsters with long tradition/culture/history of being sexist assholes and monsters. As far as how they get away with it, well that flows from the power structure in academia.

    There's basically two solutions to this, some magic seachange wherein the hearts of all these assholes makes them understand their manifold wrongdoings, or that they get fucking fired. Well three I guess, given that with enough time, they will eventually die. As the old saying goes, science advances one funeral at a time.

    No, this is not the time to talk about them in that context

    I don't appreciate your turgid assertions and blanket declarations about what is or is not permissible. But I'm pretty much ready to board the last chopper out of this quagmire... [ on that note conclusion redacted].
    posted by Chekhovian at 2:02 AM on March 15, 2012

    Have a nice flight.
    posted by rtha at 6:14 AM on March 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

    My apologies for my turbidity. It's gratifying though that you seem to see that the problems we are talking about here are in their own class, though. And of course, you're pretty much right – people need to get fired. That's not quite the whole of it, though. If I might be so bold, I would suggest that a two-pronged approach is needed here:

    First, this issue needs to be addressed at the individual level. We need to keep having these conversations, as difficult as they are, and we need to raise awareness within the field that this is a serious problem harming women, institutions, and science as a whole. We need to make it clear that we are not going to be quiet about this, that the harassment of women in the sciences is completely unacceptable, and that those who do it should be drummed out of their labs to face criminal charges when applicable.

    Second, we need to organize. I'd bet there are already groups out here doing this and I'd love to hear about them, but we need to get together and put pressure on universities and research centers to enact real, effective, enforced policy to make the sciences a much safer place for women. We need to make it more costly (both in economic and social terms) for institutions to continue the status quo of protecting predators and hushing up abuses than to take allegations of sexual misconduct seriously and to discipline, fire, and charge scientists within their ranks who are sexual predators.

    I don't really have a more specific plan at this point, but I bet there are lots of people out there who do. I bet most of those people are women, too. This simply underscores the importance of the idea that when one doesn't have a whole heck of a lot of experience about a subject, it is often best to sit back and listen to those who do. I am not one of those people with a lot of experience, and if I am continuing this discussion more or less single-handedly it is only because I think this is a topic of critical importance to the scientific community, and most everyone else right here seems to have thrown up their hands in exasperation at the way this discussion has gone.
    posted by Scientist at 7:06 AM on March 15, 2012

    This AskMe might be relevant. The poster was never clear that this was a grad school-mentor relationship, but that's the way I and a few other people read the question. The lack of sympathy the poster received in that question was startling.
    posted by twoporedomain at 9:19 AM on March 15, 2012

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