This is my personal response to the recent Mother Jones article about sexual harassment at the University of Rochester.
tl;dr Sexual harassment is pervasive in academia. The solution first lies in every professor acknowledging their privilege and being brutally honest with themselves about the role they play in perpetuating it. The more power you hold, the more important it is to do. And then we need to take action. I propose that we must create a way of ‘calling in’ potential aggressors, so that they can grow as individuals and we can thrive as a community, and so that we no longer get to the stage of having to call them out.
At a recent international conference I was struck by the sheer number of conversations I had with other mid-career, female colleagues that independently all ended up on the discussion of gender discrimination or gender disparity. (You might think that I was the common factor here, but when I started noticing the pattern I actually intentionally stopped bringing up the topic, myself, just to see if it would happen. And it always did.) After swapping personal stories, we often talked about how we’d noticed clearly inappropriate behavior by some senior men at the conference towards junior women. Some of us agreed to address the issue by talking to all of our graduate students and junior colleagues, alerting them to be vigilant when interacting with those men. And we left it at that. We didn’t talk to the men, directly, because they were more senior than us. These are the people who will be reading our submitted journal articles, our grant applications, and our promotion applications. So we focused on training the next generation.
At a another recent conference, I heard about some unwanted advances one conference attendee had made to another. The latter said she questioned her worth as an academic: was this person saying her work was good as an honest academic evaluation, or because he had other intentions? This time, the aggressor in question was more junior; someone I felt I could talk to. Then I realized: I didn’t know how. What could I say that wouldn’t put him on the defensive? What could I say that would actually convey the fact that I wanted him to become aware of the probably-unintended consequences of his actions, and to become a better person (which I believe he can become)? I fretted about this for days. I talked to several different people about it. In the end, I contacted someone who knows him better than I do. A woman. I didn’t contact him directly. I passed the buck.
And then this morning I woke up and saw this article:
It’s happened again. And, again, it’s someone I know. Someone who I could have said something to, had I known that this was happening. But would I have? And what would I have said, exactly?
I went to graduate school with Florian Jaeger. He was a couple years ahead of me. I am not shocked that he’s been called out for sexualized behavior. I am shocked that he’s been called out for non-consensual behavior. It is totally okay to be a sexual being. It is utterly deplorable to be a sexual bully. His actions are not only morally reprehensible, but they are damaging to our entire academic community, and harmful to academic progress. Because I might have once called him a friend, it’s all the more disappointing and frankly frustrating that he has behaved in this way. (And yes, I am intentionally using active language here because we know that the default in discussions of sexual harassment is to use passive voice to protect the aggressor.)
Florian and I had lunch not too long ago, where he gave me some genuinely good advice about, ironically now, how to foster collegiality as a graduate supervisor. I’m not writing this blog post to demonize him, although he should clearly be held accountable for his actions. The point is not to shake our heads at one person, and then totally give up on that person, and just chalk it up to an isolated incident, and move on with our lives as if it has nothing to do with us. The point is that we are all complicit. This is a systemic problem, and has been for a long time. I believe the only way we’re going to change it is if we academics take responsibility for ourselves, and have hard discussions with one another, and try as much as possible to listen humbly and fully and not get defensive. Especially those of us with relatively more power. Especially men.
In discussing this Mother Jones article with other women who went to grad school with us, one made the excellent point that this particular incident has happened because Florian carried his borderline sketchy behaviors from graduate school into postgraduate life, without calibrating for his increase in power relative to the grad students he was interacting with. One grad student flirting with another grad student is one thing. A professor flirting with a grad student is another thing entirely. The options for responding are severely constrained in the latter case in a way they aren’t in the former case. Because power. When someone gains power without checking themselves and their behavior, this is what happens.
If you feel like commenting on this post, whether here or on social media, I want to know one thing: How would you want to be ‘called in’ to a conversation about your own behavior that someone else found questionable? Are you in a place where you’d be able to hear that your actions (unintentionally, we assume) made someone else feel unsafe, insecure, or non-consensually objectified? If you’re not, what would it take for you to get there? Because that’s the kind of conversation we need to start, with ourselves, our students, and our colleagues. This will not be solved by women-talking-among-women about which men to avoid. We’ve tried that. This will not be solved by supervisors telling their students to watch out for one another at conferences. We’ve tried that. This will only be solved by stopping the problem at its source. This problem belongs to us all.
[EDIT: My suggestions are not meant to be the end-all, be-all solution, by any means, especially for cases where it’s obviously too late. And I certainly don’t mean to put any burden on survivors; they are clearly not the ones that should be doing any of the calling-in. After reading the full legal complaint, I want to say that I would’ve written a very different post if I’d read that first, rather than the Mother Jones article, which actually seems to have downplayed the actual severity of the case. It’s extremely clear from the report that no amount of calling-in, or out, would’ve helped in this instance. The immediate action all of us should take is to demand that the senior management at the University of Rochester do the right thing. They are the ones who now need to be called out.]