The serial harassers who suffer no loss to their career


Salon, very sensibly, decided to ask Jennifer Saul to explain about sexual harassment in philosophy. Saul is the philosopher who set up the blog “What is it like to be a woman in philosophy?”.

 Inspired by discussions with other women philosophers who were worried about the gender  gap in our discipline, I set up a blog where philosophers (of any gender) could share anonymous stories — positive or negative — about what it is like to be a woman in philosophy. I was not prepared for what happened.

Almost instantly, I was deluged with stories of sexual harassment.  There was the job candidate who said she was sexually assaulted at the annual APA meeting where job interviews take place.  The undergraduate whose professor joked publicly about dripping hot wax on her nipples.  The persistent failure to understand that a woman of color might actually be a philosophy professor.  The lesbian who found herself suddenly invited, after she came out, to join in the sexualizing of her female colleagues.  Most of all, the repeated failure to actually respond to and deal with harassment: the serial harassers who suffer no loss to their career, despite widespread knowledge of their behavior and even of their sometimes vicious retaliation against complainants. The complicity of their institutions and their colleagues, who in many cases join in the retaliation as they close ranks.

Does that sound familiar? Yes it does. It sounds familiar in every way – in being surprised by the deluge of stories of sexual harassment, in the repeated failure to actually respond to and deal with harassment, in the fact that the serial harassers suffer no loss to their career, despite widespread knowledge of their behavior, in the complicity of their institutions and their colleagues, who in many cases join in the retaliation as they close ranks.

Many, many stories came in of women who had left philosophy due to harassment.

This matters. As Saul says at the beginning, after citing the Colin McGinn story:

Philosophy, the oldest of the humanities, is also the malest (and the whitest).  While other areas of the humanities are at or near gender parity, philosophy is actually more overwhelmingly male than even mathematics.  In the US, only 17 percent of philosophers employed full-time are women.

And many, many stories came in of women who had left philosophy due to harassment. That matters. Philosophy is the malest of the humanities at least partly because many male philosophers have driven women out, almost as overtly as if they had beaten them up and told them to get out if they didn’t want more of the same.

But now my role has shifted somewhat.  As my real name came out (I run the blog under a poorly thought-out pseudonym), I was increasingly contacted by women who were afraid to post their stories online.  These stories were worse than the ones I was posting.  The men involved were often famous, the harassment even more severe, the retaliation more vicious and persistent.  Because so many people hesitate (rightly, I suspect) to tell their stories even in personal emails, I found that some weeks I was spending more than half my nights having Skype conversations with victims of sexual harassment.

Familiar, again? Women who are afraid to report; famous men; vicious retaliation.

Of course, the next question is how to get rid of it.  Obviously, one key part of the picture will be good formal procedures for preventing and punishing sexual harassment that are applied fairly and taken seriously (all too often, this doesn’t happen).  But I’ve become increasingly convinced that this isn’t all.  To see this, think some more about the male philosopher joking about dripping hot wax on his undergraduate student’s nipples.  This was actually in front of a table full of faculty members.  What did they do?  They laughed.  This may well have been nervous laughter, but it made the student feel that the joke was acceptable and that she was oversensitive — and contributed strongly to her feelings of discomfort in the department.

What should they have done instead?

Although formal remedies would surely be possible, it would probably have been very effective to apply the informal social remedies at which humans are so talented — even just to look disapproving, or to not laugh.  When we leave everything up to formal remedies, we neglect our responsibilities as bystanders.  Being a bystander to someone else’s bad behavior is admittedly a very uncomfortable position to be in — but it comes with great power, and I am convinced we need to learn to use that power properly (along with, not instead of, formal measures).  As Lt. Gen. David Morrison put it so well, “The standard you walk past is the standard you accept.”
Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. And that applies to bystanders online, too. We know of quite a few of them – people who stand by, who laugh, who sometimes covertly join in. Some of those people are even philosophers.

Comments

  1. deepak shetty says

    Some of those people are even philosophers.
    Hmm I wonder which of the two(that i know of) was this intended for :)

  2. says

    I wholeheartedly agree, and I vow (once again) always to stand up for what’s right. But also…

    Assuming (for the sake of argument) that at least some of the people who exhibit sexist behavior, or who actively or passively seem to condone it, don’t actually want to be seen and thought of as sexists, and may even be privately uncomfortable with it but are acting according to the norms of their respective societies as they see them, what if we offered them a sort of amnesty? What if some of them might be open to changing their behavior and their attitudes, but naming-and-shaming is having the effect of making them less uncomfortable when instead they close ranks and resist change? We could say, for example, “Professor so-and-so joked about dripping hot wax on her nipples and the rest of you acted as if that was funny. This is the kind of thing we find intolerable, as well as being beneath your dignity. We’re willing to leave the past in the past, but from now on that kind of remark and reaction to it will be called out for what it is.” In other words, we could be saying “Join us!” instead of “You suck!”

    Past criminal acts are, of course, out of bounds, and need to be dealt with appropriately within the law.

  3. latsot says

    Bystanders, grandstanders, we’ve got our work cut out. And lots of the people who think they’re bystanders turn out to be grandstanders after all.

    I do my best but I’m flicking at the froth on their mouths. It’s discouraging at times, but I’ve no doubt we’ll win in the end. But it might take a long time, which is discouraging again.

    Stupid computer scientists: we can’t help but see every single possibility at once.

  4. Fin says

    The problem I find where I am, is not so much that there’s overt sexual harassment (although that has happened a couple of times, but it has been dealt with swiftly and thoroughly), but that female students quite often get ignored, or spoken over by the male students. It leads to many of the female students – who frequently outperform their male counterparts when it comes to assessment – severely doubting their own ability. The solution to this particular problem is fairly obvious, but it is applied very haphazardly.

  5. Pteryxx says

    We could say, for example, “Professor so-and-so joked about dripping hot wax on her nipples and the rest of you acted as if that was funny. This is the kind of thing we find intolerable, as well as being beneath your dignity. We’re willing to leave the past in the past, but from now on that kind of remark and reaction to it will be called out for what it is.”

    …and you think this is not happening, and has not been happening all this time, because why?

    http://freethoughtblogs.com/almostdiamonds/2012/09/09/we-dont-do-that-anymore/

    *headshake*

  6. Robert B. says

    Gee, gamers do it, sci fi fans do it, skeptics do it, philosophers do it… it’s almost like the problem is spread through our whole society. Like some kind of… culture. A sexual-harassment-and-assault-and-stuff… culture.

    Someone really ought to come up with a phrase for it, amirite?

  7. A Hermit says

    When I talk to people about this, I am invariably asked whether sexual harassment is worse in philosophy than in other fields. The short answer is that we don’t really know: it’s very difficult to get good data on something that is drastically underreported and often kept confidential even once reported. But to me, the most important thing is this: sexual harassment harms its victims greatly. It’s wrong, and we need to get rid of it. We don’t need to know about relative frequency to see this.

    QFT

    I’ve seen so many comments along the lines of “you can’t prove sexism is worse in the skeptic/atheist community than in other contexts so why are we talking about it?” As if that somehow mattered.

  8. latsot says

    i had 70 or so attacks by these idiots in about four hours last night. And you know what? I can still walk away. I can still more or less ignore them. And so many people can’t. They can’t intimidate me – although it gets wearisome – because I otherwise have it as good as they do. Also I had a +5 cat on my knee.

  9. Martha says

    I agree that ignoring women students and faculty is also a big problem that causes women to doubt ourselves (or to doubt our colleagues!), but one shouldn’t underestimate just how damaging the betrayal of trust caused by sexual harassment or assault can be. I had a colleague who committed sexual assault, and the university lawyers hushed it up. The problem is, every woman in the department knew about it, though few of the men did. So when the university did nothing (and even gave him a raise as part of a retention package!), the women students just quit telling anybody about all the crap that was going on. They figured if nothing would be done about sexual assault, nothing would be done about anything. And they were right.

    This colleague later left for greener pastures. If anyone asks me what happened, I tell them the truth. Because fuck a professionalism that allows him to get away with this crap and tells us all to remain quiet about it.

    I’m glad people within the atheist community are naming names.

  10. britbacca says

    Not that it needs to be said, but this is hardly a problem unique to philosophy departments. If you’re looking for another perspective (one with empirical evidence, no less!), I highly recommend Dr. Kate Clancy’s blog, Context and Variation. She’s working on a research project on sexual harassment in anthropology, and does a great job discussing and dissecting the pernicious impact of sexual harassment in academia.

    I particularly recommend her post on sexual harassment in field sites:
    http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/context-and-variation/2013/04/13/safe13-field-site-chilly-climate-and-abuse/

    And her personal account of how male privilege impacts the way women exist in the world: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/context-and-variation/2013/06/08/no-one-is-immune-i-am-not-immune/

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