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Sex Discrimination or Sexual Harassment? Pick One!

In the workplace, to deal with concerns about sexual harassment, is it better for men to steer clear of any conversations about sex with women — even if it means potentially discriminating against female colleagues?

Or is it better to treat colleagues of all gender equally — even if it means acting in a way that might be seen as offensive and harassing?

800px-Haeckel_Chiroptera_Plecotus_auritus_2 You may have hear about the bat fellatio brouhaha at the University College Cork in Ireland. (I heard about it first on Pharyngula.) As part of an ongoing debate about animal and human behavior, Dr. Dylan Evans, male, showed a female colleague (as well as several other colleagues) a widely-publicized scientific paper in a peer-reviewed journal on fellatio in bats. As a result, this colleague accused him of sexual harassment. (His accuser claimed that there had been a pattern of past inappropriate behavior, which he denied.) The university found that there was no basis for the accusations of a prior pattern of harassing behavior… but nevertheless concluded that showing his colleague this paper was inappropriate and unacceptable, and that it constituted sexual harassment. And on the basis of that one incident, they have imposed on Dr. Evans a two-year period of intensive monitoring and counseling. (Here’s a copy of the original complaint, as well as other documents related to the case.)

This specific situation is actually a bit messy, somewhat more complicated than it appears on the surface. And this specific situation isn’t what I want to get into today. Instead, what I want to get into today is a question raised in the Pharyngula comment thread:

When it comes to sexual matters in the workplace — sexual matters that legitimately have professional relevance to the workplace in question — should men treat female colleagues differently from male colleagues?

*

Thus begins my latest piece on the Blowfish Blog, Sex Discrimination or Sexual Harassment? Pick One! To find out how trying to protect against sexual harassment can lead to sex discrimination – and what I think we should and should not be doing about it — read the rest of the piece. (And if you feel inspired to comment here, please consider cross-posting your comment to the Blowfish Blog — they like comments there, too.) Enjoy!

Comments

  1. says

    I understand what you’re saying, but, one of the Pharyngula commenters posted this link, which contains images of the actual complaint documents (with names redacted).
    The colleague’s side of the story is rather damning. It was not merely the content of the paper that disturbed her, but the context, and his prior behavior.
    If he had indeed been having a professional debate with her on the notion of human exceptionalism, and he came in that day and said something like “You remember how you said that humans are exceptional because they display varied and non-procreative sexual behaviors? Check this out!” I daresay she would not have felt threatened or harrassed.
    But, judging by the complaint paper, this was part of a pattern of inappropriate sexual discussion.

  2. J. J. Ramsey says

    Your argument is rather similar to the argument against affirmative action. Is affirmative action discriminatory against white males? Well, technically yes. The catch is, of course, that white males have unearned privilege in our current society, and the kind of discrimination involved in affirmative action offsets that unearned privilege. If our society were truly free of racism, affirmative action would make no sense–but we don’t live in such a society.

  3. Indigo says

    @ JJ Ramsey: Greta’s argument, though, is not that men being careful about what they talk about with their female colleagues is sex discrimination against men; it’s that it’s sex discrimination against *women* because if men simply refuse to discuss certains subjects with them, they’re left out of the loop when it comes to topics pertaining to those discussions.
    As to the topic in general, I don’t see that it has to be one or the other. The first step is one that a lot of men are already considering, namely that yes, some women might feel offended and harassed when some topics are discussed in certain ways. The next step is not “so we can never talk about those topics, ever”. It’s “how can we talk about them so women won’t feel threatened?”

  4. says

    The colleague’s side of the story is rather damning. It was not merely the content of the paper that disturbed her, but the context, and his prior behavior.

    Flewellyn: Yes, I linked to that page myself in the piece, the page with the original complaint. That’s exactly why I said, “This specific situation is actually a bit messy, somewhat more complicated than it appears on the surface. And this specific situation isn’t what I want to get into today.” But since you raise it:
    The problem is that the University did not find that the claim of a prior pattern of harassing behavior was substantiated. It may or may not have happened — but they didn’t base their decision on it. They ruled against Dr. Evans purely on the basis of this one incident. Which they really ought not to have done. Harassment complaints are supposed to only be upheld when there’s an ongoing pattern, when the complainant has requested that the behavior stop, and when the behavior continues even after this request. They ought not to be upheld on the basis of one incident alone. Especially when that incident was, as far as anyone can tell, entirely professionally appropriate.
    I really don’t want to get into the specifics of this particular case, though. The point is this: Even if these events had unfolded exactly as Dr. Evans described them, some people are still claiming that he behaved wrongly. And that notion is what I’m going after in this piece.

    Your argument is rather similar to the argument against affirmative action. Is affirmative action discriminatory against white males? Well, technically yes. The catch is, of course, that white males have unearned privilege in our current society, and the kind of discrimination involved in affirmative action offsets that unearned privilege. If our society were truly free of racism, affirmative action would make no sense–but we don’t live in such a society.

    J.J.: The problem with your argument is this: I’m not saying this approach to harassment is discriminatory against men. I’m saying it’s discriminatory against women. I’m saying it perpetuates sexism. Not “reverse sexism,” but the regular kind.
    Again, I acknowledge that this is a complicated and tricky minefield, and I don’t know the way out of it. And I agree that we ought not to pretend that we live in a gender-blind, race-blind society. I even said so in the piece. But if men can never raise sexual issues with women in the workplace — even if those issues are professionally relevant — that puts women at a serious professional disadvantage. And that’s not a good way out of the minefield.

  5. J. J. Ramsey says

    “The problem with your argument is this: I’m not saying this approach to harassment is discriminatory against men. I’m saying it’s discriminatory against women. I’m saying it perpetuates sexism. Not ‘reverse sexism,’ but the regular kind.”
    The problem is that the sort of discrimination that you are talking about is about not presenting to women material that one has good reason to believe would be regarded as demeaning or treated as an unwanted advance. One need not presume that women are delicate flowers here, but only acknowledge that one is working around damage already put in place by a patriarchal system. Also, this sort of discrimination is a counterbalance to previous discrimination — just as it is in the case of affirmative action.
    “But if men can never raise sexual issues with women in the workplace …”
    But look at how you yourself described the argument:
    “According to this argument, … [m]en should remember that women are likely to respond negatively to being shown sexual material by their colleagues — even if there was no sexual innuendo intended, and even if that material is 100% professionally relevant. And men should therefore refrain from showing this kind of material to their female colleagues … or at least, they should think twice before doing so. [emphasis added]”
    You yourself pointed out that those who are making the argument aren’t absolutist about not showing sexual material. We’re not talking about a total ban on discussion of sexual material.

  6. Bruce Gorton says

    Posted by: J. J. Ramsey | June 03, 2010 at 06:02 AM
    Yes, but the net effect is the same. If people have to be absolutely careful about what research they show female colleagues out of a fear of getting sanctioned for it…
    That means that male researchers in fields that touch on those subjects end up with an advantage.

  7. J. J. Ramsey says

    Bruce Gorton: “Yes, but the net effect is the same.”
    That depends. “Think twice” does not have to mean “Don’t show your female colleague that paper relevant to her sex-related research.” It can simply mean “Don’t tell innuendo-laden jokes to your female colleagues, so that when an opportunity for professionally related sex discussion comes about, it’s treated like professional discussion and not a pretext for harassment.”

  8. says

    Harassment complaints are supposed to only be upheld when there’s an ongoing pattern, when the complainant has requested that the behavior stop, and when the behavior continues even after this request. They ought not to be upheld on the basis of one incident alone.
    Greta, the University’s rules on harrassment state that one incident can be harrassing. Therefor, by their own rules, they acted appropriately.
    I know you don’t want to discuss the specifics, but I think they matter hugely, because the specifics are not what Dr. Evans claim they were.
    Had things indeed happened exactly as he described, I doubt anyone, including his colleague, would have objected. But they did not.
    For more details, see later comments in the Pharyngula thread, where various commenters did some detective work and discovered that Evans has been lying through his teeth. Among other things: there was no ongoing debate about “human exceptionalism” between him and his colleage; his colleage is a dietician and has no immediate professional interest in the sexuality of humans or other animals; he changes his story several times, changing details that are significant; and, he was apparently responsible for leaking the name of his colleague to the press, breaking the confidentiality agreement he signed as part of the arbitration process.
    Again, see the comment thread. Academic freedom was not at stake here, and neither is there the contradiction you posit, because these sexual discussions were not legitimately relevant to his work, or hers.

  9. says

    Flewellyn:

    Greta, the University’s rules on harrassment state that one incident can be harrassing.

    IMO, that’s a terrible policy.

    I know you don’t want to discuss the specifics

    No, I really don’t. I appreciate you summarizing them for me — I waded through a whole lot of the Pharyngula comment thread, but not all 700+ comments — but that’s not the point of this piece.

    Had things indeed happened exactly as he described, I doubt anyone, including his colleague, would have objected.

    Which brings me back to the point of this piece. People DID object. More than one person in the Pharyngula discussion DID argue that, even if things happened exactly as Dr. Evans described, he still behaved wrongly. People DID argue that men should treat their female colleagues differently from their male colleagues when it comes to discussing professionally relevant sexual material. Heck, J.J. Ramsey is arguing it right now, here in this very comment thread. And that’s the position I’m opposing.

  10. says

    That depends. “Think twice” does not have to mean “Don’t show your female colleague that paper relevant to her sex-related research.” It can simply mean “Don’t tell innuendo-laden jokes to your female colleagues, so that when an opportunity for professionally related sex discussion comes about, it’s treated like professional discussion and not a pretext for harassment.”

    But that’s not what we’re talking about, J.J. We’re not talking about showing female colleagues sex-related research as part of an ongoing pattern of inappropriate behavior. We’re talking about showing female colleagues sex-related research in a completely professional manner, with no prior pattern of unprofessionalism. If male colleagues have to think twice before doing this, if they’re reluctant to do this for fear of a claim of sexual harassment, then that will tend to cut women out of important avenues of information and collegial co-operation and debate. And it thus puts women at a serious professional disadvantage.

  11. J. J. Ramsey says

    “We’re talking about showing female colleagues sex-related research in a completely professional manner, with no prior pattern of unprofessionalism.”
    That’s not what the incident that inspired your latest Blowfish post was about, and a quick look at the Pharygula comments doesn’t seem to indicate that anyone was so foolish as to suggest that they would object to a genuinely professional sharing of sex-related research.
    It seems like two very different issues are being tangled up here:
    1) Should male and female colleagues be treated differently to compensate for historical sexism and its lingering effects?
    2) If the answer to (1) is yes, what should the differences in treatment be?

  12. jemand says

    cross posting…
    Here is where one should make use of the marvelous new invention that is the internet and email– when you find a new interesting article, instead of bursting into a dozen colleagues offices in what was it, a medical research field or something? crowing about the salacious nature of this latest bat sex research, just compose a decent email with a bunch of recipients with the heading “quirky science!” or something, and then *nobody* can misunderstand your intentions or say you said something or presented something in a context other than what you did, or targeted only women in your send list, or whatever (unless your email WAS objectionable, and in that case, you can’t hide it either).
    And again, that “ongoing discussion?” Apparently little to no evidence for them or Evans would have brought them forward in that pharyngula discussion. You have an ongoing discussion? At least some of it should have spilled into email or IM form, or I’ll start to think that it’s not so much the *material* that you find interesting, but getting the personal attention from that particular *person* that you’re after. Which again, would be more towards the harassment line of the spectrum.
    There are, of course, in your own work external documentation that you are interested and open in discussing sexuality, and I imagine, this colors your discussions at work.
    If the *ONLY* time sexual subjects are discussed, is in person, without any record of the interaction, with no spillover into other very convenient modes of communication which *leave records* than
 I’m going to be more inclined to believe an accusation of harassment if it comes up. I really do think this is crucial– conducting a lot of communication over the internet through logged methods has become extremely common, and if there is a pattern of behavior that apparently short circuits this to show up randomly in somebody else’s office interrupting their work and keeping sexually related discussions *only* to unlogged mediums, when the general pattern of communication is to make wide use of these very efficient mechanisms, I think it *does* maybe indicate something might be wrong.
    And
 I don’t think I can verify this because I deleted some of my emails, but in my physics department I believe a number of grad students *did* email each other, including me (female student) this article in a sort of look what crazy research we could have been doing if we were biologists instead of physicists! sort of fashion. The email was just sent to many email addresses of men and women and wasn’t intrusive and wouldn’t have stayed on and blabbed and blabbed if anyone was like WTF-DELETE!
    So
 moral of the story, USE YOUR EMAIL!

  13. says

    That’s not what the incident that inspired your latest Blowfish post was about

    Sigh. Yes, I know. I keep saying, “I’m not talking about this specific incident — I’m talking about a larger question that this incident raises.” And people keep saying, “But look at this specific incident!” Maybe I should have stayed out of this rat’s nest entirely.

    and a quick look at the Pharygula comments doesn’t seem to indicate that anyone was so foolish as to suggest that they would object to a genuinely professional sharing of sex-related research.

    Take a longer look.

    It seems like two very different issues are being tangled up here:
    1) Should male and female colleagues be treated differently to compensate for historical sexism and its lingering effects?
    2) If the answer to (1) is yes, what should the differences in treatment be?

    Now there, I agree. And my point is that, even if we accept 1 (which I more or less do), the answer to 2 ought not to be “Do not bring up sex with your female colleagues, even if it’s professionally relevant.”

  14. DSimon says

    Jemand, I don’t like that strategy. Should I make sure to keep records of parts of all of my private conversations just in case I need to prove myself innocent of something later?

  15. jemand says

    no, but if you have a pattern of using email for 95+ percent of your business communication, but then admit that all sexual conversation is conducted in person by visiting female colleague’s offices… well, you can kind of see that might indicate a problem, right?
    That’s basically all I’m going for, if you’re using a lot of email (and most people today do!) than if you have a disproportionate amount of *sexual* content NOT going through email, but by personally showing up in someone else’s space ONLY, than… well, that doesn’t look good to me.

  16. Kit says

    *I keep saying, “I’m not talking about this specific incident — I’m talking about a larger question that this incident raises.” And people keep saying, “But look at this specific incident!” Maybe I should have stayed out of this rat’s nest entirely.*
    I think the problem is that when you use a specific incident as an example of a general rule, people are inevitably going to want to know whether it actually is a good example of the general rule you’re talking about. If it’s not, then it calls into question whether the general rule is a good one, because it’s been extrapolated from a bad example.
    Specific incidents do raise general questions, but part of the discussion is always going to be ‘Are these the questions that this incident raises?’ And in this case, a lot of people seem to feel that this particular incident didn’t raise those particular questions. Which is a wobbly foundation for generalisations.
    I’m also kind of uncomfortable with it because sexual harassment, like any other issue of that kind, needs to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. That’s one of the main points of feminism: a woman is a unique individual, not a generalised incarnation of Woman. So if an actual case of sexual harassment is mentioned, the specifics matter a great deal because it involves actual individuals. Obviously laws apply to the general public, but still, talking about a specific case as a general principle of how one should treat ‘women’ rather than that woman makes me edgy.

  17. says

    Cross-posted from the Blowfish post:
    Okay, sorry I’m a few days late to the party, but I spent it catching up on the huge comment thread at Pharyngula. To start with, addressing the thrust of Greta’s post, this does highlight a problem. To avoid any discrimination, men should feel comfortable sharing articles with anyone, regardless of gender, and they shouldn’t have to think twice before sharing an article about sex with a woman. The problem is that there’s still a social divide in what is acceptable for men to talk about with each other, versus what is acceptable for men to talk about with women, and sex still falls right on that divide. In many social circles, men can freely talk about sex with other men, and women can talk about it with other women, but if men start to talk about it with women it may feel like harassment. (Women starting to talk about it with men is less of a problem.)
    In a more ideal world, men should feel free to bring up subjects such as this paper with women without fear of reprisal. The worst they might get is a particular woman telling them she wishes he would not discuss such subject matter with her, even in the context of scientific papers. Part of the problem in getting to that point is the fact that the way men often talk about sex with each other can come across as amazingly sexist (treating women as conquests, for instance), but in this ideal picture, this particular man has grown past that. For the case of a man who still thinks in such a sexist manner, he would indeed have to temper his behavior when talking with women, but it’s manifestly his problem, not theirs. In no way should the simple act of discussing sex between a man and a woman count as harassment, unless it persists after the woman requests it to stop.
    But that’s the ideal picture. Looking at the actual world, Ireland has a law that allows a single incident to qualify as sexual harassment. In general, I can picture that being useful for particularly egregious circumstances. This was not one of those. This particular incident, however it actually happened, should only have qualified as sexual harassment if it were established to be part of a pattern, which the investigation found that it wasn’t. A single incident that could have been caused through ignorance, given that the colleague never requested that this subject matter not be brought up, shouldn’t be the basis for a permanent stain on Dr. Evans’ reputation.
    As for the specifics of this particular case, it’s all pretty messy. Not just in how much of it is unknown, but in how everyone acted. No one comes out smelling like roses, no matter what interpretation of events you have. The colleague could have warned him about his behavior sooner or agreed to mediation, either of which would have helped to defuse the situation. The investigators shouldn’t have denigrated a peer-reviewed, published article as “smutty,” and they really should have interviewed the supposed third person in the room, who could have shed a lot of light on what actually happened. The president should have been more careful in his wording and been sure that even if Dr. Evans was required to take counseling, it wouldn’t leave a mark on his record, particularly considering the results of the investigation.
    Dr. Evans comes off the worst of all as a result of this, not even from the incident in question. He’s said a few contradictory things about what happened; he said both that he shared this article as a result of a previous related discussion, and that it just came to his mind as he walked by her office. Though he denies it now, he apparently leaked a number of documents that were supposed to be confidential to try to bolster his case (and he’s not facing disciplinary action for this). In defending himself, he revealed enough information about his colleague that her identity has now been made public by a few shameless media outlets. He’s doing everything in his power to play this up in the media, and he’s even trying to use it to run for president of the university.
    In the end, this case is just bad for all involved. Every false case of harassment outweighs hundreds of real cases in the minds of the oppressors, and this is going to be considered one of those, whether it is or not. And the fact that the colleague’s identity was revealed means she’s going to take a lot of flak for this, whether she deserves it or not. This also means that future victims of harassment will be less willing to complain for fear that they’ll be outed as well. Hopefully, at least, the university will punish Dr. Evans sufficiently that this won’t be much of a worry.

  18. jemand says

    I also… I mean… it’s no good to live in fear. Seriously, it’s not. But women have a one in six chance of being raped, higher of being harassed, and there’s enough victim blaming that they are socially held responsible for policing their behavior at every single moment in order that men don’t attack them.
    Men have just this one relatively less personal and *much* less likely professional assault– and the conversation *IMMEDIATELY* jumps to the fear that all these poor men now have.
    Apparently we ignore the psychological and thus resulting professional and social repercussions from being raped– because the fear that a man has of being unfairly accused is just *SO* much more critical…
    It’s not fair that men are expected to police their workplace behavior around women in order to protect against possible false accusations– but this is just like less than one percent of the constant worry and responsibility for their own and other people’s behavior that society expects all women to take every single moment of every single day– not just at work.

  19. Me says

    @infofile, “(Evans is) doing everything in his power to play this up in the media, and he’s even trying to use it to run for president of the university.”
    I think running for president http://twitter.com/evansd66/statuses/14235336351 was a joke, but calling for the current President’s resignation was serious. The media campaign has revived since the batsex paper won an IgNobel award and Evans has now declared himself “vindicated” http://twitter.com/evansd66/status/26067944151 and “exonerated” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dylan_Evans – just in time for his lawsuit against the university.
    Some people disagree http://www.indymedia.ie/article/96641&comment_limit=0&condense_comments=false#comment274240 and Ferdinand von Prondzynski is displaying some evidence of exactly who leaked the confidential documents and when http://universitydiary.wordpress.com/2010/05/27/the-complexity-of-academic-freedom/#comment-10593

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