At a time when news of sexual harassment in science has come to the fore again, here are some reminders about what’s really important.
It’s the victim, stupid.
In our field, we have faculty grabbing panties through dresses and asking for sex in their house under the cameras. When the victim is part of an investigation, they are forced to relive what happened to them while going on the record with people they may not even know. When all that is over, as history has shown, the abuser isn’t asked to apologize and generally isn’t punished. They are simply sent off to sexual harassment training.
Think about that. A woman who is sexually violated in ways that could be classified as sexual assault first gets repeatedly emotionally harmed by having to tell her story to investigators, and then she has to watch as the person who assaulted her is simply asked to spend time taking anti-harrassment classes, but otherwise faces few or no penalties. Until recently (still?), abusers have consistently kept their tenure, kept their funding, and kept their power. The woman? She is told she can’t talk on penalty of lawsuit for breaking confidentiality.
For the next twenty years or more, that abuser may sidle up to their victim and say, “You know, if you speak, I’ll sue you,” or “If you say anything, I’ll make sure you never get a grant again or publish another paper.” The victims are often people in the same sub-field as the abuser (that’s how they met), and they are likely to land on committees together. Imagine this scenario – the victim is asked to do inordinate amounts of committee work by her past abuser, and when she tries to complain, she is reminded, “You can’t complain about me; I’ll sue and claim you are retaliating against me for your old complaint.”
Remember That It’s About Her, Not Him. This is also known as “Don’t make the mistake of overfocusing on the harasser.” I’m not saying this to demonstrate munificence, because I looked it up and it turns out I don’t have any. I am descended from a Viking warrior who would slaughter you for looking at her wrong, throw your entrails to a Great Dane and then use your skull as a goblet. It’s just that when you hear a car slam into a pedestrian, you don’t go running over there and say, “Oh car! Are you okay? Has your driving record sustained any short-term or long-term ill effects? Where-oh-where will you park now? You had such high miles-per-gallon, how could this have happened? What does this really mean about the manufacturing processes at Kia?” and so forth. No. You stop traffic, and you go see how badly the pedestrian has been hit. You ask her if she wants any help or if she wants you to call the authorities. You wait around to make sure it gets dealt with. You take down the license plate and document the details. Your biggest priority is to get her through this. Now that we’ve arrived in familiar rhetorical territory where men are metaphoric cars, let me say a little more. Wide-eyed naiveté notwithstanding, Dr. Bozo is not going to change. He’s been saying stupid shit since before I was born. He’s probably saying stupid shit to some poor bastard right at this very moment. Nope, unfortunately we must simply “anticipate cohort mortality” with a lot of these guys, as my Epidemiologist colleague might put it. Feminist actuaries have modeled this projection and assure me that we should see marked improvements within the next two-to-four decades*. But you, as a self-professed Ally, have a responsibility now. Ask yourself, “What will ensure that the pedestrian survives – no thrives – through this?” Better yet, ask her what she needs in order to thrive through this. Then put your heads together and strategize. And go get it.
I chortled at the “anticipate cohort mortality” line until it sunk in that she’s talking about my cohort.