by Jane Willenbring, Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego
“I’m glad he sexually harassed you.” My colleague was strangely right to say that.
A lot of people cringe when there’s talk of sexual harassment and the rest of you cringe when people co-opt social justice hashtags.
To be clear, the hashtag #MenToo isn’t really a thing. Harassment of men in science surely isn’t something people talk or tweet about in academia.
Last summer, a landmark report came out from the National Academy of Sciences on sexual harassment of women in academia. It’s a sobering reckoning of the problem and its pervasive impacts on women’s careers in STEM fields. One finding was that sexual harassment rates haven’t changed in 30 years even though it’s been 47 years since passing Title IX, the federal civil rights law that prohibits sexual harassment and gender discrimination in education.
What has changed is that more women are encouraged to go into STEM fields now, which means that more women are getting sexually harassed than ever before. Yes, #MeToo.
In 2016, I filed a Title IX complaint against my former graduate advisor for sexual harassment during fieldwork in Antarctica. My complaint was leaked and published in Science Magazine a year later–before the long investigation had been completed and long before he was fired. Two decades after I was harassed by my advisor, I’m now a tenured geoscience professor and I am reluctantly educated in the perverse structures set up in academia around harassment.
The colleague I asked for advice during my Title IX complaint process said, “I’m glad he sexually harassed you …even if that sounds horrible to say. If he was an equal-opportunity harasser, there’d likely be nothing at the institution level anyone would do about it. There are rules of conduct for faculty, but those typically don’t have any teeth.” Simply put: there’s no law for academics who harass everyone regardless of gender or race, just university guidelines with no real consequences–even for the worst offenders.
But – times have changed!
In a shocking recent move following a Congressional subcommittee hearing on sexual harassment in science, the National Science Foundation (NSF) made a big announcement. Universities should notify NSF when their faculty are found to be in violation of its code of conduct, which includes harassment and bullying, so that they can take it into account when making funding decisions. Less money equal less power. Some institutions like my own are even testing an institutional reference check of tenured-professor hires to see if someone is moving because the old university is just passing the trash. Unlike before, now they won’t be able to bring their NSF grant money with them.
Also recently, professional societies like the American Geophysical Union (AGU) announced updates to the definition of scientific misconduct, usually considered data fabrication and plagiarism, to now include harassment and bullying. Even the National Academy of Science voted to eject harassers. Our own Geological Society of America recently announced it is also “replacing its aspirational Code of Conduct – adopted in the 1970s – with a new enforceable Code of ethics.”
The ripples of enforcing new codes-of-conduct are just appearing in various fields. This is a watershed moment in academia, but what most people seem to ignore in the wave of the #TimesUp/#MeToo movement in STEM is that some new harassment rules pertain to everyone harassed–not just women.
The thing that floored me following the publicity of my complaint was that I was flooded with emails and calls from men in science who were victims of harassment and bullying as trainees who complained they had no Title IX mechanism to help them get justice.
To be perfectly honest, my visceral first response to hearing of men being bullied after an academic-lifetime of sex-based put-downs and come-ons from men was not one of immediate empathy. But their stories of surviving skewed power dynamics were familiar to me. In fact, of all the bad treatment I received, the words from my harasser that affected me most were simply: “I’ll ruin your career.” Male trainees hear those words too.
I also looked it up. In fact, men in STEM are known to be harassed too–albeit at much lower reported rates than women or especially women of color. However, because men have made up the bulk of many STEM fields for years, and tend to report incidents less, there may actually be more men who could report being harassed and bullied than women in STEM fields!
Have we framed the harassment in STEM issue all wrong? We must be because the NAS report authors concluded that current policies and approaches have not resulted in a significant reduction in harassment. Let’s engage men; it’s worked before.
“Equal protection of the laws” was granted to all US citizens by the 14th Amendment in 1868. But then for nearly a century, women were still not really allowed into male-dominated fields. As an ACLU lawyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg convinced an all-male Supreme Court in 1976 to take on gender discrimination. She used a brilliant strategy. She brought cases where men were the victims of sex discrimination–not women. It worked.
Gender-based harassment (and harassment of all the protected classes) should be addressed for sure, but only as a subset of all harassment. If we learned anything from the successes of RBG’s court battles, new rules and laws regarding harassment in academia should be independent of gender or other protected class, and basically, should help men too. The new harassment policies of NSF are a start, but banning harassment of anyone might be what it takes to accelerate change.
In discussing convincing the courts that women should be allowed the same opportunities as men, Ginsberg said, “People who want to keep women down would like nothing better than for women to go off in a corner and speak only to women. Nothing would happen. You need to persuade men that this is right for society.”
Getting rid of harassment and bullying of all people–#MenToo–is right for science and the Geological Society of America too.
Jane Willenbring is an associate professor at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego. She is also an alumnus of the Op-Ed Project.