Saturday, October 29, 2016

Defining sexual harassment

Apropos my last post, about sexism and misogyny being alive and well--the Norwegian newspaper Morgenbladet, in a rather timely fashion, ran an article today about sexual harassment in academia. It was mostly depressing reading. Not only is sexual harassment underreported, there appear to be few to no rules and criteria concerning how to define it. Most of the behaviors described end up in a ‘gray area’, and most of the cases that are reported end up as a ‘his word against the victim’s word’ scenario. Few cases go further than university leadership, where they are reviewed and then dismissed. Generally, those who have been sexually harassed by their professors and mentors don’t report the harassment for fear that doing so will damage their careers. And why? Because it does. Because the focus falls on you, you become ‘the victim’. You become the center of unwanted attention. You become the difficult female employee who cannot take a joke. Because these male professors have a lot of power and prestige. They can make or break your career. So, like many of the women interviewed said, they put up with the gray area behavior.

What is sexually-harassing behavior in the academic workplace? That was a question that the article did ask. I said to my husband that maybe we have reached the point where we have to spell it out in black and white so that the rules and boundaries are clear, and crossing them gets you into big trouble. Most intelligent people I know have no problems with these boundaries; in fact, most men I have known in academia are not disrespectful toward women. It is the one or two rotten apples that spoil it for the many. Unfortunately, many of the rotten apples have an immense amount of power; they are institute leaders, department leaders, mentors, and so on. They know how to play the game, and how to use their power, and they do use it to subjugate women.

In my long experience in the workplace, here’s my list of how male mentors should not behave toward their female students. They should not be touching them, at all, anywhere on their bodies. They should not be hugging them or putting their arms around them. A handshake is fine. A smile is fine. They should not make sexual innuendoes or crude jokes about sex or about blow jobs or any other sexual activity to their students. They should not be having sex with their students. If a male mentor falls in love with his female student and the student reciprocates, then the appropriate conduct on the mentor’s part is to cease being that student’s mentor if both desire that the relationship continue. There are good reasons for this. If we love someone, we will support and defend them at the expense of others we care much less about. This cannot take place in the workplace; other students are bound to feel that the mentor favors the person he is in love with, and that is often the case. An already unbalanced work arena (academia) becomes even more unfair and unbalanced. I have seen all of the above-mentioned behaviors—institute leaders grabbing at the breasts of female students, a group leader starting off a dinner party by asking his guests, more than half of whom were females, if they knew what a blow job was. I’ve heard stories about male professors getting naked in their offices in an attempt to seduce their female students. Most common are the men who invade your private space, who cannot keep enough distance between you and them when they are sitting talking to you in a personal meeting. Then you have the men who ask inappropriate questions and are extremely interested in the intimate details of your relationship with your husband or boyfriend. In the end, it all comes down to and back to sex.

I simply did not expect to find these types of behavior in academic workplaces when I started out. I considered academia to be a noble profession, a cut above many others. My biggest disappointment about the academic workplace, after more than thirty years in it, is this. That to be treated as an equal, as a professional, remains a distant dream for many women. It has been hard enough for women in my generation to make inroads into the male-dominated academic arena and to be accepted as professionals. Adding sexual harassment into the mix is a bitter pill for those women who have experienced it. I always remember my father and how he treated me; he taught me to take myself and my intelligence seriously. I cannot ever remember him telling me that I could not reach this or that goal because I was a woman. He set me up for success in that respect; he was not a dinosaur, he was forward-thinking when it came to his daughters. I think he would have been as disappointed as I was and am to find out that academia is no better than many other professions when it comes to sexism and sexual harassment.

When I worked at the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF), I signed some form of contract as I remember, saying that I was bound to report any sexual harassing behavior that I experienced personally or witnessed around me. That was in 1993. I googled sexual harassment policies at UCSF today and this is what I found:
University of California – Policy Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment Friday, December 18, 2015: 
I. POLICY SUMMARY The University of California is committed to creating and maintaining a community dedicated to the advancement, application and transmission of knowledge and creative endeavors through academic excellence, where all individuals who participate in University programs and activities can work and learn together in an atmosphere free of harassment, exploitation, or intimidation. Every member of the community should be aware that the University prohibits sexual violence and sexual harassment, retaliation, and other prohibited behavior (“Prohibited Conduct”) that violates law and/or University policy. The University will respond promptly and effectively to reports of Prohibited Conduct and will take appropriate action to prevent, to correct, and when necessary, to discipline behavior that violates this policy on Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment (hereafter referred to as Policy). This Policy addresses the University of California’s responsibilities and procedures related to Prohibited Conduct in order to ensure an equitable and inclusive education and employment environment free of sexual violence and sexual harassment. The Policy defines conduct prohibited by the University of California and explains the administrative procedures the University uses to resolve reports of Prohibited Conduct.
Sexual Harassment:
a. Sexual Harassment is unwelcome sexual advances, unwelcome requests for sexual favors, and other unwelcome verbal, nonverbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature when: i. Quid Pro Quo: a person’s submission to such conduct is implicitly or explicitly made the basis for employment decisions, academic evaluation, grades or advancement, or other decisions affecting participation in a University program; or ii. Hostile Environment: such conduct is sufficiently severe or pervasive that it unreasonably denies, adversely limits, or interferes with a person’s participation in or benefit from the education, employment or other programs and services of the University and creates an environment that a reasonable person would find to be intimidating or offensive. 
b. Consideration is given to the totality of the circumstances in which the conduct occurred. Sexual harassment may include incidents: i. between any members of the University community, including faculty and other academic appointees, staff, student employees, students, coaches, residents, interns, and non-student or nonemployee participants in University programs (e.g., vendors, contractors, visitors, and patients); ii. in hierarchical relationships and between peers; and iii. between individuals of any gender or gender identity. 
c. This Policy shall be implemented in a manner that recognizes the importance of the rights to freedom of speech and expression and shall not be interpreted to prohibit expressive conduct that is protected by the free speech and academic freedom principles discussed in Section III.F. 3. 
Other Prohibited Behavior 
a. Invasions of Sexual Privacy i. Without a person’s consent, watching or enabling others to watch that person’s nudity or sexual acts in a place where that person has a reasonable expectation of privacy; ii. Without a person’s consent, making photographs (including videos) or audio recordings, or posting, transmitting or distributing such recorded material depicting that person’s nudity or sexual acts in a place where that person has a reasonable expectation of privacy; or iii. Using depictions of nudity or sexual activity to extort something of value from a person. 
b. Sexual intercourse with a person under the age of 18. 
c. Exposing one’s genitals in a public place for the purpose of sexual gratification. 
d. Failing to comply with the terms of a no-contact order, a suspension of any length, or any order of exclusion issued under this Policy.

Norwegian academic institutions and universities do have similar policies, e.g. the University of Oslo's outlined here ( How well the policies are enforced is another story. Notice that the UC policy above does not spell out specific offensive behaviors; I would imagine that it doesn’t because women experience sexual harassment differently. And some sexually-harassing behavior is blatant, whereas other behavior is more subtle. The latter is the most difficult to identify and discuss and put an end to. Let’s hope the coming generations manage that. In the meantime, I can’t wait for the dinosaurs and the sexual harassers to become extinct.

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