More Still To Do: Combatting Sexual Harassment in Academia

By Julie Lesnik and Aaron Sams

 

Julie Lesnik is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Wayne State University. Aaron Sams is a Research Scientist at Embark Veterinary, Inc., a start-up focused on providing genetic health insights to dog owners, veterinarians, and breeders. The views presented here were written solely by the authors and have not been reviewed or approved by their employers.

 

Sexual harassment in academia is a serious issue and anthropologists have played a critical role in highlighting the scale of this problem. For example, in 2014, a survey of academic field experiences (SAFE) conducted by biological anthropologists gauged “gendered experiences, sexual harassment, and sexual assault” in scientific fieldwork. The authors found that harassment and assault were commonly experienced by respondents during trainee career stage. These incidences occurred most frequently to women targeted by senior scholars on their research teams. Since the SAFE study, several employees (including students and postdocs) made accusations of sexual harassment/misconduct against high-profile scholars in several fields. Examples of high-profile cases include UCLA faculty and students protesting the return of an accused sexual harasser to campus, the quandary of when the accused is a professor of ethics, and a case where a professor under investigation at one school leaves and takes a different job across the country. The SAFE study also brought heightened awareness of these power dynamics to the field of Biological Anthropology. For example, at the 2015 annual meetings of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (AAPA), reports of sexual harassment occurring at the conference site were exposed via social media. The increased attention to these problems prompted the AAPA to write an open letter on sexual harassment, include a registration Statement of Ethical Conduct during the 2016 annual meetings, and update their Code of Ethics to specifically speak to sexual harassment.
Despite these recent efforts the field of Biological Anthropology has not been immune to scandal. Early in 2016, Michael Balter exposed “the sexual misconduct case that has rocked anthropology,” in an expose in the journal Science. This article detailed the charge made by an American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) research assistant that her boss, noted paleoanthropologist and the museum’s curator of human origins, Brian Richmond, had sexually assaulted her in his hotel room during an academic conference in Italy. To our knowledge, this case is still being investigated, and Balter, as a free-lance writer, is still committed to following the story.

 

Similar ethics statements, like that issued by the AAPA, have recently been crafted by other academic disciplines. For example, the recent meeting of the American Sociological Association (ASA) included a Statement of Ethical Conduct in the front matter of their conference program. Yet, cases of harassment were still reported, leading to the question – is a statement enough? As the AAA meetings approach, it is important for us to learn from these incidents. Like field research, academic meetings provide the perfect storm of sociality, alcohol, power differences, and distance from academic departments that can lead to sexual harassment and coercion. We would be remiss to think that our meetings are an exception. Sociologist Eric Anthony Grollman strongly urges for the bystander intervention approach. The AAPA statement on sexual harassment specifically mentions bystander awareness, but how do we make it second nature to all of us while in these settings?

 

We think that we need to keep doing what we are doing, but do more of it. As we worked on this piece, it was difficult for us to keep track of all of the relevant blog posts on the topic. That is a good sign, a very good sign. Scholars in privileged positions, which include the security of tenure but also fitting into any of the following categories: straight, white, cis, male, should especially consider speaking out as advocates and allies. This piece and this piece are particularly salient examples. But we also think that in addition to writing, we must do more. We must speak up. Although it is difficult to stand up to someone as the bystander, especially when these power dynamics are in play, we can speak up in other ways. We can all make a commitment to have these conversations with our peers and to point it out to someone we know when they might be exhibiting problematic behavior. We need to be good role models for the next generation, through our behavior and more. We can include Title IX statements in our syllabi, have conversations with our grad students about how they are to treat undergraduates and assistants, and let them know that we are there to help in case they find themselves the victim of harassment. Lastly, don’t be silent if something happens to you. The AAA does not adjudicate assertions of unethical behavior, but we do have a Committee on Ethics who are there to provide advice to AAA members facing ethical dilemmas. If you find yourself in a position where you need advice, contact the committee here. No issue is too big or too small.

 

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