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 Anthon