I posted a piece at the Guardian a few days ago on some sexual harassment allegations which had been effecting communities of science blogging. A lot of the debate on this has been done in public, and this is significant. Bloggers are supporting each other to feel strong enough to speak out but also simply make sense of a lot of it. There’s a lot of learning going on.
One of the things that has been amazing to watch is people calling out things that they’d previously labelled “a bit creepy” as THIS IS NOT OK.
We should be able to give a lecture without a colleague eyeing-up our legs. We should be able to bend down and tie our bloody shoelace on campus without someone making a comment about our bum. The gateways to particular people, jobs, ideas and spaces should not be guarded by questions of whether or not we are willing to entertain the idea of screwing someone in a position of power. We should be able to talk about stuff like this and call it out without being made to feel like some sort of sour killjoy.
To multiple men who stare at my breasts while I’m talking to them about work: Yes I can tell you are doing it, no it isn’t normal and yes it does really creep me out. It means I pretty much instantly lose a huge amount of respect for you but, no matter how strong I am and how much of an arse I know you to be, it always makes me doubt my own worth too. And the memory of quite how horrible it is – especially when it is someone who you have previously respected – can last for months. So stop. Other men manage not to so why the hell can’t you?
An American journalist who had spent time working in the UK remarked that a similar level of public discussion about specific perpetrators and more serious harassment couldn’t happen in the UK because of libel laws. He’s right, but we also have other networks of communication. Emails, meetings, networks of information and support.
It made me realise how long that sort of hidden support has been going on.
The threads of informal conversation at conferences where female academics share experiences or warn each other off. The way we so routinely go “oh, you have a meeting with [insert important man] that’s so exciting for you! Watch his wandering hands though, eh?” How, when a friend has suffered a particular “incident”, you instinctively check networks to see whether he has a reputation, because these networks exist. They are normal.
The way young female students are kept away from particular members of staff or work experience placements. The emails that quietly go round an institution warning women about getting in the lift with a particular invited speaker (who everyone knows is “problematic” but is oh so eminent). The way a postdoc or junior lecturer might be tasked with “keeping an eye” on someone at parties especially if there might be students there (because “professor x or y, he’s ok you know, unless he’s had a drink”).
There’s also the gossip which runs through male and mixed discussions too. This can trivialise issues, at worst blaming women but often just making it a joke so it’s harder to stand up to. These bits of gossip can be useful though, they give you warning.
I feel like we need to be better at recognising these systems. Because their very existence implicitly acknowledges the problem, and also sustains them. We support each other in these ways, but in doing so support the oppressors too.
I’ve often noticed men in science communication refer to students doing work experience placements or British Science Association Media Fellows as a “perk” of the summer months. I’ve never personally heard anyone in positions of responsibility say this, it’s normally just those around them, and it’s largely in terms of “eye candy” (though we all here stories and anyway such objectification is bad in itself). I also often think the men saying so do so largely from expectations about “banter”, they don’t necessarily mean it. And it’s a lot better than it used to be.
We all – men and women – know these sorts of attitudes exist and we act to protect each other accordingly. We rarely, however, call such behaviour out. Indeed when I have complained I’ve been laughed at for being a bit too serious/ misreading situations. I’m not sure how we get to the point where we can challenge bad behaviour more effectively, I don’t think simply talking about it will be the answer, but I think it will help.
Finally – and without diminishing the gendered nature of a lot of this – it is important because it’s not just something men do to women. It’s about power. There’s a lot of misuse of power that goes on in academia because it doesn’t get called out. Female academics and administrators who bully, including in some cases sexual harassment. Forms of racist, ableist, classist, bi/trans/homophobic oppression. The cases of sexual harassment are important in their own right, but they are also indicative of broader pathology which we need to address.
This post was edited slightly on Monday PM to better articulate the point about BSA fellows. I’m not entirely convinced it warranted it, but the last thing I want is more people’s sense of professionalism unnecessarily put into question.