Thursday, June 19, 2014

Let's Chat About Harassment! #OMGYAY

It seems like recently this blog has been filled with art and dead animals (and some supremely awesome mixtures of those), but very little discussion of the other thing that we're super fond of: ladies being happy in science.

Cuz it should always be like this!
So since we're overdue for a "yay STEM ladies" post, let's talk about sexual harassment!

Yeah, we know, we know, it seems like perhaps that's exactly the opposite of "happy ladies in science." Currently, science and technology fields are dominated by men, but the burden of sexual harassment falls almost entirely on women. Frankly, if nobody bitches about it, then nobody knows it is happening and does anything to fix it. So, contrary as it may seem, hurrah for conversations about sexual harassment!

Let's just launch right into it: guess who has two thumbs and has experienced sexual harassment in the workplace?

(thumbs not pictured)
Let's be honest: we could have thrown up a picture of a random lady instead of this incredibly appealing one of Meaghan, and we'd have a 1 in 3 chance of hitting the nail on the sexually harassed head. In 2011, there were 11,364 complaints of sexual harassment made to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 84 percent filed by women. That's just the people who filed, too: a telephone poll of U.S. workers by Louis Harris and Associates revealed that while 31 percent of female workers reported that they had been harassed at work, only 28 percent said they took any action. 

Several years ago sexual harassment by an employer ruined a job for me (Meaghan) so thoroughly that it completely eliminated the possibility of that work as a career path. I won't go into gory details because that's neither fun nor necessary, but this shit happens and the most key part of the whole story is that when it did, I had no idea what to do about it. I didn’t report it, because I didn’t know who to report to. Asserting myself to my harasser was out of the question: my boss was volatile, and retaliation seemed guaranteed.

Eventually, someone from the HR department figured out we hadn't had a training session and made us sit down for one. We made a lot of jokes about it beforehand, about how ridiculous it was. Even I made those jokes - I'm not sure I ever had applied those words to my own discomfort and unhappiness. I sat down with my boss and didn't make eye contact as we were told how we didn't need to say anything to our harasser for it to be sexual harassment, and that there was a resource for mediation as well as simple complaints.
Nobody brought cake, but it had been discussed.

That had been my biggest concern all along: that because I was too afraid to say anything at the beginning (because I was afraid of getting fired), I had no leg to stand on. About two weeks later, I finally filed a complaint. It was a weight off my shoulders to know that I could be anonymous to my harasser and that it wouldn't come back to me. I wasn't the only one with complaints, and eventually my boss lost their job. Sexual harassment training helped me identify the resources I needed to solve my problems, as well as realize that what was happening to me was a solvable problem rather than something I needed to suffer through. 

Recently the University of Oregon had an online mandated training for most of its staff and faculty, including teaching assistants. It was full of pretty self-explanatory scenarios, and a lot of reiterations of who to talk to if you were having problems. It was simple, and all the resources listed had been accessible beforehand, but having once been that kid with no idea where to look I was really grateful that it was being offered. Policies and training are some of the most effective weapons we have against systemic harassment, and they’re incredibly simple to execute… which is why it sort of surprised me how very few of the conferences and societies I and my labmates participate in actually have harassment policies.

Because conferences are places for science and networking, not groping.
Sexual harassment at conferences can cut women off from access to new ideas, networking opportunities, research presentations, and jobs and funding opportunities. (Also it's ucky). As we mentioned earlier, most of the people in charge in STEM fields are dudes... so by acting in your own defense against a harasser, you can often endanger your own career. Sexual harassment at a conference is sort of a treacherous Catch-22: if you complain, you can lose career opportunities. If you don't complain, your harasser might not even know that what they were doing was hurtful rather than normal interaction with a coworker.

Simply knowing that someone else thinks what happened to you isn't okay and knowing who to tell can make a world of difference. So how do our favorite conferences stack up in the easy access and helpfulness of their harassment policy? (Hint: for the most part, NOT VERY FUCKING WELL.) Let's talk about the crown jewels of "yay ladies" in conferences first: GSA and AGU.

GSA (the Geological Society of America) has a very strict code of conduct for their conferences and memberships in their society that explicitly prohibits sexual harassment. It is somewhat hidden, however, under another link in their "about us" section.  
AGU (American Geophysical Union) goes one step further and helpfully provides a half-page definition of sexual harassment (and an additional half-page for definitions of other varieties). They also have contact directions for people who experience sexual harassment.

Slightly less helpful but not as bad as others is SICB (Society of Integrative and Comparative Biology) which has an anti-discrimination sentence in their code of ethics that does not specifically address harassment, nor provide contact information for victims. It is a little easier to find, though, being a header under the "About Us" section of the website.

Other conferences didn't have anything. NESCENT (National Evolutionary Synthesis Center), whose conference has recently grown considerably in size, expressed an interest in creating a policy or hearing more about policies of other conferences. However, pretty much everyone else replied to our emails that they either didn't have one, or didn't have one and were confused by the request ("We don't have one, and honestly were a little bit surprised you asked"). Conferences without policies include SVP (Society of Vertebrate Paleontology), IPC (International Paleontology Congress), and the Paleontological Society, which operates under the policy of GSA during their sub-meetings but which also hosts separate conferences without one.

Hopefully if you've read through this blog post we've convinced you that harassment policies are pretty helpful. Maybe you have a conference that doesn't have a policy, and are interested in helping them create one. We would recommend you contact the lovely ladies at the Ada Initiative, whose sole purpose is to help eliminate harassment at conferences and boost female participation as a result. They have helped establish policies for dozens of technology and culture conferences, and have example policies, people to contact for assistance, and a great to-do list of dissemination for those policies.

These policies don't have to contain strict punishments or mandate expulsion for offenses. By creating a simple web document that defines harassment, says it isn't appropriate, and provides contact information for victims and bystanders to report, you've taken a hugely effective step towards eliminating harassment from your conference. 

As a final note, we'd like to point out that all of the organizations, even the ones without harassment policies, had very explicit ethics statements about plagerism and scientific integrity. All the paleontology conferences, especially SVP, had several additional references to "please don't sell our damned fossils." 

We here at the Vengeance Team feel that "do not lie about science" is no more or less self-explanatory a concept than "do not make ladies uncomfortable." Perhaps if both were given equal weight and consideration, STEM would be a better field for people of all genders.

 “Sexual Harassment Charges EEOC & FEPAs Combined: FY 1997 – FY 2011,” The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 19 December 2012,