by Judith Curry
The #MeToo movement is spawning considerable reflection in academia. Here are some reflections and advice from a senior female scientist (moi) who came up through the academic system during the bad old days of the 1970’s and 1980’s, and who has mentored many young female scientists as they navigate the professional world of academia.
The problems in academia have been articulated in a recent op-ed published in Science by Robin Bell and Lora Koenig: Harassment in Science is Real. Also an article published in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
The American Geophysical Union has a new policy that defines sexual harassment as scientific misconduct [link]
A different take on this is provided by Jacquelyn Gill and paleoclimatologist Dr. Sarah Myhre in this podcast: #MeToo: The Harassment of Women Scientists Online – and Off. More on this podcast and Sarah Myhre later in the post.
My motivation in writing this essay is to remind these young female scientists that female scientists have never had it so good, they are on the cusp of genuine influence (‘girls rule’), but that this opportunity can be squandered (individually and collectively) by their inappropriate behavior.
The ‘bad old days’ of the 1970’s – 1980’s
Well things were definitely bad prior to the 1970’s (read this essay by famous meteorologist Joanne Simpson). I didn’t emerge onto the scene until the 1970’s; here a few personal anecdotes, to give you a flavor, in roughly chronological order:
- As an undergraduate, I was the only female student in my major. One of my professors was particularly obnoxious. I recall the class being outside take temperature and humidity measurements using a sling psychrometer. The Professor said: “Make sure you stand far away from Judith, you don’t want all of her body heat to contaminate your measurements.”
- As a graduate student, I was the only female student in my cohort. The first time I went to a Professor’s office hours to ask a question about a homework problem, he told me that I didn’t belong in the program and that I should find another major. p.s. I ended up getting an A in the course.
- As a graduate student, I felt the need to hide the fact that I had a child, for fear that I would not be taken seriously. Once I was ‘found out’ (when my child was 3 years old), I heard from a faculty member in another department that that this was a topic of substantial discussion among the faculty, along with changes in my marital status.
- An amorous assistant professor wouldn’t take no for an answer and snuck into my house. Fortunately I was studying karate at the time and managed to scare him off.
- As a new faculty hire awaiting the start of my appointment, I subsequently heard that at a social event for a distinguished visitor, one senior faculty member got up on a table to complain about my hire, with a crude pantomime that involved menstruation.
- This same senior faculty member was chair of the promotion and tenure committee and worked hard to sabotage my tenure (that had already been approved and was in my contract).
Apart from this litany, I was without any female role models or mentors until I arrived at the University of Colorado in 1992. As I prepared to attend my first professional conference, I had no idea what to wear. The few female academics that I had seen around campus either wore clothes that a man would wear or wore rather frumpy earth mother type clothes. Sounds silly, but what to wear is an issue of non trivial importance, as we will see later in this essay.
In closing this section, I want to acknowledge several mentors who were very supportive of me during this period — Clayton Reitan (deceased), Louis Kaplan (deceased), Hsiao-Lan Kuo (deceased), Jerry Herman, and Ernie Agee. My eternal gratitude to you.
In the late 1980’s and 1990’s, we begin to see affirmative action programs in the universities for hiring female faculty members (something from which I benefitted from in one hire). However, the environment for female faculty members was pretty hostile. There was plenty of misogyny among the faculty and lower level administrators, even if the higher administration was theoretically supportive.
After what I had faced over the years, I had developed a hide as thick as an alligator’s — all of this cr@p just rolled off me and I ignored it. But at some point, I realized that this wasn’t just about me — what I saw was adversely affecting other females (students, postdocs and future faculty hires).
The last two bullets in the previous section were only the tip of iceberg of the discrimination and hostile environment that I faced in one of my early faculty positions. I complained to the Chair — he rationalized the behavior of the male faculty members. I complained to the Dean — I later heard that he told a male faculty member that ‘this is just a case of a female faculty member complaining about that stuff because she really isn’t good enough to be here.’ I finally found someone in the higher administration who would listen to me — an assistant provost who was an African American — and I provided him with the full dossier. He conducted a very thorough investigation, resulting in sensitivity training for the entire faculty in that department and some fairly severe sanctions for one of the faculty members. At this point I had another job offer in hand and I left that university.
In the 1990’s there was growing awareness of sexual harassment in the universities. In the early 1990’s, I was on a university committee to evaluate new training materials on sexual harassment. I was astonished when I saw that ‘winking’ and ‘elevator eyes’ were on the same list as rape and quid pro quo behavior. There was simply no hierarchy of sexual harassment sins — a problem that continues to concern me as we hear the latest litany of accusations.
The most vexing issue was ‘hostile environment’ and the subsequent ‘backlash’ if you reported anything. This issue became very real to me when a female faculty member in my department complained about lewd and crude cartoons being posted on the walls of the Center administrative offices. She complained to the Center Director – he wouldn’t take them down. She complained the the Department Chair, essentially no response. But then the backlash began, with attempts to harm her career. She lawyered up based on the backlash, and after several agonizing years she apparently won her case (details were never made public) and managed to salvage her career at the same university and go on to have a very successful career. What was exceptional about this case is that her job and career were salvaged in the outcome — other successful litigants in such cases usually ended up leaving their university because the situation was too hostile and unsalvageable. I suspect that having a female Associate Dean helped this to happen.
The failure to discriminate among the hierarchy of sexual harassment behaviors is evident in the current round of accusations. Behaviors in the ‘hostile environment’ category are particularly vexing, as individual women have very different sensitivities and desires in context of their casual social interactions with men. However, assault, quid pro quo and backlash situations are very unambiguous, and we need to make sure that ambiguous hostile environment issues don’t detract from the most serious transgressions.
Navigating academia – challenges for females
Guidelines under the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in the U.S. for sexual harassment in the workplace have evolved over the decades; I would say that nearly all universities had some policies in place with some actual ‘teeth’ by the dawn of the 21st century. Overt sexual harassment, particularly of the quid pro quo variety, seems to be swiftly dealt with once it comes to light. At this point there is some minor affirmative action that favors hiring of females, but rarely are positions set aside anymore specifically to hire female faculty members.
All this does not mean that it is particularly easy being a female in academia. There is a very ‘leaky pipeline,’ whereby many female graduate students and postdocs aspiring to an academic career simply drop out before they are tenured (or even hired into a tenure track position). Apart from issues of gender discrimination and sexual harassment, there are numerous major challenges facing females in academia:
- Females in academia very frequently have spouses in academia, making the two body career problem very challenging — either finding a faculty position at the same university or another university nearby, or necessitating long weekend commutes to see their spouses
- The desire to have children in their 30’s, rather than wait until they are tenured and at higher physical risk.
- Horrendous challenges facing single parents — particularly with regards to the large amount of traveling involved in building a national and international reputation
- The drain of the above three points on your time — time spent commuting and on parenting takes away from the huge amount of time it takes to build a successful career at a top research university.
- The pressure of the above issues, making you realize that you are falling behind as the tenure clock ticks.
- Culture and isolation if there aren’t other female faculty members in your environment
In 2002, when I was hired as Chair of the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Georgia Tech, I had an opportunity to do something about all this:
- I hired a total of 9 female faculty members, all of whom are now tenured (or are on their way to a successful tenure case)
- Implemented family-friendly policies above and beyond what the university provided, supporting both female and male young parents with reduced teaching and service loads and in some instances additional financial help.
- Aggressively sought jobs for spouses of faculty members, including numerous ‘couples hires’ in my department
- Set up a series of panel discussions for graduate students and postdocs helping them navigate a range of challenges, including those associated with families, problems with advisors, etc.
- Personal mentoring of individual female scientists, including advice on the most impactful things to spend time on, setting up alternative work loads and evaluation criteria such as rewards for excellent teaching, mentoring of students and university service work (all the while making sure tenure criteria are met).
I informally referred to these policies as ‘girls rule(s)‘, which gives the title to this essay. I did think twice about using the word ‘girl’ here, but decided sufficient context was provided to avoid any conceivable offense someone might take from my use of the word ‘girl’.
You can see that it’s rather difficult to categorize me as a ‘misogynist’, which is becoming rather problematic for some females (see below).
Who gets harassed?
Apart from the above career challenges, female scientists continue to face sexual harassment. Somewhere I read an article within the last week and now I can’t find it that surveyed a large number of females, which they categorized into ‘ladies’, ‘flirts’, and ‘tomboys.’ The article found that ladies were subject to the least amount of harassment, with flirts being subject to the most. Not sure how to categorize myself: a cross between ‘lady’ and ‘tomboy’ (if that makes any sense); most definitely not a ‘flirt.’
This opens up two issues: how males perceive an individual female in terms of her susceptibility/interest in their behavior or advances, and how individual females perceive these same actions by males. Re the latter, some females enjoy slightly bawdy banter with males, whereas other females might find this same banter offensive. This is not easy to navigate, with mores varying between different workplace sectors, different regions, and changing with time (not to mention individual sensitivities).
This leads us to the topic of dress. While in the 1980’s and 1990’s most female academics that I encountered were dressed like males or earth mothers, I did start to see a few fashionably dressed female academics in the 1990’s that were clearly paying attention to their appearance. For the most part these women were very tastefully dressed, although a few wore mildly provocative clothing such as short skirts and tight clothing.
In the past decade I have started to see some young female scientists dress in a way that I find inappropriate, such as showing substantial cleavage. Many of these women aren’t in the ‘flirt’ category; instead something else is going on. I will relate one personal anecdote to illustrate this. I was in a seminar with about 60 people in the audience. The female speaker was wearing a skin-tight thin stretchy nylon top (sort of like a ballet leotard), with large nipples prominently poking forward. The audience was stunned and appalled. A senior male faculty member sitting next to me seemed to think that this was some sort of a ‘wardrobe malfunction’ and thought we should do something about it. However, it was clear to me that this was a ‘statement’ — ‘my pregnancy boobs in your face’. If the definition of ‘hostile environment’ is ‘unwelcome or offensive physical behavior’; well then I would say that this female seminar speaker was guilty of creating a hostile environment during that seminar.
There is a new category of females that superficially might resemble the ‘flirt’, but who most definitely are not flirting. I will label these as ‘radical lipstick feminists.’ Paleoclimatologist Sarah Myhre provides us with description in this article she wrote for the Stranger:
When Hanna Rosin wrote her 2010 Atlantic essay, “The End of Men,” she was not exaggerating. “What if,” she asked, “the modern, postindustrial economy is simply more congenial to women than to men?” What if? Because it seems very much that it is. “The postindustrial economy is indifferent to men’s size and strength,” she wrote. “The attributes that are most valuable today—social intelligence, open communication, the ability to sit still and focus—are, at a minimum, not predominantly male.” America’s future, Rosin argued, belongs to women. “Once you open your eyes to this possibility, the evidence is all around you.” And it is.
Revolutions against real injustice have a tendency, however, to descend into paroxysms of vengeance that descend upon guilty and innocent alike. We’re getting too close. Hysteria is in the air. The over-broad definition of “sexual harassment” is a well-known warning sign. We are on a frenzied extrajudicial warlock hunt that does not pause to parse the difference between rape and stupidity. Mass hysteria and making demons of men will get us nowhere we should want to go.
In recent years, especially, we have become prone to replacing complex thought with shallow slogans. We live in times of extremism, and black-and-white thinking. We should have the self-awareness to suspect that the events of recent weeks may not be an aspect of our growing enlightenment, but rather our growing enamorment with extremism.
Women have long been victims, but now we are in so many respects victims no longer. We have more status, prestige, power, and personal freedom than ever before. Why would we want to speak and act as though we were overwhelmingly victims, as we actually used to be? What’s in this for us?
No woman in her right mind would say, “I want the old world back.” We know what that meant for women. But perhaps, instead, we are fantasizing that the old world has come back, rather than confronting something a great deal more frightening: It’s never coming back. We are the grown-ups now. We are in charge.
The Science article states:
The scientific community must recognize the difficult conversations that have started and embrace this watershed moment as an opportunity for rapid and essential cultural change.
We don’t want to squander this moment by merely using this as an opportunity to ‘vent’ and shame males for minor transgressions long in the past. In my essay I have not named any names or even named specific institutions.
This really is a tremendous opportunity for rapid and essential cultural change. To seize this moment, we need to:
- Provide an unambiguous definition of sexual harassment that clearly distinguishes rape and quid pro quo from minor social transgressions. Codes of conduct are needed. Due process should be followed for addressing any accusations. Avoid turning this situation into a land mine for males.
- Provide institutional support and train females to become more resilient and anti-fragile in the face of career challenges and in avoiding potential harassment situations. Your behavior and dress matters.
- Resist playing the victim card — instead, focus on changing policies and weeding out the serial harassers.
- Recognize that there are also female predators: I know of examples in my field of serial ‘power fucking’, and a female who cried rape when a consensual relationship didn’t go the way she wanted and also attempted to destroy the career of a young female scientist of whom she was jealous. Females shouldn’t get a free pass for sexual or other types of harassment.
If we want to be equals or in positions of power, we need to seize the high ground of ethical leadership. Let the discussions begin!