Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Podcast: Leigh Boerner and Chemjobber talk about sexism and sexual harassment in academia

Last Friday, Leigh Krietsch Boerner and I talked about problems of sexism in academia, using the revelations of sexual harassment surrounding Bora Zivkovic (a prominent figure in science communication) as a starting point. (For context, this Slate article by Laura Helmuth is a good place to start.)



Timepoints:

0:00 - 9:51: CJ and Leigh briefly recap the Bora mess
9:51: Do we want our children to go to graduate school in chemistry?
11:50: Leigh talks about her experience with the credibility gap between men and women.*
14:42: CJ: "Nobody wants to write that paper."
18:25: Why do women come forward with stories of sexual harassment?
19:00: Leigh's experience with inappropriate comments in graduate school
24:25: A hearsay story of sexual harassment by a professor against a student
26:00: The department's completely ineffective response
28:27: Leigh: "And that's reality for you."
30:00: The problem of appearance**
33:48: Leigh: "We need a voice."

Thanks to Leigh for talking about this difficult yet important issue.

*13:37: CJ misspoke by reversing the word order. 
**32:55 CJ's editing error: Leigh actually said "*Not* everyone who is a scientist is socially retarded."

25 comments:

  1. Thank you for having the courage to discuss this untouchable topic.

    It is really, really tough in some places. Like young grad students who do not realize the realities of the job market, there is a different type of naivety. Some young successful women think that sexism does not exist in today's world. I know, I was one of them before I entered an all male group of a well known professor. I entered the PhD program with top fellowships. I mastered out.

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    1. I am very sorry to hear that. I don't think the sexism I experienced had anything to do with the fact that I ultimately left research (even though I did finish my PhD), but sometimes I wonder whether I would have stayed with it if grad school had been a more positive experience for me. I did go in wanting to be a research chemist.

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    2. I, too, am very sorry to hear that, Anonymous. (And you're welcome.)

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  2. Well, I read the link about Bora. I think if Bora had any power over these individuals (ie, could have them promoted or fired) than it may be called sexual harrassement. If he had no power, then I think not: He's just a crass guy. Im sorry to say this, but (assuming this is not harassment) if he was a more physically attractive male specimen than the come on's from Bora may have been received as flirting instead of creepy for some of these women. Think the SNL skit with Tom Brady.

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    1. Bora DID have power over these people. I think it might be difficult for someone outside the writing world to see, but to a young/inexperienced writer, contact with an influential editor can be a career maker or breaker. And Bora was incredibly influential. It was most definitely sexual harassment. And the idea that it matters what the harasser looks like? Um. No. Harassment is harassment, no matter where it comes from.

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    2. You're unacquainted with US labor law, then, Anonymous. It doesn't matter whether it's a superior or coworker or the guy who comes in to fix the copier: if someone is creating a hostile workplace environment, the business is liable.

      In other words, no, you don't get to harass women until you become their supervisor. I won't bother responding to the rest of your comment, which isn't worth responding to.

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    3. I never said that an inability to harass women as a supervisor does not mean an ability to harass women as a co-worker, Amy. Did you miss some kind of logic class lecture?

      As a male, Ive noted that their is a fine line for women as to whether an approach of romantic/sexual interest by a male co-worker is considered as flirting or as sexual harassment. Her judgment here is often quite arbitrary, and often depends on how sexually attractive the woman considers the male "gentleman caller", if you will. In other words, Amy, if he is cute, he is flirting. If he's not cute, its harassment.

      In my opinion, Amy, women are often given the benefit of the doubt in the name of political correctness. Another burden that men must bear in the workplace

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    4. "I never said that an inability to harass women as a supervisor does not mean an ability to harass women as a co-worker, Amy. Did you miss some kind of logic class lecture?"
      Actually you did say that:
      "I think if Bora had any power over these individuals (ie, could have them promoted or fired) than it may be called sexual harrassement."
      You explicitly said Bora couldn't have sexual harassed any of the women because he didn't have the power to promote or fire them, (AKA he was not their supervisor) but if he was their supervisor apposed to a business contact or coworker it would be harassment.

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    5. As a male, Ive noted that their is a fine line for women as to whether an approach of romantic/sexual interest by a male co-worker is considered as flirting or as sexual harassment. Her judgment here is often quite arbitrary, and often depends on how sexually attractive the woman considers the male "gentleman caller", if you will. In other words, Amy, if he is cute, he is flirting. If he's not cute, its harassment.

      Congrats on being 'that guy'.

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    6. Congrats on being a "white knight."

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    7. It's actually called be a 'decent person'. This statement alone took you out of that running:

      Another burden that men must bear in the workplace

      Yes, it's sooooooooooo hard being a man in the workplace! Here's an idea. Go to work, do your job, find a date *outside* of work. It's really not that hard. Keeping your thoughts about the women around you at work inside your skull really shouldn't be a challenge.

      Or perhaps use Wil Wheaton's advice from his Twitter account that works well in so many social situations: "Don't be a dick".

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    8. And Im saying "you should grow a pair", aqueous layer....

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    9. "Yes, it's sooooooooooo hard being a man in the workplace! Here's an idea. Go to work, do your job, find a date *outside* of work. It's really not that hard. Keeping your thoughts about the women around you at work inside your skull really shouldn't be a challenge."

      That was the same theme on the drugmonkey blog. It really makes me feel bad because I'm now married to a former coworker. When you're in grad school and you're in the lab 80 hours a week see them a lot, plus share similar interests in chemistry, and talk about spectra and literature and music and all that cultural shit, you should be able to ask if you want to go out on a date in some non-creepy way. I obviously failed that test since we got together after getting drunk once after happy hour. But, according to you our marriage is based on bad foundations. I do acknowledge the drunk date could have gone badly and may have had bad harassment issues if we were different people, but I'm still really happy that we're together. Technically we were both grad students so same level of power. Definitely would not have gone out with an undergrad, but there were some people who did in my grad school (both male and female examples).

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    10. Yup. I think thats how a lot of people meet; they are co-workers. For example, my dad met my mom as he was an engineer and my mom was a secretary at the same company. If my mom thought my dad was unattractive, or creppy, she could have slapped him with a sexual harassment suit on him nowadays. In the end, do we want to shut down a major way that good relationships form?

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    11. Um guys. I can NOT believe I've just read that. Well done, chemistry.

      Sexual harassment is when it is UNWANTED. Flirting is when it is okay. Why are you so unable to control yourselves?

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  3. It's so hard not to be creepy?!

    Well here are some concrete examples of what not to do:
    1) when you are at a scientific meeting/class/seminar/event- even if it is during the coffee break or 15 minutes of chitchat- don't start a conversation by announcing about how much porn you watch or your preferred taste in strippers. This does not make you cool -- it is CREEPY and inappropriate. Even if we are the same age, it is creepy and inappropriate. Although now that you have alerted me that you view women primarily as commercial sexual commodities, I can begin trying to avoid you.
    2) don't make sly remarks/ innuendo about female grad students in all male labs. No, they aren't all f---ing their coworkers/male professor.
    3) when a female scientist is angry about something, don't automatically call her a "bitch" (because male dogs are always cheerful and good tempered?) or say she's being a "princess" (because princes and male royalty were never spoiled or entitled?)
    4) don't assume that the female scientist wants the job being on the diversity committee/project instead of spending her time on projects that actually influence budgetary concerns or research policy.

    Oh and sexual harassment isn't just unwanted propositions. It can also include negative derogatory/threatening remarks that are related to someone's sex.

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  4. Thanks for your examples, Anon. (And I *did* amend my statement.)

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  5. As a young (male, fairly progressive) faculty member, I recently joined a department where I learned there have been 3 recent sexual harassment complaints (inappropriate touching of a graduate student, going to a conference and only providing billing for one hotel room, and cheating on wife with graduate student) against senior faculty members. They have been slapped on the wrist (another set of arguments against tenure). It disgusts me, I am looking for another job.

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  6. Hi Leigh, I'm sorry about what happened to you in grad school and what happened to your acquaintance was horrific. While I am a
    male, unfortunately, I can relate to sexual harassment.

    There have been numerous occasions where my thesis advisor would imply that I am gay (I am not, not that it matters) in a joking manner,
    either by asking if I frequent gay clubs or asking where my "boyfriend" is. I would be more specific but I don't want anyone I know to "make" me.

    The jokes are somewhat irritating but what really makes me uncomfortable is the weird touching that he does. It's not incidintal contact and it's not sexual, but it is uncomfortable. Like massaging shoulders or running hands through my hair.

    My coping mechanism was to try not to barf and think of graduating. Also weightlifting.

    So yes, it does happen to guys too. As a guy I can say it is more infuriating than anything. I can't even imagine being a woman in that situation. While I hope this never happens to you or your children, I wouldn't assume my son is immune to this sort of thing by virtue of being male if I were you.

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    1. Holy cow, Anon. That really is awful. I am so sorry.

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    2. Reading your story makes me want to take a shower. That is just....yuck. You're away from that situation now, right? This brings up an interesting point, though--when males are sexually harassed, is it even harder to report the perpetrator?

      Just for the record, I was saying that if my son were to go into grad school for chemistry, he wouldn't have to deal with sexism, not sexual harassment.

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  7. At the end of the podcast, Chemjobber and Leigh speculate about what can be done to turn around a workplace where harassment is a continual issue. I once worked in one of these places, and it finally did turn around.

    About 20 years ago I worked in a medium-sized industrial lab, with about 400 total employees. Harassment at the lab was a serious issue, with a lot of turnover of the female employees. The single biggest reason was the blatant womanizing by the lab director and the two assistant lab directors, who targeted young female employees, whether the young women were interested or not. The targets ranged from technicians all the way up to Ph.Ds.

    These three men were finally given the heave-ho, not because of the harassment problem, but because of their ‘irregular use of company founds’, to put it euphemistically. The next lab director was a step better, but he was just more discrete about his womanizing. At least he didn’t openly harass women, though he did make condescending remarks to women in public, even during seminars.

    Finally, finally, the atmosphere at the lab changed when the next lab director was brought in. By chance, he just happened to be what we called a ‘real family man’. That is, someone who wouldn’t cheat on his wife, and who apparently wanted a happy home life. Suddenly, no more womanizing behavior in the lab, and no more condescending remarks to any female employees. The lab was an entirely new workplace, where there was a lot less tension between all the men and women who worked there. And the company didn’t have to spend a dime on harassment training, consultants, etc.

    And now, a related comment – a lot of men think that working in a lab where the head person is a womanizer won’t be any problem for them, because they are male, too. Yes, it will be a problem. These womanizers get lucky some of the time, and they do find the occasional woman (or women) who are willing to go to bed with them. And believe me, there is no way a young guy working hard in the lab can compete with a young woman in bed with the lab boss. No young employee wins in these situations.

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    1. Thanks, Anonymous, for taking the time to relate your experience.

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  8. My wife was harassed into having sex with her professor while she was in graduate school. He was a very prominent research in a top program and he recruited my wife aggressively. She felt a certain obligation to him and eventually gave in. In the aftermath, she got to know his wife and daughter and wanted their relationship to focus only on the professional. He ramped up the pressure, she resisted, and eventually he worked her out of graduate school.

    The psychological trauma was enormous, leading to feelings of worthlessness and a period of intense depression. She did not know at the time that the reason she was asked to leave was that her professor wanted that. She learned a year or two later during a casual conversation with another professor at the university.

    She found her courage soon after and reported her professors actions to the university ombudsman. This led to a process which ended in the professor being forbidden from attending conferences and from personally recruiting new students. He retired soon after, and hopefully never again had the opportunity to do this to another graduate student. She never had the feeling that the university was trying to keep everything under the carpet and she was satisfied with the penalties.

    I was positively surprised that the university took this "old" case as seriously as they did, and I hope that other women, who may not be in a state to take immediate action, will report this sort of behavior even if it happened years ago.

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  9. The university probably took this 'old' case so seriously because the professor had engaged in this pattern of harassment and intimidation for years, with the university being aware of it. It most certainly did not start with your wife joining his group. There likely were multiple prior complaints made to the department. The professor was likely warned to stop. He didn't. When your wife made her complaint, it could well have been the last straw for the university, and they decided it was time to take action.

    This is one of the reasons that persons such as this professor behave so egregiously - they've gotten away with it for so long, that it simply becomes a pattern of behavior. I bet he was shocked when he finally got his due.

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