sexual harassment is bullying or coercion of a sexual nature and the unwelcome or inappropriate promise of rewards in exchange for sexual favors. Sexual harassment includes a range of actions from mild transgressions to sexual abuse or sexual assault.
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- I have watched the #metoo campaign as avidly as anyone. I have gone to bed each night wondering who will be outed as a sexual harasser in the morning, whether it will be another one of my political heroes or someone we all recognize from mainstream media or Hollywood. We’ve seen many of these perpetrators lose jobs, be forced to resign, and face economic difficulty because of their abhorrent behaviors.
But I have not gone to bed a single night in all these months wondering what scientist would be sacked in the morning because of his transgressions—let alone be publicly outed—because scientist-harassers rarely lose their jobs.
- Too often the story is the same: A man sexually harasses a woman, the woman reports it, and she gets told that’s just how it is.
- Are people who engage in sexual misconduct actually making scientific advances that would not be made without them? I’d say it’s more likely that swifter, greater advances would have occurred if there were fewer perpetrators limiting opportunities for their victims. When part of your brain has to be occupied with workplace stress—from unwanted sexual advances to witnessing abuse between colleagues—you have less to give to your science.
If we punish these perpetrators, especially by taking away their funding, won’t their trainees suffer? I wonder how many grad students would be better off, relieved of the pressures of working for a predator. As federal funding agencies grapple with this problem, they have begun to figure out solutions, such as assigning a new principal investigator if the original one can’t continue. It doesn’t kill the project or leave students and staff out of their jobs. Removing the perpetrator from a project also saves the pedigree of the trainees; few want their published work tainted with the name of a known sexual harasser.
The last concern is the trickiest: Why don’t we do anything when we know about the perpetrators in our midst? So far, consequences for scientist-harassers are few and far between. In academia it’s common to get sanctions like “no more female grad students” or “no more undergraduate teaching” or “please work at home for now.” These are mild punishments at best, but departments are unsure what other options they have—and universities don’t make it easy to fire professors. The institutions know that perpetrators generally have more resources than victims and are more likely to sue if they are fired. It is a good financial decision, then, to do nothing about a perpetrator, even if they are guilty.
So this is where we find ourselves today: In many professions sexual misconduct is now cause for dismissal. In the sciences, not so much. What’s more, many science workplaces use legal definitions of sexual harassment to set the standard for workplace conduct. If that is the bar that has to be met for a disgusting behavior to be considered actionable by a university, research institute, or field station, it is a high one. An enormous range of disrespectful and even frightening behavior can slip under that bar, even though it damages the careers of victims and bystanders, holding back scientific advancement.
- Kathryn B. H. Clancy, "Have the Sciences Had a #MeToo Moment? Not So Much.", National Geographic, (05/2018).
- In 1975, nearly two decades before Anita Hill, now a professor at Brandeis, testified that she was sexually harassed by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, Carmita Wood resigned from her job at a Cornell University lab. Wood was experiencing physical problems due to the stress of interacting with her boss, who would often pin her against her desk with his body and describe how aroused he was. She tried to transfer, but her transfer was denied, so she quit and filed for unemployment benefits. The benefits were denied on the grounds that she had left her job “voluntarily” and for “personal reasons.”
With activists from Cornell’s Human Affairs Office and civil-rights lawyers like Eleanor Holmes Norton—who was, at the time, NYC’s commissioner of human rights—Wood helped found Working Women United. The group held speak-outs to illuminate the scope of a problem newly called sexual harassment, but it didn’t stop there. Norton drafted an anti–sexual harassment clause for affirmative-action agreements, a precursor to the sexual-harassment guidelines she would issue in 1980 as chair of the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
Several years after Wood was denied her benefits, the on-the-job treatment of Diane Williams, a public-information specialist at the US Justice Department; Paulette Barnes, a payroll clerk at the US Environmental Protection Agency; Sandra Bundy, a vocational rehabilitation specialist at the DC Department of Corrections; and Mechelle Vinson, an employee of Meritor Savings Bank, led to several landmark sexual-harassment lawsuits. Williams and Barnes were both fired after rejecting their bosses’ sexual advances. Bundy was harassed by multiple male supervisors. When she complained to her supervisors’ boss, he reportedly said, “Any man in his right mind would want to rape you,” and suggested Bundy have sex with him. Williams’s case gave rise to a 1976 ruling that quid-pro-quo sexual harassment constitutes sex discrimination. Barnes’s case led to a 1977 appeals-court ruling that sexual harassment is sex discrimination under the Civil Rights Act. And Bundy’s case led to a 1981 ruling that established that it’s possible to bring a sexual-harassment claim under Title VII even if the harassment does not result in job loss.
- As legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw has speculated, “racism may well provide the clarity to see that sexual harassment is neither a flattering gesture nor a misguided social overture but an act of intentional discrimination that is insulting, threatening, and debilitating.”
- Raina Lipsitz, "Sexual Harassment Law Was Shaped by the Battles of Black Women", The Nation, (Oct 20, 2017).