In the last couple of months, the stories of sexual harassment of women in the workplace have been ubiquitous. The catalyst for this were the Harvey Weinstein allegations, and subsequently the popularisation of the #MeToo hashtag in October 2017. Hollywood’s women have been brave enough to come out with their stories of sexual harassment and assault, with many women across the world chiming in. Even though the spotlight has mainly been on Hollywood and its perps, there is also a sexual harassment problem in academia.
For women in academia things are already tough. The STEM fields, in particular, remain heavily male-dominated. As mentioned in my previous blog post, the upper echelons of academia are still largely male. This is a problem in and of itself, with sexist incidences not being uncommon. One prominent example of this was the unfortunate incident in which Dr Tim Hunt suggested we segregate labs by gender. This might have been a lighthearted joke to him, but naturally in the context of a heavily male-dominated field it garnered a lot of backlash.
The Harvey Weinstein scandal has rightfully raised some questions about the state of sexual misconduct in academia. In November media outlets reported that a Boston University professor sexually harassed his, then, student whilst on a field trip to Antarctica. Jane Willenbring bravely came forward, but this is not an isolated incident. There are others. Others like the anonymous academic writing in The Guardian (Dec. 2017) in which she talks about being sexually harassed at conferences. In this article, she clearly points out something that has been at the core of all of the sexual misconduct allegations: power imbalances.
Feminist analysis has long noted that power is one of the driving forces behind sexual assault and other kinds of violence against women and girls. This power manifests itself in many ways in patriarchy (I know! The scary p-word!), and power explains everything from the perp’s thrill to the reason why victims often remain silent. Vulnerable women in academia (and politics, Hollywood, and everywhere else) are often propositioned by men in positions of power (tenured and published professors, older politicians, managers and CEOs, big directors, husbands they are dependent on etc.), and threatened with the ruining of their careers if they dare speak out about it. Having more women in positions of power is not the panacea, but as we live in a world in which women are still largely disadvantaged, are subject to sex-based violence, and are underrepresented in positions of power, it would likely be a small step in the right direction.
As female academics are pushed out of the academy, and those that remain are still severely underrepresented in the upper echelons, it is easier for those with ill will to abuse the power they have. However much we, who love the academy, might like to think that we are above things like this, we aren’t. The culture of silence, and the lack of female representation as mentors and professors, are things we have to deal with if we want to banish sexual misconduct from the academy. Of course this is part of a wider, and more systemic, climate of violence against women and girls that knows no borders, but as scholars; scientists; innovators; mentors and teachers in, perhaps, one of the world’s worthiest institutions, we have a particular responsibility to lead the way in fighting against injustice within our own ivory towers. The rest of the world might just follow suit.