Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Worst Case Scenario

In my November contribution to the "Catalyst" section of The Chronicle of Higher Education, I wrote about how I typically deal with some rather minor instances of being insulted -- specifically as a woman -- in a professional context. I have written about this topic here in the blog as well, so I was not surprised by the various responses.

In the essay, I did not discuss major harassment or discrimination -- just the routine type of gender-specific insults. Even so, there was the usual comment saying that readers should not assume that it is common for women to experience this type of thing. For example, Woman X is Y years old with Z years of experience and has never ever been insulted or experienced any type of disparagement related to gender etc. etc. and therefore wants younger women to know that my experiences are unusual.

OK, that's great that some women never experience anything even remotely resembling sexism or obnoxious behavior related to gender, and it is worth noting this. Even so, all of us (me included) need to be careful about not extrapolating from our own experiences to the rest of the universe.

I am sometimes reminded of this -- in the opposite direction on the harassment spectrum -- by some of the e-mail that readers send to me, relating horrific tales of long-term, systemic discrimination, harassment, and abuse that is ignored and even encouraged at an institutional level. This is occurring today, in the US and elsewhere.

The problems described by these women are far beyond my experience, and they are far beyond any simple fix. They are at the level of class action suits or other courses of legal action; they are at the level of alerting the media and trying to get someone to expose the abuse.

The data are there -- there are documents detailing the abuse, there are numbers showing the career trajectories of women at these places, there are records showing the non-response or ineffectual response of upper administration to repeated examples of severe problems.

This is not the experience of all of us, but it should not be the experience of any of us.

As the recent example of Penn State has shown us, even crimes against children may not move the upper administration of some institutions to take action if apparently sacrosanct segments of an institution are involved. So what then can be done about situations that are not as shocking but that nevertheless should not be allowed, such as a pervasive culture of mistreatment and harassment of women and the perpetuation of a hostile work environment?

A question I have asked before but need to ask again:
  • What can a woman, or group of women, do in these extreme situations, other than quit/leave? 
What if you don't have the energy, resources, or time for a lawsuit, but nothing else has worked? -- that is, when no amount of presentation to upper administration of documented evidence has brought anything resembling a constructive response.
These incidents are not confined to any particular kind of institution (public/private, large/small), but it does seem that women at certain types of private institutions have fewer options for pursuing their complaints. (Discuss..)

There should be a mechanism for investigating these situations and finding a reasonable remedy, and if there is no institutional will to do so, there should be outside pressure, from the legal system, the media, donors, and/or the public. And in an ideal world, those who bring such suits or actions would not have their careers destroyed in the process.

Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be a way to do this without causing harm to the people -- in this case, a group of women -- who are already being harmed.

What to do?


Kea said...

I haven't seen a good answer to this anywhere. There was one Philosophy blog that was determined to publicly shame the guilty parties, but it is true justice we really want. One thing is certain: it will not stop until the upper administration fully understands the gender issues, because the problem requires an appreciation for deep cultural flaws. I'm guessing that will take another 50 years, and that's only in the US and Europe (which will probably be third world countries by then).

Our best hope is to explain it to them in terms of dollars. You want more female students? Show them they belong.

Unknown said...

The best thing that I can think of (from a male perspective), is to [quietly, but strongly] get several upper level colleagues on your side that are both male and female. If you have other colleagues, including those that have not been discriminated against, being vocal and outspoken with those, the added voices can help influence. This is particularly the case if you get a department head or other senior faculty on your side.

As a tenure track, I'm not sure I'd want to be the torch bearer, but I would strongly voice my objections to those types of practices if I saw them or was aware of documented cases.

Anonymous said...

I have just completed our Uni's annual staff survey. A large chunk (half?) concerned working environment, colleagues/ line managers / senior management and asking for our views and complaints about discrimination (of any sort) and bullying etc.

We also have a Equality and Diversity Officer in the University, a staff counselling and mediation service.

Most academic staff in my Uni are members of the Universities and College Union.

FSP seems to ask for a low profile approach that will not harm the individual any more. I would suggest this cannot be done where such set ups, such as above, do not exist.

To get people to change it really needs a loud and clear message. I would argue that this is best done from behind the protection of a "union". Some people may suffer at the start, but in the long term it will benefit all as the institution's set up changes.

Anonymous said...

Re: not having energy and resources for a lawsuit- does anyone know if the ACLU or maybe even the AAUW ever pursues these cases on the behalf of women? I'm sure it would likely end up still being a time-sink, but at least that would remove a few barriers... I think this is a great opportunity to compile a list of such resources, thanks FSP!

Cherish said...

Many excellent questions, no good solutions. Unfortunately, as long as it is expedient and certain parties benefit from covering up this behavior, it will continue to happen. I honestly think the only way to fix the problem is through public shaming and/or incurring large financial retribution...but how to go about doing this when the parties who are treated this way are mostly powerless to do so and those in power have no inclination is beyond me.

Anonymous said...

A distinguished visiting professor once told me that conditions at my expensive private university were so bad that all the women should file a class-action suit together. I was really surprised. I mean, I know things suck, but do they suck that bad? Evidently she thought so. In addition to everything you mention, the lack of transparency at private schools can be an huge obstacle to positive change.

Anonymous said...

What I hear you saying is: Often the system does not work in stopping offenders. (And citing Penn State is eye-opening -- how can we ever expect justice for transgressions that pale in comparison?!)

So the only alternatives are: fix the system (which is an on-going challenge), or go outside the system. Every so often the suggestion is made to name names. This is fraught with legal and other problems, but I do think that a major reason that harassers get away with it is because there is no communal opprobrium. What happens is secret, and she-said/he-said rarely goes in her favor. We need more witnesses to start the negative gossip mill. Or something.

Anonymous said...

I believe the EEOC will pursue cases where there is strong documentation. I don't know if they can be involved without names of those concerning being publicized.

Anonymous said...

These are the two things I'm trying in a pretty bad situation. 1) Tell everyone I can - in and outside my dept/university and 2) get the hell out while also documenting everything. Yes this latter response gets to the extreme position of leaving but the plan is to leave the information behind and demonstrate to them that they lost a productive faculty member b/c they couldn't fix their gender problems. The first tactic I find useful so that no one here can deny the knowledge of what's happened. I have practically screamed it from the rooftop - they know and this may be useful for those that care about changing the system. I also want to spread the word - reputation matters and I'm doing what I can to be sure this place gets the reputation it deserves. It doesn't solve the problem but my own feeling is that these things flourish in the dark and shining light on the issue helps. As one tenure-track prof with enough to deal with this is what I can manage.

Kea said...

Yes, yelling out loud is necessary at this point, and some of us, who have already lost our careers, do this. Although they won't necessarily admit it in the case of fully ostracised women, I know that the equity administrators read this stuff, because I have seen reactions to these kind of outcries.

AnEngineeringProf said...

Has anyone tried using the Ombudsperson's office? As I understand it, they are intended to be one resource to help defuse difficult situations like this. I'm curious if anyone has tried it, and found it effective or ineffective.

Anonymous said...

It was interesting to see the following comment posted by someone who chose to be anonymous:
"I also want to spread the word - reputation matters and I'm doing what I can to be sure this place gets the reputation it deserves."

If she were really trying to spread the word, why not in the comments here?

I can understand wanting to be anonymous in a difficult situation, but not then expressing that one is spreading the word.

Anonymous said...

In reply to the question about the ombudsperson...

I had a fairly severe incident in grad school at an Ivy League University and the initial adjudication process of my formal complaint was less than satisfactory. At the end of the adjudication, I did try to contact the ombudsman to get an idea of what recourse I had, but he never got back to me. I sent him a five page letter about what had happened with the associate dean of the graduate school and how I believed that she mishandled the investigation of my sexual assault, and how I was afraid to talk to my counselor because at the time it appeared that she might have been in cahoots with the associate dean of the graduate school (it turned out that she wasn't, but the associate dean of the graduate school had tried to employ the counselor to get me off of her back, so at the time it seemed suspect). Anyway, all I ever got back from the ombudsperson was this: "I just wanted you reach out to you to let you know I received your email and I will be getting back to you as soon as I can. My assistant is out on vacation for two weeks and I am running the office by myself right now. I would like more time to look at your email and then get in touch with you to discuss it. I hope that this is satisfactory for you." I ended up taking my complaint to the office of the provost (I think they're the ones who contacted the ombudsman and told him not to worry about my case because they were reviewing it?), and after a drawn out "investigation," they basically covered for the office of the dean. I separated from the university during this process and have not returned. As far as I know (they cried FERPA and refused to disclose the information), nothing ever happened to my assaulter (a fellow grad student, but in a different discipline).

I was really hoping someone would post some advice for me here... but it seems everyone is at a similar loss. I think I could probably start being vocal and Ivy League University would pay me to shut up, but I don't think that's the best way to affect change. I'd rather affect some change than receive a settlement. Better yet, I would rather receive my PhD (I was ABD, I hate that I left). The only other alternative I know of is to file an administrative complaint under the Clery Act and/or Title IX, but I get the distinct feeling that Ivy League University would just agree to change their written policy and the investigation would close, but the practice would not change.

It's been a little over two years since the assault and about a year since my last contact with the office of the provost. It has taken me about this long to regain the emotional strength to want to pursue this, and it feels like the statute of limitations clock is ticking. If anyone has advice, I would really appreciate it.

By the way, this might be a useful resource for some:

Anonymous said...

I sued a private university for job discrimination. I was an applicant for a job, they had an affirmative action plan saying they really wanted to hire women, but they did not take my application seriously and hired a man.

There are two things I'd like to share about my experience.

1. (Very likely combined with other things) it ended my career as an astronomer.
2. It was worth it.

Discrimination is entrenched and necrotizing and there is no easy way to address it. Will difficulty prevent us from objecting to unfair treatment? If we keep running away from standing up to the discriminators, they will continue to shut us out. And consider the message we send to ourselves when we give a pass on unfair treatment. Do we say, "you have the power to ruin my career, so I will cede you the power to treat me unfairly?"

Suing allows the plaintiff a legal, external (to the university), means to get information. The process empowers the plaintiff - you - or me - to force the defendant to answer for their behavior. I initiated my legal proceeding thinking a wrong would be righted and I'd be vindicated. I was naive. The laws against discrimination are weak.

But, I got something that was more important to me than that vindication. I got personal empowerment. The message I sent to myself was more important than the message I sent to the discriminators. We cannot change others, we can only change our reaction to them.

This significance of this for my own self image came home to me while I was sitting in a room with the people involved, during a particular proceeding. They were offering various implausible reasons for their behavior and decisions. Ok, so that's annoying. But I noticed that this made them uncomfortable. They hated being called to account. They hated having to defend their actions. I was making
a point, and we were still early in the process. Professors aren't used to being called to defend themselves in a legal setting.

Yes, hitting a university in its wallet matters, but shining a light on an individual's actions, and making them defend themselves can have a profound effect. Even backlash means that they have been effected.

So, my 2 cents, having sued, is to suggest that we consider what we say to ourselves by "letting it go" for whatever reason we find to do so. And what will we say to ourselves by pursuing external action against unfair treament?

(If one is sexually assaulted, I'd suggest going to the police and filing a criminal complaint. Assault is a crime. Employment discrimination is a civil matter, for which the police are not responsible. If the statute of limitations has not run out, the commenter above can still go to the police. The assailant will be a lot more uncomfortable talking to the police than some internal investigation.)

The department to which I applied had NEVER had a woman on the faculty. It was a physics department in an engineering school. (There were approximately 2 women out of 200 engineering professors.) The university had never had any other than a white man as President. Today, the department has a woman astronomer who says her department is great. (She has said this publicly; I do not know her. I suspect she is extremely naive, but as a symbol, it's a positive one…) and the university has a black woman president. Probably the two are not related to them having been sued, but who knows. Not for this reason...

It was worth it.

-- OutofthePipeline

Anonymous said...

I attended an Employment Law for Managers seminar at my National Laboratory. It was made very clear to us that Ombuds, Staff Relations, and Legal departments exist to protect and defend the Laboratory and its corporate overlords and managers, not to assist the rank and file.

I would imagine that employees (though not students) of universities would be better served by approaching the Human Resources Board or other labor law enforcement agency in their state.

Anonymous said...

When I was a TT professor and dealing with a harassment issue, the university ombudsman was the longtime best friend and tennis partner of my harasser. I wanted to meet with the ombudsman alone, but he always invited his friend, and they even sat on the same side of the table, opposite me. The ombudsman thought I should apologize to his friend. It was almost as bad as the harassment itself.

AstroPostdoc said...

I agree that the sexual assault is a criminal matter and should be taken to the police. And get a criminal lawyer!

It's scary to think that people let these creeps get away with this stuff. Guess what they'll have taken away form the experience? That they can get away with it. Most likely they will try again, and wouldn't you hate to feel partly responsible for another woman experiencing the same thing? What if it was your daughter? Would you just lie down and take it then?

You have to fight! Fight with your words, let others know what happened and keep telling people until others are fighting with and for you. I'm hoping you'll realize you're not alone, and there are those of us who given the information and a cause would back you all the way.

Honestly, we have so far to go still, it's mind-boggling. Women didn't even get the vote in Switzerland until 1972. Isn't that amazing? Everyone loves to think that everything is hunkey dorey these days, that discrimination is all but vanquished and yet it is pervasive and more pernicious than ever in some ways. We think of these fights as totally different from the ones fought by e.g. Rosa Parks, but they're not! If women aren't treated equally, what hope for the blacks, the gays, the native americans? I urge you to resist the idea that you're alone in this, we all need you to speak up and fight!

Anonymous said...

Anon 8:53pm-

You don't actually know the full story and your remarks were both inaccurate and insensitive. It's callous to brush me off and imply that it was inappropriate for me to seek internal resolution. My main goal in doing so wasn't to punish my attacker, but to move on with my life and graduate.

I never said whether or not I had pressed or intended to press criminal charges against my assaulter, but it's not actually relevant to the story I was telling about the university or my problem with the university. Schools are required by Title IX to conduct an internal investigation, in part because law enforcement investigations take a very long time and use different standards (that is, criminal conviction requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt and an internal investigation only requires a preponderance of evidence). Whether or not a criminal investigation is undertaken, schools are still required to fully investigate sexual harassment complaints (assault is an extreme form of harassment under Title IX) and correct for "hostile environments," without any bearing on the the state of criminal investigations.

My major complaint that I was voicing here is not about my attacker, but about the internal process and the administrators I encountered. I think this is an even more important matter to address (moreso than punishing my attacker), because it's systemic and as such affects the culture of the university as a whole.

Rather than correct for a hostile environment (which was perpetuated by my former friends and fellow graduate students more than my attacker himself), the administration actually made for an even more hostile environment. The fall-out was actually more traumatic than the initial attack.

-Anon 9:54

Anonymous said...

I have yet to experience an *egregious* act of discrimination due to being female, but I'm often on the receiving end of smaller, less overt actions (e.g., the professor who claims my result was wrong, but then a male student presents him the same exact result and is congratulated for it).

However, I also keep the fact that I'm a mother very, very quiet. Only two people in my department know, and I've sworn them both to secrecy. That fact is, no one is going to want The Mom on his--yeah, they're all male in my department--research team (usually justified as, "We need someone who can be fully committed to the project and isn't going to miss days of work at a time 'cause her kid got the sniffles.")

The funny thing is, our department proudly claims its commitment to hiring female faculty, etc., but they never seem to hire any. One prof (male, of course) told me that "there just aren't any strong female candidates," which I find very, very hard to believe.

Anonymous said...

I would like to point out, in response to a commenter who said that naming names could cause "legal and other problems" that in the United States, at least, truth is an ABSOLUTE defense against libel. That is to say, if you make a true statement, which you can prove (to civil -- NOT criminal -- standards of proof), you won't lose a libel lawsuit.

Other problems, of course, are harder to deal with. And also note that truth is NOT an absolute defense against libel in, i.e., the UK.

Dawn Bardot said...
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