Using Intersectionality in Collective Responses to Sexual Harassment

Trigger warning sexual harassment and assault: let’s talk about intersectionality, policy and practice in dealing with sexual harassment.

There seem to be endless cases of sexual harassment coming to light, but these are the tip of the iceberg. In Australia, 575 cases of harassment and rape have been reported in higher education in the past five years alone. Most cases go unpunished, while other institutional responses are sluggish or inadequate. For example,  of the 575 cases, only six perpetrators were expelled. In the University of New England, perpetrators were only fined $55 and received eight hours community service.

The issues are well-known, but equity advocates note that little institutional reform has happened.

“A feeling of institutional betrayal significantly increases the likelihood that a student will develop long-term traumatic mental health issues” – Michael Salter, a senior lecturer in criminology at Western Sydney University 

“Too often, our universities have dealt with sexual assault and harassment of students by turning a blind eye, by claiming it is not their responsibility or, most shamefully, by actively covering up assaults.” – Prof Catharine Lumby, Macquarie University 

“The Tertiary Education Quality Standards Agency does mandate universities have to provide a safe learning environment, at the moment with their approach to sexual assault they are failing to uphold those standards.” – Sharna Bremner, End Rape on Campus founder 

Prevalence of harassment and assault on campus

In Australia, a national inquiry on sexual harassment in higher education (which was initially plagued with ethical issues) was unevenly supported in the early stages. Not all universities committed to releasing  their results, which is symbolic of broader problem of transparency and public accountability.  The final 2017 report, Change the Course, surveyed over 30,000 students across 39 of Australia’s major universities. One in five students (21%) have been sexually harassed in a university setting, including travelling to university, and a further 1.6% students have been sexually assaulted at university. Perpetrators on transport were mostly fellow students from the same university (57%). Furthermore, one in four (25%) students have witnessed sexual harassment of others and the majority did not intervene (only 21% took action).

Women are three times as likely to be assaulted and twice as likely to be harassed as men. Half of these victims knew the perpetrator. In many cases, it was university staff, and in others, it was senior students with leadership roles, or the harassment occurred in residential colleges.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students as well as disabled people experience a disproportionate level of sexual harassment and sexual assault compared to non-Indigenous and able-bodied students.

Transgender and gender diverse people (45%), bisexual students (44%) and homosexual people (38%) are more likely to experience harassment compared to heterosexual students (23%)

In around 90% of assault and harassment cases, victims did not make a formal report. The most common reasons were that survivors did not think the incident was serious enough (40%) or they felt that they didn’t need help (40%). Most people did not know how or where to report (60%).

Key recommendations of the report are:

  1. Improve leadership and governance, including a public action plan to address sexual harassment
  2. Changing sexist attitudes through education and bystander training
  3. Ensure students and staff know how and to whom to report harassment
  4. Independent and systematic review to responses to sexual harassment
  5. Monitoring and evaluation of cases of harassment, including auditing reach and access of counselling services and a recurring survey on harassment every three years
  6. Improving policies at residential colleges, such as regards hazing, alcohol consumption and supervision.

These are useful recommendations, but they fall to individual universities to manage and interpret. I was glad that my alma mater, Swinburne University, committed to zero tolerance of harassment and assault. The problem remains that the higher education and science sectors have no consensus on how to manage and collaborate on ending sexual harassment.

Here’s the vexing matter: the laws have definitions and processes in place. Institutions have their policies. The system has many flaws in between.

Definitions and subjective attitudes

Legal definitions matter. Part of the problem is that even in academia and other science organisations, educators and students aren’t taught about practical examples of harassment and therefore have poor principles with which to respond. Too often in Australia and other “Western” contexts, we let language slide on gender violence instead of teaching legal, scholarly definitions. For example, “jokes” about a situation being “rapey” or saying “sexual assault” or “sexual abuse” when we mean something else confuses seriousness of sexual harassment. Similarly, carelessly comparing institutional matters on sexual harassment to cover ups of child rape by Catholic Church, are often seen in science communication to the public.

Definitions of sexual harassment have policy and legal repercussions. Lay misunderstandings of related terms significantly impact on how cases of misconduct are handled.

Colleagues who are responsive to learning and responding to these distinctions demonstrate their integrity and commitment to making real change. In public discussions, ccolleagues who respond thoughtfully to reports on sexual harassment take responsibility to fix the problem, but others want to “debate” their right to use wrong terms. The latter usually manifests as disbelieving victims (“that’s not sexual harassment – focus on the bad cases,” “just tell them you’re not interested,” “take it as a compliment”).  

Not using the correct definition of sexual harassment, which includes “jokes” and unwelcome comments, has an impact on misinformation, leading victims not knowing what they should report. Survivors therefore fear their managers’ responses. Will they be similarly mocked and disbelieved?

Laws vary across countries and different states. In Australia, sexual assault is defined via various physical and mental factors (see this resource which “debunks” the technical language associated with legislation).

Sexual harassment law includes unwelcome touching, staring, invitations for dates, comments, and other forms of inappropriate communication. Moreover: 

‘” working environment or workplace culture that is sexually permeated or hostile will also amount to unlawful sexual harassment. Some of the factors which may indicate a potentially hostile environment include the display of obscene or pornographic materials, general sexual banter, crude conversation or innuendo and offensive jokes.”

In academia (and broader society) people think that harassment must involve some form of “bad” physical or verbal attack; subjectively judged. It’s not up to one or two or more people to set the tone for what sexual jokes/ comments/ advances are okay. Everyone’s safety matters.

What often happens in sexual harassment cases is that managers decide what is worth reporting higher up, sometimes not supporting survivors in reporting through formal channels. There is also the perception from supervisors and managers that if no one has reported sexual harassment, everything must be fine in their workplace.

Here’s where intersectionality must be integrated into policy responses, evaluation and reform: not everyone has the same power to report. Continue reading Using Intersectionality in Collective Responses to Sexual Harassment

Interview: Many Women Of Colour Feel Unsafe Working In Science

Excuse me while I migrate various content to a central place on my blog! This post was first published on 11 July 2017.

I was interviewed by Buzzfeed, about a new study by Professor Kate Clancy and colleagues, showing women of colour scientists are more likely to experience race and gender harassment. Women of colour scientists are also excessively critiqued for being either too feminine or masculine enough, they have their physical abilities questioned, and they are more likely to miss professional opportunities like conferences, fieldwork, classes and meetings because their workplaces are unsafe. My comments from the interview:

“The study really reinforces a lot of what the literature already tells us — that women of colour are more likely to experience multiple forms of harassment and feel more acutely the impact of a hostile work environment in the sciences,” Zuleyka Zevallos, a sociologist at Swinburne University in Australia, told BuzzFeed News.

Although this isn’t the first study to show evidence of the “double bind” of racial- and gender-based harassment, some critics continue to deny that the effect is real.

“A lot of the pushback that we see in the individual scientific communities —astronomy or any other science — is that scientists want data,” Zevallos said. “And even though there’s a plethora of data, it’s like they need to see more data for themselves.”

In their study, Clancy and colleagues surveyed women and men from various racial backgrounds, focusing on academics working in the field of astronomy and planetary science. The study finds that 88% of their respondents heard negative language from peers at their current job, 52% from supervisors, and 88% from other people at work. Thirty-nine percent report experiencing verbal harassment at their current position and a further 9% experienced physical harassment. Around a third of the overall sample feel unsafe at their current role (27%), however, women of colour were the most likely group to feel unsafe in their place of work due to their race, gender, and religion (although the latter was not statistically significant).

Breaking this figure down by race, 40% women of colour and 27% of White women, feel unsafe in their current role due to gender. Further, 28% of women of colour feel unsafe due to race.

Clancy and colleagues note a meta-analysis of 343 studies has established that people are less likely to participate in counterproductive workplace research. This suggests that, despite their stark findings, people are likely to underreport negative experiences for fear of professional repercussions. So experiences may be far worse in reality.

The study concludes that astronomy creates an hostile environment with profound impact on junior scholars, White women, and the greatest problems for women of colour.

The study proposes four solutions to workplace inequity.

  1. A code of conduct/education for all trainees and employees at all levels;
  2. Diversity and cultural awareness training on challenges faced by women of colour and underrepresented minorities;
  3. Leaders need to model appropriate behaviour;
  4. Swift, just and consistent sanctioning for perpetrators of harassment in the workplace.

Moreover the study concludes that better support networks for women of colour are needed.

Both in the academic literature and in my professional equity and diversity work, experts see a reticence in equity programs to deal with racism alongside gender imbalance. As I’ve detailed elsewhere, the astronomy community, along with other disciplines, deals with sexual harassment and gender inequity in haphazard ways, but still ignores racism. The present study by Clancy and colleagues might be used to better shape policy and programs. Bias awareness training is the bare minimum needed; to make positive changes to attract, retain and promote women of colour, structural reform is necessary.

Too many scientific societies feel that tackling gender equity is “a good start” but still see diversity and inclusion of people of colour and other underrepresented minorities is the “next step.” Some leaders perceive that diversity work undermines gender equity programs. This study, and many others before it, show that intersectionality is pivotal in making lasting change. Intersectionality describes how gender inequality is impacted by racial inequality and other forms of disadvantage like sexuality, disability, class and beyond. We cannot address gender inequity separate from racial inequity as both issues impact one another, as well as increase other problems for minority groups.

Read about the study and comments by lead author Professor Clancy on Buzzfeed.

Photo credit: WOCinTech Chat, CC 2.0 via Flickr. Adapated by Z. Zevallos.

Royal Society, Gender Equity and Science in Aotearoa New Zealand

Why do academic institutions continue to replicate inequity? The Royal Society Te Apārangi in New Zealand has named their keynote speakers for their 150th Anniversary. All of them are White men. This seems additionally shocking because the organisation has recently rebranded and changed their name and misison to be focused explictly on diversity. This is a great thing! But clearly there’s a disconnect between their mandate and their event planning. Their response has been that the speakers were independently chosen by 10 autonomous branches who each nominated a candidate. They say acknowledge they have some work to do but don’t really give much detail to what this might entail. Perhaps it really is as they say- an unfortunate coincide that all ten panels chose White men? No, actually. What’s happened is not new.

Continue reading Royal Society, Gender Equity and Science in Aotearoa New Zealand

Overcoming Gender Inequality in the Classroom

Stanford law Professors Daniel Ho and Mark Kelman have conducted research showing that larger classes in law schools increase gender inequality. The study has relevance to STEM as the findings support other research about teaching in physics.

The study, published in the Journal of Legal Studies, included almost 16,000 grades given to around 1,900 students. The researchers find that pedagogy (teaching philosophy and teacher-student practice) matters to gender outcomes. The authors conclude that smaller classes where teachers provide more feedback reduce gender differences in grade scores. The researchers found that women outperformed men in small, interactive classes focused on practical exercises. The researchers note that similar results have been found in interactive physics courses.

Professor Kelman argues that the finds go against the “common sense” presumption that gender performance are “fixed”:

“Some naïve reactions are that if women get poorer grades at law school, women must be less capable… I think it’s surprising to many – and perhaps a confirmation of a more optimistic view that I have – that much of the inequality we observe in the world is mutable, and that the structures that we sometimes take for granted may work to the advantage of some and the disadvantage of others.”

Sources: The study and quote. Image: Other Sociologist.

[Image: chalk and blackboard with the quote as above from “It’s surprising to many…that much of the inequality…”]

Ellen Ochoa First Latin Woman to be Inducted into the Astronaut Hall of Fame

Dr Ellen Ochoa, a Mexican-American scientist with a PhD in electrical engineering, was the first Latina in space. Twenty-four years later, on May 19 2017, having already been awarded NASA’s highest award, the Distinguished Service Medal, she’ll be inducted into the USA Astronaut Hall of Fame. Continue reading Ellen Ochoa First Latin Woman to be Inducted into the Astronaut Hall of Fame

Gender Equity Among Conference Speakers

Dr Carly Rosewarne was excited about the Environmental and Human Microbiomes conference, hosted by the prestigious publisher, Nature. As a specialist in the field of gastrointestinal research, the global conference was an important scientific event. Dr Rosewarne’s joy was short-lived when she looked at the program: with hardly any women speakers, it was a YAMMM: Yet Another Mostly Male Meeting.

Dr Rosewarne provides an analogy about the importance of diversity in her field of study, which is not reflected in the conference practices in her discipline. She writes:

“Improving gender representation on invited speaker panels at scientific conferences is not difficult. The most effective method is to use guidelines that specify a minimum target threshold, most preferably for each session but at least across the whole event. In the microbiome field there are no reasons why this is impractical since there is no shortage of highly qualified women who would be delighted to be asked! Additional consideration may be required in order to provide extra support (financial or otherwise) to those who have caring responsibilities. If diversity is also present amongst the organising committee these needs will be more readily identified.”

Dr Rosewarne has decided not to attend the conference in protest and urges other prominent scientists to speak up on gender inequality and to boycott YAMMM events to amplify the message

Continue reading Gender Equity Among Conference Speakers

STEM Women in Astrophysics: Professor Vera Rubin, ‘Ardent Feminist’

Astrophysicist Professor Vera Rubin, USA National Medal of Science awardee who confirmed the existence of dark matter, died on 25 December 2016.

One of the things I want to highlight especially for this post is the wonderful job Professor Rubin’s institution, Carnegie Institution for Science, did in their press release. They focus on Rubin’s scientific discovery using plain language, but they were bold in also highlighting her gender equity work in science, by calling her an “ardent feminist”. This is so important because women’s advocacy for gender equity is scientific work that is unpaid; it is undertaken on top of research, teaching, and grant work; and goes largely unacknowledged.

This post is dedicated to Professor Rubin’s legacy and all the other ardent feminists in science and elsewhere. Continue reading STEM Women in Astrophysics: Professor Vera Rubin, ‘Ardent Feminist’

STEM Girls Know

Young girls know that stars, dinosaurs, bugs and volcanoes are magic. The problem is that day-to-day life in a patriarchal culture makes it hard for women to study them. – Shannon Palus on Quartz.

Gender stereotypes are perpetuated through the stories we tell children as soon as they’re born. For example, little kids have few preconceived ideas about what a scientist looks like until they start going to pre-school. In Prep and Grade 1 they still draw scientists in gender-neutral ways, but by Grade 2 onwards, they start drawing White men in lab coats. By Grade 5 the stereotype that only White men are scientists has taken hold. The stereotype is both gendered and racial, as research shows that even minorities tend to draw White men, thus affecting diversity in science on multiple levels.This stereotype is used in other ways by teachers, parents, the media and other figures of authority to force girls to consider that maybe they’re not fit to do science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM0. It turns into a phenomenon known as stereotype threat which affects women’s memory recall, decision-making and resilience.

The stereotype is repeated in high school, in the way women scientists and people of colour are missing from the science curriculum, to university, where women role models are largely absent from the syllabus. At every step of girls’ progression from education through to their careers, gender stereotypes are used to discourage women both in tacit and overt ways. This is known as the leaky pipeline, with studies showing how girls and women leave STEM at various stages due to the cultural pressures and institutional obstacles they face.

Read more from me, Dr Buddhini Samarasinghe and Prof Rajini Rao on how to transcend gender stereotypes and structural barriers in science.

Ways to Enhance Gender Equity and Diversity in STEMM

Informed and Practical Ways to Enhance Gender Equity and Diversity in Science
This is Part 2 on my participation in Kiwi Foo, an invitation-only “unconference” in Auckland, New Zealand, that brings together people from broad fields to work on social change (read about the rest of Kiwi Foo in Part 1). I spoke about Informed and Practical Ways to Enhance Gender Equity and Diversity in Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine (STEMM).

Ruby Payne-Scott. Photo via Peter Gavin Hall, Wikipedia
Ruby Payne-Scott. Photo via Peter Gavin Hall, Wikipedia, CC 3.0

I started my talk at Kiwi Foo by telling the story of Ruby Payne-Scott, a pioneer in radio astronomy whose work led to major technological innovation and scientific knowledge. She supported top secret science on radar detection in the 1940s during the war, and she was a women’s rights activist. During the 1930s and 1940s, she worked for Australia’s premier government research agency, CSIRO, at a time where women were not allowed to be married and working in the public service. So she secretly married in 1944 and subsequently lost (but fought hard to keep) her permanent position at CSIRO. She was finally forced to resign in 1951, a few months before the birth of her son, Peter, as her pregnancy was no longer able to be hidden. Her career in science was effectively ended because her family status was deemed unlawful for the public service.

Ruby Payne-Scott, third from the right, at the 1952 International Union of Radio Science conference, University of Sydney
Ruby Payne-Scott, 5th from the right, at the 1952 International Union of Radio Science conference, University of Sydney. Photo: Wikipedia, CC 3.0

Women scientists and allies who care about gender equity in STEMM tell Dr Payne-Scott’s story often, though it is a shamefully unknown story by broader Australia. My point in beginning my talk with this lamentable tale is that Payne-Scott’s historic impact lives on for the wrong reasons. In Australia, the shameful employment discrimination she endured overshadows her scientific achievements in many ways. More sadly, while women in the present day are no longer discriminated in the same overt way, other structural inequalities make it difficult for women to remain in science, especially after they have children. So Payne-Scott’s legacy remains perennially relevant, 70 years later. Continue reading Ways to Enhance Gender Equity and Diversity in STEMM

Structural Barriers for Women in Science

“But the sad fact is it is much easier to say ‘we need more women in science’ than it is to stand up, look the (mostly male) leaders in science and politicians in the eye and say: ‘Your laboratories, hiring procedures, grant-allocating processes and publishing routines are all sexist, and this results in science and technologies that aren’t good for at least half the population. Why have you allowed this to continue for so long?'”

Quote: The Guardian.