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, unwelcome invitations for dates, jokes, comments, and other forms of inappropriate communication. Moreover: “

A 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.

This is one of the big problems for science and academia: lay understandings confuse and subjectively judge sexual assault (including misunderstand the legal definition of rape) and sexual harassment. 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: Talking Feminist Sociology

Drawing of several women dressed in historical STEM outfits

In case you missed this on my other social media, in January 2019, Lady Science published a podcast about my career and feminism.  I was interviewed in late 2018 by Leila McNeill, one of the editors-in-chief. Below is an excerpt where you can learn a little about my professional history. I discuss how racial minority sociologists are challenging knowledge production in our field. I show how the concept of otherness is feeding the overt political resurgence of White nationalism. Then I cover the importance of intersectionality in sociological practice.

My face is drawn Brown, with red lipstick and red lines shining out of my top of my head
Portrait of me commissioned from the feminist and artist, Tyler Feder

Leila: To kick off our series I’ll be talking with Zuleyka Zevallos, a sociologist from Australia, about the history of sociology, how the work of Indigenous and minority sociologists is changing the field, and how intersectional feminism influences her work. Leila: Without further ado, I’ll let Zuleyka introduce herself.

Z. Zevallos: Yep, so my name’s Zuleyka Zevallos. I’m a sociologist, and I’ve got a PhD in sociology. I started off doing research on the intersections of identity from migrant background women. I was really interested in how their experiences of gender, sexuality, ethnicity and also religion made their sense of identity, and how that also interconnected with their experiences of racism and multiculturalism, and how all of that affected their sense of belonging to their communities, as well as broader Australian society.

Z. Zevallos: After I finished my PhD I’ve been teaching the whole way through, and then I was an academic for a little while. I taught the sociology of gender and sexuality as well as leading courses on ethnicity and race. I also looked at the impact of technology on society…

Z. Zevallos: I spent the first few years working with an interdisciplinary social modelling team. That was a really great experience because it really taught me different applications of sociology, but also how to speak to scientists from the natural and physical sciences, from computer sciences, and how to blend their disciplines with mine.
Continue reading Interview: Talking Feminist Sociology

Resource: Equity and Diversity for Events

Diversity encompasses issues of equity, inclusion, accessibility and intersectionality (the interconnection between gender and racial inequality alongisde other social disadvantages). I’ve created a resource to ensure academic and science events support diversity. Below is a brief version.

Continue reading Resource: Equity and Diversity for Events

Sexual Harassment in the Academy

Trigger warning: this post describes an investigation and experience of sexual harassment.

On 19 January 2018, I wrote to the Presidents and Executive leaders of the Australian Academy of Science asking them to address the University of California Berkeley investigation finding that Academy Fellow, Professor Terry Speed, had been found to have sexually harassed a woman postdoc over a two-year period. Prof Speed was also found to have created a ‘hostile environment,’ for the postdoc and a second complainant, Professor Lior Pachter, who made the findings of the investigation public.

This sexual harassment of the woman postdoc (‘Barbara’) included several months in Australia, when Prof Speed invited her to his Australian institution, WEHI, where he was still leading a lab at the time that the investigation was made public. Not only is his position as Fellow notable, but he is also a recipient of the Prime Minister’s Award for Science 2013 and was awarded the Eureka Prize for Scientific Leadership 2014. Prof Speed is also one of the founding sponsors of Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE), which is being co-managed by the Academy of Science. SAGE is running the Athena SWAN Awards, a pilot of the UK initiative to increase gender equity and diversity in science and academia. Almost 90% of Australia’s universities are signed up to the Athena SWAN program, along with other government research organisations and medical institutes.

I was employed by the Academy as the project manager for SAGE, and was tasked with getting the program off the ground prior to its establishment and launch (April 2015). I left the Academy after July 2016. I am proud of what my team achieved, and I will always treasure The Work, but I faced many hardships trying to make internal changes on equity and diversity. This includes, but is not limited to, not being listened to on improving internal processes, lack of organisational support under stressful conditions (magnified for me as a woman of colour), and leadership resistance to the intersectionality dimensions of the program.

My email in January 2018 came one and a half years after I left. From the outside, it seemed that very little had changed on gender equity and diversity. I asked the Academy to address a number of basic steps, including a public statement about Prof Speed, and policies to address sexual harassment and discrimination.

As I write this, it has been six months since I contacted the Academy about Prof Speed, asking them to increase visibility of their gender equity and diversity policies and practices.

Below, I reproduce my email in full, without the names of the Executives to whom I addressed this, and omitting the name of another ex-employee. I then discuss what’s happened since and the responses on this case.

What follows is not just about this one case, but more about how this situation has been handled. Specifically, the culture of silence and inaction. What does it say about the state of academia and science that prominent men who buy a stake of equity programs are not held accountable by their professional associations when they harass women?

Continue reading Sexual Harassment in the Academy

Event: Making Science Inclusive

A group of conference delegates stand for a group photo. They are smiling in front of their chairs in a lecture theatre

A quick note to say that I’ll be on a panel at the Science Pathways conference on 23 April 2018, in Brisbane.* The event is run by the EMCR Forum (Australia’s Early- and Mid-Career Researcher Forum). The panel is titled, ‘Making Science Inclusive.’ I will speak about how to use intersectionality to refocus diversity initiatives to be more inclusive. My co-panellists are:

  • Ms Kimberly Olsen (CEO Trans Employment Program Australia),
  • Ms Rachel Ranton (Inclusion & Diversity Consultant, Westpac),
  • Dr Andrew Siebel (Assistant Dean, Diversity & Inclusion, Faculty of Science, University of Melbourne), and
  • Dr Soressa Kitessa (Senior Research Scientist, SARDI).

The panel is facilitated by Dr Carly Rosewarne (Research Scientist, CSIRO).

A description of the panel from the conference website:

Discussions around how to improve diversity in science are often centred on ways to encourage those from underrepresented demographics to consider career paths in STEM. To ensure success, these well-intentioned initiatives need to be underpinned by effective policy and ongoing support to ensure individuals are given an equal opportunity to thrive. In this session, the concept of inclusive science will be explored from the perspective of EMCRs, with examples of best practice from academia and industry.

If you can’t make it, you will be able to watch it free on livestream! Register here.

* Note that the conference continues on the next day but I won’t attend on the 24 April.

Challenging the March for Science: Intersectionality at the Coal Face

This is the first of two talks I was invited to give in New Zealand in September 2017. It is fitting to share this today, on the second March for Science event happening in over 200 cities around the world, including Australia. I have throughly documented the equity and diversity issues with the last year’s March for Science. This talk was a reflection on the problems and costs of this volunteering work that I and many other people of colour, disabled scientists, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and asexual (LGBTQIA) researchers did to try to make the marches more inclusive. I note that Black women scientists bore the worst abuse both within the March for Science movement and by the public advocacy they did.

I’m afraid that discussions this year were no better. Last week, I was one of a few Australian women reflecting on issues from last year’s March for Science, and the lack of transparency over plans for this year’s event. On my Twitter threads, in discussion with other minority women, organisers from the Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra marches reproduced many of the problematic arguments detailed here, all over again.

Some of the organisers of this year’s march blamed the lack of diversity amongst the committees and speakers on the low number of volunteers, while also insinuating that minority people should have volunteered in greater numbers. I noted that the same issue was raised last year to deflect minority researchers’ concerns with equity and diversity. In fact, the minorities who did volunteer and offered countless hours of free advice and public resources (as in my case) were met with anger. Women of colour were especially made to feel unsafe and unwelcome. Other organisers of this year’s march said they valued diversity but didn’t know how to improve things. I noted that there had been a plethora of free resources published last year as well as other resources that exist on how to make events more inclusive.

There is really no excuse for reproducing inequality in science or academic events, and in other spheres.

So with all these wounds freshly scratched opened, below are the notes for the talk that I gave at the University of Auckland, titled: Challenging the March for Science – intersectionality work at the coal face. I was a guest of the The Women in Science Network. Throughout this post, I provide tips for how to make science events (and other events and protests) more inclusive. At the end, I include a visual resource that summarises some tips for best practice that you can print off as a reminder. Feel free to put it up at your home office, work, school, university, or any other community space!

Continue reading Challenging the March for Science: Intersectionality at the Coal Face

Tech Inclusion

On 13 February 2018, I participated in the Tech Inclusion Melbourne conference. Bill Nicholson, Wurundjeri elder gave the Welcome to Country (below). He talked about using treaty to build economic capacity and sovereignty amongst Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

My overview of the conference starts with the panel discussion that I took part in. I then reflect on the other presentations. (Note: click on images for further detail)

Continue reading Tech Inclusion

Interview: Intersectionality and Identity Politics

In September 2017, writer and social justice coordinator with the American Humanist Association, Sincere Kirabo, interviewed me about misunderstandings of intersectionality and the problems with the term “identity politics.” He writes:

…White identity politics go “undetected,” as we’re socialised to regard the sustaining of dominant culture as “what is expected” or “the way things ought to be.”

Dr. Zuleyka Zevallos, sociologist with Swinburne University, echoes this sentiment, stating:

‘If the phrase has any value at all — and it really doesn’t — “identity politics” calls attention to the ways that people from majority groups, especially White people, do not “see” how their identities are governed by politics.
This is how Whiteness works: White culture is embedded into all fields of public life, from education, to the media, to science, to religion and beyond. White culture is constructed as the norm, so it becomes the taken-for-granted ideal with which other cultures are judged against by White people.

‘Hence, White people do not recognise how their race shapes their understanding of politics, and their relationships with minority groups.’ Continue reading Interview: Intersectionality and Identity Politics

Racism in Research and Academia

Racism is not an interpersonal phenomenon. It is not simply about something one person said to another; it is more than a slur about skin colour. Racism operates through institutions and policies, that are reinforced in everyday words and actions. Racism is not comprehending that things you say and do – as well as the things you fail to say and do – contribute to the alienation of people of colour. Well-meaning White people contribute towards racism – through their silence. Whether intentional or not, racism has material consequences on the life chances of racial minorities. Below are some examples of racism at work in research contexts. I examine what it means to be an “ally,” and I discuss ways to proactively respond to racial discrimination in the workplace and online.

Continue reading Racism in Research and Academia

Ma Ma: Film Review

Penelope Cruz is absolutely wonderful in Ma Ma, the biggest feature at the Spanish Film Festival in Canberra. Cruz plays Magda, a single mother who decides to leave her cheating husband, a professor of Philosophy who is sleeping with his students (!). This decision coincides with her learning that she has breast cancer.

On the same day of her marital independence, she meets and forms a friendship with Arturo (Luis Tosar), an ailing husband who, also on this fateful day, learns his wife and child have been in an accident.

This film begins by exploring grief and human connection through loss, but soon proves itself a film about life and how to be happy in brief, imperfect moments. The film is a beautiful celebration of motherhood; the film ends with a dedication: “to all the women.”

There is more to like about this movie: it’s depiction of friendship especially as well as its wrestling with faith and atheism. It is a lovely statement on the diversity of families and ultimately has an affirming message about gay fatherhood. While there are many cliches along the way about living life to the fullest, there is great joy in seeing a woman-centred story where the journey is driven by her own desires.

Score: Distinction (7.5/10). Continue reading Ma Ma: Film Review