Institutional Action on Sexual Harassment

Drawing of an Asian woman standing by the side of a glass building. Her face is obscured

Trigger warning: this post discusses tactics used by sexual harassers to evade justice and the impact on survivors.

Today is International Women’s Day. I don’t much feel like ‘celebrating’ on this occassion. I feel burned out by the lack of racial justice and exclusion in the promotion of this day in Australia. Plus I am spending much of my spare time working through research and writing on my experiences working in equity and diversity. In particular, the myriad of ways in which women of colour are doubly or even trebly disadvantaged when they seek help on sexual harassment, racial discrimination and other inequity. So today’s post is not about ‘celebrating’ women and femmes. Instead, it is closer to the original impetus of the day. International Women’s Day is a day of protest that began with women’s workplace rights (United Nations Women Australia 2019). Join me in witnessing how far we still have to go to have our stories heard with dignity, and the lack of accountability by institutions to uphold our safety at work.

One in five women experience sexual harassment at work. In academia, from 2010-2016, 575 cases of sexual assault were reported in Australian universities, but these led to only six expulsions (see Zevallos 2019). Women students are three times as likely to be assaulted and twice as likely to be harassed as men. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students as well as disabled people experience a disproportionate level of sexual harassment and sexual assault, as do lesbian, gay, bisexual people, and especially transgender students, who experience up to twice the rate of harassment as heterosexual students.

What is sexual harassment? It is not subjective. Workplace law says it includes “any unwanted or unwelcome sexual behaviour, which makes a person feel offended, humiliated or intimidated.” For example:

  • unwelcome touching;
  • staring or leering;
  • suggestive comments or jokes;
  • sexually explicit pictures or posters;
  • unwanted invitations to go out on dates;
  • requests for sex;
  • intrusive questions about a person’s private life or body;
  • unnecessary familiarity, such as deliberately brushing up against a person;
  • insults or taunts based on sex;
  • sexually explicit physical contact; and
  • sexually explicit emails or SMS text messages.

Perpetrators of sexual harassment use five tactics to deflect blame (“outrage tactics”):

  1. Cover up;
  2. Devaluing victims;
  3. “Reinterpreting” events;
  4. Using official channels to give an appearance of justice;
  5. Intimidation.

‘Official channels use’ is an especially pertinent outrage tactic that relies on institutional processes to disempower victims. I use the term ‘victim’ here strategically. Flavia Dzodan (2018) argues that moving away from the term victim (in favour of ‘survivor’) evades the need for justice.* Paula McDonald and colleagues (2010) write:

‘Using official channels includes reports to senior officials, grievance procedures, and appeals to organisational boards, internal ombudsmen, external bodies, or professional organisations. Most official channels emphasise formal processes, require confidentiality, and focus on technicalities. Despite the best intentions of those running the procedures, the effect of many official channels is to dampen outrage: the immediacy and urgency of the problem is lost in the slow, ponderous processes. Meanwhile, observers often believe justice is being done, although outcomes seldom live up to expectations.’

– Paula McDonald, Tina Graham and Brian Martin (2010)

Let’s unpack these outrage tactics via official channels, and the role of institutions in re-traumatising victims. I discuss how organisations can instead take more proactive action to end sexual harassment.

Continue reading Institutional Action on Sexual Harassment

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. Continue reading Using Intersectionality in Collective Responses to Sexual Harassment

Sexual Harassment in Australian Science

I’m featured in the ABC investigation into sexual harassment in Australian science. “It’s important that they [Academy of Science] don’t stay silent because silence tells the rest of the science community that any woman who speaks out is going to be met with a wall of nonresponse, non-action, that she’s alone and it discourages survivors from coming forward and reporting…”

NT Royal Commission: Girls in Youth Detention Abused

TW sexual assault: The Northern Territory Commission into youth prison Don Dale finds girls were sexually assaulted by male guards, as well as being sexually harassed (including after being released) and were given less access to basic amenities, recreation areas and education in commodation to male detainees.

There is a general injustice in the abuse of human rights of these young women, as well as institutionalised racism at play here. Don Dale faced national condemnation after footage was released of guards torturing a young Aboriginal man. Aboriginal people are overrepresented in Australian prisons, largely due to over policing with regards to petty fines and low level, non-violent offences.

“At times, male youth justice officers showed inappropriately sexualised behaviour towards girls and young women and otherwise behaved towards them in a way that did not meet society’s expectations.” 

How to Stop the Sexual Harassment of Women in Science: Reboot the System

Zuleyka Zevallos, Swinburne University of Technology

This article was originally published in The Conversation

How to Stop the Sexual Harassment of Women in ScienceThe culture in astronomy, and in science more broadly, needs a major reboot following revelations early this year of another case of harassment against women by a senior male academic.

The journal Science revealed earlier this month that the latest case involved Christian Ott, a professor of theoretical astrophysics at Caltech university, in the United States.

Frustrated that Ott was not fired and only placed on unpaid leave for a year, the two female students who raised the allegations took their story to the popular online news outlet Buzzfeed.

Also this month, US Congresswoman Jackie Speier raised the case of Professor Tim Slater, who had been investigated for various sexual harassment incidents that began after he was hired by the University of Arizona in August 2001. Slater went on to the University of Wyoming.

Slater spoke to the news website Mashable and said he had received sexual harassment training as an outcome of the investigation.

But Congresswoman Speier questioned why the investigation into Slater’s sexual harassment was sealed “while he went on with his career”, even though women who were victims lost years of study and career progress due to his conduct.
Continue reading How to Stop the Sexual Harassment of Women in Science: Reboot the System

Ending Sexual Harassment in STEM

Dr Kathryn Clancy and colleagues conducted a study that finds sexual harassment is a widespread occurrence amongst researchers in the field. Women are especially likely to be harassed by a senior colleague. The study makes reference to three broad existing approaches that may be used to manage sexual harassment: “codes of conduct, principles of community, and sexual harassment policies.” The researchers note that despite these avenues, few of the participants in the study reported their experience of harassment. Few people knew how to report harassment. It is also likely that both victims and bystanders feared the immediate career repercussions of reporting harassment, as well as the after effects, such as ongoing trauma and career performance. The researchers note that of the minority who did report on sexual harassment, they were predominantly unsatisfied with the outcomes.

This post picks up on the existing avenues of action, centred on the principles of community approach. Continue reading Ending Sexual Harassment in STEM

Taylor Swift Having Fun With White Privilege: Racism and Sexism in Pop Culture

While people rush to defend Taylor Swift’s racist appropriation of Black female bodies in her latest video, Shake it Off, because it’s presented as “fun,” it’s worth remembering that “satire” is no excuse for whitewashing of racism. First, satire requires cultural context to be clever; it matters who is delivering the joke to whom, when, and for what purpose. Second, racism is not simply about interpersonal insults. Racism describes a system of domination where White people benefit directly and indirectly from the status quo.

Taylor Swift has positioned herself publicly as a feminist, though her enactment of these ideals was already not without problems. This video shows she has little understanding of the history of feminism and the cultural struggles faced by women of colour. Not coincidentally, White feminism is still largely resistant to racial issues. As sociologist Jessie Daniels notes, it matters that White women are at the centre of both pop culture and the feminist movement:

White feminism, without attention to racial justice, makes an easy partnership with White supremacy.

From Miley Cyrus to Iggy Azalea who profit from brandishing certain aspects of Black culture, to Lily Allen who similarly used Black women in a video to critique White women pop stars, Swift has added her name to an ever-growing list of rich White women in pop music who use the exploitation of women of colour to make “feminist” statements. This stands in contrast, but along a similar continuum, of White pop stars such as Gwen Stefani, Katy Perry, Avril Lavigne who commodify the culture and sexuality of “Asian” women. Asian femininity is sexy in a “cute,” clean and submissive way; while Black and Brown women’s sexuality is dangerous, dirty and untamed. Either way, White women’s cultural appropriation of minority cultures conforms to familiar tropes where White champions dominate the uncivilised Other.

The fact that White celebrities do not set out to be “intentionally racist” is beside the point. Racism does not require your intent, as racial bias often goes unexamined. In fact, the way Whiteness works is to place White people at the centre of culture so that they are protected from the everyday consequences of race relations. (And no, there is no such thing as reverse racism.) Not recognising how racism works, such as failing to understand how and why cultural appropriation and stereotypes are damaging, is an outcome of White privilege.

Taylor Swift Racism and Sexism
That racialised fear of black female hyper-sexuality also transfers onto the sexualised white female body and the criminalized black male body. – Prof. Janell Hobson.

Continue reading Taylor Swift Having Fun With White Privilege: Racism and Sexism in Pop Culture

STEM Women in Anthropology: Erin Kane

In 25 minutes, I’ll be co-hosting a discussion with Dr Buddhini Samarasinghe for STEM Women. We interview physical anthropologist Erin Kane who has recently returned from doing fieldwork in Cote d’Ivoire where she was studying monkey behaviour. She’ll tell us about her research and her inspired career path as a woman scientist. 

We’ll also talk about a recent study that finds 59% of anthropologists face sexual harassment in the field. Women are three times at risk, and over half of the harassment comes from senior researchers on junior women. Erin will talk about how we might increase women’s safety in the field. So much to talk about!

A write-up of this discussion is now on STEM Women.

What is Sexism and How Does it Work in STEM?

I wrote this for STEM Women and it was first published on 8th April 2014

This post covers the scientific and legal definitions of sexism, sexual harassment and sexual discrimination. We include an overview of the different ways in which sexism is described, such as hostile, benevolent, accidental or unintentional. These qualifiers of sexism can sometimes confuse people, as they invite people to see sexism as an individual or subjective idea. Sexism is neither – it is about how the collective interactions that happen at the everyday level are connected to institutional practices of harassment and discrimination. We provide examples of how sexist culture operates in at various levels of STEM, from undergraduate courses to gender inequality in pay, science publishing and recognition of women’s achievements. STEM Women seeks to move beyond superficial arguments about what sexism is and isn’t. The scientific evidence, some of which is included here, has established that inequality exists. We are looking for practical solutions to address inequality and lift the participation of women in STEM.

Continue reading What is Sexism and How Does it Work in STEM?

Sexual Harassment on Google Plus

Neon sign spelling, Google

Author Kimberly Chapman has published an excellent post on sexual harassment on Google+, with practical suggestions on how Google+ can be made a safer place for women to post. Kimberley mentions that much abuse follows women who make the What’s Hot list on Google. Without addressing this and the other issues raised in Kimberley’s post, Google+ is effectively discouraging women from writing insightful contributions.

There are other forms of racial and religious discrimination that occurs on Google+ because it’s difficult to block people effectively. 

One of the things I love about Google+ is the room to write longer, critical posts that other social media don’t facilitate. Other platforms have dragged their feet on addressing sexual harassment, most recently Twitter who responded to wide backlash with a fairly weak commitment. I hope Google+ will prove itself to be a leader here as it has in other respects.

I have seen evidence of Google+ responding relatively quickly to user feedback on technical issues, particularly with communities. I hope the same swift innovation occurs here.  Continue reading Sexual Harassment on Google Plus