Trigger warning: this post discusses tactics used by sexual harassers to evade justiceand 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.
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.
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…”
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.”
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.