Sexual harassment in physical anthropology


Astronomy again.

Molecular biology.

Story after story about sexual harassment of students and trainees by professors has been coming out recently. Today Michael Balter has just published an important news piece about the same thing happening much closer to home–in my discipline, physical anthropology. Specifically, in the subfield of paleoanthropology.

The story is very complex, but the gist is that a young research assistant has come forward with allegations that she was sexually assaulted by her supervisor, Brian Richmond, in his hotel room at a European conference.

Outsiders may never know for sure what happened in that Florence hotel room. But the incident ultimately triggered a cascade of other allegations against Richmond and a resolve by some senior paleoanthropologists to do battle against sexual misconduct, hoping to change the climate of their field. The charges and the community’s response also roiled two leading institutions, which struggled with shifting cultural expectations, inadequate reporting and disciplinary tools, and the challenge of treating all parties fairly.

Please read the entire story, carefully reported by Balter here.

I am upset, but not surprised. I know too much about how common these incidents are. We have been quietly talking about such stories for ages…and openly talking about them after Kate Clancy, Robin Nelson, Julienne Rutherford, and Katie Hinde drew attention to issues of sexual harassment in field work with their publication of the results of the Survey of Academic Field Experiences (SAFE).

I participated in the SAFE survey; I have my own stories to share. That time in field school, when I was 18, when female students my age and younger were “flirted with” aggressively by our graduate supervisor. It was uncomfortable, but I didn’t know that I could tell someone or how to make it stop. That time, also in field school, when I was followed around town all day by someone else, and I had to literally hide in a lecture session to get away from him. That time, much later, when an older man was constantly inappropriate in speech and action towards me, standing much too close and even rubbing himself in passing against me. (To this day that is the closest I have ever come to striking someone in anger. I restrained myself because of his age, and informed supervisors instead). These are (relatively) mild experiences, yet I find them hard to talk about, and I really debated sharing them here. Would I seem less credible as a scholar? Would people think I’m blowing them out of proportion?  This isn’t about me, after all. But I think that the more of us who share our stories, the more we can help students understand that these sorts of behaviors are NOT okay.

I can’t imagine the courage it takes for these young scholars to open up about their (far worse) experiences and challenge the powerful men who harmed them. I am grateful to them, and I hope that my colleagues are as well. More than anything, I hope that this imparts urgency to people in positions of power to listen to their stories and believe that they are worthy of investigation.

I am grateful to Michael Balter and all the journalists and bloggers who are writing about these issues.

I am grateful to Bernard Wood, a leader in our discipline, for speaking out about these issues in the most forceful way possible in his editorial Zero tolerance. Period.

I am grateful to our professional association (the American Association of Physical Anthropology) for taking steps last year to address the structural problems that allow sexual misconduct in the field and in the classroom to thrive, as detailed in Balter’s piece:

Last November AAPA released a new nine-page statement on sexual harassment and assault. AAPA President Susan Antón of NYU says that for years the organization has had a code of ethics that prohibits sexual harassment, but that after the SAFE study, she and other AAPA leaders realized that it needed a separate, more detailed statement focusing specifically on this issue. The new guidelines do not have a provision for investigating complaints, unlike guidelines adopted by the American Astronomical Society. But Antón agrees with other advocates that going beyond rules on paper and changing the culture of the field is the only real way to stop sexual misconduct. “Changing each individual institutional environment is the only answer to that,” she says.

I hope that departments and institutions will be similarly motivated to take a close look at their policies and see how they can be improved to protect students and trainees.

Finally, to all students: please, please read this letter by Melissa Wilson Sayres and know that I agree with every word.

The power dynamics inherent in academia allow behavior like this to persist. The hierarchy within and across institutions, the hierarchy within departments and training programs, the hierarchy of funding agencies, they all lead to power imbalances that allow those at the top to act with impunity. Money and power affect decisions at all levels. Money and power (often? sometimes? routinely?) win out over concern for people, especially people at the bottom of the hierarchy.

I cannot change the system we live in. That will take time and many people working together. Hiring committees, department chairs, society governing bodies, grant reviewers, program officers, journal editors, peer reviewers, all have a hand to play in this.

But I am not powerless. Nor can I say that I have no influence. My influence may be small, but I will do what I can.

Update: One of my postdoc mentors, who has been very active in making another of our professional societies responsive to these issues, sent me this document. It’s a commitment by bioanthropologists and bioarchaeologists to take concrete steps to end sexual misconduct. I highly encourage my colleagues to read it, as well as this fantastic piece by Katie Hinde.

11 thoughts on “Sexual harassment in physical anthropology

  1. wl February 9, 2016 / 5:01 pm

    An interesting post. I submit a cautionary tale.

    First, I want to be very clear that I regard sexual harassment as a very real problem in fieldwork, and as a former person in authority have never had the slightest tolerance for such behavior, either for myself or my subordinates.

    I spent decades doing fieldwork at sea. Shipboard life throws people into intimate contact from which there is no escape and little respite. The only way to avoid intersex issues is for everyone, both ship’s crew and scientific crew, to behave to extraordinarily high standards of respect, tolerance, and care. Still, minor issues do arise–most are quite innocent and essentially unavoidable (a crew member bangs his knuckle and drops vigorous f-bombs, someone tells a bawdy joke that he or she should not have, someone inadvertently walks into a head that is in
    use, someone exits a shower clad only in a towel, and so forth.) Anyone, male or female, who cannot deal with such things probably shouldn’t be at sea in the first place.

    However, real issues did occasionally arise, although they were remarkably rare. In one instance, it was brought to my attention that a senior subordinate had taken to pinching backsides. I immediately flew to the vessel, investigated quite thoroughly, and determined that my subordinate had at the very least been behaving inappropriately (although I was unable to confirm the butt-
    pinching allegation, I busted him for hugging). Rest assured that my subordinate had serious chunks torn off his own backside, and his behavior was closely monitored on board for the (short) remaining duration of his employment.

    Here is the cautionary story: I received a phone call from another senior subordinate, very upset, who told me that a technician had filed a grievance against him for sexual harassment. This individual had worked for me for a number of years, and had no history of misbehavior and had had numerous compliments from female employees at various levels of authority. Still, I immediately investigated (via both the grievance paper trail and via interviewing every person on board, with the exception of the woman who had filed the grievance because she refused to speak with me.)

    It turned out that the basis for the grievance was that my employee’s teenaged daughter had given him a Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, which he left on the galley table. The technician said nothing to him or anyone else aboard (he simply would have removed the offending magazine). Because she had filed a grievance, this turned into a bureaucratic nightmare that required many hours to resolve. Now, should he have left the swimsuit issue out? Maybe not, but did that constitute sexual harassment? Remember, this was not an office environment, but aboard ship where people had to live together for days or weeks at a time.

    My point is that while abuse of authority certainly does occur, it is still important to investigate each incident with great care–things aren’t always what they seem at first glance. I am NOT claiming that the incident reported in this post is without merit; I have no basis to judge one way or the other. Because the mere allegation of sexual harassment can destroy a reputation, great care must be taken to ensure proper and meticulous investigation.

    • Day Late and Dollar Short February 10, 2016 / 3:28 pm

      “Now, should he have left the swimsuit issue out? Maybe not, but did that constitute sexual harassment? Remember, this was not an office environment, but aboard ship where people had to live together for days or weeks at a time.”

      So what? You made it abundantly clear that these were employees in a WORK environment. Why apply a double standard just because it happens to be on a ship? It is still work, you’re still interacting with fellow employees. To imply that a work environment outside of the traditional office setting should be held to a lower professional standard is wrong, in my opinion. As an example, Forest Service employees may spend a consistent amount of time in an office, but also camp for days in national forests with other employees to do plot surveys. The same professional standards should apply whether they’re in the office or in the field.

      • wl February 10, 2016 / 5:59 pm

        Please note that I am NOT excusing sexual harassment. When I found evidence, I came down turbo-hard on the perpetrators, even for such (relatively) mild offenses as a few hugs. My central point was that it is important to investigate allegations very thoroughly–not every allegation has merit, although I leave it to sociologists to figure out what percentage is bogus.

        Your claim that “The same professional standards should apply whether they’re in the office or in the field” has a lot of truth to it, but has to be tempered with some common sense. The environments are most certainly not identical, because people not only work in the field, but also live there during off hours (aboard ship or in a remote field camp are quite similar–I’ve done a lot of both, but used shipboard incidents as examples because that is the bulk of my experience). It is one thing to do 8 hours in an office and then go home, quite another to work an 8, 12, sometimes 16 hour day and then have no choice but to sit down to dinner with your colleagues and then squabble over which video to watch. It is within that zone that gray areas arise–one example (among many) that occurred to me personally happened at the end of a particularly tough work day after I announced that we were going to sleep in a couple of extra hours the following morning. One of the exhausted female scientists immediately ran up and gave me a big hug and kiss–technically, I suppose I could have busted her for that, but what harm was done? Better that I just enjoyed the friendly affection. On the other hand, that appreciative hug was certainly not some sort of License to Grope, nor did I take it that way. Again, basic common sense and human respect go a long way toward avoiding problems.

        There is a kind of double standard that is, I think, both appropriate and defensible in field environments in a weird sort of way. That is, males should carefully avoid touching females, telling bawdy jokes in their presence, and the like. It seems far less likely that similar behaviors by females would lead to conflict. Is that fair to either sex? Probably not. It puts the males into a “walking on eggshells” mode and sets the females apart culturally. I don’t have any magical solutions and would enjoy hearing notions on the subject.

        • Chris February 10, 2016 / 6:38 pm

          As one of the only women in the room four decades ago, I applaud your good sense approach.

          When I was in college during the late 1970s, there were a few (like only a couple) fellow engineering students who tried to get me angry with sexual comments. I just ignored them, just rolled my eyes, and depending on my mood would only acknowledge with a short quip of “You wish.”

          I really only had one sexual harassment incident while working. After helping an older (than my dad!) engineer with a problem, he suggested something indecent. He was overheard by another young male engineer, and both of us younger folk just reacted by looking like deer caught in head lights. Older guy kind of just slowly left, I guess he realized what he had done was beyond common decency.

          There was one occasion that I kind of entered the forbidden zone of sexual harassment. It had to do with exhaustion as we were working lots of overtime, I was and a part time graduate student, doing a newsletter and remodeling our house. I was mentioning that my husband wanted me to drop something as it was putting a strain on our lives. One younger engineer asked me why he would tell me that. I quipped it was perhaps he was not into necrophilia. He asked me what that meant, so I pointed to the nearby dictionary (this was in the early 1980s). He looked up the word and then blushed. Most of the rest of us were amused.

          Note: After your description of ship life, I am much happier that I switched from oceanography to engineering during my first month of college. When I took my younger son to the Ocean Dept. open house (where we got to tour the research ship!), I mentioned this to someone displaying some of the physical oceanography computer graphics (the math is similar to the structural dynamics I did when I worked), his response was “So you went for the money!” Well, yes I did.

          • wl February 10, 2016 / 7:46 pm

            Interesting comments, Chris. You likely would have done fine on board ship–your incident handling was quick, simple, and clear, and stopped the BS in its tracks. I too found that serious incidents were quite uncommon–the really minor stuff, while no doubt irksome to some women, was more common, and almost never occurred during actual work hours.

            • Chris February 10, 2016 / 7:54 pm

              Thank you. I a am product of my time, a baby boomer who was never good at sticking with the status quo. It probably helped that I was an Army brat who moved around lots, often as the new kid in class I picked up certain survival skills.

              • Chris February 10, 2016 / 7:54 pm

                But fail at proofreading… ” I a am product of my time” AARGH!

            • historewriter February 13, 2016 / 3:04 pm

              I survived grad school among the feminists (I’m a woman, too, and don’t like being treated unfairly, but. . .well, some folks go too far at everything I guess). I also had a great deal of experience as the only young female among male work crews. Most men are respectful. Some are downright funny. I learned early on that when it comes to sexual harassment, as with most things, we all have to be cognizant of both the letter of the law and the spirit of the law.

              Look, if you’re female and you’re around for an off-color joke, or even a personal comment, you know–you just KNOW the difference between someone trying to lighten up a work day and someone trying to bully you into feeling uncomfortable. And the same with you men: you know when you’re joking with a respected colleague or when you’re making someone uncomfortable and when you’re pulling a power-play on them.

              I’ve seen mostly well-meaning co-workers. I’ve seen men realize only after the fact they were making someone uncomfortable and back off, or even had to be told. . .and back off. And I also know the kind of men who deliberately wait till they’re alone with a young girl to back her into a corner and make her squirm.

              So, yes, if you want to go letter of the law, you’ll find incidents that are at once both reprehensible and trivial, depending on context. If we want genuine bullying to be taken seriously we have a responsibility not to abuse the normally-commendable new guidelines.

              Same is true for pretty much anything.

  2. Jafra D. Thomas February 9, 2016 / 8:49 pm

    Professor Raff, I just wanted to say that your credibility isn’t loss one bit for sharing your personal stories and adding your voice and platform to efforts to speak out an address root problems the perpetuate incidences of sexual assault and harassment; I’m grateful to have learned via your post that professional associations are speaking out and are making attempts of addressing “power structures” that enable such harmful behavior. Thank you for speaking out, for sharing your story, and encouraging others to be be brave, supportive, and empathetic. ~Jafra D. Thomas, Ph.D. Student at Oregon State University.

  3. skathes February 11, 2016 / 12:15 am

    I’ll echo other comments in underscoring that your credibility is in no way impugned for sharing what is otherwise broadly shared by females in many professions. Academics has often been overlooked as an area of sexual harassment and misogyny. This is likely due to the larger social assumptions about relative masculinity and education. That is another discussion! In any event while I very seriously support the common sense approach, I am mostly just grateful for the dialogue. I was an anthro grad student in the mid 80s. There were no overt incidents or glad handed episodes that I recall specifically, but the level of passive aggressive (and not so passive aggressive) misogyny cannot be underscored enough. It drove me to transfer to medical school, where sadly I was to discover the misogyny was worse. Shocking, I know. But at the time I assumed most of the negativity was related to my youth (I was in college before most finish high school) and relative good looks. There were few females in upper level position and they were rather unsupportive. One even told me I’d be better off if I just kept my part time job modeling. In retrospect she was likely trying to spare me future frustration, or even real harm, but others…..Well there are quite a few studies on that phenomenon of female ‘support’.

    Kudos for the honesty, and the conversation. Bright lights have a clarifying effect! And pity the harasser who gets grab handy with a BJJ fighter.

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