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.
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.