Academics report harassment at political science conference

Eleven per cent of women and 3 per cent of men report inappropriate sexual advances or touching at American Political Science Association meeting

January 2, 2018
Conference

A “sizeable” minority of women and a smaller but still notable share of men have experienced harassment or other inappropriate behaviour at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, according to a survey of members.

A solid majority (63 per cent) of the 2,424 members who responded to the survey indicated that they had never been harassed or treated inappropriately at the meeting. But the figures were different for men (74 per cent) and women (51 per cent).

Among the findings:

  • Forty-two per cent of women and 22 per cent of men said that they had been “put down” or “experienced condescension” at the meeting.
  • Thirty per cent of women and 10 per cent of men said that they had experienced “inappropriate language or looks, such as experiencing offensive sexist remarks; getting stared at, leered or ogled in a way that made them uncomfortable; or being exposed to sexist or suggestive materials which they found offensive”.
  • Eleven per cent of women and 3 per cent of men reported having experienced “inappropriate sexual advances or touching, such as unwanted attempts to establish a sexual relationship despite efforts to discourage it, being touched by someone in a way that was uncomfortable, or experiencing bribes or threats associated with sexual advances”.

The survey looked at specifics within that last item and found that the number of people reporting certain kinds of inappropriate behaviour was low. But the report published by the association said the data should still be of concern.

“That 29 of our members felt they had experienced threats of professional retaliation for not being sexually cooperative, and 44 felt they were being bribed with special professional rewards is, respectively, 29 and 44 people too many,” says the report, published in PS, an association journal.

The report found no statistically significant differences in the results by race or ethnicity.

But the study found that non-tenured faculty members experienced more harassment or inappropriate behaviour than tenured faculty members, graduate students or postdocs.

The report – written by Virginia Sapiro of Boston University and David Campbell of the University of Notre Dame – also noted open-ended responses to survey questions. Many women wrote in describing experiences of harassment and sexism at the meeting.

One wrote: “A senior scholar made physical sexual advances after walking me back to my hotel after a group dinner. I declined. It was not made explicit that I would face professional penalisation for declining, but our working relationship has not been the same since.”

Another wrote: “I think that ‘conference culture’ in general can be more complicated for women to negotiate. Most of us are trying to be polite (especially junior scholars and those on the job market), but this politeness sometimes seems to be an open invitation for male colleagues to assume that we’re interested or that a smile is some kind of a come-on.

“This is an especially problematic dynamic when it comes to networking with strangers: on more than one occasion, I have sought to engage a man in a professional conversation, only to have him assume that I was trying to hit on him. Weird, right? Would a man assume that another man at the conference was trying to hit on him? I remember waiting in a very long line to get coffee…and having what I thought was a pleasant, professional conversation with the man standing next to me. Later that night, I found numerous phone messages in my hotel room from him, inviting me for a drink.”

The report also described this situation: “Soon after launching the survey we received a letter from a woman who described going to her ‘first and last’ APSA meeting when she was a postdoc to tell us why she thought this effort was important. Having completed her PhD at an elite institution, she was invited for drinks in the hotel bar by men who were ‘well established in the field.’ After she finished her drink she left the bar to go back to her room. The men continued to drink and, she later found, charged all their drinks to her room. She was afraid to confront them because of their stature, and learned a fellow postdoc had been threatened by a senior member of the field who said that if she said anything about such an experience, he would destroy her career.”

The APSA is not the only association to consider the experience of women – especially those seeking jobs – at disciplinary gatherings.

For years, female philosophers complained about an event at the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association “the smoker” (from when most people at the event smoked). At the event, job candidates and senior scholars mingled in an atmosphere of heavy drinking and frequent sexist comments or harassment, many women said. In recent years, the association has cut back on the booze, and de-emphasised the event as part of the job-hunting process, hoping to eliminate the concerns many had about the event.

In Classics, the Women’s Classical Caucus issued a statement in November about harassment at the annual meeting of the Society for Classical Studies. The statement reminds members of the association that they must abide by the policies of their colleges and universities, and that the society wants to hear about allegations of harassment at its meeting. Harassment, the statement says, “is harmful, disrespectful and unprofessional. No attendee should under any circumstance engage in harassment, bullying or intimidation of other attendees either in person or online. By attending the meeting, all participants accept the obligation to uphold the rights of attendees and treat everyone with respect. The SCS does not seek to limit the areas of inquiry of its members or to curtail robust scholarly debate. Its aim is to promote critical and open inquiry that is free of personal harassment, prejudice and aggression.”

This is an edited version of a story which first appeared on Inside Higher Ed.

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