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Some of my fellow ScienceBloggers have been hotly debating the role of male science faculty in perpetuating a climate that’s chilly and hostile to women. From one end of the ring, we’ve heard the classic complaint “It’s not my fault, I didn’t do it.” From the other end, we hear: “It is your fault because you’re not doing anything to change it.” And, in the middle, we have a rational and thoughtful referee, pointing out that both writers see things from different perspectives.

I think the question boils down to this:

Are you automatically part of the problem if you’re not part of the solution?

To summarize the three points of view, and simplify things to the extreme (correct me in the comments if I’m way off base), I think Chad and Janet might vote “no” and Zuska, most definitely, “yes.”

Perhaps this problem doesn’t merit a binary answer.

If we use a range between 1 and 10, with 1 being “no” and “10” being “yes,” my vote would fall somewhere between 7 and 8.

I know from experience that it’s not always easy to be part of the solution, nor do we always know the right decision at the right time.

When I was a tenured faculty member and I had a student who was getting sexually harassed during an internship, in a biotech company, by a scientist on our advisory board; the answer was pretty clear. We had her quit and we never allowed a student to work for that gentleman, ever again. I was at least part of the solution.

When a female colleague of mine was denied tenure, and the head of tenure committee, who had been asking her out six months before (without success), took extraordinary measures to make sure that she was denied tenure, I did nothing, even though I knew that he had asked her out. Was I part of the problem? It wasn’t my fault, after all. And, by the time that I heard that she had been denied tenure, she had already turned in her resignation. I thought it was too late to talk to the dean and tell her (the Dean) what I knew. No, I didn’t create the problem, but writing a letter or speaking out (then) seemed like a waste of time. In retrospect, I think now that I should have tried to be part of the solution. I should have written a letter, just in case that instructor did something again.

Consequently, my perspective is a bit kinder than Zuska’s, because I only learned the answer to that question through experience and time. I think it’s up to those of us, who do know some of the steps that can be taken, to help educate the Chads of the world and show them how they can become part of the solution.

I’m not sure that we can change society, but I’m sure we can change ignorance.

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  1. #1 Zuska
    October 3, 2006

    Sandra: very thoughtful post. Thanks for weighing in on this issue.

    Regarding your female colleague: true, you didn’t create the problem. But you were aware of it. And depending upon what your university’s policy on sexual harassment and retaliation was, you could be liable in a lawsuit for not reporting what you knew. If your former colleague ever decides to sue the university over her denial of tenure, everyone who knew anything about the situation would be deposed by her attorneys, and that would include you. Your lack of action would be evidence that the situation was known and not dealt with; you might be personally liable for knowing and not following the university’s policy, which in many cases states that individuals who have knowledge of potential sexual harassment and/or retaliation are required to report the information to the Office of Affirmative Action or other appropriate office. This was the policy at the university where I worked. Universities have these policies to help prevent, uncover, mediate, and punish sexual harassment when it occurs; but also to cover their asses.

    The ass who was harassing your student should have been reported to his/her supervisor. Not just never send your students there anymore. Report the ass. Industry takes this stuff seriously when it is reported. They do not like to be sued.

    These people are often serial harassers. So, the dude who harassed your colleague: you don’t know who else he may have harassed, or who he may be harassing now. It doesn’t just “end” when the case you know of ends. Your students aren’t being harassed by the ass in industry anymore – but what about someone else’s students? What if they are afraid to speak up to their advisors, and they just submit to the harassment? Report, report, report. If you are in a position of relative power and can help someone else, report.

    So being part of the solution is sometimes actually required; not being part of the solution can sometimes land you in a heap of trouble, when someone finally gets so fed up she decides to sue. One of these days, someone from that department chair’s past is gonna pop up and make a fuss.

    Readers: if you find yourself in a similar situation: report, report, report. Do not let the bastards hide in their dark corners. Shine a big bright light of disclosure upon them.

    Then puke on their shoes.

  2. #2 Sandra Porter
    October 3, 2006

    Yes, Zuska, you are absolutely correct. I didn’t know the right thing to do at the time. I do now and I’m trying to make up for it.

    And for the record, I taught at a community college.

  3. #3 Frumious B
    October 6, 2006

    I had a student who was getting sexually harassed during an internship, in a biotech company, by a scientist on our advisory board; the answer was pretty clear. We had her quit and we never allowed a student to work for that gentleman, ever again. I was at least part of the solution.

    So – harasser keeps job, harassee quits job. Well, that’s one solution.

  4. #4 Sandra Porter
    October 6, 2006

    I agree there probably were better solutions. If anyone at my college had suggested any, we could have used them.

    This case wasn’t simply an issue of who kept their job. This was a very small company (less than 5 people) and it was owned by the harasser. I don’t think he would have fired himself.

  5. #5 Michael
    October 6, 2006

    I had a colleague at a former institution – she was personally a bit prickly to some people. She weighed 370 pounds at the time and I’m sure that was part of the problem. She didn’t take being manipulated, lied to or ignored very well (so, for example, she was justifiably and vocally upset when not told about interviews for an Instituional Research person when she was on the college’s Assessment Committee!).

    She was a great teacher, but not one to coddle. She told you when you were right and when you were wrong. She was the best and most natural methodologist in psychology I’ve ever known, I think, and I learned a lot from her.

    To make a long story short, some people really didn’t like her and she on the verge of being denied tenure, despite having a couple of articles out, and having students win national awards from our disciplinary honor society two out of three years!

    I was livid. I went to a meeting in her defense, at her request. The first question I was asked was “How easy would it be for us to replace Dr. X?” – I couldn’t believe it! The decision was publicly not yet fully made, but I could see it was final during my meeting with the committee.

    I left that college (it took a year to get out) and I have very few good things to say about the people involved in the decision or about my former department.

    We have to be part of the solution — I wasn’t quiet then and I won’t be ever again when it comes to sex discrimination. In fact, if it wouldn’t have been a totally fruitless proposition I would have reported the whole story to the local papers, but in matters such as improper denial of tenure cases are so difficult to “win”, even in the public sphere.

    It boils my blood to be rethinking this.

    My friend never totally recovered. She taught for a year at the old school, then for a one-year post at a small branch of a state school, and she is now done with teaching. She’s moved to my town and my wife and I hang out with her a lot. Such a waste of talent.

    All this for exhibiting personality traits in teaching that, for a man, would be lauded.

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