I refuse to say yes to doing nothing about sexual harassment

Are there enough negatives in that title to confuse you? Good. But it’s nothing compared to the confusion I’ve felt this week. And my discomfort is a drop in the bucket of confusion and anxiety experienced every. single. day by woman who have been or are being sexually harassed.

The astronomy community was rocked again this week. I came to my current career via astronomy education and I know, not just “know of”, but personally and professionally know, all the people involved.

People who I admire and respect are making contradictory statements.

Some statements are so concrete, it’s impossible they’re both right. I can’t pledge allegiance to one without calling the other a liar. I can’t accept one side and I can’t accept two sides. The only option seems to be accept zero sides and do nothing.

No, that’s what I cannot do.

Doing nothing about allegations and instances of sexual harassment is how these behaviours have been allowed to continue.

I’m fortunate and grateful to have smart and powerful women in my community who are willing to listen to me, advise me, help me recognize what I believe, help me figure out what I can do. (If you’re part of the UC San Diego community and you’re struggling with harassment, I know Gabriele Wienhausen and Marnie Brookolo will make time for you.) They helped me recognize something we all agree on: we must condemn sexual harassment and this condemnation must be intentional and visible.

This is something I can do.

I’m putting it here in public in writing so I can hold myself, and you can hold me, accountable.

I will use Twitter to broadcast my stand on sexual harassment. This one tweet is ludicrously insufficient but it’s not nothing.

I will continue to teach the students in my teaching and learning course about recognizing and respecting the diversity of their students, about eliminating microaggressions, and about creating a learning environment where every student feels they can make a valuable contribution to the class. Not only that, but I will continue to practice modelling that behaviour as I teach the course.  Learning through diversity is one of the core ideas of the CIRTL Network where the curriculum of my course originated. This week, my friend and UC San Diego colleague, Adam Burgasser, shared with me the “Nashville Recommendations” for creating an inclusive astronomy community

My colleague Marnie Brookolo urged me I to go beyond confirming my own condemnation of sexual harassment and get my colleagues to do the same. I’m part of the UC San Diego Center for Advancing Mathematics, Science and Engineering Education (CAMSEE) which “connects individuals across mathematics, science, and engineering to advance undergraduate learning and produce scholarly educational research.” On January 13, we met with Becky Petitt, UC San Diego’s Vice Chancellor for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion. Becky congratulated us on making diversity an ongoing and integral part of our practice. To continue to earn that praise, I will organize my CAMSEE colleagues to write and make public a statement condemning sexual harassment in our community. NASA did it. So can will we.

I will not remain silent, eyes averted, when I witness harassment. (I did stay silent at a conference reception a year ago and it’s bugged me every day since. I still remember the conversation I had with myself – I recognized this senior, male professor’s funny anecdote was harassment, I knew I should say something, but I chickened out. Dammit!)

These are small actions, but if each of us refuses to say yes to doing nothing, perhaps these somethings can begin to create an environment where every member of the community is welcomed and celebrated for the unique strengths they bring.

Updates

These updates are here so I can be accountable to myself. This is absolutely not about me looking for thanks or a pat on the back. Instead, I need to prove to myself that I’m not just talking but actually doing.


ThumbsUp_WikimediaCommonsJanuary 21, 2016. In a meeting with a job candidate, one of the people made a comment that included the candidate’s marital status and what their spouse does. The candidate had not volunteered that information. That information should have no bearing on our assessment. After the meeting, I spoke confidentially with that person to point out they’d shared private information about the candidate. This person was all, “Oh damn, I’m also so careful about that! Alright, I’ll be more careful now…”


ThumbsUp_WikimediaCommonsJanuary 21, 2016. I went to a (different) job candidate’s teaching demo. The candidate is a young woman in a STEM field. She included a simulation in her lesson and as she was setting up the simulation, a man in the audience (a faculty member) said, “Miss, I think you selected the wrong parameter for the simulation…” Without a pause, the candidate said, “I’d prefer it if you didn’t make assumptions about my marital status and called me Dr. ____. Thank-you for pointing out that parameter…” Okay, that was freakin’ awesome! I almost clapped (but recognized that could throw her off her lesson.) After the presentation, I made a point of speaking with her and let her I noticed what she’d done, that it must have been difficult (calling out a faculty member in the Department you’re applying to!), that it was awesome, and that she should be very proud of herself. This is about recognizing other people’s condemnations of sexual harassment and letting them know those actions are noticed and appreciated. It’s a way I can use my privilege to foster an inclusive, diverse, equitable, welcoming community.


ThumbsDown_WikimediaCommonsJanuary 26, 2016. In my teaching and learning class, I asked students for their thoughts about something. A student suggested exactly what I was hoping for. Her answer was so good, I kinda’ sputtered and mumbled because I didn’t know what to say. And I’m 99% sure I saw her react – as if I’d announced to the class she was wrong. If you have any hint of imposter syndrome, having your instructor smirk or snicker at you would crank it up to 11.  I sent her email the next day. My wanted to admit I’d made a mistake, apologize, affirm she has valuable contributions to make, and thank her for generously sharing those contributions. It’s so hard to write that email without victim-blaming

  • “I’m sorry if my behavior today…” IF? Yeah, like it’s your fault you reacted.
  • “I’m sorry if you felt…” IF? YOU felt? Again, your fault.

Declaring what you did and apologizing, without the recipient being forced take some blame or offer forgiveness, is hard. I finally went with this (redacted to preserve some anonymity.)

Hi ____,

At the beginning of [our class], I asked everyone about [today’s topic]. You gave an answer so good, I didn’t know what to say. I mumbled something that gave you the idea that what you said was wrong.

I’m really sorry about that. That was a wrong on my part.

You have valuable and unique insights and experiences and I greatly appreciate your generosity and willingness to share them.

See you in class,

Peter

I’m very grateful this student took the time to reply, and greatly admire that she wrote a message [published here with her permission] that doesn’t “forgive me”:

Hi Peter,

No offense taken, but I absolutely appreciate you taking the time to extend an apology just in case. Having taught for a few years now, I have had my share of awkward or bumbling responses! I understand.

Thank you for the good example. See you next week.

[Student]


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