Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Uppity Women and Sexual Harassment in the Physical Sciences

Catherine Price of writes about the recently-published research of Jennifer Berdahl on sexual harassment in the workplace. Going against the common wisdom, Berdahl concludes that it's not the most stereotypically feminine women who are most likely to be harassed.

She asserts that actually the opposite is true -- women who act like men are the ones who get the most harassment. She thinks that this is because most sexual harassment has little to do with sexual desire; instead, it's used to keep women in their place.

The idea that sexual harassment is about control and power is not that surprising. What's interesting about Berdahl's hypothesis is that it means that the women who act the most like men -- which Berdahl defines as showing stereotypical characteristics like assertiveness, independence and dominance -- are the most likely to be harassed. She calls this phenomenon "gender harassment" and defines it as "a form of hostile environmental harassment that appears to be motivated by hostility toward individuals who violate gender ideals rather than by desire for those who meet them."

Berdahl concludes that there is no clear winning strategy for women who enter traditionally male fields, and changes need to come from within organizations for the situation to improve.
These results highlight the double bind faced by women who are dismissed and disrespected if feminine but scorned and disliked if masculine, limiting their ascent up the organizational ladder [. . .]. There appears to be little that women can do to avoid being victims of sex discrimination. The onus should not be on victims to avoid a wrong but on those in charge to create structures and incentives to prevent it. A better solution to preventing sexual harassment is to focus on systemic means of discouraging such bias. Employers should focus on eliminating different treatments, standards, and status between male and female employees [. . .]. Being outspoken or having a traditionally male job should not be accompanied by punishments for women but not for men, for example. Organizational policies should focus not on banning sexual behavior per se [. . .] but on creating respectful work environments that do not derogate individuals on the basis of sex and treat men and women with the same characteristics the same way.
It seems to me that defining assertive behavior as "masculine" is one of the factors that works against women's career advancement (but that's a different post). In Berdahl's study the "masculinity" of various traits were defined by an apparently standard measure, the Bem Sex Role Inventory, and the conclusions of the study are significant, even when you strip away the issue of "acting feminine" vs. "acting masculine." Simply put, men use sexual harassment to bully women they see as encroaching on their privileged position in the workplace.

There is no argument that science and engineering are traditionally male occupations. However the culture of science, particularly in academia, makes it unusually difficult for women to find recourse for harassing behavior. Women who have come forward with sexual harassment charges against their academic supervisors have had their own behavior, rather than the alleged harasser's behavior, scrutinized. Because academic advisers have such a high level of control over the careers of those who work for them - including publication of their research and recommendations - there is a great disincentive for women to report harassment. As a 2006 article in the Duke Journal of Gender Law & Policy concludes:
However, much evidence points to the fact that the sciences are an environment in which women can be sexually harassed with impunity. First, [*pg 137] statistics in the physical sciences indicate that women are not treated as the equals of men; subsequently, women disproportionately occupy low positions of power. Second, there is no consensus in the scientific world about what constitutes sexual harassment; thus, it is not included in the definition of "science misconduct." Third, harassment is facilitated by the institutional hierarchies associated with physical science doctoral programs. Courts exacerbate this situation by failing to account for the unique conditions that exist in science. Ultimately, the behavior and characteristics of the complainant are exploited to her detriment, creating an injustice. Fourth, the government does little, perhaps less than the law requires, to make its grantees aware that their funds are dependent on compliance with Title IX.
Recently, the Nationals Science Foundation (NSF), Department of Energy (DOE) and NASA have begun visiting academic departments to evaluate their compliance with Title IX. While some of the interviewed faculty members feel that the funding agencies' approach has been a "waste of time," others believe this is a step in the right direction.
"To understand if women face barriers, you have to look at the experiences of individuals in the department," says psychologist Abigail Stewart, head of Michigan's Institute for Research on Women and Gender, who was interviewed during the NASA review. Jocelyn Samuels of the National Women's Law Center, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that has pushed for compliance reviews, applauds the government for looking beyond obvious metrics such as the number of women students and faculty members in a particular department. "Sex discrimination in labs ranges from outright harassment and sexual overtures to expressions of doubt about women's capabilities and exclusion of women from social gatherings where lab matters may be discussed," Samuels says.
Too many discussions of sexual harassment are derailed by men complaining that they can't figure out where the boundaries lie. It doesn't seem that hard to me. Simply treat your female and male employees and colleagues in the same way, as individual human beings. When evaluating a woman's achievements, stop a moment and consider whether you would assess them differently if she were a man. Don't assume that any one woman represents all women. Ask yourself whether your behavior is simply meant to make your target uncomfortable. This doesn't mean you can't ask a colleague for a date, but you do need to back off if she shows no interest. And no, you should not be making sexual overtures to anyone who works for you. That isn't so hard, is it?

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