Sexual harassment in science

A stunningly familiar account, from someone who hears about a lot of cases.  (Thanks, Jender-Mum!)


The evasion of justice within academia is all the more infuriating because the course of sexual harassment is so predictable. Since I started writing about women and science, my female colleagues have been moved to share their stories with me; my inbox is an inadvertent clearinghouse for unsolicited love notes. Sexual harassment in science generally starts like this: A woman (she is a student, a technician, a professor) gets an email and notices that the subject line is a bit off: “I need to tell you,” or “my feelings.” The opening lines refer to the altered physical and mental state of the author: “It’s late and I can’t sleep” is a favorite, though “Maybe it’s the three glasses of cognac” is popular as well.

The author goes on to tell her that she is special in some way, that his passion is an unfamiliar feeling that she has awakened in him, the important suggestion being that she has brought this upon herself. He will speak of her as an object with “shiny hair” or “sparkling eyes” — testing the waters before commenting upon the more private parts of her body. Surprisingly, he often acknowledges that he is doing something inappropriate. I’ve seen “Of course you know I could get fired for this” in the closing paragraph; the subject line of the email sent to my former student was “NSFW read at your own risk!”

The story continues with all the amazingly predictable next stages.  I urge you to read it.

Fuller statement from KU Leuven Students

A group of KU Leuven students have sent me a fuller statement about events there.

On the 15th of February, a female teaching assistant was physically assaulted by a professor (her PhD supervisor) within the premises of the campus due to an argument regarding a paper she had written. Witnesses in the neighbouring offices had to separate the fight as the victim yelled for help. The police were called but the professor had already left by the time they arrived. The dean of the Institute heard a statement from the professor which acknowledged the assault, yet he took absolutely no actions hoping the incident would go unnoticed. Furthermore, the following day after the assault, the accused professor, who was allowed to teach her seminar, falsely informed the students that the teaching assistant in question left the university.  This was a lie as she did not leave the university, and the reason for her not teaching the class is that the department had given her teaching responsibilities to the accused professor in order to avoid their meeting and cause further conflict. This implies that she is automatically suspended from teaching whereas he is still teaching even though he admitted to the assault.

We, the students (initially a group of approximately only thirty people and now much more), protested this class by confronting the professor and argued that the university should take the impartial position towards the incident. Impartiality in this case would mean suspending the aggressor until all investigations are carried through, as this is usually the normal practice expected from an institution when dealing with accusations of this severity. One of the professor’s classes did get suspended (the one we occupied); however, the professor is still teaching other classes at the Institute. The number of students who are standing against this injustice within the institute has multiplied since the incident.

On the 2nd of March, a student led protest took place during one of the professor’s scheduled classes. We invited students to gather in the department’s courtyard. Having heard of this, the dean of the faculty informed the chief of security to lock the gates and told us to leave our courtyard. He told us that we were asked to either leave or go into the library without the ability to go out. We found that outrageous and strange, and thus we asked specifically if this was an official instruction from the dean. He confirmed that these were official instructions from the dean: lock students out or inform them they could go to the library without the possibility to go out. We carried on protesting outside the gates of the courtyard (approximately forty-five of us) and asked for a declaration from the dean. He refused.

KU Leuven Feminist Society

Cherry and Schwitzgebel: Philosophy So White

in the LA Times:

To a substantial extent, what we assess is whether the person who is expressing the ideas in question sounds smart. If you’re going to convince someone to take your perplexing, paradoxical ideas seriously, or if you’re going to convince them that your impenetrable prose is worth the struggle, you had better first convince them that you’re wicked smart. Being good at seeming smart is perhaps the central disciplinary skill for philosophers…

This might explain why no academic discipline is more obsessed with the intelligence of its practitioners than philosophy. The philosopher Sarah-Jane Leslie and her colleagues recently asked faculty, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows from around the country to what extent they thought their discipline required a special aptitude “that just can’t be taught.” Philosophers agreed with such statements more than scholars in any other subject area.

Unfortunately, seeming smart is not a level playing field. In our culture, white men, especially white men from privileged backgrounds, have a large advantage in displaying the superficial features that attract high expectations.