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Harassment rampant in academic anthropology

Ryan Jacquemet/The Round Table

Ryan Jacquemet/The Round Table

Editor’s Note: Along with listed author Ryan Jacquemet, this piece was penned by Courtney Bingham, Jiming Song, Haylee Rose Irwin and Leanna Miller.


In recent years, stories of sexual harassment, sexual assault and sexism in academia have become more prevalent and have captured the attention of the public. However, while these issues have only been in the public eye for a relatively short amount of time, individuals have experienced such problems for decades in the past. It is only after a few highly publicized cases of sexual assault involving anthropologists,that an increasing number of students and professors have come forward to report and confront their assailants, trying to bring about a change in academia.

The Survey of Academic Field Experiences (SAFE) reported that 64 percent of survey respondents had experienced some sort of sexual harassment, demonstrating that this is far from an irregular issue. Another survey by the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission revealed that often “unwelcome sexual advances” or “offensive remarks” occurred when there was a difference in authority between the two parties, as 90 percent of women and 70 percent of men experienced harassment or assault while in the position of trainee.

It is also important to note that “72.4 percent of survey respondents reported that they had directly observed or been told about…field site researchers and/or colleagues making inappropriate or sexual remarks [while] at their most recent or most notable field site.” By reviewing first person accounts, survey results and social media outreach, we wish to address this prevalent issue in the field of Anthropology, in the hopes of revealing possible paths to creating an inclusive and supportive network, rather than an uncomfortable and threatening academic environment.

Cases of Sexual Harassment/Assault from the Field

As more and more people pay attention to sexual harassment and sexism today, they are realizing that it is a serious problem which has existed for decades, but was seldom discussed open. An example of prominent sexism within the field of anthropology is that some reviewers generally believe that a male’s scientific ability is better than a female.

According to a paper by Knobloch-Westerwick, scholars thought that publications written by male authors are of a higher quality.  Because of this, some journals are now trying to prevent sexism through using double-blind review, meaning that neither the reviewer nor the writers will know each other’s name. An addition such as this would greatly limit the sexual bias that could otherwise be present.

However, this does not stop sexual biases from entering field work. Based on some surveys researchers performed in recent years, more than half the female researchers in science have experienced verbal or physical forms of sexual harassment. However, according to the SAFE study, only 26 percent of them had reported that they experienced unwanted physical contact. Most schools, organizations, and offices are building their reporting mechanism and letting people know what kind of behavior sexual harassment is.

Changes in the Past 5 Years

Social media brings awareness to the issue of sexual assault as it brings the issue to the forefront because it is a space where folks feel free to tell their personal stories. The stories that people tell may empower others to go out and start the conversation about the issues that are present in the field of anthropology. This spreads voices around to help others become aware of what is happening in the world around them. It helps build a support system as well. However, it can also have the opposite effect.

Social media gives way for individuals to be sexist and ignorant. Not every person that reads a victim’s story will be supportive. Some will deny anything happened and shame the victim. Attitudes like the one of denial are what make it hard for disciplinary actions to take place for the perpetrators. It would be horrifying to experience a hardship like sexual assault knowing that one has to be quiet about the assault because the world might shame them for it.  This is the case in academia.

Katie Hind, a biologist at Arizona State University, and her coworkers surveyed five hundred people on whether or not they had been sexually harassed by someone in their field. Seventy percent of people reported that they were assaulted by someone with higher power within the office. Hind told NPR that academia creates a culture that allows sexual assault to go on without any resulting punishment. Her statement applies to more fields than academia alone. Most recently, Brian Richmond, a paleoanthropologist at the American Museum of Natural History, resigned from his job without receiving any punishment. Richmond was accused of sexual assault by one of his employees.The initial investigation led to him no longer being her supervisor, but the case was reopened.

The second investigation brought to light the stories of three new female undergraduates who claim Richmond sexually assaulted them at a research site. Richmond has now resigned from his job after a third investigation recently began. However, he will still receive a year’s worth of salary due to the museum’s policy for tenured curators, which has brought much disappointment to many who work in the field.

Fears for the Future

On Nov. 8, 2016, the United States elected Donald Trump as our next president. Throughout the entirety of Trump’s campaign he spewed hate. Throughout the election process, many women came forward to say they were sexually assaulted by Trump. He denied the claims by stating that the women were not good looking enough for him to touch.

By electing Trump, we have elevated a man who speaks derogatory towards women and shows to others that there is no consequences when you do so. He is showing others that it is okay to touch other people and speak ill of them. As a group we are scared for the future of this country with a Trump presidency. We are scared for each group that Trump and his running mate Mike Pence have targeted: women, people of color, the LGBTQ+ community and immigrants, among other groups. We do not stand for hate and neither should you.

Moving Forward

The most common case we see of sexual harassment is a senior/tenured professor taking advantage of junior professors and trainees and we see a particularly high rate of male to female harassment. Too many trainees and juniors have had to ask the question: “What should I do?” Senior anthropologists are now finally stepping up and asking “What should we do?” Unfortunately, there is no one clear and efficient answer to either of these questions, but there are conversations and there are ideas. This is a social issue, which requires social change as its solution and the path to social change is often winding, paved by trial and error.

According to Bernard Wood, a medically trained paleoanthropologist, the problem resides in the “alpha males”, and so the solution also resides in the “alpha males”. He states that “[a]ny professor who fails to recognize that exploiting academic seniority to solicit sexual favors is reprehensible[,] has no place in academia. Senior male professors must make it clear that there are no “gray areas” and lead efforts to ensure an ongoing zero tolerance policy in their departments.”

Wood also states that male professors must be the strongest allies to women affected by sexual misconduct, supporting them and ensuring their voices are heard when they speak out, “Equal academic opportunity will not exist as long as individuals have to adjust their careers to avoid exposure to sexual predation.” Wood says that “any scientist should think twice” before collaborating with, or extending a conference invitation to any person who has used their reputation to take advantage of a female colleague (or anyone).

The American Association of Physical Anthropologists (AAPA) recently had a Presidential Panel that covered a session on sexual harassment. Several juniors and trainees stood up and voiced personal experiences, highlighting the widely faced issues of sexual discrimination and harassment experienced by women across the field of anthropology. Like Wood, many of the panelists and attendees voiced the need for male action against sexual harassment. One suggestion was the avoidance of “manels” all male panels, through the insistence by male invitees of more diversity and the refusal to attend if this request is not met.

One attendee asked about dealing with microaggressions and reporting incidents of harassment, to which a spokesperson responded on the point of microaggressions, that the victim needs to point out the inappropriate behavior. This response however, was countered by another spokesperson who said, “I don’t think we should be asking students and junior faculty to do that. We need to be training [senior] people like me to [intervene].” Reporting incidents of harassment was also a topic that received much debate, particularly on its sensitivity. One spokesperson stated that “active engagement is the only way to change culture”, suggesting that students and faculty become familiar with who they can contact as well as create a “network of allies”, so they have people to go to who will support them in the face of an issue.

However, Title IX prevents the ability to have confidential allies because most allies (if they are other faculty at an institution), are required by law to report these incidents to university officials. The main problem this poses is that most juniors and trainees are afraid to lose career opportunities by reporting their supervisors and mentors, and so being aware of Title IX, would be less likely to seek support or would especially avoid reporting these incidents.

In lieu of the difficulties that come with reporting incidents, another spokesperson along with the voice of others, expressed the importance and need for social control. Like Wood, they also emphasised that researchers should stop all collaboration, “including joint publication, with colleagues who are under investigation for sexual harassment or discrimination.” Some voiced concern that this could create issues for students or junior faculty looking to publish.

This notion was opposed, individuals saying that “collaboration by senior scholars sends a terrible signal,” meaning that trainees who see senior field members collaborating with their harassers would feel unsupported in their efforts, or a general lack of desire to resolve the issues they face. AAPA president Susan Antón stated that “[a] lot of behavior is learned; we’re making sure we are training the kind of professional that we want to be working with down the line.”

There are many suggestions on the table, most of them focus on specific parts of the issue of sexual harassment and discrimination, and these specifics are important, but the emphasis needs to be placed on the larger issue, the need for social change within the fields of anthropological research and society as a whole. Many people will ask victims to raise their voices, and while it is important that we hear from these victims and that people practice self-advocacy, it is so incredibly important that we are actively teaching people how to not be perpetrators and passive bystanders. As mentioned in an earlier suggestion, seniors need to be trained in intervention, and taught the ways of a world where the abuse of reputation to take advantage of those under their mentorship will not be tolerated.

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