Spiderman as a Scholar: Fighting the Crime of Harassment in Academia
I heard an unusual story recently. During a presentation to her committee, a graduate student was being berated by one of the faculty members. This “respected scholar” continued his insults until another committee member stepped in to admonish his colleague not to talk to a student that way.
The unusual part of this story is not that a student was harassed by a professor, but rather that another person in power intervened. We need this to be the norm, not the exception. That is, when someone is being harassed, and a person is there with the power to do something about it, he or she needs to take action. This is not a choice, but a responsibility. When you’re part of the power structure – whether as a dean, chair, director, PI, faculty, or member of the dominant gender or cultural group – you cannot be an innocent bystander. Through your action or inaction, you determine the level of safety or hostility in your environment. The power you’ve obtained brings with it the responsibility to protect those who are vulnerable.
This is is Spiderman’s mantra: With great power comes great responsibility. For those unfamiliar, Spiderman – formerly a budding scientist (!) named Peter Parker – got his start in crime fighting after he idly let a robber escape, only to find that his uncle and guardian was later murdered by the same criminal. Spiderman had the power to do something but failed to act, and the result was tragic. That is the risk we take when we fail to stop bad behavior. Our passivity not only leaves victims to cope with harassment on their own, a cruel abandonment in itself, but it also hurts scientific progress. Indeed, when a trainee is treated poorly, and others passively endorse that treatment through their inaction, the young scholar is more likely to opt out of the field, or to look for a better environment in a different department. Alternatively, they may continue in their scientific pursuits but do so less effectively due to having their cognitive and emotional resources drained from coping with a toxic environment.
So you, devoted scholar, need to intervene to stop harassment not only because it’s “the right thing to do,” but also because not doing so harms your field, and by extension, yourself. I’m referring here to all forms of harassment and abuses of power, including verbal, emotional, and sexual abuse. If you see something, do something.
But how are you to know when the event you’re witnessing actually warrants some action on your part? On that question, let me first say that it’s tempting to make excuses for not doing something. You might tell yourself that it’s not your place to tell a colleague how to act, or to wonder if you’re being over-protective of a trainee, or to want more data to be sure that there’s harassment going on. Most of these thoughts, however, are simply ways to rationalize doing the easiest thing, which is nothing. And to stay neutral in the face of injustice, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu famously said, is to side with the oppressor. So, as a general guideline, if you’re wondering if you should intervene, then you should.
So, once you’ve decided to do something, how should you go about it? What should you say? The truth is that it’s not so important what you say or do, so long as you say or do something. If you worry too much about exactly what to say, this can become another excuse not to act. So just do something, and if you’d like further guidance, here are some ideas:
– Empathize with the victim by saying something like, “Wow, it seems like that’s some tough stuff to hear. How are you feeling?”
– Admonish the harasser, as the hero at the beginning of this post did, by declaring, “Hey (Respected Colleague), I know you’ve got a few critiques to share, but the way you’re speaking to this student is just not okay. Perhaps you could share your feedback in a more helpful manner.”
– Simply say out loud what you’re thinking or feeling. This is a way of letting everyone know that you’re aware of the problem without directing your comments at anyone in particular. You could say, “I’m feeling a lot of discomfort in the room, and it’s not a good atmosphere right now,” or “I feel like we need a more professional and respectful tone for the rest of this meeting.”
None of these options is perfect, and you likely will not do it perfectly when you decide to step up and take action. Yet it’s important to take action nonetheless. Intervening awkwardly is far better than not doing anything at all.
You also have the choice whether to intervene publicly or to pick a private moment. Doing so publicly – during a committee meeting, for example – carries the risk of alienating your powerful colleague and creating animosity between you. The upside is that your public declaration makes it known to all that there’s a crime-fighter in your scholarly neighborhood: A friendly neighborhood Spiderman. Waiting until a later time to confront a colleague allows him or her to save face, but then the victim of the harassment may never know that he or she has your support behind the scenes. Also, we often tell ourselves we’ll address this later and then never do. My advice, again, is to pick whichever approach works for you, so long as you do something rather than stay silent.
Protecting those who are victims of bad behavior may not have been a task you wanted for yourself. Nonetheless, here you are, with the power to fight the crime of harassment in academia. So step up and be a hero. It’s your responsibility.