When anti-harassment policies are designed to fail
In 2011, I was sexually assaulted while serving as in intern at the Smithsonian. My story was reported in The Verge in 2016 and gained national attention when Rep Jackie Spier called for immediate investigation of my case. She demanded recordings of interviews be released. It seemed that Smithsonian administrators would finally be held responsible for refusing to help me, while lecturing me about how the assault ‘only happened once’ and that I was assaulted by a ‘great scientist’ who is ‘very serious about his career.’
You might expect big changes have happened at the Smithsonian. That they finally responded to the many emails I sent with suggestions to improve investigations of similar cases. Or that the Smithsonian provided me with help for the perpetual drain this has created on my wellness and my research output.
I expected the same. Unfortunately, I was very naive.
Earlier this year, someone who ‘won’ her Title IX case posted the depressing reality of how she lives in fear of a man who is a widely known harasser. Like her, I (foolishly?) wanted to help my institution.
The Process is Designed to Fail.
I was subjected to sexual misconduct on a Friday. I reported this misconduct to my advisor over the weekend, and on Monday (the first working day after the incident occurred) my advisor sent a written memo to Office of Equal Employment and Minority Affairs, which handles sexual misconduct. My advisor and I then believed that there was an official report on file with the Smithsonian. Turns out, we were wrong – I had to contact OEEMA myself, instead of having my advisor contact them – but no one from OEEMA told this to us.
Arguably, this is an all too common and terrible practice. See Tenure She Wrote post here on Gaslighting: How Universities Use Their Title IX Office to Crush Complaints.
When I found out a few years later that Miguel Pinto was awarded a fellowship to work in the same building where he had sexually assaulted me, I had a series of meetings with administrators. At first, I thought that I had successfully filed a report, and they did too. They nevertheless refused to enact protections that would have kept Pinto away from me. When the Smithsonian administrators found out that I did not have a report on file, they used this as an excuse for their ongoing refusal to help me.
What I asked the Smithsonian to do: Two years ago, I suggested to administrators that the procedure for filing a report should be posted publicly in bathrooms, elevators and stairwells and that procedure for filing a report should be outlined in a reminder e-mail.
Their response? Put a Person Who is Facebook Friends with My Assailant in Charge of Harassment Training. No. I’m not kidding.
The Smithsonian requires employees to take Prevention of Workplace Harassment training. As I wrote previously, the training is both farcical and insulting. The person in charge of training at the Smithsonian is still a Facebook friend with the man who assaulted me. The text of the training module contradicts itself and then tells trainees:
You should immediately report the issue to a supervisor. You may also initiate the EEO complaint process by contacting an EEO counselor in the Office of Equal Employment and Minority Affairs (OEEMA) within 45 days from the date of the alleged incident.
How can I contact an EEO counselor? Can I initiate the EEO complaint process by e-mailing an EEO counselor, or do I have to walk over to the OEEMA office? What if I’m sexually assaulted by a Smithsonian curator at the start of a 60-day field expedition in a remote area – is there any way that I can file a report?
And why should I “immediately report the issue to a supervisor”? (I did that back in 2011, and absolutely no good came out of it.) And since the complaint process can only be initiated if I contact an EEO counselor myself, why isn’t this stated explicitly in the training module?
Even more depressing, we now have data that sexual harassment training doesn’t work. But even though the Smithsonian’s current policy is utterly meaningless, they still don’t make it clear how we can file a report – lack of an official report is apparently the most convenient excuse for continuing to enable sexual predators.
Ignorance of Legal Guidelines is Rewarded.
I can think of no other example where you can willfully be ignorant of the facts and use that as a very effective way to avoid punishment. If you charge up a university account with personal expenses, you will find out very quickly your institution will come after you with quite a lot of vigor to get their money back.
Every time an administrator does the right thing and acts to protect a victim, they risk pissing off an entitled and litigious PI. And from the outside, an institution with few official reports of misconduct will appear to be a great place to work. For these reasons and more, many institutions want their anti-harassment policies to fail. Academic administrators don’t want victims to be able to report misconduct and actively subvert the process.
Try to publish fraudulent data? NIH and NSF will revoke your funding and ban you for years. Sexually harass a trainee? Retaliate against a colleague? Insert deafening silence here. I’m not aware of a single time a PI has lost their grants because they have been found guilty of sexual assault, harassment, or retaliation. This is absurd.
The burden falls on good people, good PIs to help trainees and colleagues and this is both rare and costly. My mentor’s commitment to fairness and justice was, and all too often is, only thing that can save a young researcher’s career. When a PI recruits students and fellows to an institution whose anti-harassment policy is known to be useless, the PI has a responsibility to fight the system as needed in order to maintain a safe workplace for their trainees. (Note to PIs: Think it’s unfair that you, personally, have a responsibility to compensate for the deficiencies of an intentionally broken system? I agree! The best way for you to rid yourself of this responsibility is to advocate for a meaningful anti-harassment program at your institution.)
Stop Playing by the Rules.
Institutions get to conduct investigations of their own PIs. This is insane – the conflict of interest is mind numbing. The director of an institute or dean of a medical center will do everything they can to save their institution’s reputation. And the easiest way to accomplish this is to take out the lowest person on the institutional totem pole in the hopes they can continue to keep horrible faculty behavior out of donor and public sight.
According to the Smithsonian, sexual misconduct must be treated with utmost confidentiality. Multiple administrators told me that I was prohibited from telling anyone about what Miguel Pinto had done, and that the institution could sue me if I spoke out. After years of trying to work within an exasperating system, I became a whistleblower, I broke absolutely all of the rules. But that was the only way for me to make the Smithsonian community realize how pervasive sexual misconduct is at our institution (and how proactively horrendous the administration is in addressing these issues).
Our institutions’ cowardice and mediocrity have formed walls that block the path of good people trying to do the right thing. Victims and allies have tried to go the walls of silence, institutional shaming, and victim intimidation – and progress has been maddeningly slow. Going around these walls has not worked. The time has come for us to tear these walls down.
There can be no more trying to go over or around the rules put forth about who we can talk to. If a harasser is going to sue because I have named them as a warning to others, they my university should have my back and they should have yours as well. The whisper net of who women are to fear is ineffective and terrifying. I named a name. Michel Pinto.
The more names we put out there of these scientists who are eroding the foundation of who we can be as academics, the more women who come forward personalizing their losses, the more we can garner the resources we need.
Thanks to Buzzfeed and other non-mainstream media outlets that have reported on STEM harassment and named names, we have become stronger. Questions are being asked of faculty candidates. Whispers are becoming conversations.
At so many institutions, the policies ostensibly meant to protect us are actually meant to keep us silent and afraid. We will not win the fight against sexual misconduct until we treat these policies with the respect that they deserve – which is to say, absolutely none.