The past week or so has been an extraordinarily difficult one for many of us as we once again watch a woman’s emotional, authentic and convincing testimony all but ignored in favor of deferring to the righteous indignation of a privileged white man. Yet in spite of that, real progress has been made across industries, including our own. Two weeks ago, I moderated the closing panel at ALPSP on this topic and as one of the Twitter comments noted at the time:
“These stories, the need for this session, makes me angry. But it also makes me hopeful. We’ve gone from denying that this is a problem in our industry to a closing plenary at one of our most important conferences.”
There was so much great advice that I wanted to share it with a wider audience.
As the #MeToo movement broke a year ago, I waited eagerly for someone to speak out on my behalf – on behalf of the many women across scholarly communication of all ages who like me had been subject to harassment in its many forms. My post here back in February was in part a result of my own anger at the silence, and it’s one of the pieces that has helped us begin this conversation in scholarly communication. I’d like to thank and give huge kudos to ALPSP for not only welcoming this panel, but also for recognizing its importance and making it a plenary session.
The ultimate goal for our panel was to help each other create organizations in which no one of any gender or gender identity has to experience what I and so many others have. We also wanted to create an understanding of what creates cultures in which this kind of toxic behavior survives and most importantly, to give attendees practical actions to take away for themselves and their organization. Our speakers included Dr. Afroditi Pina, a researcher at the University of Kent whose research focuses on sexual violence against women and men, and Femi Otitoju, Training Director at Challenge Consultancy who deliver bespoke interventions for organizations on the creation of inclusive and respectful workplaces. On the publishing side, we had Karen Phillips, SVP, Global Learning Resources at SAGE Publishing and Eric Merkel-Sobotta, Vice President, Communications & External Affairs at De Gruyter.
Our panel began with some brief context and framing:
- What do we mean by sexual harassment? Sexual harassment includes a range of behaviors from unwanted comments to physical assault, but research shows that gender harassment is the most common form. Such behavior — “the put-downs as opposed to the come-ons” – conveys the impression that women do not belong in the workplace or do not merit respect. They can seriously affect the person targeted, and they also set the stage for the other types of sexual harassment: unwanted sexual attention and sexual coercion.
- How much harassment is there? In the most comprehensive examination of workplace sexual harassment ever done in a longitudinal study, the Youth Development Study found that 46% of women had experienced some form of sexual harassment by age 31. But one of the pernicious aspects of harassment is the difficulty of knowing precisely what’s going on, how much of it is going on, and who’s doing it. (Femi noted wryly at one point that she has had clients complain that there’s more harassment after she has been working in their organization – of course, it was always there, it’s just that no one felt empowered to talk about it.)
- Most training is ineffective: We’ve all been there- clicking through a PowerPoint or attending a mandatory seminar at which someone lectures about harassment while attendees glance at their phones. At best, research has found that this type of training succeeds in teaching people basic information, like the definition of harassment and how to report violations. At worst, it can backfire by reinforcing gender stereotypes because it tends to portray men as powerful and sexually insatiable and women as vulnerable.Either way, it usually fails to address the root problem: preventing sexual harassment from happening in the first place.
- It’s the culture, stupid: To actually prevent harassment, companies need to create a culture in which women are treated as equals and employees treat one another with respect. And I’d argue that it’s not simply the organizational culture – the Kavanaugh hearings have foregrounded this societal challenge again, and Mary Beard captures it perfectly in her recent book, Women and Power (which, as Lettie Conrad noted in a tweet, should be required reading!):
“You cannot easily fit women into a structure that is already coded as male; you have to change the structure…. We have to be more reflective about what power is, what it is for, and how it is measured. To put it another way, if women are not perceived to be fully within the structures of power, surely it is power that we need to redefine rather than women?”
At an organizational level, research has continually shown that companies with more women in management have less sexual harassment. It’s partly because harassment flourishes when men are in power and women aren’t, and men feel pressure to accept other men’s sexualized behavior.
But how can we move to the practical level of making real change as individuals and in our own organizations?
For organizations, we heard about the critical importance of creating the right culture. One interesting lesson from Femi was the importance of language – in her work, she focuses on building dignity at work rather than talking about harassment and bullying (in other words, focus on the outcome you want). Unsurprisingly perhaps, it’s also important that these messages and initiatives are led by senior leadership for them to carry real weight and meaning.
Both Femi and Afroditi focused on the importance of clear, accessible processes for reporting, investigating and resolution. Harassment flourishes in organizations where there is risk perceived in complaining, and where there aren’t adequate sanctions for harassers. It’s sobering to know that according to 2012 data, 35% of women still don’t report at all and a further 66% only tell a friend, partner or relative. Just 10% report at work. Victims coping strategies fall into five broad types: advocacy seeking (formal complaint, grievances); social support (family, friends); avoidance; denial; and confrontation/negotiation with the harasser. Our reporting and support strategies need to be able to accommodate the full range of responses, and so we need to ensure that we have advisors and reporters trained across all levels and departments. Femi talked about the need for closure and learning for both the victim and the respondent. Victims need safe space to talk and for support, choice and control in what happens, and practical changes that address what has happened. But respondents also need an opportunity to learn (especially in the majority of cases that may not likely demand termination), to take responsibility, to talk safely and to be treated with respect. This is especially true in the #MeToo era where lives have the potential to be destroyed without due process.
Karen talked about how SAGE has been developing and implementing a dignity at work policy. They have started with training for all managers and are now considering how best to cascade this throughout the organization. SAGE also tried training that didn’t quite work, which was focused more on what and what not to do in a particular situation. Eric also added additional cross-cultural perspectives on how to address harassment, and the complexity of trying to codify what isn’t and isn’t acceptable across geographies and cultures.
Equally importantly, SAGE is highlighting the policy for all of their external partners – authors, editors, and vendors on their website and in contracts. We talked about how crucial this was in an industry where we have many junior- and mid-level staff traveling and working with those in more powerful positions (whether customers or authors). It sets a strong, positive example if an organization is prepared to walk away from a powerful perpetrator – whatever their business value – and an equally bad one if such behavior is tolerated. And while there is much that SAGE can do on its own, Karen also noted the need for us to work collectively us publishers – both to create an industry we are proud of and in which everyone can flourish, and to ensure that we don’t simply pass problem employees, authors or vendors between ourselves.
And while much of our discussion focused on women, it’s important to recognize that both straight and gay men are also harassed, and that minorities of any kind are at higher risk. The recent NASEM report found that LGBTQ women and women of color were more likely than their straight, white counterparts to have been harassed, and women of color were more likely to report feeling unsafe because of their gender. But there is a dearth of data on the experiences of underrepresented minorities and other marginalized groups.
For individuals, the most important take away is that we all have a responsibility to stamp this behavior out. In other words, if you see something, say something. This is not just the case for sympathetic women, but very much for men. If you’re a man, be willing to amplify the voices of women who have identified a problem – women didn’t create these issues and we need your active support to eradicate this conduct.
And whatever your gender identity, if anyone comes to you and asks you to change something about your behavior, Femi noted that the first words out of your mouth should be “thank you”. That may sound surprising, but think about it. This person has had the courage and respect to talk to you directly, to think that you’re worth investing and to give you the chance to change your behavior. If we all start to practice this, we’ll begin to create an environment in which it’s much easier for all of us to say “I don’t like that” without it becoming a big deal.
If you’re in a management role, take a proactive stance if you think there’s an employee whose behavior is problematic, even if you don’t have proof. A conversation that starts “I’ve no proof but I’ve got this hunch there’s something going on with your behavior” can help someone realize they need to change before it goes too far.
One of the ideas I loved most from Femi and plan to use back at PLOS is the idea of reverse mentoring. Those of us at more senior levels can all too easily lose touch with the challenges of starting out. In this model, you have junior members of staff who are vulnerable take on mentoring roles for those who are more senior so that they can have some insight as to what it feels like to be in that position in the organization.
One of the great questions in the Q&A, was about how to handle the employee who reports an incident to you but tells you they don’t want you to do anything about it. The answer to that should be “Sorry, but I have a responsibility to look after you and so I can’t promise you that. I promise I won’t do anything without telling you and that I’ll take what you want into account in whatever I do, but I cannot let you go through this in the workplace.” We all need to set the standard that such behavior is simply unacceptable.
Femi left us with ten top takeaways, which I’ll close with here:
- Clear statement position: use it in every media you can in your organization
- Supporting policy and procedure – weave it into the DNA of the organization
- Inclusion in handbook and induction – get people to sign them
- Training for all existing staff (as well as new staff)
- Specific briefings for leaders – strategic governance approach at this level
- Clarify individuals understanding – needs local interpretation at team and 1 to 1 level
- Evidence communication of policy – get staff to sign it
- Set up support and reporting mechanisms – clear, easily accessible
- Monitoring of reporting and outcomes – keep an eye on the patterns to see if there are particular pressure points
- Regular review of policy
There’s much richness in our discussion and the following Q&A, so if you’d like to explore this in more detail, the slides from the panel are available here, and you can watch a recording of the discussion on the You Tube channel here. And we’d love to hear your own experiences about what does and doesn’t work – please share below!