Thursday, January 28, 2016

How Often Are You Harassed?

The title of this post is deliberately provocative in an attempt to draw attention to another puzzling feature of the CSWA survey of sexual harassment in astronomy. In her introductory comments, Christina Richey tells us that the survey questions were "confined to experiences in their current and previous positions within the past 5 years only" (slide 5). She reports that 102/426 (or 24% of) respondents answered that they "feel or have ever felt" unsafe in their current position because of their gender (slide 11). Finally, we're told that 46 respondents had found it necessary to skip work-related events because they felt unsafe (slide 12). That's 11% of the sample.

It's tempting to say that it's also 45% of the 24% who felt unsafe because of gender (46/102 = 45%). But another 72 reported feeling unsafe for other reasons. Perhaps some of these represent individuals with multiple reasons to feel unsafe. So we can only conclude that between 26% and 45% of the respondents [who felt unsafe also] felt it necessary to skip something [because of that feeling].

Let me pause to say that this is a good issue to raise. It's good to be able to compare people merely "feeling" unsafe to people who are taking action to protect themselves against a perceived threat. It lets us think about how serious the threat is perceived to be.

The puzzle arises when we ask how often they've had to stay away from an event for fear of their safety. The question reads: "In your current position, how many classes/meetings/conferences/field work/opportunities/etc. have you skipped per month because of feeling unsafe?" (slide 12). And the options given are "1 to 2", "2 to 3" (small issues of overlap there, but I'll ignore it), "4 to 5" and "6 or more". Remember, this is per month and in your "current position" but going back as far as five years. And the question that set this up asked whether they currently or had ever felt unsafe.

6 people, or 1.5% of the sample, said that they had skipped something out of safety concerns "6 or more" times per month. But how long did this go on? Up to five years? That certainly sounds horrifying, but it is also unlikely. It is possible that this describes a crisis period during which action was also taken to deal with the harassing behavior.

The other cases, in which people skip something 1 to 3 times/per month account for wholly 39 of the cases. This means that 89% of astronomers apparently never[rarely] have to skip something for reasons of safety. And 98.5% do so never or rarely.*

It would have been easier to interpret this if it had simply asked, "How often do you skip something in fear for your safety (once a year, twice a year, every other month, every month, twice a month, every week...etc.)?" We'd then get a sense of how many people are currently behaving as though they are perceiving a serious threat, and we could compare that to the amount of people who are feeling such a threat. (That's not to discount their feelings; it's merely to indicate two facts that are worth comparing.)

This all goes back to the puzzle about the definition of harassment. The CSWA study defines harassment (slides 2 and 4) as any unwanted behavior (based on gender, race, disability, etc.), no matter how severe, pervasive or effectively threatening it is. That lets them survey people on how often they are verbally "harassed", and let's them tell us that 81 (19%) are "rarely" thus harassed. But if harassment is severe andor pervasive unwanted behavior, it is hard to understand how a rare (even quite) abusive comment can be considered harassment. (Though it can certainly be considered abusive.)

Harassment, I thought, was a serious kind of workplace abuse, a violation of your civil rights. The CSWA study doesn't seem to be calibrated to separate serious from non-serious cases, severe and prevalent behavior from mild and rare behavior. This is unfortunate because the issue it deals with really is serious and the questions it raises are good ones.

[Acknowledgement: I'm grateful to @ticobas for helping me think these issues through.]

*Federico Prat Villar has rightly pointed out that my original interpretation was somewhat "strange". He's being kind, actually. What the data actually seems to show is that 89% skip something for safety reasons less than once a month, not that they never do. Wholly 11% of respondents say they skip something at least once per month, though only 1.5% say they skip something more than 3 times. Federico is right to say that skipping something less than 4 times per month is probably not best understood as doing it "rarely".


Anonymous said...

Not all, but much of what we are seeing appears to be manufactured. Let's dissect it.

One person (with an agenda, whether it's making a name for herself/himself in the social justice world or perhaps eliminating some professional competition) notes that Professor X <>. She/he starts "warning" people that Professor X is a "serial sexual harasser," with no details given (or maybe even with sordid details given that are manufactured--see Jessica Kirkpatrick's lies about Marcy that she was forced by the "victim" to recant at

Since no one condones harassment, everyone who hears these stories is outraged, even though no one saw anything first hand that Professor X did that would verify the claim (hence these things are "open secrets"). Then rumors start circulating about others--Professors Y and Z. Pretty soon, you have a crowd of people (let's call it a mob) that believes that sexual harassment is EVERYWHERE, based on one or two examples of things that do not meet the definition of harassment (i.e., repeated, unwelcome advances or comments, even after you've asked them to stop) or have been adequately dealt with by their institutions. But professors X, Y and Z are now under a microscope, with every action scrutinized in minute detail.

For an interesting example of this, see what one of the mob leaders (Joan Schmelz) thinks is sexual harassment, in her blog post on the CSWA site:
where she notes that she wouldn't have thought anything of the interaction except for his reputation. " If I had not known about the past behavior of the harasser, this encounter would not have been noteworthy in the least."

Someone with better computer modeling skills than mine could create a model that shows how one or two people planting the idea that a person is a "serial sexual harasser" or that "sexual harassment is everywhere" could rapidly convert the "groupthink" to actually believing that real harassment is a rampant problem. Couple that with the kudos accorded to those who rush in to protect the helpless and our current PC atmosphere and you've got it all, in a nutshell.

Anonymous said...

In above comment, contents of angle brackets were left out. First sentence should be:

"One person (with an agenda, whether it's making a name for herself/himself in the social justice world or perhaps eliminating some professional competition) notes that Professor X told a dirty joke/touched a student on the shoulder/went out for coffee with a post-doc."

Thomas said...

Thanks, Anonymous. I agree that that is the danger, and it's pretty much what defines a "witch hunt", the formation of irrational fear combined with low standards of evidence. I hope we're not quite there yet, and that we're able to calm the mob in time.

One thing that I've been suggesting is that those who are currently seeking increased power to "end harassment now" should provide credible assurances that complaints will be handled fairly, and that the accused will have real rights. If they want to succeed they need to demonstrate an understanding of due process, and this means doing something they aren't, at the moment, very willing to, namely, letting a few people "get away with it".

Like any properly functioning system of justice, the cost of not putting away innocent people will likely be to let a few guilty ones go free. What is being called "zero tolerance", often under the slogan "even one is too many", suggests to me that the idea that, with some skill and cunning and luck, a sexual harasser can actually get a way with it, is so repulsive to the activists that they'd rather burn the whole academy down. (And "reboot" it.)

We don't even feel that way about the murder of children. We understand that the best approach is not a system-wide hunt for predators, but a system that takes the crime seriously enough to make getting caught likely, and being accused manageable. If even the accusation is going to destroy your life, you'll live in fear of the power of individuals to make one. And at the slightest hint of an accusation you may resort to desperate measures to escape.