Friday, January 22, 2016

Redefining Harassment

"Go ahead and call the cops. You don't meet nice girls in coffee shops." (Tom Waits)

Those of us who have been urging caution in discussions of sexual harassment in astronomy (and science more generally) on Twitter are often dismissed (and, of course, blocked) as "deniers" of some kind. I recently noticed something that I think goes a long way towards explaining why this is so. It has a number of serious consequences, which I will take up in later posts. In this one I just want to point out the basic issue.

The American Astronomical Society defines harassment as "unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability, or genetic information." In a slogan: "If it's unwanted, it's harassment." This definition also guides a recent study, which Meg Urry, the president of the AAS, describes as follows:

Results from a recent AAS survey were reported at the last week's plenary session on harassment, defined as unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability or genetic information. Some 82% of astronomers have heard sexist remarks from their peers; 44% heard sexist remarks from supervisors; 9% experienced physical harassment from peers or supervisors.

Slides from a preliminary presentation of the results have been made public. You can get a sense of how this study is being spun by noticing that the 82% breaks down as follows: 42% hear sexist remarks from peers "rarely", 34% hear them "sometimes", and 6% hear them "often". Indeed, the same result could be stated as: 94% of the respondents hear sexist language from their peers never, rarely or only sometimes. But the real mystery is what this result is even doing in a conversation about sexual harassment.

The AAS's definition of harassment appears to derive from the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's definition (HT @wickedsepia). But but by "derives" here I unfortunately mean "has been taken out of context". Here's the full paragraph in which the AAS definition appears:

Harassment is unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information. Harassment becomes unlawful where 1) enduring the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment, or 2) the conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive. Anti-discrimination laws also prohibit harassment against individuals in retaliation for filing a discrimination charge, testifying, or participating in any way in an investigation, proceeding, or lawsuit under these laws; or opposing employment practices that they reasonably believe discriminate against individuals, in violation of these laws.

Indeed, in the very next paragaph the USEEOC, makes clear that

Petty slights, annoyances, and isolated incidents (unless extremely serious) will not rise to the level of illegality. To be unlawful, the conduct must create a work environment that would be intimidating, hostile, or offensive to reasonable people.

It might be argued that a line is here being drawn between legal and illegal harassment, not between harassment and non-harassment. But I think that's actually just an unfortunate imprecision in the USEEOC document. After all, the document begins by saying that "Harassment is a form of employment discrimination that violates [the law]." Certainly, I think we can say that there are behaviors that should, rightly, get you fired from your job, and others that must, properly, be dealt with in less formal ways.

In any case, people who accuse me of "denying" harassment are missing my point entirely if they don't distinguish between legally fire-able and (in fact legally punishable) acts of abuse and mere human unpleasantness of the sort that people, unfortunately, must endure every day. They don't have to accept this behavior, but they cannot solve the problem by either demanding the "harasser" be fired or by calling the cops. Those remedies should be reserved for the sort of harassment that the USEEOC specifies: (1) when someone is told that if they don't put up with demeaning words or actions they will be fired or (2) when such behaviors can reasonably be said to be intimidating.

Please note that the knee-jerk suggestion that tweets critical of #astroSH are themselves a form of harassment completely fails both of these tests. As do a great many of stories that are being circulated as "horrifying" under the same banner. No reasonable person would be intimidated by a tweet from me. Nor is putting up with me on Twitter a condition of anyone's employment.

Meg Urry closes her president's column ("What's the Matter with Astronomy?") by quoting her friend, Phil Plait (@badastronomer, who, I'm sure not incidentally, has blocked me from following him on Twitter and) who wants us "to acknowledge that [harassment] is happening, and it’s happening everywhere. It’s not just astronomy, it’s not just science, it’s everywhere.” Well, yes, if you're defining harassment to include even rare unwelcome comments about your looks, then you're probably going to find it more or less everywhere. But if you define harassment as a serious violation of an individual's civil rights then the picture changes dramatically.

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