You must have Power to Stop Discrimination

Posted By Pamela on Sep 20, 2009 | 20 comments

© Jose Antonio Sânchez Reyes |

Jose Antonio Sânchez Reyes |

This is a piece on gender inequity and sexual discrimination (not sexual harassment, which is a different and emotionally more devastating thing). I´m writing this at this time not because of any one thing that´s happened, but because of a culmination of things. Sometimes it just seems like a topic is in the air, building momentum, and this topic has finally found a voice in me.

This post had three different triggers. The first was a bad moment I had last semester, when I found out a student in my Physics for Engineers class was making sexually harassing comments on a regular basis. The second trigger came from confronting numbers and statistics on women in physics and astronomy for a pair of talks at Dragon*Con. And the third trigger was this little gem posted by Rebecca Watson on Twitter under the heading “Sexual Assault Prevention Tips (A must-read! Pls RT and save someone from being raped)”

Discrimination, harassment, and rape all share one rather awful thing in common: They occur when one person or group is able to act in a hurtful way to another person or group without anyone stopping what´s going on. This does not have to be men against women: I´ve seen barns filled with middle-aged women swarm on the lone equestrian male, doing everything from landing the friendly slap on the ass, to cat calling him in his riding attire. It also doesn’t have to be purposely hurtful: I´ve watched as male grad students, at the beginning of the semester and before social groups have formed, thoughtlessly walk around asking all the other men if they want to head out [for lunch / to go to the gym /to get a drink] while they left the women behind. Sometimes people in power don´t even realize what´s going on as they do it, the sexual discrimination that happened to women at MIT is an example of this. Over years women weren’t given the same job advantages as men, and it was entirely without thought. When the problem was pointed out, measures were taken to fix the problem. (This study is mentioned in the forthcoming National Academies report, “Gender Differences at Critical Transitions in the Careers of Science, Engineering, and Mathematics Faculty.” )

And here is where I´m going to ask all of you to listen to me really closely: Anytime anyone with the power to help is aware of any form of discrimination and they do nothing to fix it, they are just as much to blame as the perpetrators.

Throughout my adult life I have over and over had some well-meaning man watch me get frustrated in some work situation or academic situation, and they´ve said with the intention of comforting me: “It’s not you, he´s an [expletive] to all women.” Okay, nice try. I appreciate the attempt, but – Could you maybe offer a girl a little help?

I want to be clear: If you are in a position of power, and you see a problem, telling the victim they are being victimized is not a solution. Finding a way to stop the perpetrator is the only a solution.

This is not a matter of men against women. This can be in either direction with gender. It can be racial. It can be religious in nature. And in academia it can even take the form of Large Prestigious University Researchers discriminating against small college researchers.

Let me return to those 3 triggers above as talking points.

Trigger 1: Male student making sexually harassing comments I have never been so angry in my life, and as the professor of the class I grabbed my syllabus, found the line that says, “Loud and disruptive students are not welcome. If you disturb your classmates, you will be kicked out!” and made it clear that I would wield that line of my syllabus if even one word of sexually loaded speech was uttered, and that the student – any student with harassing language – would not only be kicked out of my class for the rest of the semester and fail, but I´d report them to the dean of students.  Then I moved back onto discussing physics. The students behaved (all the way through the end of the semester in fact!), but at the end of class a tough as nails, takes no shit from anyone, women came up and commended me for what I had done, but then she said it´s all kind of useless as long as there are professors making sexually explicit jokes in single gender dominated classes. All I could do was say, I´m sorry, I can´t help you, that prof has tenure and I´m just someone living grant to grant. All I can say is you need to report it on your evaluations or go to a chair or dean. Every university has its 1 or more faculty member who say the wrong things, crossing the wrong lines, sometimes just to get a laugh. But as long as that 1 (or more) person exists, the problem exists.

And here, I have to be very careful what I say because I know this is a dangerous post to write. The people I work with now I may have to work with for the rest of my life – academia is a very small culture, and with our very limited resources, emotions run high and grudges are held for decades. But I want to say this nonetheless: We as a field need a better way for addressing these problems so junior faculty like me don’t have to tell students – “I’m sorry, I can’t help you” because I’m too afraid for my own job. I have known about problems at every institution I´ve been at and I haven´t felt comfortable reporting them because I know that if I reported every problem a student reports to me it would put my situation in jeopardy. We need a better way to report problems.

Right now, a student must report the problem to a person in power (all men in my areas of expertise – I don’t count as someone with power. If they report it to me, I can report it to the chair or dean, but then have to produce the student), and if it is another student victimizing them, they may have to confront that student face-to-face in the university judicial system. If it is a faculty member, it is likely half the university will know who reported what very rapidly (never trust an academic with a secret). We’re all told everything is in confidence, but we’ve also all had that one gossipy tenured senior person (often from another department) let us in on the past 10 years of sexual misdeeds. This means the accuser – the victim – will face extensive scrutiny and the potential of becoming the bunt of lunch time laughter (a form of additional harassment) while they wait and hope for the academic judicial system to help them out.

We need a better way to handle problems and keep people safe. I don’t know what the solution is. I wish I did. I just know we need something better.

Trigger 2: The depressing numbers Let´s face it, the situation is bleak. Go read the two reports I summarize here. These numbers tell me one simple thing: A lot of women are leaving science for a lot of undocumented reasons. People only go into things like physics and astronomy for 1 reason: Love. They love the field or they love the challenge. They weren´t seeking fame or fortune. Like the impoverished poet, they self-selected to bleed themselves into their work. Both men and women with into physics/astronomy out of love, but women have preferentially left behind the field or challenge for undocumented reasons. I know I personally left the field once out of frustration, and one element of that frustration was knowing I’d never be part of the old boys club (which I then learned also existed in other fields).

Trigger 3: The one certain way to prevent rape is to get rid of the rapers – The topic of this post isn´t rape, but the idea still applies. In the case of gender discrimination by men on women, I as a woman can do all I want to try and avoid harassment, but at the end of the day, I can be as cautious and uncontroversial as I want (or don’t want), but the choice to be discriminated against based on my gender isn´t a choice I get to make – it is a decision made by others. The only thing that can stop men from harassing women is for men to step forward and say enough is enough. (The same is true if you reverse the genders, or change this to a case of religious, race, or other discrimination.) Always, it must be other members of the group in power who step forward and stand up for the people being victimized. This was true during the civil rights movement, for instance.

And here is the challenge I want to put out there: If you are a man and ever feel the need to pull a woman aside and say “It´s not you, it´s because you´re a woman,” I want you to act on that need, and then I want you to report to the proper authorities what is going on. Be an advocate. Stand up for someone who may not be able to stand up for themselves. You have the power to change things.

And if anyone ever tells you, “It’s not you, they are like that to all [women / minorities / Christians / Jews / gays / etc],” look at that person and tell them, “If I fight this, I could lose my job and be labeled a trouble maker. If you report this, they’ll listen. Will you help? Will you report what you’ve witnessed to the appropriate authorities and prevent this from happening again? Will you help me?”

Be safe. Be good. And if you have power, help someone without it.


  1. Thank you for this powerful blog post Pamela. I think one of the most important things to do for this issue is to bring it into the public consciousness.

  2. Well said. I wanted to do something with Rebecca’s Tweet, but I never figured out what. This is perfect.

  3. Great post, Pamela.

    I can’t imagine how difficult it was for you not to be able to help that student in the Trigger 1 part.

    Posts like this help, I think.Every word that is written or spoken on this topic has the potential to raise the consciousness of anyone who reads it. Your eloquence here may have caused just one person to view situations like this from a different perspective and that is progress.

  4. There are times when I have the power to do something, but I first must be made aware of the problem. That takes courage on the part of the victim.

    So here’s my invitation. If you think I personally can help, please let me know. I will confidentially do my best to do something directly, indirectly, or through those in actual power to resolve the situation.

    And that includes just talking about it.

  5. I am a woman in science and still get some of this. I have no compunction about setting straight transgressors, and may therefore lack your sense of self-preservation. In my former job, I was present when a guy talked to a black female rudely and I kicked him out. Bullies get away with it because we as a society permit it. Keep fighting the good fight!

  6. And in academia it can even take the form of Large Prestigious University Researchers discriminating against small college researchers.

    That’s the system, though… we’ve built it in. The last time my NSF grant was turned down, the program officer talked to me for a little while. He stated directly that at a small astronomy program, I was at a disadvantage applying for grants compared to people who were at institutions that owned their own private large telescopes.

    (I realize this isn’t the main point of your post, and I’m very sympathetic to it, but I thought I’d mention this.)

  7. Three years ago, I made a blog post after a faculty meeting where I gave a small presentation about the unhappiness of the female grad students in our department– and met a lot of hostility. I was probably too in-your-face, for a junior faculty member, but I was pretty made that things were as unpleasant as they were, and that I had been basically unaware of it for so long. But the response I got back was pretty painful.

    I was told to take the blog post down the next day; the faculty meeting was about one of those things that you don’t talk about outside of the faculty meeting, and indeed that’s what triggered my sense that I had to say something about all of this to the faculty, to try to let them know what I’d come to see talking to lots of grad students. I carefully did not reveal what the faculty meeting was really discussing, but I was still told I had to remove the blog post… so I did.

    Junior faculty members of both genders have to weigh speaking out. Do they have a responsibility to speak out? Perhaps. But if they’re going to put their own future at hazard by doing so, they may have in the long run done more good by being more circumspect, and thus kept a person sympathetic for change in the inside, rather than by speaking out and blowing all their political capital.

    It’ s horrifying that in 2009 we’re still dealing with this, but we are.

  8. I’m not in acadamia, but the corporate world is similar. I have been fortunate enough that I have ended up working for companies with a very strong respect for women. More than 50% of management was female. And this is in software development. But I’ve heard stories from people in other companies that made my blood boil. Now that I’ve fooled a company into promoting me into middle management, I am one of those people with (a tiny bit of) power. I’m also a troublemaker, so I’ve got no problem mixing it up over stuff like this.

    FWIW, I’m a man and this type of behaviour infuriates me too. Keep fighting the good fight.

  9. Pamela. Right on!

    This really does have to stop. As a father of a girl who is considering engineering or science as a career, I think of this often. Women scientists I know tend to be outspoken, willing to set the record straight. That’s a good thing. But not all women, or men for that matter, are willing to confront. Both men and women need to take the initiative and be on the lookout for behavior that crosses the line; even behavior that approaches the line. When it comes to protecting professors in tenure, I say bull. That’s a huge foul. If a tenured professor crosses that line, I say all bets are off, they should be called on it and there should be penalties. Like you said though, it’s a small population in which you need to be diplomatic.

    This is similar to a physics professor I had in college. I was a journalism student and worked for the college paper. His name came up in the police blotter one day for a public and sexually-related offense. I made sure it was the right guy. And I debated over whether to take the issue to the editor. There was only one right decision but the backlash from the faculty was intense.

    If you have the power to do the right thing and do it, you have to be willing to face anything that happens. I imagine that’s one of the issues that enters into the decision to confront. But we all KNOW what the right choice is in this matter. We should always take it.

  10. As someone who has worked in the field of sexual assault and domestic violence for 14 years, I was thrilled to see Rebecca’s tweet of that person’s list.

    In fact, about 6 months ago, I created an almost identical curriculum for use with college aged students.

    I begin by listing on the board all of the ways women can “protect” themselves from rape. I let the students make the list, i.e. clothes, behavior, etc. Then I go through each item on the list, and make the students turn it around where the action is performed by men, not women. Then the list morphs into the same list as Rebecca’s tweet.

    It really opens their eyes to the fact that rapists are the only ones who ever truly stop rape.

  11. As a brand new, career changing high school physics teacher…

    Dang…something _else_ I need to watch out for!

    // first year teachers have one helluva learning curve…

    More seriously, though, thanks for the post. I already try to run a pretty tight ship in my class, but your post reminds me of other things that I need to be aware of.

  12. Thank you for this! I think I’ve been really lucky that I’ve not felt overt sexual harassment or gender discrimination in astronomy up to this point. But your Trigger #2 is something that I am watching happen slowly to the women in grad school, and post-docs, around me. There’s no single cause, which makes it even more disconcerting. Thank you for raising our awareness!

  13. “I’ve watched as male grad students, at the beginning of the semester and before social groups have formed, thoughtlessly walk around asking all the other men if they want to head out [for lunch / to go to the gym /to get a drink] while they left the women behind.”

    In the defense of the male grad students, that situation potentially touching on a whole mess of issues for the men. By that age we men are pretty used to women assuming that an invitation for lunch/drinks/whatever is a romantic advance rather than a friendly gesture, and tend to not bother. Especially those who aren’t incredibly socially gifted.

  14. I am a female entertainment technician (roadie, stagehand, whatever), and that’s a very heavily male-dominated field. So I completely understand your points here.

    And, interestingly enough, the discrimination *does* go both ways. But, another very strange phenomenon is that a huge number of *women* discriminate against other *women*. They perpetuate the stereotypes and they use insulting language to describe strong, independent, non-conformist women and do what my sweetie Tacit calls “slut-shaming”, which is to use sexually-laden terms in a derogatory manner aimed specifically at women and female sexuality.

    It’s one of the main sources of my online (and in-person) ranting, but I never did learn the whole must-be-nice-to-save-my-skin lesson, so I have absolutely no problem speaking out. I’m also a sex-positive activist and online blogger (in addition to being a skeptical activist), so I speak out online as well as in person.

    One of my most favorite retorts was actually told to me by a male co-worker. Women in my business are often offered “help” by men for things that require physical strength, like lifting or pushing things. Whether it’s needed or not and oftentimes the assistance is given whether we acquiesce or not.

    My co-worker overheard another female who was in this situation once. She was pushing a box and 2 guys came over and shouldered her out of the way to push it for her. She said “Oh, I’m sorry, you’re right, I better not touch this. I might get estrogen all over it”. The guys became a laughing stock for the rest of the crew and, after hearing the tale, I have adopted that retort myself.

    Another time, a girl helped to unscrew a bolt that was particularly tight, and the male supervisor said “wow, you’re almost as strong as a lesbian!” Just by coincidence, the entire crew happened to be female that day (all the supervisors were male, but the laborers were female). From that day forward, he was never able to order, instruct, or even request the assistance of another female on the crew without her responding “I’m sorry, I’m straight. I don’t think I’m strong enough to give you a hand”. Every woman actually refused to assist without an apology and every other guy there was shown that this behaviour was not acceptable.

    So, for my part, I use ridicule combined with a generous sprinkling of actual facts and statistics to contradict their point in as public a manner as possible. And, I might add, I am *not* kind in my ridicule, but it *is* often funny to everyone else who hears. Like the time a guy who was giving me a hard time earlier in the day was having trouble with a sticky bolt, and I yelled out “c’mon! Hit it with your purse!” from across the room. It was particularly amusing when it was a girl who managed to solve the problem after he lost his temper and gave up.

    I do, however, have to admit to quite a high sexual overtone to the workplace in my industry, but most of us actively enjoy a work environment with flirting and sexual innuendo. I am very careful to make sure that people who are genuinely uncomfortable get taken care of, but, generally, it’s considered a feature, not a bug. However, it’s not gender specific – everyone flirts with everyone regardless of gender or actual orientation.

    But it’s a tough environment to work in, and I do what I can.

  15. Hi Pamela,
    Nice post and I agree with some of your points. One thing I’d like to mention is that you shouldn’t use terms like harrassment, rape, discrimination and sexism interchangeably – not even “as an example”. They’re NOT the same. Doing so just gives the old boys all the more reason to think women are just a bit hysterical – and it’s disrespectful to people who suffer serious assault to put them on the same level.

    Furthermore, at a university level I don’t see why professors should mediate between students. If it happens in your class, you have the right to chuck them out. Come on, students are adults and they should be able to handle themselves against their peers. If it escalates to actual bullying or sexual harrassment (stalking etc) then yes, we need to be able to provide guidance about how to handle that. I don’t know about the US, but all universities I know in Europe have ombudsman office for this kind of thing – it shouldn’t even be handled inside a department.

  16. Pamela,

    Thank you very much for this post. I’m sending it off to my daughter and my son. You have given me a challenge concerning my responsibility to call people on their conversation and action when it puts others down.


  17. Pamela, I have listened to Astronomy Cast for a few years and really respect you as a scientist and now, because of you speaking out on this issue, as a “real ” person as well. I am a 50 year old male and have worked in a major corporation for over 20 years. Our company has come light years in solving this issue you have raised. It starts with people like you pushing this issue and it will make a difference. Even though you may not change the “old guys” in leadership positions, it does have a tremendous influence on the “next generation”. Keep it up!

  18. Well said Pamela!

  19. Sorry, can’t leave my real name. AND I came to this post late but couldn’t resist commenting since one of the PREVIOUS commentors (who I was working with) knowingly and willingly let the worst possible types of physical and verbal sexual harassment go on right under my nose (and his) , and then did his best to get me fired when I tried to do something about it. Now he has the nerve to comment on sexual harassment…..

  20. Well said and well done.

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