Nothing is going to change

It’s an issue I was determined to avoid in this blog and for a good reason. A lot has been written (and blogged, tweeted…) about sexual harassment of female students in STEM. Reading Sean Carroll‘s blog-post, “We Suck (But We Can Be Better)“, changed my mind. First, it is an excellent post, which I recommend to anyone interested in academic life. Second, this passage resonated with me:

“No doubt the specifics of these situations will be debated to death. There is a wider context, however. These incidents aren’t isolated; they’re just the ones that happened to come to light recently. And there are issues here that aren’t just about men and women; they’re about what kind of culture we have in academia generally, science in particular, and physics/astronomy especially. Not only did these things happen, but they happened over an extended period of time. They were allowed to happen. Part of that is simply because shit happens; but part is that we don’t place enough value, as working academic scientists, professors, and students, in caring about each other as human beings.”

And third, because of the last paragraph:

“Maybe these recent events will be a wake-up call that provokes departments to take real steps to prevent harassment and improve the lives of students more generally. It’s unfortunate that we need to be shown a particularly egregious example of abuse before being stirred to action, but that’s often what it takes. In philosophy, the case of Colin McGinn has prompted a new dialogue about this kind of problem. In astronomy, President of the AAS Meg Urry has been very outspoken about the need to do better. Let’s see if physics will step up, recognize the problems we have, and take concrete steps to do better.”

If you want to believe that, don’t read further. I’ll use civilized language, but won’t sugarcoat my opinion.

In his blog-post, Sean Carroll writes that, “Academic science – and physics is arguably the worst, though perhaps parts of engineering and computer science are just as bad – engenders a macho, cutthroat, sink-or-swim culture.” As an example he brings a true case of a male graduate student at Harvard University who took his own life.
Rape? Unbearable Bullying? Nothing like that. According to the article in the New York Times (from 1998), what led to the suicide was pressure (some of it self-imposed), isolation, and fear of failure. To me, the most chilling fact was the casual mention of another death that took place in the same lab earlier that year. A graduate student from Hong Kong “was found unconscious in a room adjacent to Room 318; he died two days later.” Did the head of the group, a Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, take the time to contemplate what had happened and discuss it with his other graduate students? According to the article, the professor cared only about science. He did not concern himself with the daily life of those who spent years working on his projects.

My take:
When suicide happens and no one is held accountable, the message is clear: even exceptionally bright students are replaceable, whereas their advisers, those tenured professors who bring grants and prestige to their academic institutions – are not.

The moral?
It’s easy to claim that sexual harassment is a problem of a few ‘bad apples’, appoint a committee, issue a statement that will reassure women (and board members, donors, NSF…) that so-and-so institution ‘does everything’ to improve the situation. It is easy to forget, that not only students are under pressure and are working insane hours. Moreover, not every silly sexist remark is abuse of power, and sometimes there is mutual attraction between a student and an adviser. Mistreatment is subjective. However, the prevailing atmosphere should change, so that both male and female students can say a clear and loud “NO,” without dreading the consequences to their budding career.


Image by Jim C. Hines (www.jimchines.com)




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