Where Can You Speak Out Safely?

The media is full of stories around men behaving inappropriately – or worse – currently. These range from #shirtstorm in the wake of Matt Taylor’s press conference regarding the successful landing of Philae (a sad distraction from the amazingly successful landing on the comet) to the video of a woman walking through New York subjected to incessant catcalling and the like. Academia is not exempt from bad behaviour and has its own horror stories and distressing tales. For instance, philosophy seems to have been having some particular problems (see e.g here  although this particular story contains so many twists it is hard to know what really went on, and here).

Even minor occurrences of sexism can prey on the mind of a victim long after the episode is closed. Did I invite this unwanted attention? What did I do that made this guy think it was OK to humiliate me publicly? How could I have handled that aggressive putdown better? Frequently there is no one that a victim feels comfortable talking to and they may have no desire to escalate matters into a formal complaint. Too often the victim of even the most egregious behaviour can be as much the loser in a tribunal hearing as the perpetrator. Petty behaviour can be very destructive if it persists. I have written before about the challenges that Philosophy in particular face, but when I asked readers of my blog back in 2012 to highlight (anonymously if they wanted) their own bad experiences in the sciences I got not a single reply. Does this mean all our colleagues are paragons of virtue? I don’t believe that, but it may indeed indicate that there is less need of a safety valve for our community than for philosophers who use the Feminist Philosophers website to share horror stories. I think this may be because issues of and for women in science are much discussed and have been for a number of years. Philosophy seems to have woken up to the problems rather recently. It would appear to be about on a par with the tech and gaming industry which seems, all too often, to possess a most unpleasant atmosphere for female coders.

Recently I have been introduced to a site for academics of any discipline to record thoughts and experiences about sexism in the workplace. This site, known as SASSY (Sharing Academic Sexism Stories with You) is based in Europe and comes with translations in Dutch, French, German and English. Its introduction states:

As fellow academics fed up with the everyday sexism that we have seen, heard and experienced, we have decided to create a safe platform to share stories of academic sexism.

In so doing, we hope to:

  1. create a space for those who have been harmed to express themselves,
  2. empower others to share their stories and challenge the structures that perpetuate this sexism, and
  3. better understand the problem in order to begin to act collectively to prevent it.

The originators of the site clearly feel that the more readers and the more stories they have, the greater use it will be. You may wish to look at it, possibly even comment. That’s what they are hoping for.

SASSY explicitly considers sexism rather than the more serious harassment cases. But sexist incidents are, if not endemic, all too common and depressing as well as deplorable. Just last week an overseas student was telling me how she had recently been accused of being ‘too pretty to be a neuroscientist‘. She wanted to know what sort of riposte she could have made. It’s an interesting question and the best answer I could come up with on the spot was to suggest she enquired what level of prettiness was appropriate for a scientist in her field. If she had had time, energy and inclination she could have debated the fundamental question of what skills a good neuroscientist actually needs, hoping in the process that the obnoxious individual involved would slowly realise what an irrelevance his remark was since looks wouldn’t feature in his list (but maybe I’m being too optimistic here).

Being talked over or ignored is all too common an experience for women, what in shorthand I’ve started to call the Miss Triggs problem after the old Punch cartoon. However, I recently came across an interesting variation of the punchline ‘That’s an excellent suggestion, Miss Triggs. Perhaps one of the men here would like to make it’ which shows that such chauvinism is not always about sexism. The latest version I had referred to nationality in an EU context. Sitting on a committee in Europe the woman who told me the story said she had been told, after making some remark, ‘perhaps one of the other nationalities would like to make it‘. The story of the UK in Europe is a different kind of power balance from those associated with gender. Nevertheless the story reflects the fact that issues arise in the workplace for many reasons other than sexism.

We need to keep talking about the issues, calling out bad behaviour wherever it occurs (and whatever particular form of -ism is involved). We need safe spaces for individuals to talk about their experiences, to lessen the pain when these have been bad and to help them find and debate coping strategies. Above all we need to make sure that no majority continues to exclude, from any field of endeavour, those who aren’t just like them.




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7 Responses to Where Can You Speak Out Safely?

  1. You mentioned that you previously requested horror stories in the sciences. I created a web series about mine http://BudgetJustified.com

  2. aeon says:

    One thing adding to multiple reasons why you probably did not get any replies might be that people who are experiencing everyday sexism do leave academia.

    Some years ago I witnessed the head of a department asking a twenty-something friend of mine to get her “priorities straight” and decide “what she wanted to do after her graduation”. He then actually said the phrase “Do you want to bear children, or continue in academia and get on with a PhD?”.

    He asked this in one of the regular department meetings All group leaders, PIs, postdocs, and some technical staff were present, as well as some PhD students and some people still graduating. Nobody told him, even afterwards, that he crossed the line to abuse. Everybody knew he was a terrible superior, so this incident was one among many, and nobody really took notice.

    Personally, he also told me that if I made up my mind, got a shave and a haircut and pulled myself together, I could possibly get anywhere. (I didn’t, by the way.) When you have got a supervisor of your masters thesis who has a reputation to be a tough, oldschool, autocratical boss, but one of the best-connected people in your university and the national scientific community, and also (if also rather oldschool and methodologically outdated) a good scientist, then everybody will say that you know what your in for. Even yourself. And you don’t really speak up. You are academic plankton, after all. You either leave, or you try to cope with it.

    But you do not write on “the internet” about it. Especially since incidents of abuse and humiliation are always very personal. If someone reads about it who was present, the news will get around. And it will harm you, not the abuser. Victim shaming is an old story – and a true one. For sexism as well as other abuse.

  3. Laurence Cox says:

    Also see this article in today’s The Guardian


    Fay Davies, now a research fellow in the school of the built environment at Salford University but previously a meteorologist, says it is a particular problem in the sciences. “The contracts are getting shorter and shorter. If you have got a three-year contract you can probably fit in a maternity leave, but if it is only for one year, it makes maternity leave very problematic.”

    In meteorology, she says: “So many women opt not to have children. Pregnancy is almost seen as unprofessional.”

  4. Helen says:

    On an appointment panel, as we were discussing which questions should be asked of the candidate, the question “what is your attitude to the diversity agenda” came up. Everyone looked at me (one of two female academics on the panel) and I replied with “it’s a good question and I think one of the men should ask it”. Miss Triggs fights back!

  5. Colin G. Finlay says:

    Apropos women, here’s an amusing diatribe :


  6. Colin G. Finlay says:

    Where, indeed?

    Why, the University of California, Los Angeles, of course :


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