Harassment at Annual Meetings

“Sizable minority” of women have experienced inappropriate treatment at annual political science event, association survey finds.

January 2, 2018

A "sizable" minority of women and a smaller but still notable share of men have experienced harassment or other inappropriate behavior at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, according to a survey of members that the association has just released.

A solid majority (63 percent) of the 2,424 members who responded to the survey indicated that they had never been harassed or treated inappropriately at the meeting. But the figures were different for men (74 percent) and women (51 percent).

Among the findings:

  • Forty-two percent of women and 22 percent of men said that they had been "put down" or "experienced condescension" at the meeting.
  • Thirty percent of women and 10 percent of men said that they had experienced "inappropriate language or looks, such as experiencing offensive sexist remarks; getting stared at, leered or ogled in a way that made them uncomfortable; or being exposed to sexist or suggestive materials which they found offensive."
  • Eleven percent of women and 3 percent of men reported having experienced "inappropriate sexual advances or touching, such as unwanted attempts to establish a sexual relationship despite efforts to discourage it, being touched by someone in a way that was uncomfortable, or experiencing bribes or threats associated with sexual advances."

The survey looked at specifics within that last item and found that the numbers of people reporting certain kinds of inappropriate behavior were low. But the report published by the association said the data should still be of concern.

"That 29 of our members felt they had experienced threats of professional retaliation for not being sexually cooperative, and 44 felt they were being bribed with special professional rewards is, respectively, 29 and 44 people too many," said the report, published in PS, an association journal.

The report found no statistically significant differences in the results by race or ethnicity.

But the study found that nontenured faculty members experience more harassment or inappropriate behavior than do tenured faculty members, graduate students or postdocs.

The report -- written by Virginia Sapiro of Boston University and David Campbell of the University of Notre Dame -- also noted open-ended responses that they received about the survey. Some criticized the survey and suggested that it would suggest a more serious problem than those who wrote these comments believed was the case.

One critic of the survey predicted that it would find rampant sexual harassment and "all of this will be false, totally false, akin to our current sham campus rape crisis. And those who see this as such will ignore it, and increasingly APSA itself."

Many women wrote in describing experiences of harassment and sexism at the meeting.

One wrote, "A senior scholar made physical sexual advances after walking me back to my hotel after a group dinner. I declined. It was not made explicit that I would face professional penalization for declining, but our working relationship has not been the same since."

Another wrote, "I think that 'conference culture' in general can be more complicated for women to negotiate. Most of us are trying to be polite (especially junior scholars and those on the job market), but this politeness sometimes seems to be an open invitation for male colleagues to assume that we're interested or that a smile is some kind of a come-on. This is an especially problematic dynamic when it comes to networking with strangers: on more than one occasion, I have sought to engage a man in a professional conversation, only to have him assume that I was trying to hit on him. Weird, right? Would a man assume that another man at the conference was trying to hit on him? I remember waiting in a very long line to get coffee … and having what I thought was a pleasant, professional conversation with the man standing next to me. Later that night, I found numerous phone messages in my hotel room from him, inviting me for a drink."

Another wrote of being routinely asked by male scholars if she studied women's issues, even though nothing on her CV or biography would suggest that as an area of focus.

The report also described this situation: "Soon after launching the survey we received a letter from a woman who described going to her 'first and last' APSA meeting when she was a postdoc to tell us why she thought this effort was important. Having completed her Ph.D. at an elite institution, she was invited for drinks in the hotel bar by men who were 'well established in the field.' After she finished her drink she left the bar to go back to her room. The men continued to drink and, she later found, charged all their drinks to her room. She was afraid to confront them because of their stature, and learned a fellow postdoc had been threatened by a senior member of the field who said that if she said anything about such an experience, he would destroy her career."

Other Associations

The APSA is not the only association to consider the experience of women -- especially those seeking jobs -- at disciplinary gatherings.

For years, female philosophers complained about an event at the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association dubbed "the smoker" (from when most people at the event smoked). At the event, job candidates and senior scholars mingled in an atmosphere of heavy drinking and frequent sexist comments or harassment, many women said. In recent years, the association has cut way back on the booze, and de-emphasized the event as part of the job-hunting process, hoping to eliminate the concerns many had about the event.

In classics, the Women's Classical Caucus issued a statement in November about harassment at the annual meeting of the Society for Classical Studies. The statement reminds members of the association that they must abide by the policies of their colleges and universities, and that the society wants to hear about allegations of harassment at its meeting. Harassment, the statement says, "is harmful, disrespectful and unprofessional. No attendee should under any circumstance engage in harassment, bullying or intimidation of other attendees either in person or online. By attending the meeting, all participants accept the obligation to uphold the rights of attendees and treat everyone with respect. The SCS does not seek to limit the areas of inquiry of its members or to curtail robust scholarly debate. Its aim is to promote critical and open inquiry that is free of personal harassment, prejudice and aggression."


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