Harassment at the Annual Meeting

Historians join political scientists in documenting the unprofessional and illegal behavior women experience at annual gatherings.

October 2, 2018

Even in the era of Me Too, many academics report that annual meetings of disciplinary associations are environments where rude and/or harassing behavior is all too common. Disciplinary meetings feature large power imbalances -- young scholars seeking jobs and senior scholars doing interviews. Many of those interviews take place in decidedly unprofessional locations such as hotel rooms. And some academics see these meetings as a chance to drink to excess and to encourage a (legally and ethically questionable) philosophy of "what happens at the annual meeting, stays at the annual meeting."

The American Historical Association has released a summary of a survey it conducted of those who have attended its annual meeting over any of the last five years. The association found significant minorities of its members reported that they had experienced demeaning or insulting behavior. And a small minority (but one that the association summary says is still of concern) experienced harassment of various types.

The seriousness of the issue in the field of history was illustrated in June, when a historian tweeted about how a female attendee at the meeting of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations was too drunk to give consent, and how he followed her and a male attendee back to her room. The other male attendee expected to be able to do whatever he wanted to the woman. The scholar who shared the story reported that his intervention prevented that from happening -- and many who read his account said that far too many women are assaulted in various ways at scholarly meetings.

The AHA based its survey (with permission) on one by the American Political Science Association that found similar results.

Here are the findings that the AHA released, which featured answers from 1,656 people about their experiences at the meetings.

  • Nearly 28 percent said they were "put down or condescended to" at least once.
  • Almost 15 percent had "heard sexist comments uttered in their presence."
  • 10 percent had been "the object of behavior that made them uncomfortable, such as leering, staring or ogling."
  • 5 percent of the total reported receiving "unwanted attempts to establish a romantic or sexual relationship at least once."
  • Slightly more than 1.25 percent had felt "bribed to engage in sexual behavior with some sort of reward or special treatment."
  • Nearly 1 percent reported being threatened with retaliation for not being “sexually cooperative."
  • 5 percent had experienced being "touched in a way that made them uncomfortable."

The association summary of the findings said that the lower percentages reporting some of the most serious violations of professional ethics (and the law) should not make people minimize the importance of the issue. "Even though relatively few respondents recounted such offensive behaviors, the association regards these reports as revealing unacceptable and unprofessional conduct unworthy of members of the historical profession," said the summary.

The association also included summaries of responses to open-ended questions on the survey.

Several comments indicated a view by women that harassment and rude behavior they experienced at annual meetings decreased over the course of their careers. But some speculated that this wasn't necessarily due to improved behavior but to the way men target younger women.

Many women reported sexist behavior at committees or sessions of the annual meeting, with some male historians ignoring or insulting the work of female historians. Even job hunters are rude, the women in the survey reported. "Some male job candidates have been condescending to me, assuming I was a secretary instead of a professor on a search committee," wrote one member.

In some cases, scholars want someone present when something sexist takes place to just say something. Two of those who responded to the survey, the AHA said, "described a panel session in which a historian claimed that the women who participated in anti-Vietnam War protests were 'easy.'" Wrote one of the women, “It was an erroneous and sexist assertion … I wouldn't think the AHA should do anything, but it was unfortunate that the chairs of the session didn't acknowledge one of the people in the audience who voiced disagreement and allow for a reply. The statement just hung there and the conversation went on. I think this is more typical of the way sexism goes down in the profession.”

The top suggestion for improving the climate at meetings was to end the use of hotel rooms for job interviews. "Despite the AHA’s efforts to reduce the incidence of this practice, it still exists and creates uncomfortable situations for people in vulnerable positions," the association summary said.


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