As you do unto us

This post is for the men in mathematics who have been disturbed by the recent wave of disclosures and pushback against sexual harassment. You are horrified to learn that men have been doing such things, and you extend your sympathy to the victims, but you also need to know the possible implications for you. You’ve been asking us to clarify the rules: when you’re patting a woman on the back, where exactly do you have to stop before you get accused of grabbing her ass? Could we please draw red lines across our backs to demarcate the allowed from the unforgivable? You’ve been arguing about fairness, intentionality, proportionality, due process and reasonable doubt. You’ve been citing examples, both from the public sphere and from your own experience. I’ve never before seen so many men come to feminist discussions with well researched facts and cross-checked citations.

That’s good. I’m very glad that you are doing this. I’ve been engaging in these discussions individually on social media as time permits, but I also want to post a few things here for those who might be interested.

First, there’s a popular misconception that must be addressed, namely that such cases are only about the crossing of personal and sexual boundaries. No. Grabbing or exposing body parts at work is not just gross; it also derails and blocks our professional advancement and therefore our access to power in the society. Sadly, women at work are too often seen as primarily personal and sexual beings who should be satisfied with social popularity and possibly sexual gratification instead of seeking actual professional success. Our complaints about men who sabotage our careers are dismissed as “personal” disagreements. It therefore stands to reason that our complaints are more likely to be taken seriously when the boundaries of acceptable personal behaviour are also crossed and when the acts in question would still be viewed as deplorable if they had occurred outside of the workplace. That’s not where the story begins, though, nor does it end there.

I have some reading for you. This article by Rebecca Traister elaborates on sexual harassment being not just a sexual issue but also a work issue. This earlier one elucidates our experience of sexual harassment in the broader context of gender discrimination, including our own complicity in it, from angles that are rarely spelled out so clearly. Both articles are excellent. Both are centered on women who have attained, or aspire to, a certain professional status; while this is a narrowing of the subject (as Traister admits explicitly in both pieces), the specificity should resonate well enough with mathematicians.

I also want to know whether you are worried that you might now be treated the way that we have been treated all along. Everything about this that scares you, every possibility that careers could be thwarted or ended unfairly, every part of this system that can be turned against you so easily when those in power demand it – yes, you’re right. We know that. We’ve been living with those threats, and working under them, ever since we were allowed into professional spaces at all. We’ve been told that academic careers demand sacrifices, that maybe we were just less interested or motivated or inclined to take risks, that if you can’t stand the heat etc. But now that you have the opportunity to reflect on that heat, maybe we could discuss installing a fan and opening some windows?

You are concerned when we tell you to “believe women”. You point out to cases when publicly made rape allegations were debunked later. You say that people don’t always tell the truth, that they might have a vested interest in lying, and that even when a woman believes that she’s being truthful, another observer might see the same situation differently. You emphasize the legal concept of proof beyond reasonable doubt. In social and professional situations that do not require that standard, you still don’t consider the word of one person, or several, to constitute sufficient evidence. It does not console you that false allegations are rare, because you don’t want to play lottery with your career or those of your colleagues.

Does that make it easier to understand our objections to having your word against ours accepted as conclusive? I’ve been in that situation many times: I say X, a male colleague says Y, therefore Y must be true. Could we please stop that? In particular, when you reassure us that there is no sexism in math communities – a statement that you might have a vested interest in making – would you mind if we didn’t just take your word for it? Would you understand that, even when you honestly believe that a situation was not sexist, we might disagree? And please don’t tell us that sexist incidents in math are rare. I don’t actually believe that – sexism is a broad operating principle, not just a small number of isolated incidents – but even if they were rare, you still would not want us to play lottery with our careers, would you?

You don’t want to be tried and sentenced in the court of public opinion, especially not on the internet. You insist on due process and institutional guarantees of fairness. Maybe, then, you could stop telling us that transparency and peer pressure, in forms such as “open peer review” or online comments on math papers, will cure all social ills in mathematics including sexism. Somehow, you don’t have the same faith in the wisdom of public opinion when the public is not guaranteed to be dominated by people who think like you do. Peer pressure is no longer a universal fix for every problem when it points towards believing someone else.

You are worried that innocent touch – a friendly gesture, an accidental brush against a coworker’s body in a crowded hallway – might be misinterpreted and blown out of proportion. You’ve seen radical proposals: no meetings behind closed doors, no dinners with female colleagues without a spouse present. You do feel that these go too far, but then can we please tell you how to interact with women at work without raising suspicions?

I absolutely agree. We all should be able to focus on our work without the constant threat that anything we say or do could be interpreted in a sexualized manner. You know what else would be great? If women could have normal working relationships with male mentors, collaborators and friends without the ever-present gossip and innuendo. If we could network and socialize like everyone else, without the suspicion that we’re really after the Mrs. degree or at least sexual favours. You might or might not have noticed the problem in the past, but either way it probably did not affect your career, because (as Traister points out) the roles assigned to men and women in such situations are not symmetric. Now, it bothers you. It should.

You argue that we should not just criminalize the human condition in all its imperfections. We should distinguish between actual criminal acts and behaviour that’s merely boorish or unwelcome. Maybe he was just trying to be nice; maybe he thought she wanted it; maybe he did it but it’s really such a minor offence and we should not be policing people’s behaviour to that extent. We should allow room for honest mistakes and refrain from disproportionate punishment.

That’s a great conversation to have. I’ll take this opportunity to point out that there are criminal laws that classify groping as a misdemeanor (with details depending on the jurisdiction), and that unwanted sexual advances at work can be deemed harassing in a civil lawsuit based on the effect they have on the workplace environment, even if the acts involved are not illegal in and of themselves. Criminal guilt is different from civil liability, which, by the way, requires only preponderance of evidence and not proof beyond reasonable doubt. And that’s different from informal social and professional consequences, such as when people don’t necessarily want to sue you, but don’t really want to work with you, either.

Which part of this concerns you? Are you worried about criminal law when you complain that complimenting women or discussing gender differences is “not allowed”? These are not illegal, although it’s easy to be confused about this when the actually illegal grabs and squeezes are almost never prosecuted, either. Do you feel that terms like “hostile atmosphere” are too vague and open to interpretation? Why, yes, they are. This has been a problem for us for a long time. I’m glad that you are starting to notice.

Are you concerned about the unregulated kind of retaliation? Right. Isn’t it horrifying how easy it is to sideline an inconvenient person and block their career? How everyone else just goes along with it without asking questions? Isn’t it scary how often the formal procedures merely rubberstamp decisions made elsewhere? How the costs of trying to turn the wheel against the current are so prohibitively high that few attempt it and a “win” is still a loss? That’s the system in which we have had to function all along. Yes, this does happen in mathematics, and here’s much more from academia in general. You’ve been saying that you had no idea, either of the scale of the harassment problem or the silencing and retaliation schemes; but maybe at least on some level you did know, seeing as you are now anticipating with such clarity what might happen to you if the tides were reversed.

As for policing minor offences and tolerance for mistakes: yes, we should talk about that as well. Because women have always had to walk very thin lines, not only between the personal and professional, but also between competent and likable, between too emotional and not emotional enough, between professional expectations for leaders and experts and social norms for women. We could spend a very long time talking about the many ways in which women’s behaviour is being policed, including by men who claim to be feminist. (And to be clear, everything here goes double for women of colour.) We’ve even acquired a reputation for being risk-averse because we have so much less room to make mistakes and so much less to gain from trying. By all means, let’s acknowledge that nobody is perfect, but let’s also extend the same understanding to the non-male half of the species.

And to go back to where we started: consider how men just won’t stop advising us on this matter. They tell us how we should report accusations, who should or should not be believed, what procedures we should follow, what our priorities should be, how we should relate to the men we work with in this moment in time. They implore us to not overreact and to conduct our investigations in ways they consider appropriate and praiseworthy. They recommend steps we could take, point out things they would not advise, provide their own estimates of the frequency and intensity of the same harassment that they claim they have never seen anyway.

You sure look worried about being silenced. About people not listening to you and denying you access to their conversations. About your input not being sought or considered in decisions that might concern you.

Guess who else has been in that position all along? I have no trouble at all believing that you were not aware of most of the harassment that is now being uncovered. I did not actually know it, either, although I was probably much less surprised than you were. That’s because we have not been allowed to talk about it. We had to maintain confidentiality, or there was no procedure, or there was a procedure but it did not permit us to speak and others to listen. We find ourselves silenced and trapped. Are you concerned when career administrators come in and run academic institutions with no input from you? Give us a reason to think that there is a difference between them and yourselves.

There is a well known feminist critique of the absence of structure: informal systems tend to benefit those who are already well situated, and alienate those who are not. Academic governance regulations, especially in their legacy form, can combine the worst of both worlds. They are too vague to actually prohibit specific forms of sexism, racism and discrimination even when lip service is paid to general principles, relying instead on collegiality, tradition and custom. At the same time, they are fully capable of applying teeth and claws when we try to challenge that laissez-faire-for-some status quo. Even when media scrutiny forces the issue, even when the public mood is as favourable as it is now, we are still not free to talk. Confidentiality regulations are still in force. Retaliation is still possible and expected, if not against us personally, then against our students and trainees.

This all becomes very clear to you as soon as you have to entertain the possibility that you might end up on the wrong side of it. And again, I agree. I’m not interested in a simple reversal of power. The feminist utopia would be equality, not reverse subjugation. But if we’re going to even try to get there from here, then we have to recognize where “here” is, and act accordingly and deliberately. It’s not enough to just summon fairness with an earnest invocation of good intentions.

If you want to help, the best thing you can do is take a back seat from time to time and listen to women who have more expertise and more access to information. Too often, the task of repairing the system is entrusted to those who are not likely to be able to diagnose the problem. Collegiality works well enough when the disagreements are between colleagues of similar social standing, even as it fails to account for gender, race and class. Tradition and custom can be easy enough to defend for those who flourished in their warmth, and the specific ways in which they never meant for women to be there in the first place are not necessarily intuitively obvious to a well-meaning person. You are only beginning to see how things could go wrong. You don’t know half of it.

You probably won’t be able to defend us from sexual harassment directly when it occurs. The perpetrators are good at preempting such interventions. But you can help us shift the balance of power, by promoting women, supporting their work, and nominating them for positions of responsibility. I trust that you will be able to do this in an intelligent manner. Don’t lose sight of the actual goal. Don’t follow my recommendations in a counterproductive manner (for instance, by drowning women in pointless committee assignments) and then come back here to complain. Approach it like you would a hard math problem after your first naive approach has failed. Learn, talk to experts, test you educated guesses against the reality.

Good luck. We will all need it.

Author: Izabella Laba

Mathematics professor at UBC. My opinions are, obviously, my own.

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