Editorial: Must change culture of sexual violence

Friday, November 17, 2017

The stories are the same whether they are told about professors at the University of Massachusetts Amherst or film producer Harvey Weinstein in Hollywood or judges in Alabama. They are the stories of women who are the victims of sexual harassment and violence perpetrated by men in positions of power in a culture that too often allows those misdeeds to go unpunished.

This fall, the New York Times published a story detailing allegations of misconduct against Weinstein, and since then more than 30 women, including Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie, have identified themselves as victims of his sexual abuse, ranging from harassment to rape. Weinstein has denied the allegations.

This past week we have also seen accusations first published in the Washington Post by several woman against U.S. Senate candidate and former Alabama judge Roy Moore about unwanted advances by him when he was an assistant district attorney in his 30s, and they in their teens.

Closer to home, the Graduate Women in STEM, or GWIS, last month called a town hall meeting at UMass to focus attention on its “Safe at Work” campaign and provide a forum for the university community to discuss sexual violence.

Those women graduate students in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields at UMass released a special issue of their quarterly magazine titled “Broken Silence” that offers many personal accounts of sexual misconduct involving professors, as well as descriptions about fearing retaliation if the abuse was reported.

“We in the sphere of STEM academia are living in the middle of an epidemic of sexual violence. That’s no exaggeration. We are literally surrounded by a problem that should have no acceptable minimum presence in our community,” Christie Ellis, a chemistry doctoral student and editor-in-chief of the magazine, wrote in the report’s introduction. “We need change, desperately, and it needs to be big. We are not going to solve a problem this culturally entrenched — and yes, I do mean UMass culture as well as our culture at large — without changing things at a fundamental level.”

Raquel Bryant, a geoscience doctoral student and co-chair of GWIS, says graduate students are vulnerable to abuse by their advisers because of the power imbalance, in much the same way that young actresses were reluctant to speak out against Weinstein because they feared retaliation and damage to their career. “The same ‘worst-kept secret,’ it goes on with professors too,” Bryant says.

The victims in Hollywood and on campus are hardly alone. Since actress Alyssa Milano suggested that victims identify themselves with a “#MeToo” on social media, millions of women have done so.

GWIS began several years ago as an opportunity for women graduate students in fields dominated by men to gather with their peers. Soon, the women discovered, far too many had stories to tell about sexual assaults and harassment in their departments.

Joelle Labastide, a postdoctoral research fellow in biophysics and also a GWIS co-chair, says the women wanted to knock down barriers to their success in the STEM disciplines. While women receive training in skills such as how to present themselves confidently, that does not address the root problem of sexism they encounter.

“We found out that sexual violence is one of the most pervasive and most difficult to pin down, so we decided that’s what we were going to take on,” Labastide says.

One issue that needs to be addressed, say the GWIS co-chairs, is the lack of formal rules and guidelines shaping how a student and her adviser work together. “The relationship between an adviser and graduate student is one only governed by norms, and so is super-susceptible to abuse,” Bryant says.

To help combat sexual violence, GWIS sponsored workshops before the town hall discussion that addressed issues such as the nature of consensual sexual relationships when there is a power imbalance, and strategies bystanders should use to document misconduct.

The challenge now is for administrators, from Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy on down, to follow the lead of GWIS in changing that culture of silence. He described the GWIS report as “a wake-up call for the campus” and said he is aware of about 32 formal and informal complaints brought against faculty in the past five years.

While Subbaswamy provided no details about the resolution of those cases, he said generally that the formal complaint system “gets quickly very complicated.”

We hope the punishment of predators becomes less complicated if UMass adopts and enforces a zero-tolerance policy for sexual abuse, and gives women the support they need in reporting harassment and violence.