We Need to Talk

On the plane to San Diego for the joint meetings, I finally watched The Big Sick. There’s a throwaway line where a character, voice filled with shame and disgust, says “Who goes to a math conference to get laid?”

A couple days later I read the crowdsourced spreadsheet of self-reported incidents of sexual harassment in the academy, sparked by Dr. Karen Kelsky of The Professor is In. Reading the entries, it turns out the answer is…math professors.

Into The Light 5 from Death to the Stock Photo

If you haven’t scanned through the document yet, I recommend you do. The stories come from all levels, at all kinds of schools, and all kinds of harassers. With over 2300 entries (and counting), it’s overwhelming. The kind of thing you can only process in chunks.

Look at how many incidents were never reported, often on the advice of faculty members. Look at how many occurred in front of people who looked the other way. Look at how many caused women to leave their jobs or their fields. Look.

You’re either shocked by this or you’re not, and neither reaction is particularly interesting. I’ve led a fairly easy life as a women in math. No one with any real power over me ever pulled anything obvious. People have made casually sexist comments, and gross fellow students made my life uncomfortable, but that felt like just what you sign up for as a female mathematician – a subject for another post on another day. Other women I know haven’t been so lucky. It’s hard for “whisper networks” to develop among women when there are barely any women around. And often the department scumbag is just unavoidable, even if you’ve been warned.

One experience I had was exceedingly mild by comparison, but it still sticks with me: I was staffing the Project NExT booth at the jmm with another (female) fellow, and a man I’d never met asked if I wanted to hear a rhyme about girls who wear glasses. I told him I’d heard plenty before and had no interest in his. That didn’t stop him. I don’t think he even heard what I’d said.

It wasn’t one I’d heard before. I guess I’ll give him that.

I still kick myself that I was too stunned by the ridiculousness of the exchange to remember his name. I remember the school, but it was a big department and I couldn’t find many photos. If that’s the kind of thing he says to a colleague in public, while wearing a name tag for God’s sake, what does he do when he has more privacy and more power?

I wish I could write about this as well as Izabella Laba did today in her essay to our male colleagues, As you do unto us. It’s long and difficult and worth reading every word. The articles she cites are just as essential. To try to give it a reductive, glib summary: to men feeling uncomfortable and concerned about what effect sexual harassment might have on your career, welcome to a really unpleasant club. We don’t want to be here either.

The title of a piece by Rebecca Traister (also cited multiple times in Laba’s essay) sums it up: This Moment Isn’t (Just) About Sex. It’s Really About Work. Regarding concern about witch hunts and false equivalences, she writes

…we are making a crucial category error. Because the thing that unites these varied revelations isn’t necessarily sexual harm, but professional harm and power abuse.

The harassers in that spreadsheet have been with us. They’ve been our professors, in our classes, on the admissions committees, writing our recommendations, reviewing our grants and papers, leaving student evaluations, on our hiring and tenure committees. Even if they’re not actively making passes, they’re not seeing our work with the same eyes they use for our male peers. Their thumbs are always on the scale.

What’s almost worse is that they affect how women define ourselves and each other. These men reduce the chances we’re willing to take. And they encourage us to give the kinds of bad advice you see over and over again: stay quiet; it’s not worth it; this is just how it is.

This conversation can’t and won’t end anytime soon. There’s too much to unravel and reknit. If you’d like to tell your story, please add your voice to Dr. Kelsky’s survey, or even post anonymously below. Otherwise, I invite you to read, and listen, and hear. Pull up a chair. We’ll be here awhile.

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