Recently, the APA appointed a new ad hoc committee on sexual harassment in the discipline. I chatted with the inimitable Kate Norlock (Trent University), who is chairing the committee, about the committee itself and more generally about sexual harassment in academic philosophy. There is much more to be said than we could fit into one conversation, so I encourage discussion in the comments thread. (Although I will be using plenty of moderator's discretion on this one as needed!)
Rebecca: Why are we forming a sexual harassment committee now? Why are we just now facing the fact that the discipline has a real sexual harassment problem? How much of that has to do with the power of the Internet?
Kate: I recently looked back at the number of entries on the What is it Like to Be a Woman in Philosophy? blog labeled "sexual harassment." In the word-cloud label on that blog it's one of the biggest labels, and I count 71 entries so categorized. I remember when Jenny Saul started that blog, she asked what labels she should create for the different entries. I suggested that she wait and see what patterns emerged, and the labels would suggest themselves. I don't think either of us expected so many stories of harassment so early. I think the power of the Internet, and more importantly, the power of motivated and caring users, is that philosophers who have experienced or witnessed harassment are finally able to find each other on blogs like What It's Like. I'm dead grateful that women in the profession like Jenny Saul have gone out of their way to provide gathering places for collecting accounts of harassment.
Rebecca: In your view, why it important that we, as a discipline, address sexual harassment?
Kate: I think the effects of harassment piggyback on the effects of a lot of other marginalizations that are evident in philosophy. The experiences of minorities in a field that is predominantly white, predominantly male, and predominantly middle- and upper-class can be discouraging, and perpetuate imbalances in the demographics of our profession. I think harassment amplifies that discouragement.
Other fields make it clearer in policy and organizational statements that harassment of some sorts is a crime - that it's not just not-acceptable but illegal. We're a bit behind in that respect. Some of the APA's more recent documents discourage interviews in private hotel rooms and so forth, with the implication that past practices are regrettable. But this runs the risk of making it seem as though the culture of bad practices is a norm that we disparage, not an unacceptable arrangement.
Rebecca: I agree that we are behind! My sense is that philosophers are especially bad at acknowledging that we need institutional guidelines for both preventing and coping with harassment. Do you think that's partly because philosophers think of themselves as 'above' cut and dried institutional rules? It seems to me that so many philosophers think, hey, we are so cool and enlightened and informal in this field, we can manage to deal with these issues without all that petty bureaucracy.
Kate: I think we often try to reject the errors of the past by just not talking about them much at all. When I was a student we learned to ignore the sexist things that past great figures said because it was not relevant or didn't matter. By the same token, it's attractive to say we're past sexually harassing, so why do we need a statement of best practices? Let's just look away, look away! Unfortunately, that approach does not seem to help those who continue to encounter harassment in the profession.
Rebecca: Let’s talk about the committee itself. What exactly is its charge? What is it supposed to deliver in the end?
Kate: Good questions! Let me start by saying what we're not charged with doing: We are not asked to investigate particular allegations of sexual harassment, or resolve pending harassment cases in the profession, or expose scholars whispered to harass. Having said that, our duties DO include developing a protocol to gather anonymous information about sexual harassment in the profession. No one expects us to gather comprehensive data, because this isn't a committee assembled in order to be doing social science either. Instead, we aim to collect accounts of encounters with sexual harassment so that our recommendations are reflective of what actually occurs. It could otherwise be easy to make recommendations from our armchairs about what we imagine to be the case. We aim to avoid that.
The goal of the committee, ultimately, is to formulate a statement of best practices in the philosophy profession in higher education. I joke to people I know that the best practices could be summarized, "Don't do that." More seriously, though, we are also tasked with researching what other fields do to prevent it, to diminish its occurrence, and to make it clearer what options exist for those who experience harassment. Our official "deliverables" are as follows: "The Committee will produce a report recommending best practices regarding sexual harassment in the discipline be implemented by the APA, philosophy departments in which APA members are employed, and conferences and other professional events hosted by either."
Rebecca: The point about armchairs is really important, it seems to me, because sexual harassment is a deeply messy affair, and what might seem like really straightforward recommendations in the abstract may actually be unimplementable, uninterpretable, or useless in practice. I think that hearing from as many people as possible who have had to cope with harassment in their professional life – and not just from victims – would be fantastic.
Will you just be developing best practice recommendations designed to help prevent harassment, or also for those trying to figure out what to do when they have been harassed, or when a student or colleague or staff member reports harassment to them? Honestly, I think that we are in desperate need of practice recommendations for those who have been harassed and for those to whom harassment has been reported; we don't just need prevention guidelines. When harassment occurs - or seems like it might have occurred - in an academic setting, it’s not at all obvious how to cope with that appropriately. The dynamics of vulnerability, privacy, power, gender, age, collegiality, and so forth all come into play; philosophers need the epistemic humility to acknowledge that sorting all that out is hard and can’t just be puzzled out without guidance.
Kate: Our duty is phrased as one of collecting anonymous information, but it is not limited to getting that information from victims of harassment. Some departments and organizations already have better practices that we could all benefit from hearing.
Our focus is on prevention, but also one of our duties is the following: "The Committee should seek legal advice to ensure that any procedures or policies it recommends are legally sound. Departments are often unable or unwilling to seek out legal advice; gaining information about legal constraints and obligations and clarifying them in a report is a valuable service the APA can offer." So although we're not empowered to create policies on responding to harassment, we are in a good position to help departments modify their own responses.
Rebecca: Can you tell me why you agreed to chair this, given that we are all way too busy? Why did you personally feel that it was an important use of your time?
Kate: I agreed to chair this because I witnessed and helped with the creation of the What Is it Like blog, and what was said there was extremely consistent with previous experiences of my own. Harassment can be experienced as both isolating and isolated. If there's one thing philosophers can do to help each other, it is to call attention to a possibility that one is not alone, that one's own colleagues and organizations can establish cultures in which this is affirmed, and that there is even a possibility for a systemic response, at least a small one. Shortly before I was asked to chair this, I did a wee bit of work for the Canadian Philosophical Association Equity Committee. A CPA poll showed that philosophers in higher education didn't know where to look for policies and processes. Just making information available for those who need it can help.
Rebecca: What is the committee’s time line?
Kate: The work has already started, and different members of the committee have different experiences with collecting data, with consultation with legal sources, and with researching other organizations. We're only just beginning, and will of course need to do the bulk of our work in the summer. The deadline for our end-product is the November board meeting.
Rebecca: Thanks to you and the rest of the committee for taking on this difficult and important task! Good luck!