Thursday, February 4, 2016

You are worthy.

Dear Students,

People do bad things to other people. Sometimes this happens in academia. Sometimes this happens in our field.

If you, or a friend, has been harassed (sexually or otherwise), you are not without options. Sometimes none of those options are easy. A more important point is that you are not alone. 

I am not a chair, or a dean, or a president. I am a professor. I am your professor. I am here to do whatever is in my power to support you.

I will not tolerate your harassment. I will advocate on your behalf. In my position at the University, I am a mandatory reporter. In my position as your advisor, mentor, instructor, or collaborator, I owe you a personal responsibility to do what I can to create a safe environment for you to science in.

The thing is, science isn't a safe space. Science isn't a place where you can trust every person you meet. People will make racist and prejudiced comments to you. They will make sexist comments to you. They will treat you as inferior because of your ethnicity, gender, race, accent, age, disability, and sexual orientation. People will touch you in ways they shouldn't. They will take advantage of you. People will back you into a corner where you think there is nothing you can do, and no one you can turn to if you want to keep doing your job.

They will steal the joy you take in doing the thing you love. 

The power dynamics inherent in academia allow behavior like this to persist. The hierarchy within and across institutions, the hierarchy within departments and training programs, the hierarchy of funding agencies, they all lead to power imbalances that allow those at the top to act with impunity. Money and power affect decisions at all levels. Money and power (often? sometimes? routinely?) win out over concern for people, especially people at the bottom of the hierarchy.

I cannot change the system we live in. That will take time and many people working together. Hiring committees, department chairs, society governing bodies, grant reviewers, program officers, journal editors, peer reviewers, all have a hand to play in this.

But I am not powerless. Nor can I say that I have no influence. My influence may be small, but I will do what I can.

I will listen to you.
I will believe you.
I will report.
I will insist that harassment is not okay.

I wish that I could come in and just science. I wish we all could. But being able to just science is a rare privilege. Until we can all just science, I will be vocal about my support for you.

Thank you for your optimism. Thank you for your enthusiasm. Thank you for being willing to take a chance on this science thing, despite the hurdles you've faced, and the challenges to come.

You are important. Most of all, you are worthy.

It is my privilege to support you.

Sincerely,
Dr. Melissa Wilson Sayres

_________________________________

Updated Feb 5, 2016 to add, "age" and "disability" to the list of ways you may be treated as inferior. There are many more things. We are treated as inferior for a variety of reasons. While the list cannot be exhaustive, these two I felt should be included.

20 comments:

Anonymous said...

That is admirable, and I know you will have no shortage of opportunities to prove you mean it.

I was (non-sexually) harassed at my university (This is me: http://academia.stackexchange.com/questions/46555/should-i-try-to-warn-administration-about-truly-unacceptable-professor-behavior/46603#46603). I think a sexual harassment case would have been taken seriously by the school, but apparently anything else is considered to be at the discretion of the PI.

It's no surprise that this unbridled power makes them think sexual misconduct will go unpunished.

Lila said...

Science and the world at large need more people like you. Thank you.

mathbionerd said...

Oh, Anonymous, I'm sorry. I also wish you were wrong (about having no shortage of opportunities), but I know you're right, which is why I had to post this.

mathbionerd said...

Thank you, Lila. :)

Tony Verow, MD said...

Great post Dr. Sayres. Some very good insights here. Thx.

Tony Verow MD

mathbionerd said...

Thank you, Tony.

John Cohen said...

According to the Ortega Hypothesis (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ortega_hypothesis), most of us will not end up contributing that much to science. That being said, we are a pretty select group of people in regards to intelligence and curiosity, a very small fraction of the overall population. Given personality traits and intelligence are very heritable, shouldn't we be encouraging men and women in science to be flirting, marrying and having children? Looking at my coworkers, most have no children, and the ones that do have only one or two. In the long run, is this sustainable? Rather than going on a witch-hunt for men with healthy sexual appetites, perhaps we should be encouraging men and women in science to marry each other, like Pierre and Marie Curie (whose daughter also won the Nobel Prize).

mathbionerd said...

John,

* This statement is no witch hunt.
* I was careful not to specify men because can be a harasser.
* Having a relationship in academia is no problem. People who abuse and harass their students and trainees are not developing relationships.
* Harassment is not flirting.
* Healthy sexual appetites are fine among all people. Again, this doesn't include harassing subordinates.


Anonymous said...

"Given personality traits and intelligence are very heritable"

=> Did a scientist write this ? lol

Anonymous said...

Good on you Mathbionerd.

I'm a Dutch guy so excuse my English. it is not my native language.
To those people who are harassed in any way i would like to say this,

With power comes responsibility but unfortunately not everyone acts like it.
This may be a terrible thing and unfortunately it is not just at universities but you can see it everywhere in live. Therefore there is a lesson to be learned here.
It takes courage to stand up and fight for youself and others. Don't be to afraid for possible consequences, fear can paralyze you and you will not accomplish what you would like to accomplish.
So be hero's! For yourself and possibly for others if you can. It will benefit you in the future as well.
If you don't think you have the courage ask for help. Don't let anyone get you down and keep you from your goals in live!!

And last but not least, You may be in their position one day (a position of power).
Do not continue their behavior!! I don't have to tell you wy.

Good luck and be brave!

Anonymous said...

:_(
thanks for this
wish this would have been said to me irl when needed it.

Peter Apps said...

"science" is not a verb.

justbe said...


Thank you for writing this. It may look like a little thing but more of these little things will provide the necessary momentum for the change to happen.
Thank you for owning your position, your status and coming forward to do the change you can.
We all can do a little but since it is ours no one can do it for us.
Thank you again for writing this, I hope it will reach the persons that need it the most

mathbionerd said...

Thank you.

Gerald Nsugbe said...

Pertaining to this blog, whatever racially motivated harassment I may have been subject to on various social media in which I have participated seems to be largely hidden. When it does arise in terms of underestimating my abilities, it sometimes works to my advantage because it allows me occasionally to pull the rug from under the feet of racially motivated participants.

Ashley Steel said...

Science is definitely a verb! Someday the rules of grammar will catch up with reality.

mathbionerd said...

Ashely, one of my Spanish professors said his favorite part of the English language was how readily we turn anything into a verb. :)

mathbionerd said...

Gerald, I'm sorry for what you have experienced, and hope you know that you do have supporters who are motivated to help.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your words. I wish you were my advisor.

mathbionerd said...

Thank you. I hope things are okay for you.