Assessing and publicizing the extent of sexual harassment: erring on the side of caution?

Two related, long-standing issues that have come to the surface in the disputes over the Colorado report are how much sexual harassment is going on and how much it should be widely publicized. For instance, everyone seems to agree now that there were fifteen reported cases of harassment in Colorado, of which two were substantiated, and that lack of substantiation does not entail lack of truth. But there the agreement ends. At least a few people seem to feel that we should therefore assume that something like two cases took place, and many others appear to assume that all fifteen accusations, and more, were probably accurate.

Moreover, both sides of the issue seem to rely on different background assumptions in support of their views. Those who would err on the high side justify their claims by reference to the fact that ‘everyone knows’ that harassment levels in philosophy are generally very high, while those on the other side have a corresponding skepticism about this. And as far as I’ve seen, those who believe in high harassment numbers tend to be the keenest on promoting public and general discussion of the harassment problems.

This is an important issue because serious problems come with a significantly mistaken assessment, whether it’s too low or too high. Many problems that could stem from a significant underestimation are well-known:

  • the harassment problem may not seem as serious as it is, leading to systemic toleration;

  • large-scale collective action against harassment might not be motivated when needed;

  • some female philosophers, frustrated by inaction in the face of harassment, may choose to leave the discipline (which is bad in itself, but in turn worsens the discipline for everyone who remains behind); and

  • women might join the discipline or a particular department without being adequately warned about a real harassment threat, which neglects their safety.

However, all actual and potential philosophers, including and in some ways especially women, can also be harmed by a significantly excessive estimation of the problem:

  • women who have not faced any harassment but are given an significantly inflated sense of the extent of the problem might pre-emptively switch out of philosophy to avoid it;

  • women who have a greatly exaggerated sense of harassment (after reading the Slate and Gawker pieces, say) might reasonably choose not to take philosophy courses in the first place;

  • valuable time, energy and resources that could otherwise be devoted to the promotion of philosophy might be diverted to dealing with problems whose actual scale would demand a different sort of solution, and the proposed solutions may needlessly hamper the philosophical culture of a department;

  • female philosophers who erroneously see their environment as hostile will likely feel considerable stress as a result;

  • an excessive reinforcement of taboos against the sometimes nebulous actions that can constitute harassment can make social and professional interactions awkward and stressful for all parties;

  • an excessively high estimation of the extent of harassment might well lead to the accusation and censure of innocent parties; and

  • a general sense that reports of harassment levels are inflated can lead to a ‘crying wolf’ effect, against the interests of the subjects of harassment.

Since bad results follow from inaccurate judgments on both the high and the low side, there is no side of caution to err on. We need to aim for accuracy. But here the real problems begin.

If we accept only reports of harassment that have been substantiated, then we will miss all the cases that are not reported and the cases that did not come with adequate evidence. Since harassment (I presume) typically occurs in private, one would imagine that many genuine cases of harassment cannot be established on the available evidence. So we cannot rightly restrict our estimation to substantiated cases.

On the other hand, we surely cannot just assume that all or most accusations are correct.  Nor does it seem right, as I’ve often heard suggested, to base our assumptions on a reading of the ‘What It’s Like To Be A Woman In Philosophy’ blog. Whatever the merits of that blog in facilitating discussion of some of the worst cases of harassment — and I have no wish to dispute those merits — it would be ludicrous to treat its contents as an accurate survey of the extent of harassment in the field, nor does it seem intended to play that role.

In case the reasons for this are not obvious, please imagine a parallel case. I enjoy riding my bicycle to work and have never had any problems doing so. But someone recommends that, to be safe, I should look at the findings of a blog called ‘What It’s Like To Be A Cyclist’. Whatever its founders’ intentions, this blog serves mostly as a repository of terrible cycling stories. Tales abound of being cut off in traffic, skidding in puddles, having one’s bike stolen, and so on. A number of stories detail visits to the hospital after serious bike mishaps and even the death of fellow bicyclists in accidents. The blog makes no attempt at a comprehensive survey of cyclists, but just accepts whatever stories are submitted; and this of course greatly biases the results toward negative cycling experiences. Moreover, the reports are sent in anonymously and posted without verification or the ability for readers who might have witnessed some bike accidents to add skeptical details, so there is no safeguard against exaggeration or a single, possibly somewhat unhinged, commenter submitting hundreds of stories. As I say, a blog like this may have several legitimate purposes; but as a source of objective information about the advisability of my riding my bicycle to work, it is simply not the correct tool for the job. I might easily come away with the impression that all bicyclists run into serious problems sooner or later when in fact only 10% do and, in my city, only 2%.

Finally, splitting the difference between the highest and lowest estimates commits the fallacy of the mean and should be avoided for all the familiar reasons (a vast skewing of one side’s view of the data will also shift the mean-point significantly, and so on).

So what should we believe, and what should we do?

(I realize that this problem may already have been addressed by a survey that would pass basic social sciences protocols. I just haven’t seen it and I’m a little skeptical about its existence due to the widespread appeal to the ‘What It’s Like…’ blog. If you know about such a survey, please post the details for us.)

3 thoughts on “Assessing and publicizing the extent of sexual harassment: erring on the side of caution?

  1. Great post. The the negative consequences of excessively high estimation of the extent of harassment is a topic that needs acknowledged. The mere suggestion that reports of harassment are exaggerated is apt to offend some, but what is needed here is an assessment aiming at brutal accuracy, not at people-pleasing or appeasing.

    While many of the complaints on “What it’s Like to be a Woman in Philosophy” are no doubt legitimate and sad, I have long feared that the website as a whole creates a grossly lopsided picture of the profession, and may well foster a victim mentality among female philosophers that, ironically, only exacerbates the problems the site laments.

    • “While many of the complaints on “What it’s Like to be a Woman in Philosophy” are no doubt legitimate and sad, I have long feared that the website as a whole creates a grossly lopsided picture of the profession, and may well foster a victim mentality among female philosophers that, ironically, only exacerbates the problems the site laments.”

      I agree with you, Rick, but I’ll share my own (probably unusual) reaction to reading the “What it’s like…” blog since it was different.

      When I was about to begin grad school, I’d already heard about it from some of my female friends, who were quite concerned about going on in philosophy after reading it. My strategy until that summer was to try to ignore all thoughts about sexism and bias towards women, as I found that it distracted me and made it more difficult for me to speak up in classes and talks. I was also worried that thinking too much about these issues could make me interpret every little thing as resulting from the fact that I was a woman rather than as resulting from my philosophical, communicative, social, etc., skills (or lack thereof). I thought that interpreting things in this way would (i) produce false positives and (ii) interfere with my ability to improve these skills by responding normally to feedback.

      Anyway, I eventually thought that it would be a good idea to know the truth about ‘what it’s like to be a woman in philosophy’, and that ignoring this info before starting a grad program might not be so smart. So I decided to sit down and read every post and comment on the blog. (I thought it would be less painful this way, like ripping off a bandage in one go.) I was surprised when I read the blog, but not for the reason you’d expect. I’d thought there would be many worse stories than there were, since (i) posts were anonymous, (ii) one could describe an incident that one had only heard about, and (iii) most importantly, people could post stories about incidents that had occurred many years ago when the climate for women was by all accounts much worse. I also thought it wise to assume from the outset that a few of the stories would be embellished (unintentionally maybe), and that one or two might even be fiction.

      Here were some of the things that made me less worried about the climate for women:
      – There were only a handful of stories which, if true, described clearly awful things, many of which didn’t indicate whether or not they’d, say, happened in the 70’s
      – Many of the stories described things that the author thought were sexist or at least inappropriate but which I wasn’t sure actually were
      – All together, there weren’t as many bad stories as I’d expected (given the sort of blog it was)

      There was one kind of story, though, that made me seriously worried about missing out on opportunities because of my sex. It went like something like this: “I know male Profs who regularly help out and get to know their male grad students by meeting with them for coffee or dinner, or doing other things with them (e.g. sports). They don’t do any of these things with their female students for fear that this behavior will be seen as inappropriate.”

      So the one really disturbing kind of pervasive unfair treatment of women in philosophy that I heard about from the blog was the sort of thing that could be made worse by things like the blog itself!

      I should note that I haven’t kept up with ‘What it’s like…” for a while and I’m sure it has many more disturbing stories on it than last I looked. Also, now that I’m in grad school, I can say that female grad students where I am have many opportunities to discuss their work with male professors over meals, and (thank God!) no one finds it inappropriate.

  2. Thanks for sharing that, anon. I’m especially happy that you find your current program collegial and hospitable. I think your voice, and others like it, really needs to be heard amidst all the furor.

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