Monday, 28 November 2011

Worst Case Scenario

In my November contribution to the "Catalyst" section of The Chronicle of Higher Education, I wrote about how I typically deal with some rather minor instances of being insulted -- specifically as a woman -- in a professional context. I have written about this topic here in the blog as well, so I was not surprised by the various responses.

In the essay, I did not discuss major harassment or discrimination -- just the routine type of gender-specific insults. Even so, there was the usual comment saying that readers should not assume that it is common for women to experience this type of thing. For example, Woman X is Y years old with Z years of experience and has never ever been insulted or experienced any type of disparagement related to gender etc. etc. and therefore wants younger women to know that my experiences are unusual.

OK, that's great that some women never experience anything even remotely resembling sexism or obnoxious behavior related to gender, and it is worth noting this. Even so, all of us (me included) need to be careful about not extrapolating from our own experiences to the rest of the universe.

I am sometimes reminded of this -- in the opposite direction on the harassment spectrum -- by some of the e-mail that readers send to me, relating horrific tales of long-term, systemic discrimination, harassment, and abuse that is ignored and even encouraged at an institutional level. This is occurring today, in the US and elsewhere.

The problems described by these women are far beyond my experience, and they are far beyond any simple fix. They are at the level of class action suits or other courses of legal action; they are at the level of alerting the media and trying to get someone to expose the abuse.

The data are there -- there are documents detailing the abuse, there are numbers showing the career trajectories of women at these places, there are records showing the non-response or ineffectual response of upper administration to repeated examples of severe problems.

This is not the experience of all of us, but it should not be the experience of any of us.

As the recent example of Penn State has shown us, even crimes against children may not move the upper administration of some institutions to take action if apparently sacrosanct segments of an institution are involved. So what then can be done about situations that are not as shocking but that nevertheless should not be allowed, such as a pervasive culture of mistreatment and harassment of women and the perpetuation of a hostile work environment?

A question I have asked before but need to ask again:
  • What can a woman, or group of women, do in these extreme situations, other than quit/leave? 
What if you don't have the energy, resources, or time for a lawsuit, but nothing else has worked? -- that is, when no amount of presentation to upper administration of documented evidence has brought anything resembling a constructive response.
These incidents are not confined to any particular kind of institution (public/private, large/small), but it does seem that women at certain types of private institutions have fewer options for pursuing their complaints. (Discuss..)

There should be a mechanism for investigating these situations and finding a reasonable remedy, and if there is no institutional will to do so, there should be outside pressure, from the legal system, the media, donors, and/or the public. And in an ideal world, those who bring such suits or actions would not have their careers destroyed in the process.

Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be a way to do this without causing harm to the people -- in this case, a group of women -- who are already being harmed.

What to do?

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