Monday, August 11, 2008

The Odds Are Good But...

I recently found myself in the unusual situation of talking to a bunch of women who were all in female-dominated fields. They were bemoaning their inability to meet men through work, while I was amused to note that it is men in Computer Science who have the equivalent problem. Women are instead the pursued, and the men seem to have the feeling that any woman who begins dating someone outside the department is engaging in an act of betrayal. But as I thought about the broader situation, it became less and less amusing.

There is a large problem with sexual harassment within computer science departments. It's not in-your-face, and it's easy not to see it if it doesn't happen to you. Since I've been spared that horror, I've managed to ignore its presence for most of this time. My only personal inkling that something might be not-quite-right was at the department sexual harassment workshop which I naively expected to actually discuss how to avoid being harassed and committing harassment and instead discussed how not to get caught. To be fair to the department, this was actually run by the university. But while I have not had to deal with this personally, it is becoming an acknowledged issue within this field (see the CRA note, which also includes discrimination), and about time.

It is ridiculous to me that this is still a problem. There is no excuse for female grad students being pursued by other graduate students and professors who cross all bounds of propriety and don't take no for an answer. As a woman among men there are already far too many situations where I am the "other," I do not appreciate the feeling that I also have a flashing sign over my head saying "pursue me however you see fit." I believe that it is the responsibility of departments to ensure that this does not happen, that they must take an active role in prevention and protection of the women in their department. And conversely I believe that any women in unsupportive departments should feel politically protected to speak out about their department's apathy over this issue, so that future female students will avoid the department and the department will be forced to take action. Sadly the political situation protects the perpetrators and silences the victims who, as grad students in need of funding and soon to be looking for jobs, can not afford to be seen as controversial or "hysterical." It is left to the rest of us to speak.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Honestly, as a female graduate of a top-tier CS PhD program, I've also seen much of the other direction: a woman who thinks she is so hot and basks in the idea that everyone may be after her. In fact, there was a woman in the department whose boyfriend (also in the department) dumped her, and she proceeded to flirt with everyone in an attempt to make him jealous. But then she was always calling attention to herself and complaining because too many people were "after her".

From experience, if a woman is firm and clear about her feelings when confronted, the guy will usually leave her alone. It is those who have some ulterior motive that they want people to go after them who often end up with a stalker. Of course, there are exceptions, but in my experience this was always the rule.

anti-harassment male said...

"It is ridiculous to me that this is still a problem. There is no excuse for female grad students being pursued by other graduate students and professors who cross all bounds of propriety and don't take no for an answer"

Professors should not pursue grad students. That is illegal and unethical. At most, they can carefully hint of their interest -- once -- and back off forever if no interest is shows.

The situation of grad students, though, is much more complicated. I think you are taking things to an extreme. Are grad students in your department more persistent than anywhere else in society? As far as I know, it is still not illegal or immoral for a grad student to pursue another. (It depends though on what you mean by "who cross all bounds of propriety and don't take no for an answer").

I have not known computer scientists to be a particularly macho or violent crowd. With all due respect, it is not the university's job to get involved in issues of Ph.D. students romantically pursuing each other, even persistently, as long as it does not cause significant harm to the work environment. Not everything has to be regulated. I do not know of any law that says that this is illegal.

And, I hate to break it, but there's a lot of truth in the claim that one "no" will not always be followed by another "no". The difference between a reasonable human being and a loser is in recognizing the differnce between the two cases, in not harming anyone and in not hurting any feelings. It would be regrettable to legislate romantic pursuit in cases where no rank or authority can be pulled. If someone is being an asshole, there are many ways to deal with that.

The above, of course, pertains only to mild cases which are in the normative scale of "persistent asshole". If someone is violent or harassive, he is already doing something illegal, and the university or police should get involved. But, being a persistent asshole should not be illegal. If you outlaw persistent assholes, you might as well outlaw freedom of speech altogether. (For example, you remember the persistent asshole that got Tasered in a John Edwards rally? That shouldn't have happened).

sorelle said...

Ah legality. I'm not actually speaking of legality here (though I do agree that sexual harassment should be illegal). I'm more speaking of the atmosphere of a department (are men given the benefit of the doubt in these situations? does the department openly discuss the issue in a productive manner?).

Anti-harassment, you say "The difference between a reasonable human being and a loser is in recognizing the differnce between the two cases, in not harming anyone and in not hurting any feelings." First, losers can definitely qualify as harassers, let's not ignore them. Second, this is true only when the cultural norms are the same... but about 50% (I'm guessing here) of the computer science students in most US graduate programs are international. A US brush-off could be read by an international student to mean something totally different, and visa versa. I'm not talking about rape or other violence, I'm talking about persistent emails, hallway comments, etc. The kind of constant unsolicited contact that makes women avoid certain hallways, classes, etc. It's also the kind of harassment which could be easily avoided by a department by holding a yearly anti-harassment workshop which discusses cultural norms, avenues of recourse, etc.

Anonymous said...

Professors should not pursue grad students. That is illegal and unethical.

I think that is taking things too far. I know of a young professor who married a grad student (which actually was a few years his senior). They were working in totally different subfields of CS and as such the prof had no power or influence over her. Why is this illegal and unethical?

Anonymous said...

They were working in totally different subfields of CS and as such the prof had no power or influence over her. Why is this illegal and unethical?

It's certainly not illegal in any literal sense. It's debatable how unethical it is. Instead of "no power or influence" above, I would say "less power or influence", and the ethics question would come down to how much less.

My feeling is that universities should have relative clear rules that err on the side of caution. For example, that professors can only date graduate students who are in other departments.

From experience, if a woman is firm and clear about her feelings when confronted, the guy will usually leave her alone.


Yes, this is true 90% of the time, maybe even 95% of the time, but it's the remaining cases that are problematic. CS departments have enough social misfits to cause problems, even if they are just a small minority within the department. (Keep in mind also that one crazy guy can harass numerous women in the course of four years of graduate school.)


It is those who have some ulterior motive that they want people to go after them who often end up with a stalker.


You're not 100% imagining this: I've also seen a few women in CS who have a love/hate relationship with male attention, where they complain bitterly about it while seemingly going out of their way to encourage it (perhaps because it validates how attractive they are). However, I'm convinced that these cases represent only a tiny fraction of the women who complain about harassment. For every one I've seen, I've known a number of women who tried hard to avoid unwanted male attention yet were harrassed anyway. (And I'm not talking about asking someone out on a date twice. I'm talking about asking someone out twenty times after having been told clearly to stop, or following her to a cafe and sitting there staring at her.)

Anonymous said...

"I'm more speaking of the atmosphere of a department (are men given the benefit of the doubt in these situations? does the department openly discuss the issue in a productive manner?). ... It's also the kind of harassment which could be easily avoided by a department by holding a yearly anti-harassment workshop which discusses cultural norms, avenues of recourse, etc."

I don't think it is the department's business. I certainly don't think a departmental dating workshop would do any good. Who would go to such a workshop? Do we need a workshop for every way of not being a jerk? Normal people, even computer scientists, figure it out for themselves. Problems like this should first be dealt with personally, then with one's peers, then if necessary with the advisors or the department. But I don't agree with your specific suggestion of a workshop, nor with your vague suggestions of open and productive (?) discussion.

I could be misunderstanding you. I think there is a huge difference between being pursued by a grad student and being pursued by a professor, but you group them together as if they were the same.