An online statement against sexual misconduct in academia, written and circulated by three human evolution experts at Arizona State University (ASU), Tempe, has garnered more than 600 signatures since it was launched on 9 February. The petition, inspired by recent cases of alleged sexual harassment in astronomy, biology, and anthropology, calls on those who sign it to make an “individual commitment” to “zero tolerance of sexual misconduct” and to publicly support “the victims who come forward to report” such incidences.
Paleoanthropologist William Kimbel, anthropologist Katie Hinde, and paleoecologist Kaye Reed, all at ASU, began preparing the statement weeks ago, after learning of an impending Science story on alleged sexual misconduct by Brian Richmond, a paleoanthropologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. The statement, which went online right after the Science story appeared, was initially aimed at bioanthropologists and bioarchaeologists. But as the number of signatories grew, it began to include a wider range of researchers including biologists, ecologists, geoscientists, and even a real estate broker. The list of supporters runs the gamut from senior faculty to undergraduate students.
Kimbel says that asking researchers to make an individual, public commitment to ending sexual misconduct will accelerate the cultural change in academia that many scientists believe is essential to enforcing zero tolerance policies. “It is an easy thing to sign the form, but the power of the collective commitment of hundreds of signers is undeniable,” he says.
Jill Pruetz, a biological anthropologist at Iowa State University in Ames who signed the statement, says she did so because she “find[s] it sickening and infuriating that young women are expected to put up with such harassment.” Pruetz endorses the idea, put forward in the Science story by physical anthropologist Rebecca Ackermann of the University of Cape Town in South Africa of creating a “network of mentors” to which younger researchers could turn if they experience harassment and need support.
“An air of mystery often surrounds issues pertaining to sexual harassment,” says petition signer Robin Bernstein, a biological anthropologist at the University of Colorado, Boulder. “People who have been affected often feel isolated and fear repercussions from speaking out.”
Kimbel says that he and the other organizers hope that the statement will reduce that sense of isolation. “Knowing that friendly support networks are in place can help give victims the power to raise their voices when confronted with harassment or abuse, whether at home or in the field,” he says.