As they gathered at their annual  meeting, many physical anthropologists wore ribbons like this one to show support for encouraging diversity in their discipline.

As they gathered at their annual meeting, many physical anthropologists wore ribbons like this one to show support for encouraging diversity in their discipline.

American Association of Physical Anthropologists

Anthropologists say no to sexual harassment

An emotionally charged session on sexual harassment in anthropology began with audible gasps last week when a young, untenured professor* described to a standing room–only crowd how she had been humiliated recently when she participated in an otherwise all-male scientific workshop. “I am an expert on this [research] topic,” she explained. After she was invited, the organizer told her that there “might” be room for her because another important researcher couldn’t come. The organizer instructed her not to talk—just to listen—because ordinarily, “there wouldn’t be room for someone like you.”

“What should I do?” the professor asked at a Presidential Panel of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (AAPA) here in Atlanta. Complaining publicly, she said, “might kill my career.”

When it comes to harassment, 'stop doing it, and we’ll stop complaining about it.' 

Susan Sheridan, University of Notre Dame

The intense session was one of a half-dozen events at the meeting—mentoring lunches, happy hours, and workshops—on combating discrimination and sexual harassment. “Biological anthropology has a problem,” said panelist Robin Nelson of Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York. “But we’re not alone.”

Yet few fields are confronting the problems as vigorously, perhaps because in this discipline women have reached critical mass. Eight of AAPA’s 10 board members are women, as are 56% of AAPA members and the majority of students in most anthropology departments. “Anthropology is ‘woke,’” said biological anthropologist Nelson, choosing an expression often used to describe waking up to discrimination. “We’re not asleep anymore.”

The field has been convulsed by several cases, including that of paleoanthropologist Brian Richmond of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, who allegedly sexually assaulted a research assistant who worked for him and harassed trainees at a field school (Science, 12 February, p. 652). Richmond is working offsite while the museum investigates his actions. His case came to light not long after an influential survey called the SAFE study revealed that sexual harassment is common during fieldwork (Science, 19 April 2013, p. 265). The study made it clear that trainees urgently need protection, especially in the field, where people live and work in close quarters. It is time to abandon the old adage that “what happens in the field stays in the field,” said biological anthropologist Michelle Bezanson of Santa Clara University in California.

Trainees of both sexes also benefit when senior researchers do not tolerate discrimination. “A lot of behavior is learned; we’re making sure we are training the kind of professional that we want to be working with down the line,” says AAPA President Susan Antón of New York University in New York City, who convened the presidential panel.

Meeting organizers offered a menu of actions to battle harassment, from symbolic to concrete. Meeting registrants were required to agree to AAPA’s code of ethics, which forbids sexual harassment and discrimination, and many attendees sported ribbons with antidiscrimination slogans. At the Presidential Panel, the young professor told to be silent at a workshop was bombarded with advice. “Who funded the workshop?” asked paleoanthropologist Leslie Aiello, president of the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, Inc. in New York City. She suggested that the young professor tell funders the tale. Another panelist added that the professor could contact Title IX coordinators, because this federal law prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex.

Many speakers and attendees said that culture change required action by men as well as women, and noted that male allies can play a crucial role. Those all-male panels, or “manels?” Men should insist on more diversity or spurn the event, said biological anthropologist Susan Sheridan of the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. “If you see a manel, say no,” she said.

Biological anthropologist Rebecca Ackermann of the University of Cape Town in South Africa took that one step further. At the end of an invited scientific symposium that she organized (at which seven men and seven women spoke), she urged that all scientific gatherings be representative of the gender and racial diversity in the field. “This is good for science,” she said. “Diversity of perspectives leads to better science.”

As more women enter the field, blatant discrimination is less common, and harassment often takes the form of “microaggressions,” says biological anthropologist Kathryn Clancy of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, lead author of the SAFE study. For example, one young faculty member* who is gay stood up at a women’s mentoring lunch and described how another professor had inquired about her personal life in an offensive and intrusive way. What should she do?

“You need to point out to them that this is inappropriate,” said Fred Smith, a paleoanthropologist at Illinois State University in Normal. But not everyone is quick enough on their feet or feels secure enough to speak up, Ackermann retorted. “It never comes up in a context where you have a prepared answer,” she says. “I don’t think we should be asking students and junior faculty to do that. We need to be training [senior] people like me to [intervene].”

Students and faculty alike should familiarize themselves with the chain of command at their universities so they know whom to contact if problems arise, Aiello says. Another tactic is to actively build a network of allies, both female and male, to talk to. “Active engagement is the only way to change culture,” says anthropologist Katie Hinde of Arizona State University, Tempe, a co-author of the SAFE study with Clancy and Nelson.

But confidential discussion of harassment isn’t always easy—or even legal. At a panel on Title IX, a lawyer warned about “the confidentiality trap.” Under Title IX, universities must designate “responsible employees” who are required by law to report any incident of harassment or discrimination to university officials—even if victims ask that it be kept confidential. For those employees, “even if you have a close, strong, personal relationship [with a student], you don’t have confidentiality,” said speaker Kristopher Stevens, associate director of the Equal Opportunity Office at the University of Georgia, Athens. If most faculty are designated “responsible,” it “could have a chilling effect” on students’ willingness to share their stories, said biological anthropologist Catherine Willermet of Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant.

Clancy and Ackermann, among others, spoke forcefully for a form of social control. They argued that researchers should stop all collaboration, including joint publication, with colleagues who are under investigation for sexual harassment or discrimination. Others ​​worried that such a policy ​could harm trainees who need to publish. “We need to make sure we don’t take actions that negatively affect junior people,” says paleoanthropologist David Strait of Washington University in St. Louis in Missouri, who has published with Richmond. ​“No one wants to damage trainees,” countered Hinde, arguing that collaboration by senior scholars sends a terrible signal. “But the role of tenured co-authors is different.”

The field is by no means unanimous about what change is needed. “A diminishing number of our colleagues have been less receptive to changing the culture,” Hinde says, noting that the SAFE study authors had been disparaged by a few researchers “in conversation, print, and grant review.” But she predicted that “those remnants engaged in problematic biases and bad behavior will find themselves increasingly out of step with our community.” For any who might complain about “harassment fatigue,” panelist Sheridan had an answer: “Stop doing it,” she said, “and we’ll stop complaining about it.”

*Participants spoke at sessions under the condition that their names not be used.