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Attendees at the 2016 American Political Science Association annual meeting in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

American Political Science Association

Study thyself: Political scientists assess extent of sexual harassment at their annual meeting

The letter was blunt: The annual meeting of the American Political Science Association (APSA) should be an opportunity to communicate with colleagues, not a chance to proposition them. Weary of counseling a steady stream of individuals who have been sexually harassed during the premier gathering of the nation’s political scientists, 11 senior female academics pleaded with APSA in September 2015 to be more aggressive in addressing the problem.

In response, the association last fall updated its antiharassment policy, listing nine forms of “unacceptable” behavior and reminding its 13,000 members that sexual harassment is “a serious form of professional misconduct.” This month it went further, asking members to describe instances of harassment at APSA’s annual meeting. The survey is believed to be the first attempt by an association to quantify the prevalence of sexual harassment at a scientific gathering.

“The annual meeting is about professional advancement. You shouldn’t have to worry about people hitting on you at the bar,” says Julie Novkov, a professor at the State University of New York in Albany and one of the authors of the 2015 letter. “But there’s a captive audience. And some people try to take advantage of that situation.”

The survey, emailed to every APSA member, asks how often eight specific types of behavior might have occurred at annual meetings dating from 2013. The list ranges from being “stared, leered, or ogled” at to “being bribed with some sort of reward or special treatment to engage in sexual behavior.” It acknowledges that the topic “may be upsetting” to some but explains that the data are needed “to address the issue of sexual harassment and unwanted sexual advances at our annual meetings.”

The survey was drawn from a questionnaire developed by psychologists for the U.S. Department of Defense in the wake of the 1991 Tailhook scandal involving the behavior of military officers during a symposium in Las Vegas, Nevada. Quantifying the problem will also give APSA a baseline it can use to measure the impact of any additional steps it may take, says David Campbell, who helped design the survey as a member of the association’s Committee on Professional Ethics, Rights, and Freedoms.

“We have no idea what we will find out,” says Campbell, a professor at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. “We don’t know whether the prevalence is 4% or 40%.” And prevalence is not the only variable, says Virginia Sapiro, a professor at Boston University and chair of the ethics committee.

“There is reason to believe that one’s experience depends on one’s age, the subfield, and perhaps the baseline cultures of those subfields,” she says. “We really have no way of knowing anything systematic without this study.”

The survey was modified to apply specifically to instances at the annual meeting, Campbell says. “Any harassment on campus would be covered by Title IX,” he says, referring to the 1972 federal law against gender discrimination in education. “But if something happens at the meeting, and the two parties involved are from different institutions, the jurisdiction is not clear. So we decided to focus on the meeting, since that is entirely within the purview of the association.”

The survey is only one small step in ending sexual harassment at the annual meeting, Novkov says. “Junior scholars or graduate students … reach out to us for advice or just to vent about episodes they have experienced,” the letter explains. Although that interaction may help individuals, Novkov says, “an interventionist culture” that stops such behavior in its tracks would be even more effective.

“It would be nice,” says Novkov, “if more people, when they see this happening, would come forward and say, ‘This is not acceptable.’ It’s always uncomfortable to tell someone that he or she is behaving like an ass. But they need to be told.”

The survey closes on 14 March, and Campbell says he expects to have the responses analyzed in time for possible action at the 2017 annual meeting in San Francisco, California, which begins on 31 August. APSA is weighing hiring an ombudsperson for the meeting to counsel victims of any instances of sexual harassment that may occur.