A new study by the American Political Science Association found that a “sizable” minority of women have experienced harassment or other inappropriate behavior at the annual meeting of the APSA.
While 63 percent of APSA’s members who responded to the survey reported not experiencing harassment or negative forms of behavior at the last four APSA Annual Meetings (2013-2016), the numbers diverged for women and men who reported 51 percent and 74 percent of no harassment, respectively.
Moreover, APSA’s youngest colleagues, women and “those who attend meetings more regularly are more likely to have these experiences” of harassment, said Drs. Virginia Sapiro of Boston University and David Campbell of the University of Notre Dame, who authored the report.
The APSA Professional Ethics, Rights and Freedoms committee fashioned the report after surveying the entire APSA membership between February and March 2017. Out of 13,367 total members contacted, the association analyzed 2,424 completed surveys, yielding a response rate of 18.1 percent.
The survey examined and detailed responses in three distinct categories of negative behavior:
Forty-two percent of women and 22 percent of men responded that they experienced “feeling put down” or “experienced condescension” at the annual meeting. This statistic was nearly one-third of respondents and the statistic is equally divided between those who reported that it happened to them once (15.1 percent) and those who reported that it has happened more than once (16.6 percent).
Thirty percent of women and 10 percent of men responded that they experienced “inappropriate language or looks, such as experiencing offensive sexist remarks; getting stared at, leered or ogled in a way that made them uncomfortable; or being exposed to sexist or suggestive materials which they found offensive.”
Eleven percent of women and 3 percent of men responded that they experienced “inappropriate sexual advances or touching, such as unwanted attempts to establish a sexual relationship despite efforts to discourage it, being touched by someone in a way that was uncomfortable, or experiencing bribes or threats associated with sexual advances.”
“Even in those cases where the percentage of members experiencing such incidents may be low, the number is nonetheless disconcerting,” wrote Sapiro and Campbell. “That 29 of our members felt they had experienced threats of professional retaliation for not being sexually cooperative, and 44 felt they were being bribed with special professional rewards, is, respectively, 29 and 44 people too many.”
The authors’ report found no differences across race or ethnicity for reports of harassment or negative behavior. Still, the report revealed that colleagues from “newer professional cohorts” were more likely to experience negative behavior than their senior colleagues. Similarly, untenured faculty faced more harassment and negative behaviors than tenured faculty members, graduate students or postdocs.
Additional open-ended responses from the survey supported the reports’ quantitative analysis and provided “rich detail” and insight regarding certain members’ experiences of harassment at annual meetings. Many women recalled experiences of disrespect, sexism, or “persistent inappropriate romantic or sexual overtures.”
For example, a woman wrote in her response, “A senior scholar made physical sexual advances after walking me back to my hotel after a group dinner. I declined. It was not made explicit that I would face professional penalization for declining, but our working relationship has not been the same since.”
Another said that on multiple occasions, she had experienced her male colleagues treat the annual meeting and other political science conferences as their “personal playground,” and the women who attend them as their “weekend dating pool.” The woman added, “A prominent scholar in the discipline, for example, texted a grad student in the department where he was on faculty and told her to bring her ‘hot friends’ to the bar he was at.”
Another woman recalled “just a feeling in the room…like when a man repeats exactly what I just said as if it were his own idea.”
One male respondent wrote, “I have not seen much touching, but I have witnessed leering, sexist jokes made in the presence of women, inappropriate and gross comments about a woman’s appearance (in at least two cases this comment was made directly to or in front of the woman in question.)”
And when it comes to networking, the report indicated a perceived double-standard. One woman shared the sentiment that “I very frequently get the signal at APSA that men can easily initiate networking with men and with women, but that when women try to network with men, it gets misinterpreted.”
She added: “On more than one occasion, I have sought to engage a man in professional conversation, only to have him assume that I was trying to hit on him. Weird, right? Would a man assume that another man at the conference was trying to hit on him?” The woman told a story of having what she thought was a professional conversation with a man while waiting in a long line for coffee, only to receive numerous phone messages in her hotel room from the man later that night inviting her for a drink.
Sapiro and Campbell also found instances where APSA colleagues dealt with harassment on the basis of other categories such as race, sexuality or prestige. One respondent wrote, “I have been in a number of situations where colleagues made misogynistic and homophobic comments. The latter stand out in particular, since those colleagues assumed I was heterosexual.”
Some respondents called attention to the “nametag effect,” where a person’s institution or personal prestige affects how someone is treated. Other responses highlighted feelings of dismissal and lack of respect for colleagues who study gender or sexuality in politics.
While some members wrote that the survey was a “positive step” for addressing sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior at annual meetings and within the association altogether, some critics believed that it would, according to response summaries compiled by the authors, “make a big deal about what isn’t a systemic problem.”
The release of the report comes amid widespread allegations of sexual harassment in the media, government and entertainment.
One colleague commended the intentions of the survey but wrote that the survey, “by its very nature, blurs the line between relatively innocent flirtation … and illegal harassment and assault, in ways that are more likely than not to generate misleading (and potentially alarmist) data.”
Another more blunt critic of the survey alleged that the survey would show that APSA conferences are “seething with sexual assault and harassment…and all of this will be false, totally false, akin to our current sham campus rape crisis. And those who see this as such will ignore it and increasingly APSA itself.”
Concerns about the issue of sexual harassment at APSA annual meetings began in 2015 after senior professors of political science at major institutions drafted a letter to APSA’s Ethics, Rights and Freedoms Committee (the “Committee”) noting concerns by junior scholars and graduate students asking how to deal with negative behaviors at the meetings.
Association officials said that a “major roadblock” to dealing with earlier concerns was that, because the annual meeting was not a place of employment, laws addressing sexual harassment did not apply unless the harassment occurred between individuals employed by the same institution.
Consequently, in 2016, APSA decided to designate Ombudspersons at subsequent annual meetings to assist individuals who “encounter harassment or other such problems,” and to bring “systemic concerns” to the attention of the organization for resolution. Additionally, the Committee proposed to the APSA Council a widely incorporated new code of conduct with the intention to deter harassment at annual meetings.
The APSA Committee’s survey serves as the last of three association agenda action items, with the purpose of determining the extent of “perceived harassment experience” at annual meetings and gaining an understanding of who is likely to experience harassment.
Sapiro and Campbell add that because of the gender imbalance of the political science profession, men can play a role as allies against demeaning behavior towards women and younger colleagues, especially.
“There is no acceptable amount of sexual harassment other than none…we must give careful thought both about how to reduce and eliminate that number [of reported harassment] and also how to support those colleagues who have had these experiences,” the authors concluded in their report. “No women should learn the lesson that not attending the Annual Meeting is an effective means of avoiding harassment.”
Tiffany Pennamon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow her on Twitter @tiffanypennamon.