Sunday, February 19, 2017

Baselines and Basic Questions

"...some people will say, But he didn’t attack you. You weren’t raped, you weren’t assaulted, and this was not a professional setting. And you’re right; I was lucky that this man did not become aggressive in his pursuit, and other women in the field experience much worse." (Nicole Cabrera Salazar)

"For those in [astronomy] who have never experienced harassment: You are so lucky! Remember that you have that privilege, because many of us don't." (Christina Richey [video 406.1 at 04:16] Chair of the Committee for the Status of Women in Astronomy of the American Astronomical Society.)

Is luck really the deciding factor? In a study that I've written about before, Marina Rosenthal, Alec Smidt and Jennifer Freyd found that the sexual harassment of graduate students is rather mild. The mean score for faculty harassment of female students was 1.44 on a scale of 0 to 72. To put that in perspective, consider that if everyone had said they sometimes experienced being “repeatedly told sexual stories or jokes that [they found] offensive”, and no other negative behaviors were experienced, then the corresponding mean score would have been 2.

The study also allows us to compare the experience of graduate students today to that of military personnel in the 1990s. Here, the comparable scores were 10.45 for women and 2.39 for men. It may not be a perfect apples-to-apples comparison, but at first pass it would seem that women in academia today are less harassed than men in the military in the 1990s.

This raises an interesting and important question. The mean harassment score for male graduate students was 0.59. This suggests that a policy goal for harassment in academia can't hope for a zero value. To see this, consider the study's results on perceived safety. Female graduate students have a significantly lower perception of their own safety than their male counterparts: 3.36 vs. 4.32 on a scale of 0 to 5. Since we can't expect an environment to offer 100% of the people a complete sense of safety, the 4.32 result for males may well be an "acceptable" level. We probably have to decide on an acceptable but non-zero value on the harassment measure as well.

Now, it would be surprising if male harassment and male perceived safety are only exactly (or just barely) acceptable. Men are generally (and in this case I think quite rightly) seen as "privileged" with regard to how much sexual harassment they have to put up with. The mean score on perceived safety could fall a little from 4.32 and still be within acceptable limits; the mean harassment score could rise a little from .59 without causing alarm. The question is how much? That would give us a baseline against which to assess the 3.36 (for safety) and 1.44 (for harassment) results for women. It would also give us a policy objective.

With this in mind, I want throw out a series of questions that I don't think the sexual harassment alarmists give enough attention. They should have some answers to these questions. Their research should enable us to answer them.

How likely are female astronomers to experience harassment during their careers? [And how likely are male astronomers to experience it?]
At what stage of their careers are they most likely to experience it? (How likely at each stage?)
How serious is the harassment likely to be at each stage?
Do female astronomers experience more or less sexual harassment than female flight attendants and female bankers?
Do female scientists experience more or less sexual harassment than female politicians? (Related question: Do female lab assistants experience more or less sexual harassment than female interns in the political system?)
Do female scientists experience more or less sexual harassment than female science writers?
Do female science writers experience more or less sexual harassment than female political or financial journalists?
How much more or less?

In so far as we can measure these things, I suspect that female scientists live very sheltered lives. The reason they breathe a sigh of relief over not being raped after men hit on them at faculty parties is not that they are at a high risk of being raped. It's because they are conditioned by an ideology that tells them to consider themselves lucky and privileged. In a sense, they are. I just think they deserve to enjoy it more. And they deserve to enjoy the company of the men they work with much more than some of them appear to be able to because of the current obsession with harassment.

[Footnote deleted.]

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