Complicit Bias: Sexual Harassment and Communities That Sustain It

Complicit Bias: Sexual Harassment and Communities That Sustain It
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For decades, the euphemistic “director’s couch” described the extra audition female actors were expected to master before a part in a movie might be offered. More than just couches, but swimming pools, hot tubs, beds, kitchens, and more served as props whereby women were grabbed, poked, fondled, squeezed, masturbated upon (or coerced to watch) and even raped. Is Harvey Weinstein alone? Surely not; Hollywood is undergoing a soft purge right now. However, these conditions define a problem far deeper and wider in our society than the debased behavior of Mr. Weinstein. News about Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K., and others: Charley Rose and Matt Lauer indicate a more profound problem behind the camera.

Yet, we would be blind to misread sexual harassment and assault in the workplace as a lone Hollywood phenomenon. These recent reports may be surprising by their utter gravity, but they are not limited to the world of actors and actresses. Sexual harassment, including quid pro quos for promotion and advancement, persists in other work environments: government, academia, law firms, the corporate sphere and elsewhere. Hollywood scratches the surface, but it alone does not define the problem.

For all of the coverage about sexual harassment in recent weeks, reports lack an accounting for complicity and workplace cultural norms. They fail to probe why certain environments foster harassment while others do not. Sometimes news reports address why women do not come forward. Rarely do reports concentrate on why witnesses and co-workers do not come forward to shut down apparent and known harassment. I’m not talking about hypothetical situations. Rather, known instances of sexually inappropriate conduct goes unchecked by friends, co-workers, and bosses.

Unexamined are the challenging issues related to why other women (and men) who witness abuse do not speak up, even when they have the power to do so—such as seniority over their offending colleagues. For that matter, why do senior administrators and executives ignore reported instances of sexual harassment?

Many years ago, as a new law professor at a former institution, barely three months into my new tenure-track position, I observed a male colleague forcefully grab a female student’s arm and lick her at a law school fundraiser. The center stage of this was a pie-throwing contest. My colleague invited himself to lick the residue of cream clinging to the student’s arm by twisting it behind her back, and placing his mouth on her as she walked by.

I was mortified and by the expression on the student’s face—she was too. She looked outraged at first, and after realizing it was a professor, helplessness stretched across her face. My former colleague’s behavior was inappropriate and repulsive, stunning for its brazenness and lack of professionalism.

By Monday morning, I reported the licking incident to my dean—who happened to be a woman. I expected that the dean would make an inquiry and investigate. I came forward not just for the one student, but also because I cared about institutional culture, including my law school and its environment. The bottom line, students deserve to participate in the life of the school without the threat of being groped by their professors. I too wanted to work in a healthy environment where students were safe from drunken advances of their professors.

By coming forward, I had not anticipated the enormous public backlash, the ultimate firing of the dean, the harassment that I would encounter, and the institution’s paralysis. Then again, I also did not anticipate that by standing up, new leadership would eventually come to the law school, the harassing colleague would ultimately isolate himself, and the law school would be compelled to examine its culture.

Sadly, the dean did not confront my colleague; she shifted the burden to her associate dean. I will never know why she decided to delegate that responsibility to her male subordinate. In the end, the associate dean felt conflicted about confronting the offending colleague. As a result, he didn’t. Instead, the associate dean put the matter off week after week. Later, the associate dean shared that he and the “licker” played cards together on weekends. Their spouses knew each other. Ultimately, the associate dean felt conflicted and ill equipped to separate his professional responsibilities from his personal relationship.

I learned this by a blindsiding email sent to the entire law faculty on a sleepy weekend afternoon. My colleague who grabbed and licked the student claimed to the entire faculty that I was blind, a liar, and spreading rumors about him. I got a taste of the types of tactics commonly used against victims of sexual assault to silence, shame, and stigmatize them. I am sure this has something to do with why people do not come forward.

Weekly, and sometimes daily, the full faculty received emails that referenced me with raw and biting expletives—calling me a liar was the mildest offense of these emails. Honestly, I was devastated—it was depleting. After all life doesn’t surrender to such assaults; I still had classes to teach, an ambitious research agenda, a daughter to take to school, her ballet lessons, and piano recitals, and dinner to cook at the end of the day.

Reporting the sexual harassment of a student resulted in ritualistic public torment and retaliation with virtually no reprieve. Not only did I think about leaving my law school, but also about abandoning law teaching altogether.

From a distance, my colleague’s tirade played out in shameful, stereotypic fashion: senior white male, harassing the only junior faculty member who also happened to be a woman and the only Black person on the faculty. I fit all three of those categories. None of that should matter, but let’s face it, power does. Institutional paralysis ensued; the dean seemed not to know how to respond. And, while she could have shut down the tirade of emails on the institution’s server—she felt paralyzed to do so. Simply being a woman with the utmost authority did not prepare her for confronting sexist, racist behavior.

Tearfully, the dean visited my office at the end of each day seeking my understanding and support. It was obvious she too was hurting and in deep pain. As one of the first female law deans in the United States, this was not the hurdle she was anticipating at the end of her career. She assured me that if she had it all to do over again, she would have acted differently. However, her sadness did not stop the harassment.

The dean apologized that she had not called our colleague into her office. She genuinely believed the associate dean would “handle” the matter “man to man” and not drop the ball. Months later, she regretted not following up after handing off my complaint. Now, other concerns plagued her. She feared that our colleague might threaten to sue the law school and become even more disruptive. She worried about repercussions if he decided to push back even more forcefully.

However, these types of fears are exactly what contribute to entrenched patterns of sexual harassment in the work environment. Those in power worry that bad actors will retaliate. Meanwhile, the community becomes hostage to bad behavior. Ironically, everyone who received faculty emails were witnesses to what I was experiencing—even if they had not seen my colleague lick the student.

One obvious problem was that the dean failed to use her authority and power to intervene, follow protocol, and lead on the matter—in a timely manner. Too often, sex discrimination and other types of workplace misconduct fester, creating a conspiracy of inaction and unintentional complicity. Lack of immediate action means the problems can compound—as in this case--morphing from inappropriate conduct toward a student to retaliation against a colleague. Morale suffers under such conditions, particularly as public displays of harassment and bullying shift the cultural environment downward. Putting off addressing workplace intolerance, whether sexual harassment, racial discrimination, or anything else is rarely a good idea; it’s an ineffective strategy for handling misconduct.

That said, deans are not the only persons who contribute to workplace culture and set the tone at academic institutions. Nor are they the only persons with power and authority. In academic settings, those with tenure and senior status wield enormous power, including women. Whether they use their power and authority is another matter. In this case, the offending colleague was tenured, but actually junior to some of the women on the faculty. One senior woman filed a complaint with the main campus—she (and others) claimed to know of other instances of sexually offensive behavior committed by this same professor. However, she decided to file her complaint anonymously, which was her right to do. That said, I encountered backlash for that too; my very senior female colleague would not come forward even while the harasser’s emails mistakenly imputed her actions to me.

In the weeks that ensured, many colleagues expressed support. However, I also heard from people who thought I should have kept quiet—and left it to the student to complain. Furthermore, I learned more than enough about my colleague’s disturbing behavior that spanned years before I arrived.

So, why had the institution put up with it for so long?

The short answer is fear. For colleagues who have worked together for many years—sometimes their families live in the same neighborhoods; their children school together or play sports on the same teams. They fear losing relationships and disrupting their lives.

However, there is also the fear of experiencing exactly what happened to me—retaliation for reporting. Deferring and deflecting is a way to divvy up who has to suffer the burden of speaking up. My colleagues avoided being lumped into the barrage of emails targeting me by not speaking up, while I took the brunt of it along with one other colleague who complained previously about another male colleague’s harassing behavior.

Shortly before the semester’s end, the barrage of hateful emails targeting me came to a stop. A male colleague—one of the more conservative members of the faculty--confronted the harasser, expressing that he believed me. Suddenly, the harassment stopped.

A final email was sent to the faculty by the harasser. He wrote to the faculty that he now came to recall the fundraiser. He described it as an event where many people were having fun, except one person. He recalled his behavior as innocent: a “gentle” lick of the “upper” most layer of cream from the law student’s “pinkie finger.” He claimed that he was curious about the type of cream-shaving or whipped cream…

By July, the first woman dean of the law school was gone, while the harassing colleague remained on the faculty, teaching classes. I did not leave my institution, but chose to stay, help to hire the next dean, and build a healthier culture.

There are lessons learned by this experience. First, papering over sexual harassment, covering up, or hoping that it goes away will only hurt the institution—whether a university or private industry. To this end, men and women have a shared responsibility to protect the their work environment and the people who work in it. Second, bring honesty to the table. Are people redeemable? Sometimes, but they will never have the chance to grow, recover, and/or apologize, if not squarely confronted. Finally, women in power should use the authority they have earned. By failing to take agency; too often women surrender their authority and become complicit in institutional bias or harassment by remaining silent and even silencing others.

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