Nothing About Reporting Sexual Harassment Is Easy

In the Me Too era, it seems that everyone, from feminists to Fox News hosts, is commenting on the growing power of an accusation. On Sunday, for instance, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos told ”60 Minutes,” “one falsely accused individual is one too many.”

Although DeVos also observed that one sexual assault is too many, her message reflected the concerns of the so-called Me Too backlash, summed up by President Trump’s recent tweet, “Peoples [sic] lives are being shattered and destroyed by a mere allegation.”

Listening to these and other reports, it might appear that women vengefully hurl accusations of sexual harassment and assault like Molotov cocktails. It might seem that for men, being accused of sexual assault inflicts swift and permanent damage. And in this environment, coming forward may start to look like a quick and easy decision. As Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said, “now the law is on the side of women, or men, who encounter harassment.”

We assure you, nothing about speaking out is easy.

Scientists and academics often wait years or even decades before they feel able to speak up about being harassed or assaulted.

In our respective positions ― as a research director and as an attorney ― we see how difficult it still is to confront harassment and discrimination, even as there is unprecedented public attention paid to these issues.

For instance, the data tell us that in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, roughly a third of women faculty experience harassment and 40 percent of women of color are regularly made to feel unsafe because of their gender.

We’ve seen the #UsToo movement and the House Subcommittee on Research and Technology draw attention to widespread harassment in the sciences. We’re aware that LGBT women, gender-nonconforming and transgender physicists are significantly more likely to experience harassment than straight, cisgender and LGBT colleagues who are men. We know that harassment of women and other marginalized groups is especially problematic in computing and tech.

Scientists and academics often wait years, or even decades, before they feel able to speak up about being harassed or assaulted. For example, UC San Diego associate professor of oceanography Jane Willenbring waited almost 20 years, until she received the security of tenure, to report harassment that occurred during fieldwork in Antarctica because she was afraid of retaliation.

We have personally worked with people who, like Deborah Doe, a second complainant in Willenbring’s case, still fear being publicly named. Others have been fired, physically harmed, doxxed, trolled, stalked or threatened for speaking out in some way. Some have spent thousands on legal and medical bills. Many have lost friends and supporters, strained their relationships, missed out on priceless time with their families and suffered increased anxiety and other negative health effects.

There are significant, often immeasurable, professional and personal costs that come with taking a public stand.

For example, Ellen Pao, former partner at Kleiner Perkins, spent three years and over $2 million litigating against her former employer. A jury found the firm not liable for discrimination and retaliation.

Similarly, our colleague Vanessa Kaskiris spent nearly three years fighting to be heard and taken seriously by her supervisors. She recently went public with a detailed and disturbing account of widespread harassment and discrimination in UC Berkeley’s IT department.

Like Pao, Willenbring and many other women in tech and in academic settings, Kaskiris experienced some of the “true costs” of coming forward.

When we asked Kaskiris about the consequences, she told us, “You may lose your job, you may lose opportunities for advancement, you may lose friends — you absolutely will lose time and money.”

There can be serious ramifications for those accused: The professor who Willenbring named was recently fired by Boston University. But there were no consequences for those named in Kaskiris’ complaint. Pao, in addition to losing her case, was ordered to pay the firm she sued more than $275,000 for its legal costs. Though it’s also true that many complainants now have more reporting, support and assistance options, and some have more power than in the past.

From the accounts of people we know and of many others across industries, academic settings and circumstances show that the decision to come forward in any way is still difficult and risky. Some who speak out can bear the risks with support. For many others, particularly those in already vulnerable positions, like immigrant workers or those who have signed nondisclosure agreements, speaking out carries too high a cost.

We assure you, nothing about speaking out is easy.

Yes, things have changed for the better, but they haven’t changed enough ― yet. When women are told they don’t know the difference between a medical procedure and sexual assault, when those in charge of safety and security abuse authority and when members of marginalized communities are more likely to experience harassment but less likely to be believed, we still have a lot more work to do.

We can cultivate inclusive and safe environments in our homes, workplaces, classrooms, departments, communities and organizations. All of us, especially those of us who lay claim to objectivity, can identify our biases and recognize problem behaviors in ourselves and others. We can we learn to safely intervene in situations we witness. We can improve reporting and investigation processes or build new ones. We can find more ways to support those already doing that hard work. We can demand personal accountability and work together for systemic change. We all can share the costs and burdens of change so they are not shouldered only by those who speak out and those most harmed by discrimination, harassment and assault.

We can and should discuss due process and fairness for those bringing forth or facing accusations. We should also keep in mind the incredible costs of coming forward. We should consider nuanced approaches to addressing a wide range of behaviors, from the cluelessly creepy to intentionally criminal, that make more sense than “the Mike Pence rule” of never leaving a woman alone with a man who isn’t her husband.

If we are truly “committed to a process that’s fair for everyone involved,” as Secretary DeVos promised in her interview, we need to have better answers than the one she provided: “I don’t know. I don’t know.”

Alexandra Tracy-Ramirez is a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project and is an attorney who represents students, faculty or school staff in cases involving discrimination, harassment and other Title IX violations.

Dr. Heather Metcalf is a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project and is Director of Research and Analysis for the Association for Women in Science (AWIS) where she leads empirical research on equity, inclusion and STEM workplaces. She earned her doctorate in Higher Education with a focus on science and technology policy.