One spreadsheet reveals the horrifying ubiquity of sexual harassment in academia

Supposedly liberal universities have allowed sexual harassment to flourish.
Supposedly liberal universities have allowed sexual harassment to flourish.
Image: AP Photo/Joerg Sarbach
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Sexual harassment, as women know, is both endemic and widely dismissed. The same patriarchal imbalance of power that allows harassment to occur also silences those who do speak out.

In the wake of #MeToo, women from within various fields have come together to share their stories collectively. The media industry created the “shitty media men” spreadsheet, and now there’s a public spreadsheet that chronicles the extent of sexual harassment in academia. The document, created on Dec. 1, has gained more than 1,600 entries in less than a fortnight.

Unlike the media spreadsheet, this document doesn’t name names. Instead, Karen Kelsky, a former professor who now runs the academic job consultancy and blog The Professor is in, created her anonymous survey to reveal the scale of the problem rather than the individual perpetrators. “I hope that gathering stories will allow women in particular to know they are not alone,” wrote Kelsky.

The survey doesn’t claim to be scientific, and with thousands of individual entries, the categories are not clear cut. (That is also why the data below don’t add up to the total—entries with different wording were not included in the results.) But a few clear trends emerge. The first, of course, is that men are the overwhelming perpetrators.

Graduate students—who have little job flexibility, are often trapped at the same university for years, and depend on the support of a few key professors for career success—seem to face the most harassment. Tenured professors, who have the most power, experience far less.

Academia is an extremely hierarchical field. Professors with tenure have immense power, with the ability to determine the fate of graduate students and more junior faculty. The survey includes many reports of unequal relationships and assault from those in such positions of power.

As for subject area, there’s generally more more reported harassment in larger fields, such as English and History, according to the data. (It’s not necessarily the case that these fields have an outsized problem, as they’re also simply home to more students.)

Academia’s sexual harassment problem is not unusual, and it’s another example of a relatively privileged industry that’s begun to address its sexual harassment problem. To date, the #MeToo movement has had little impact among the most vulnerable workers, such as those who work in poorly paid cleaning or waitressing jobs. Still, the academia spreadsheet is a striking portrait of harassment—and the systemic attempts to cover up such abuse—within one industry.

The survey results include many accounts of insidious harassment, such as neuroscience students visiting strip clubs as a conference “tradition” or professors stroking undergraduates’ faces and calling them “sweetheart.” One person described being subjected to:

“dinners where all-male groups of senior academics have a conversations [sic] in front of me about what they think it’s like to have sex with me, unsolicited emails with links to porn videos at work, texts and emails that continue after I tell a person to stop contacting me, etc.”

In the survey, 373 incidents were reported as taking place at an elite institution or Ivy League. Some 15 people described their harasser as “famous” or “well known.” Another 32 said the perpetrator was their mentor. A sociology PhD student described how a senior scholar in his 80s—“like a grandfather mentor to me”—had told her: “I want you to kiss me.”

Another PhD student reported how she was raped by a professor:

“He coerced me into his room, and then made a move, I said no, he kept pushing, I said no, he kept pushing, I said no, he pushed. I probably could have fought him off physically, but what would happen to my career. I’d be the one tarnished if I made a scene or said anything, not him. I had no power. He raped me”

One theme from many accounts was the fear of repercussions should they report these incidents. Academia often does not protect those who experience harassment—as philosophy professor Janet Stemwedel described in a Twitter thread that’s been retweeted more than 5,500 times:

Though upsetting, the scale of the problem is unsurprising to many women in academia.

Rebecca Kukla, a philosophy professor at Georgetown University, says she knows several men who “have treated women in philosophy inexcusably, despite being visible feminists and allies,” she writes in an email to Quartz. “Frankly, some of them are close friends of mine.”

Women have grown used to their behavior, she adds. “Guarding our bodies from unwanted touches, finding ways of shaking them off and staying professional when they happen, and learning to be dignified and stoic – and perhaps even funny – in the face of sexist microaggressions and constant sexualized belittlement” is, she says, “part of our job training.”

All too many instances of harassment are brushed aside. Just months ago, Kukla says she posted details of her own experiences as a graduate student on Facebook, detailing how a professor grabbed her by the scarf, lightly choking her, and remarked that she had given a “fuck me now” talk. The response from many of her Facebook friends and former graduate school colleagues, she says, was to defend the professor as “good at supporting women” and “quirky and harmless.”

“It was bewildering,” wrote Kukla. “I felt like my experiences and their significance had been completely undercut and dismissed.” In the majority of cases, the harassers go unpunished while “the ones doing the calling out end up humiliated and undermined.” Meanwhile, some perpetrators are “torn apart limb from limb” as a public scapegoat. “Both responses seem deeply unacceptable to me,” Kukla added.

Ayesha Ramachandran, a comparative literature professor at Yale University, agrees that sexual harassment in academia is pernicious and difficult to address. “Power imbalances and the tightness of the job market are contributing factors, but the main issue, I think, is the blurry boundaries between personal and professional spheres,” she writes in an email to Quartz. Faculty often drink with students or invite them to their homes to work. “It’s also worth remembering that it is fairly recent to have women in the university and (especially) in positions of power,” she adds.

Still, as she describes in the Washington Post (paywall), Ramachandran is planning a grassroots series of conversations, panels, and lunches to discuss how sexual harassment could be better addressed in academia.

“We’re talking finally! And openly,” Ramachandran told Quartz. “We have to support and move that along strongly, not shut it down because the revolution hasn’t happened already,” she adds.

Change may take a generation, she says, but it’s beginning.