Sexual Harassment in Political Science and International Studies

by on 2013-08-15 in Duck- 20 Comments

The last two years saw some major stories in my corner of the blogsphere concerning sexual harassment. Colin McGinn’s resignation from the University of Miami saw widespread discussion across the academic interwebs, even if we didn’t say much about it. McGinn’s case seems not terribly unique in philosophy, as the What’s it Like to be a Woman in Philosophy blog has been chronicling for years. Sexual harassment at science-fiction conventions is also an ongoing problem. Genevieve Valentine’s treatment at Readercon produced an online firestorm last year.

Some of the discomfort with Brian’s recent post [which Brian has now pulled] derives from a generic rejection of its sexualization of conference dynamics. But some of it comes from the realities of sexual discrimination and harassment–not just in our field, but at conferences in particular.

I don’t need to rely on hearsay to conclude that sexual discrimination is a major problem in international studies and political science. My partner now refers to “practicing political science with ovaries” as a shorthand for acknowledged and unacknowledged sexism in the field.

On the other hand, most of what I know about sexual harassment at conferences comes from oblique, semi-whispered, or ‘you didn’t hear this from me, but’ style conversations. The problem seems both widespread and largely unacknowledged in the general community. Indeed, searching for “sexual harassment at APSA“, “sexual harassment at the ‘American Political Science Association’“, and cognate searches for the ISA turns up little more than documents describing official policies, a long list of conference papers, and reports on the meetings of caucuses within the organizations. Either the problem is not widespread–which I doubt–or we haven’t even reached the point where we have a safe environment for an open discussion of it.

My main impetus here isn’t to critique or defend Brian’s post. As I noted in comments, I think that our collective silence on power dynamics contributes to the same environment that enables ongoing discrimination and harassment. At the same time, tolerance for humor that uses offensive gendered language is also part of the problem.

Rather, my central claim is more basic: that there’s something seriously wrong with the current state of affairs–in which serial harassment remains tolerated, extreme sexism flourishes on internet fora, and ongoing serious discussion of these problems occurs almost exclusively within specialized caucuses and sections.

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  • Pablo K

    I’m not going to read or speak to Brian’s post, but I will say that the field could use some systematic research that will force the matter more into the public. The obvious way to do this is some kind of survey data on harassment, various everyday sexisms (asides at conferences etc.), gendered treatment (and perception thereof), journal rejection rates by male and female, and so on. Of course, this isn’t only a problem of gender, so that research could conceivably take in a whole series of metrics (on race, sexual identity, class background, nationality, and so on) over a range of contexts and positions.

    I’m not aware of anything like this in existence for IR, although I imagine there is work like this in other disciplines. The closest I’m aware of is a piece like Emma Foster et al.’s research into IR teaching on gender.

    So I’d just like to say that if anyone is interested in working collaboratively on such a project/paper, I’d be keen to be involved. Not sure whether this is the place for such an offer, but there it is. I’m reachable at p.c.kirby [at]

  • Sherrill Stroschein

    There may be overt sexual harassment for some, but that hasn’t really been my experience. What has been a real problem at conferences for women is not being taken seriously. I have been regularly interrupted, and have occasionally been ignored while being physically blocked from talking to a more senior scholar by a male larger than me in a suit jacket. (Some friends and I started jokingly referring to this as the “football block”). So more worrying for me has been being invisible, or that there is an assumption that I am at the conference in some sort of less serious capacity than the men of the field. Being blond hasn’t helped. Getting older has. But as

  • amelia

    I just noticed that the original post is missing, now. It seems to me that removing the post is exactly the wrong way to promote more transparent dialogue about the problem. There was for a second some remarkably open acknowledgement of the problem (precisely what I think your blog post is arguing for) and then the entire post got pulled, relegating direct discussions about specific behaviors to offline communications.

  • Flynn

    Agreed, the policies here list ‘no censorship,’ except when potentially embarrassing for someone apparently?

  • M

    I hope Brian will rewrite and repost. There was some good content in there, but the primary frame was a joke about child rape.

  • amelia

    I agree completely — though the ability to write laughingly about sexual harassment, on one hand, and the ability to blithely ignore one’s female colleagues at conferences, on the other, are pretty closely related.

  • Dan Nexon

    Charli’s going to put up a post later about this whole incident, but, as far as I know, Brian didn’t pull his original post because it was “embarrassing for someone.”

    I am currently trying to recover the comments to the post itself,

  • Flynn

    Can we know the reason then…?

    I have the original post + comments if needed…

  • Jon Herington

    This is central to the reaction to the post. Even if overt sexual harrassment did not exist at poli sci conferences, there would still remain all of the implicit biases against minority groups which ought to be taken seriously. The major lesson of the work on implicit biases in philosophy is that the thought experiments, examples and metaphors used – including the jokes told – are one of the primary ways in which these biases are reinforced. Brian’s casual sexualisation of mentor relationships is a classic example of precisely the kind of thing we ought to discourage if we think these biases ought to be taken seriously.

  • Dan Nexon

    Flynn, would you send me a copy of both? Brian may not have known that he could pull the post without actually deleting it.

    I don’t know why precisely he deleted it, but I do know why, when he asked, I **recommended** that he pull it, and the answer is in M’s comment above. It just isn’t appropriate, no matter what the intention of the writer was.

    However, the conversation *is* extremely important and it is extremely important that there be no “cover up.” That would be unfair to everyone involved. So expect more today from other members of the collective.

  • T

    And the man himself? Will we be hearing from him or are we maintaining ‘who said a slut is female, I’m a man’ stance from the comment section?

  • MM

    I agree that, in my experience, the problem is more subtle than overt harassment. There is the casual disregard for and minimization of female colleagues, but I also think there is a structural problem wherein the casual and personal aspects of conference networking make it easier for conferences to be a comfortable and productive place for male scholars and graduate students. I have heard of female graduate students being advised that the best way to meet (usually older male) scholars is to find them in the conference hotel bars and offer to buy them a drink. This advice was undoubtedly well-meant, but completely oblivious to the very uncomfortable position in which that could place the graduate student.

    The conference experience is filled with uncomfortable and subtly demeaning experiences for any young scholars, which I think was what
    Brian’s original post was trying to highlight. This experience, however, is amplified for a young female scholar because of the greater fear that she will be disregarded because she is a woman, and because of a fear of the casual and sometimes subtle sexualization of these interactions (which is part of why Brian’s original post was difficult to take).

  • S

    I look forward to Charli’s post. One thing I’d like to mention is that in the OP comments, several people took issue with the fact that Brian only cited male scholars as examples of individuals he views as worthy of seeking out at conferences. He seemed to scoff at that comment (and erroneously attribute it to Laura). But, that is precisely the heart of the problem. Rampant overt sexism in the field is rare these days (as other commentators have pointed out). But, women are systematically undervalued as scholars. The fact his “best of” list consisted solely of men just throws salt on the wound. If he really was using sexually charged language to further highlight the power asymmetries in the field, his point would have been more powerful if he actually acknowledged the many women in our field with distinguished, important work.

  • tdaxp

    I noticed the original post was censored as soon as I noted that the conversation was trending in the direction of self-censorship. Google’s cache backs me up on this — mine is the last comment listed before the post was deleted.

    This was hilarious until it became tragic: the self-censorship issue itself was censored, until the issue could be reframed (further criticism of Brian’s post, apparently Dan “recommending” Brian delete his post and shut up until he can come up with a self-criticism, Laura’s accusing Brian of “violence” in a front-page post, etc)

    As long as I’ve read this blog I’ve considered it “Dan’s” That’s fine, I control comments, and Dan is free to do the same here of course. But it’s pretty cool how this whole affair (the censorship, the censorship of the concept of censorship, the “recommendations” which are orders from more powerful people, etc) is such a microcosm of what a self-referential unprogressive mess so much of polisci/IR has become.

  • Dan Nexon

    It hasn’t been *my* blog in many years; I don’t think there’s that much of a power asymmetry here — Brian’s a more productive scholar at a wealthier institution; the censorship discussion is worth having, and appears to be ongoing.

  • Charli Carpenter

    Super! I look forward to posting. However I will not be writing about “the whole incident.” I don’t presume to know everything about what happened or to be able to speak for Dan or Laura or Brian or anyone on their motivations in this matter, so I’ll only speak for myself as a blogger who has often been at the receiving end of comment threads like this either for taking wildly out of the box positions on things or for being careless in my choice of words and tone and insufficiently attentive to the needs of my audience. The post I’m preparing will talk about the nature of blogging, the norms around dealing with mistakes and controversies on a group blog, the numerous (and in hindsight funny) times I myself have wanted to retract something I wrote, and especially the fact that the only person that commenters should be criticizing about a controversial post on a group blog is the person who wrote the post himself. Cheers

  • mj

    I got all kinds of non-useful advice as a grad student, but never any to find a senior scholar at a bar and offer to buy him a drink. Just as well because I would not have been able to afford hotel bar prices anyway.

  • Dvora Yanow

    Dan, This is precisely why the Women’s Caucus for Political Science was founded [at the Western Political Science Association] some 35 years ago–to combat both institutionalized/formal/explicit sexism and the more subtle sort–and that also explains why you would not find online records of it. No blogs, no written record, other than its own minutes, mostly lost in someone’s garage in the northwest. The Caucus pushed through the requirement of altering male/female presidents each year–one of those ‘silly’ things [in some people’s eyes] that sends a big message in re. the seriousness with which female political scientists should be treated. The Caucus also monitored the male/female representation in leading roles, including panel chairs and discussants. And it could be very successful in bringing its members to the business meetings, where policies had to be put to a membership vote.

    The APSA and Midwest and other Caucuses followed. They were set up to be independent of the associations in order to enable them to take ‘political’ action–as in letting a department that had inequitably treated a female colleague [mostly around PTR issues] know that others were watching and were prepared to make the issue even more public. The Western Caucus [at least; I’ve followed the others less regularly] actively sought to engage issues of racism and more recently has expanded explicitly to include LGBT issues as well.

    Among the founders and early members still with us today who could tell its story in greater detail are Judith Stiehm and Jane Bayes. But not only its story–it was a group founded to take political action around the sorts of issues you are raising here, as I understand them, and the strategies and tactics learned then might be useful to those who would do the same today.

  • Long time reader, first time..

    From a pedagogical perspective, I suggest that re-posting the original post (those of us who missed it the first time around are left with broad, rather uncomplimentary impressions that may likely outweigh Brian’s original post) together with, or interspersed by, discussion of what was (or what the author and/or critics now feel was) in error *and why*, would be a more productive end result that the un-posting/resignation and self-censorship/muted post hoc discussion now ongoing.
    I suggest this cautiously, as I understand that removing an inflammatory blog is often the best way to calm the waters of discontent in the short term (cool-off periods work in negotiations and in blogging!). However, in the longer term, discussions about what is sexually harassing, inflammatory, or generally unacceptable is — I believe anyway — more helpful to the greater public/readership. Otherwise, we’re all left with lots of questions, few factually substantiated answers, and a missed learning opportunity. We miss so many, too many, of these opportunities, particularly around issues of gender, sex, race, and other “sensitive” topics precisely because folks fear silencing, criticism and labeling. Since we’ve moved beyond that point in this endeavor already, can we at least create this benefit from it now?