Two Versions - One Reality

by Bernard Wood

logo of a man and a chimpanzee under a tree, text reads CASHP
September 09, 2015

Our new academic year has just begun, leading to thoughts of the future and reflections on the past. The last academic year brought both good and bad news for our research group. Take your pick from the good news. A record number of students graduated from our PhD program, two excellent new faculty members joined CASHP and two excellent new students joined our graduate program, we moved into GW’s state-of the art new Science and Engineering Hall, we were awarded a record number of grants, and more.


Yet all this good news was overshadowed by allegations about the personal behavior of a member of our discipline. Inappropriate behavior towards women, especially sexual harassment and what is effectively assault, is unacceptable whether it takes place in the workplace, in the field, or at conferences.


Even when no criminal complaints are made and no charges have been pressed, there is still cause to act. Let me set out the reasons.


First, this inappropriate behavior is directed, either consciously or unconsciously, at women in the context of a huge power imbalance. When leading researchers in a field take advantage of early career scientists seeking to enter that field, it amounts to an abuse of power. Ours is a field that has a history of turning a blind eye to others who have behaved inappropriately, so why are the stories of early career scientists going to be believed, and why are their concerns going to be respected? Many of the women that have been the target of this type of inappropriate behavior are anxious that their careers would be jeopardized if they spoke out, and the fear of experiencing negative impacts on their careers may be why the victims often decide to remain silent for so long. To work toward something for years only to have it derailed by an unscrupulous superior, or by rumor, is a truly paralyzing fear. So, given this context, it is unreasonable to expect that these young women make formal complaints, or press criminal charges. We should not wait for that to happen before deciding, as individuals, it is time for us to step up.


Second, courage. Not mine, but the courage of others. I am writing this because people directly or indirectly affected have had the courage to speak and write about episodes that were traumatic. Others have decided to cut their research ties with people that have a history of inappropriate behavior towards women. 


Third, when the individual involved is broadcasting a very different version of the events, other voices need to rise to tell the other side of the story. One version suggests that what the women affected interpreted as sexual harassment was just run-of the-mill “flirtation”. But the people affected speak about the trauma that they experienced after being targeted by someone who was supposed to be a trusted supervisor. It is difficult to believe that this is a carefully orchestrated conspiracy, rather than the unfortunate reality. Their version deserves our attention. 


So what is your response going to be? In these cases, there are invariably two versions of the story, but there is only one reality. If you have any doubt about what it is, catch my eye at ESHE, or at any future conference, or call me.


Are we going to continue to ignore sexual misconduct in our community, and continue to turn a blind eye to this type of behavior? Or are we going to keep this topic at the forefront of our minds, and help to ensure that individuals who practice these behaviors do not continue to plague our discipline? Are we willing to collaborate with people who use their research reputation to harass, and worse, female colleagues? Before you decide what to do think hard about whether you would want to risk letting your daughter, or your granddaughter, or your friend, or your student interact with an individual under circumstances that have been exploited in the past.


I have thought about it, and I will not take that risk.


Edmund Burke expressed the dilemma we face this way, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”