GWAMIT organizes discussion of sexual harassment in wake of celebrity accusations

Talk addresses concerns about faculty retaliation against reporters of harassment, effects on letters of recommendation

Representatives from five administrative offices convened Nov. 3 to discuss sexual harassment at an event put on by Graduate Women at MIT (GWAMIT), an organization which advocates for female graduate students. GWAMIT events co-chair Katherine Redfield G organized the event, with executive co-chair Amanda Kedaigle G moderating.

Kedaigle said that GWAMIT planned the discussion because "with Harvey Weinstein and the #MeToo campaign gaining so much attention, this is a great time to have this conversation. We want to show there are many people on campus to help.”

Kaitlyn Hood, a postdoc on the Postdoctoral Association for Women Engaged in Research (POWER) board, attended the discussion as her first GWAMIT event. She told The Tech in an interview that she came to the event to “be part of the conversation that is happening in the country and on campus”. She expressed concerns that the Title IX office's responsibility is to protect the university, and she likened the reporting structure at universities to the military, where “the people who are supposed to hold others accountable are also abusers.”

After the crowd settled, each representative from the offices introduced themselves. The faculty representative, Sheila Widnall ’60, who chairs the National Academy of Science Committee on Addressing the Impact of Sexual Harassment in Academia on the Career Choices of Women in Science, Engineering, and Medicine, presented stark statistics from the National Postdoctoral Association about the prevalence of sexual harassment affecting female graduate students.

“Undergraduate women are harassed by undergraduates. Graduate women are harassed by faculty,” Widnall said. Twenty-eight percent of graduate women are harassed during graduate school, mostly in their workplace and at conferences. Half of people accused of harassment are over 40 years old, despite a majority of those describing the harassment being under 30. She summarized her position by stating, “Universities have a responsibility to create a safe, welcoming, and inclusive environment.”

The discussion then turned to questions submitted by the audience. One commonly submitted question asked what happens to students after submitting a complaint.

Raquel Irons, an MIT Human Resources staff member who deals with Title IX violations regarding faculty and staff, responded to how the university typically deals with complaints. “We understand that the situation is difficult, but we do want to encourage people to come forward,” she said. In formal investigations, she partners with a faculty member from the school of the staff member. If there is a violation of policy, she indicated “there could be sanctions,” but did not go into detail on what the sanctions might look like.

Sarah Rankin, Title IX and Bias Response (T9BR) coordinator for MIT, went into specifics about faculty retaliation against accusers, which she said was the major concern for graduate students who experience harassment by faculty. “We have policies against retaliation, but that is not very comforting to graduate students,” she said.

She mentioned the possibility of a professor talking negatively about a student at a private meal as an issue that would be difficult to catch. For letters of recommendation, she mentioned that one possibility is “to work with the department to have a standard recommendation letter reviewed by third parties” which could prevent a retaliatory statement by the faculty when writing these letters.

She went on to address another common concern she saw: the notion that nothing happens to tenured faculty when found responsible for harassment. To this, she mentioned that a verdict limiting ability to have graduate students could still have a significant effect on the faculty's career (even if they can't be fired).

Rankin added that formal investigations are not the only option: students can just report harassment without an investigation, so if other students come forward, there will be more evidence for the investigation to use.

Some questions revolved around what the administration is doing to prevent cases of sexual harassment. One attendant asked if there is a required workshop for men to become educated about the issue.

Rankin and Kelley Adams from Violence Prevention and Response (VPR) discussed the mandatory in-lab training the Department of Chemistry currently uses. This training focuses on bystander intervention and is led by instructors from T9BR and VPR. Rankin quoted a male attendant of the training who had remarked, “I haven't considered the fact that I should speak up before.” The program is currently available only for the chemistry department, and Rankin and Adams agreed that they do not have the resources to expand it to every lab on campus.

Kedaigle asked the panel's view of recent events around the country regarding sexual harassment. Judi Segall, one of the two ombudspersons at MIT, stated that recent events “opened up a Pandora's box of reflecting for so many women” and specifically mentioned that normalizing the discussion can help society find ways to deal with and prevent harassment.

Segall’s office, the Ombuds Office, is a confidential resource for everyone in the MIT community. It keeps no records (not even of who meets with them), does not take sides, and exists to provide information to anyone who wants to navigate sticky situations. In cases of harassment, Segall indicated that the Ombuds Office aims to help people “reduce their sense of vulnerability.”

When attendees asked about specific situations, like whether an advisor touching a graduate student’s face is considered harassment, the neutrality of the Ombuds Office came into focus. Judi did not assume wrongdoing on the part of any person in the situation and discussed asking reflective questions to help people understand their options. In contrast, Adams focused on supporting the survivor and informing them of options. From these questions Adams highlighted a difference between these two confidential offices: "Ombuds is a neutral office. We are an advocate-centered office.

Like the #MeToo campaign, the event was a starting point in a long discussion on sexual harassment. It highlighted gaps like the difficulty in getting graduate students to come forth due to fear of retribution, uncertainty whether certain actions are considered harassment by MIT, and the challenge of preventing harassment by tenured faculty.