Sherry A. Marts, Ph.D., is a skilled trainer, writer and speaker. Her background includes careers in research, science advocacy and association management. She provides consulting on diversity and inclusion, harassment and bullying, and workplace communication. Her interest in ending harassment arises from her experiences as a woman in science and her training as a self-defense instructor. Marts is the author of “Open Secrets and Missing Stairs: Sexual and Gender-Based Harassment at Scientific Meetings” (S*Marts Consulting LLC, February 2017). http://bit.ly/osmspdf
Y our board has a policy stating the commitment of your organization to diversity and inclusion. You have created a meeting which reflects that commitment. You worked hard to put together a diverse group of content leaders. The images in your marketing materials reflected the diversity of your membership. At registration you asked attendees about their dietary needs, accommodations for disabilities and even their preferred pronouns.
You invited a distinguished member of your profession to present an after-dinner talk. The opening slide of his talk includes an image of a racist stereotype combined with a sexually objectified woman.
You have a Twitter hashtag for your meeting, and on the first full day of the meeting, this appears: “My friend told me she was sexually harassed at last night’s opening reception. #meetinghashtag” followed by “This, and the lackadaisical response of colleagues makes me question my continued presence at #meetinghashtag.” The thread continues, eventually adding up to more than 100 responses and retweets.
Both of these have happened. In the first instance, no one on the staff or among the volunteer leaders who were at the dinner took any action in the moment, and the slide stayed up for more than 20 minutes while dessert was served. Several people walked out. The following morning, the association issued an apology. The incident was talked about on social media for weeks afterward.
In the second instance, staff were able to locate the woman who had been harassed, a witness to the harassment and the harasser. He was asked to leave the meeting immediately.
What made the difference? The association that responded to the disturbing tweet had recently adopted a code of conduct for their meetings, and staff were trained on what to do if an incident occurred.
Sexual harassment “come-ons” and gender harassment “put-downs” occur at professional meetings. A 2016 survey asking scientists about their experiences with harassment at meetings found that 60 percent of the more than 200 respondents — which included people who identified as men, women and transgender — had experienced sexual or gender harassment at a scientific meeting. The harassment included experiences akin to “street harassment” — verbal harassment (catcalling, comments on appearance, calling someone an endearment); leering or staring; touching, groping or grabbing; following or stalking; or purposely trapping or blocking the path of the target.
Less frequent, but still common, were incidents similar to workplace harassment: moving conversation from professional topics to more personal topics, eventually leading to a request for sexual favors; escalating physical contact such as touch that moves from less intimate areas (hand or arm) to more intimate areas (knee, thigh, shoulder, breast); isolating the target from others by insisting they go “somewhere quieter,” or share a cab; and hinted or stated “quid pro quo” demands. Less common, but not unknown, are incidents of sexual assault, including the use of date-rape drugs.
Harassment at meetings goes on in many settings: presentations that include sexist or offensive images or language; areas that are crowded and noisy (poster sessions and exhibit halls); at social events; any time alcohol is served; at offsite or ancillary events; and when attendees socialize away from the meeting venue.
The impact of harassment reaches far beyond the initial incident. Targets of harassment go out of their way to avoid their harassers, sometimes by leaving the meeting at which the harassment occurred. They become concerned about their safety at meetings, give greater thought to what they wear and avoid social events at meetings. In other words, all the work you do to make your meetings engaging and to encourage participation is destroyed, sometimes in a matter of minutes.
And that impact doesn’t stop with the target. A single incident of harassment has this effect on those who witness it, and those who hear about it later. Harassers poison the atmosphere at your meetings.
In the 2016 survey, the results were very clear. Seventy-seven percent of respondents want associations to ban repeat and known harassers from meetings. Seventy percent want associations to adopt and enforce a code of conduct that specifically addresses behavior at meetings.
Prepare by adopting a code of conduct, and have procedures to publicize and enforce it, including:
Take care by training staff to handle reports of harassment incidents with sensitivity and compassion. The individual who takes incident reports must put the wants and needs of the target first, and let the target decide what actions to take. Even in the event of an assault, unless there is an emergent threat to the safety of others at the meeting, let the target decide whether and when to involve security or law enforcement. Ask permission to check in with the target later, and have a plan to debrief staff who may have witnessed or heard about the incident.
Keep incident reports as confidential as possible. Targets are reluctant to report harassment out of fear of retaliation and damage to their careers. Ensuring confidential reporting will encourage targets to come forward.
For the safety and comfort of all meeting participants, act on the assumption that what the target reports is what actually happened. The incidence of “false reporting of harassment in the workplace (where stakes are much higher) is very low and the likelihood of a false report of harassment at a meeting is most likely even lower. Often, the target will not know the identity of the harasser when reporting an incident, either because the incident was so distressing that the target never thought to look at the harasser’s name badge, or because the harasser deliberately hid their badge.
Do it there by handling incidents decisively and quickly, preferable while at the meeting, to protect the safety of your attendees. Decisions should be made by one or two people. Decisions are best made by staff, as volunteer leadership are more likely to find themselves conflicted when the harasser is a friend, colleague or important figure in their field.
Outcomes should be communicated only to those who need to know — the harasser, the target, the person who reported the incident (if they were not the target) and possibly event security.
Sanctions against harassers should be proportional to the incident and the harasser’s attitude on being confronted. If it seems the harasser is just socially awkward or inept, it may be enough to review the code of conduct and get their agreement that they will stop the behavior and avoid the target for the rest of the meeting.
If you have any reason to believe the harasser will not stop the behavior, particularly if they do any of the following, their credentials for the meeting should be revoked and they should be asked to leave the meeting immediately.
Prepare, take care and do it there, and your attendees will thank you. C&IT