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Who’s a Leader?

This entry is sparked by a recent comment from Markk:

Quit yelling about men -in engineering- and yell about men -in authority- especially academics, abusing their position.

While it is unrealistic to think that I will ever quit yelling about men in engineering, at least until the revolution comes, I do like to think that I also do a fair amount of yelling about men in authority who abuse their position as well. Is Markk perhaps not familiar with my earlier writings on Dr. Toadygawa of MIT, and Rollins President Lewis Duncan (regarding the latter, I have been promising you an update entry which I shall surely deliver soon)?

But who are these poor “men in engineering” that I am supposed to leave alone, and just who counts as a “man in authority”? Cynthia Burack and I have touched briefly on this issue in our essay “Telling Stories About Engineering: Group Dynamics and Resistance to Diversity” in in NWSA Journal v. 16 No. 1, 2004 (Re)Gendering Science Fields (see link at left). There we note, “Leadership embraces all those who answer the question ‘who are we?’ – all those who tell the story of the group – in ways that resonate with group members and that influence subsequent group practices…Together, leaders and group members engage in the mutual work of crafting and verbalizing a meaningful group memoir…”

What does that mean? It means that everyone who participates in science and engineering plays a part in shaping what it means to be a scientist or engineer, to a greater or lesser extent.

In the engineering classroom, when “the guys” are “just joking around” and “teasing” the few women in the classroom, they are saying to the women, “Part of what it means to be an engineer, for you, is that you have to put up with these kinds of harassing comments from the men, because engineering is a male domain and you trespass on it only at our pleasure, as this ‘teasing’ reminds you. Part of what it means to be an engineer, for us, is to assume that the natural state of an engineer is male.” This is one of the reasons why I don’t just give “men in engineering” a free pass and only yell at the “men in authority”, because, to some extent, all men in engineering have authority to shape and define what it means to be an engineer through their conduct and behavior – towards women and towards each other. Will they tolerate it when one of their number harasses a woman, or won’t they? Will you men challenge other men, your classmates or coworkers, who harass women?

If you, as a man, are a supervisor one day and a woman you supervise comes to you and says another man you supervise has harassed her, what are you going to do? Dismiss it? Tell her not to take it so seriously? Tell her to suck it up and be a man? Or are YOU going to be a man, speak to the person involved, and report the incident to HR?

In my reply to Markk, I noted that “I consider every man who is not part of the solution, to be part of the problem. Every woman, too, for that matter.” For example, St. Louis Commuinity College President Priscilla Gunn is making herself a fine part of the problem when she, along with chancellor Henry D. Shannon, cautioned a jury against awarding damages in a sexual harassment lawsuit.

“There will be consequences to the public,” Priscilla Gunn, the college’s lawyer in the case, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “The college provides good services for many people. There is no money in the budget for something like this.”

I suppose there isn’t any money in the budget for $400,000 compensatory damages for emotional distress and $450,000 in punitive damages, but that’s why college presidents and chancellors are paid such large salaries, to think of things like this ahead of time and make sure professors and deans and police officers receive appropriate sexual harassment training to prevent nightmares like this. And to make sure they have a network of campus policies and procedures in place that allow victims to confidentially report harassment, get a fair hearing, and make sure that harassers are promptly dealt with and punished, so that victims need not end up in court suing their employers. I guess maybe Gunn and Shannon might think about those things now.

Sexual harassment is costly, to the individual who suffers it, and to society. It can raise your taxes. Think about that, when you are the supervisor who receives a report of sexual harassment. Will you ignore it, and take a chance on a lawsuit that results in raising your community’s taxes?

Here is a free tip: If you are a college president or chancellor and you haven’t taken these precautions yet, now would be a good time to do so. Otherwise – see you in court!

Categories: Sexual Harassment
  1. Markk
    September 7, 2006 at 6:11 pm

    Well that is more like it!

  2. Pam
    September 9, 2006 at 9:41 am

    Great response! I so agree that if you aren’t a part of the solution, you are a part of the problem. If a male (or female) colleague sees another colleague being treated unfairly or inappropriately – he/she should speak up. It isn’t enough to say quietly to a friend or colleague that ‘I saw it and it was unfair’. Many of us have been on both sides of this – and I can speak from experience that the lawsuit is costly, in ways that has little to do with money.

  3. Calli Arcale
    September 14, 2006 at 4:10 pm

    Very well said. I’ve observed little sexual disparity where I work (although this doesn’t seem to be true of other facilities within the corporation; the upper echelons are especially devoid of females) it does still exist. My husband, also an engineer at the same company, has even observed it. Not so much in the form of harassing females, but in the sense of not seeming to understand that people are individuals more than they are a particular gender. His colleagues swear and let loose a lot of sexually explicit jokes, and it makes him very uncomfortable. It stops when one of the female engineers arrives in the lab, but starts up again afterwards. Hubby finds it extremely unprofessional, not to mention disrespectful to both women and to people with a sense of decorum. It makes me wonder how much more degrading of women goes on when we aren’t present. I don’t think the problem can stop until the average man respects us even when we are not present — in other words, until it is about more than just appearances. They have to really believe women are just as important as men.

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