A Harassment-Free Workplace

Sexual harassment is in the news again. This week, the New York Times published an investigation revealing “previously undisclosed allegations against Mr. [Harvey] Weinstein stretching over nearly three decades.” Weinstein, an Oscar-winning movie producer and one of the most powerful people in Hollywood, apparently used his position in the entertainment industry to abuse women, overwhelmingly young women new to the movie business.

The story details abusive behavior — such as Weinstein “badgering” women into giving him naked massages or asking if they would watch him shower — that suggest a man who got off not so much on sex as on dominating women who he suspected were powerless to fight back. That he got away with it for decades, and that he is only being outed now, as his power is fading — slowly, to be sure — suggests he was right.

But there’s another thread that comes through, one of women helping other women protect themselves in a situation where the power differential between Weinstein and themselves was staggering. We read of Lauren O’Connor writing a memo denouncing her boss’s conduct. We see Ashley Judd tell the Times reporters, “Women have been talking about Harvey amongst ourselves for a long time, and it’s simply beyond time to have the conversation publicly.” We are informed that “one woman advised a peer to wear a parka when summoned for duty as a layer of protection against unwelcome advances.” And we get anonymous quotes, from women employed or formerly employed by Weinstein, confirming the allegations.

In an era when so many of us know how widespread workplace sexual harassment is, it’s important to take in the details of a rare case of a harasser being outed, publicly and with on-the-record quotes from his accusers. This is the exception to the rule, which is that powerful men like Weinstein get to harass and assault women until they die, no matter how many people in their industries know about it.

But having digested these details, we — or at least those of us concerned with fighting these injustices — arrive at a question: What do we do about it? We live in an era where “feminism … is cool,” at least according to those liberal feminists whose politics fit comfortably with feminism-as-brand, and yet sexual harassment, in the workplace and without, continues unabated.

When the article was published, lots of women took to Twitter to tell their stories of workplace sexual harassment. But the proud feminist tradition of conscious raising — albeit this time in its 2017 form, tweeting — cannot stop workplace sexual harassment. It’s a way to make those few of us unfortunate enough to use Twitter feel less alone, and to educate our male counterparts about the thorny persistence of harassment in our supposed feminist age. But when it comes to stopping that harassment, its effect is negligible at best.

So, again, what can we do to reduce workplace sexual harassment?

To begin answering that, let me start with a few snapshots of my own.

  • Age 17: during my first shift as a waitress, a customer leaves me his number instead of a tip —  I am an embarrassed kid, so I don’t tell anyone
  • Age 20: within my first week of a new job as a barista, one of the coffee shop’s regulars talks to me for the entirety of my lunch break. When I bring it up with my young female manager, she responds, “Oh, I have one of those guys too. Nothing we can do about it. By the way, if the guy who insists on talking to me comes in and asks for me, say I’m busy.”
  • Age 20: I ask a professor for a recommendation to graduate school. He responds by asking me if I have a boyfriend. I do not reply, to that email, or ever again. I do not get into a PhD program that year.
  • Age 21: during my first shift as a hostess at a restaurant, one of the bartenders propositions me multiple times. When I tell the manager, seeking advice, he responds, “Well, you were hired to be looked at.” I walk out mid-dinner rush that same day, and never go back.
  • Age 22: I am a new PhD student. One of the other students informs me to avoid X, a male professor. “He touches the female students he works with, like, a lot.” I change what I plan to focus on in the program, so as to avoid working with him.

What do these stories have in common? Beyond the obvious — they’re all cases of workplace sexual harassment — in each case, I acted alone, and the action I took worsened my life. I walked away from jobs, never to return even for the paycheck I was owed. I reneged on substantial intellectual goals to avoid harassers. I suffered, doubly.

I don’t share these stories for the purpose of consciousness-raising, although if reading them makes you feel less alone, or conveys to you how often workplace sexual harassment happens, good. I write them to show how much we stand to lose by trying to resolve sexual harassment on our own.

Rather than trying to fight back against a harasser on her own, the safest bet for a women is to find a vehicle to fight the issue collectively. Not only can this multiply the power on her side — if she can only do so much on her own, her power multiplies with each colleague who stands beside her — but it protects her. Speaking out about harassment is risky when your job is on the line, but if you speak as a “we,” there is no “I” who can be identified. Sure, if the harasser knows he only harassed me, he will know I am the one who told people. But even then, if my coworkers commit to backing me up, and taking action if I face repercussions for speaking up, it becomes much harder for that harasser to win. He can fire me — or get me fired if he isn’t the boss — but he can’t fire all of us.

The above scenario is a type of collective action, one that is closer to the informal side of the spectrum that runs from informal to formal action: workers confront a harasser, threatening to take action, be it direct action or legal action, if harassment doesn’t end. It’s a step beyond the actions we read of in the Times story, of individual women warning other women of Weinstein’s actions, although the many women quoted or interviewed anonymously about Weinstein are taking informal collective action too, albeit of a type that shields them from the risk of repercussions (I hope). It’s an important step, and I have seen it stop harassment. Workers threatening to walk off the job if one of the bosses doesn’t act on information of sexual harassment can force that boss to act, if solely to keep the shop running smoothly.

But on the other end of the spectrum is an even more effective strategy: formal collective action. When it comes to the workplace, the most common vehicle for this step is a union. Language about “zero tolerance” for sexual harassment is often built into union contracts, providing a clear mandate for workers to act if harassment occurs. No longer are you “a bitch who can’t keep her mouth shut”; in a union, you’re adhering to the language everyone agreed upon.

When I was part of a union organizing drive among graduate students at my university last year, this argument — that a union is our best shot at combating sexual harassment and assault — was the most effective one I had when speaking to other grad students. According to a nationwide survey by the Association of American Universities, 44 percent of female graduate students report having been sexually harassed. 22 percent of female graduate students said this harassment came from a faculty member, while 16 percent said it came from a teacher or adviser. Multiple women, particularly those who work in the hard sciences — where funding comes directly from one faculty member (a PI) who oversees a lab of grad students — confessed horror stories of sexual harassment by their PIs, the stories often prefaced with “I haven’t told anyone else about what’s happening.” Some of these women became our most effective organizers.

And when it came to speaking to their male colleagues, no argument was more persuasive. While an engineering student might not be concerned with his wages (“My stipend’s good, and I’ll be making six figures in no time!”), he almost always could be won to supporting the union when I told him that “some of your female colleagues don’t have it so good, and they need this union.”

While sexual harassment is not a “bread-and-butter” issue in traditional union parlance, the ability of a union to provide a formal collective body that can file grievances over harassment, and promise to back up those experiencing harassment, is an invaluable argument for why union rights are women’s rights (among the many, many arguments for why unions are a feminist issue). Judging by reports from other graduate union campaigns, I’m not the only one who finds this an effective argument.

That power of a supervisor to scare a worker into silence about the harassment she’s experiencing? That exists in every sector, not just academia. For example, a recent survey reveals that 40 percent of female fast food workers experience sexual harassment in the workplace. A staggering number, it is significantly lower than the 70 percent of female restaurant workers Restaurant Opportunities Center United (ROC) reported as experiencing workplace sexual harassment. Importantly, 42 percent of those surveyed in the fast food industry who experience harassment feel forced to accept that harassment because they can’t afford to lose their jobs. More than one-in-five of these women report that, after raising the issue, their employer took negative action, including cutting their hours, changing them to a less desirable schedule, giving them additional duties, and being denied a raise.

In other words, they were punished for speaking up. So it’s no surprise these workers are fighting in ever-greater numbers for not only a raise, but a union. Any of us who want to stamp out sexual harassment in the workplace should be fighting for those protections too, no matter what type of work we do.

Note: an abridged version of this essay ran in Jacobin this week. It originated as a paywalled post on my Patreon, but given that I’ve seen union folks, especially those in the grad union movement, sharing this piece as a means to talk about sexual harassment, I’m posting it here so the full version — which has more specifics about grad unions — is accessible to everyone. If you want to support my writing, subscribe here.

re: free speech on college campuses

As I’ve noted previously, the absence of campus Zionists from the countless think pieces on campus activism and the right to free speech is glaring.

My view on the supposed conflict between the right to free speech and the right to equality across race/gender/sexualities is that it doesn’t exist, and we shouldn’t cede to the conservative framing of this debate as one in which these two aims are intractably opposed. Instead, we can (and should) argue that, in the case of current anti-racist protests, students are advocating for free speech by agitating for the conditions that would allow black students to freely exercise their speech. That rather than the ‘coddled’ enemies of speech they dislike, black students are defending this right which is being denied them. Having said this, the debate will nonetheless continue to operate as it is, what with the majority of media outlets serving fundamentally conservative societal functions. This being the case, we must start analyzing how the tactical censorious being displayed by a small subset of progressive activists is becoming the preferred tactic of a very different sort of campus activist: Zionists.

As yet another example of how effectively Zionists are using the censorious discourse of a right to feel safe on campus as a means for shutting down BDS (Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions) initiatives, the following is an email UC Santa Cruz students just received:

“On college campuses across the country, students are engaged in challenging but necessary conversations with administrators about race, religion, ethnicity, and identity.

At their best, challenging incidents can usher in long overdue changes that promote greater understanding and equality. At their worst, they can exacerbate tensions and contribute to what some experience as a hostile environment.

Globally, we’re seeing how hatred can lead to unimaginable acts of violence.

Nationally, students affiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement stood in solidarity with their peers at the University of Missouri who are protesting widespread racism on that campus and working toward meaningful change.

On our campus, which has a long and proud history of student engagement in critical issues of equity and social justice, I want to be sure we acknowledge differences of opinion and work to maintain civility in the midst of turmoil.

In student government, as is their right, the Student Union Assembly this week voted to reinstate a resolution urging the University of California to divest from Israel. The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement has generated passionate opinions on both sides.

I’m concerned this resolution will have a chilling effect on individuals within our campus community. However unintentional, its passage may create an environment in which some of our Jewish students feel alienated and less welcome on our campus.

We have a commitment at UC Santa Cruz to engaged, respectful dialogue. The free and open exchange of ideas is a pillar of our Principles of Community.

I am convening my Chancellor’s Diversity Advisory Council to discuss the climate for Jewish students on campus. The council has advocated for African American students, LGBT students, and the disabled members of our community, among others, and I want to be sure our campus community welcomes and supports Jewish students, faculty, and staff. I will share my thoughts about that conversation as it unfolds.

Universities are microcosms of our complex, diverse global society. With so many differences, the opportunities for division are endless. Instead, let us make the conscious choice to seek common ground, to forge understanding, and to cultivate compassion. By doing so, we will model the way for the world-a laudable and fitting goal for UC Santa Cruz.”

This administration has made use of radical organizing in support of black students to stifle a pro-Palestine initiative. These two struggles are deeply connected; to position them as opposed is a political move that needs to be argued against. As for me, I’m gonna keep arguing against whoever wants to censor speech they dislike – but more than nine times out of ten, that means I’m gonna be arguing with Zionists.

 

A Spectre is Haunting College Campuses

A recent piece about trigger warnings is making the rounds online.

The article, written by Rani Neutill, details the escalating requests for trigger warnings she faced while teaching a college course on sex and film. She starts the semester providing trigger warnings before each film she shows in the classroom, but it isn’t long before two students leave in tears after a screening. They hadn’t done the readings for that day, leaving them unaware of the film’s content. After class, Neutill has a particularly odious encounter with one of the teary-eyed students, a white female African American studies minor. This student is a Good White Ally,™ scolding our author, a woman of color, about the importance of showing diverse representations of African Americans. It’s indisputable: this student is the worst.

At this point, we can see where the story is going: Neutill’s students request ever more contrived warnings about the course content, and she complies with their requests. This dynamic stifles the course, with Neutill eventually sending “a meticulous email detailing which scene I was showing, where in the film the scene was, and what the content of the scene included” each night before class. While she began the semester a proponent of trigger warnings, by the end, she’s had enough: these students refuse to engage positions they disagree with, using trigger warnings to foreclose any chance of their grappling with difficult ideas. Instead of developing analytical skills, Neutill’s students opt for coddling. The state of campus political culture continues to spiral downward and the front of the classroom is further lined with eggshells.

Now, the most important kernel in the article can go almost unnoticed – Neutill’s job security, or lack thereof. A “wandering postdoc” and “not so young woman of color,” Neutill is presumably under close scrutiny from her department. In her account, she’s challenged more often in the classroom and given more critical teaching evaluations from her students than her white male colleagues. These higher standards matter for her job prospects. While I won’t speculate on Neutill’s reasons for accommodating her students’ increasingly ludicrous requests, I can imagine myself swallowing the urge to abandon trigger warnings if it meant keeping my job. If I wasn’t confident that the university would back me up should these coddled activists file complaints against me, I might cede the ground to them, choosing the course of action that helps me keep food on the table.

And that’s the issue: I wouldn’t bet my paycheck on the university’s support. Workplace insecurity makes it hard for non-tenured professors, adjuncts, and graduate students to set boundaries in the classroom or challenge students on contentious subjects. The backdrop of eroding work conditions that disproportionately impact workers of color, women, and queer employees is central to Neutill’s story.

Articles like Neutill’s get a lot of play these days, not only from conservatives, but on the left as well. The question of whether there’s an instinct toward censorship among left-leaning campus activists has come up in conversations I’ve had with left-wing political organizers, journalists, progressive faculty, and campus activists themselves — and invariably, these discussions turn upon the spectre of an elite (nearly always female) social justice activist threatening our intellectual and political freedoms.

Now look, I’m a twenty-something who’s got a B.A. from one liberal private university and now works and studies at another — I’ve met this figure, she exists, and she does seem to be rolling increasingly deep on campuses. And by god, she’s easy to make fun of – after all, we’ve established that she’s the worst – privileged, too sensitive, always trying to prove herself the Best White Person in the room, even if that means potentially throwing actual people of color under the bus, or in Neutill’s case, out of a job.

That being said, she’s only one minor figure on campus. If we’re concerned about the stifling of campus intellectual culture, why leave out the other censorship-happy campus activists? Organized Zionists have been more successful than any other group at leveraging the censoriousness built into the university’s corporate structure — they cost Steven Salaita his job, are compiling a McCarthyite blacklist of Palestine solidarity activists, and continue to shut down SJP organizing across the country through appeals to administrative power. In addition, there are the white supremacists – it surely would be a mistake to leave out the guys who pressured Boston University to fire Saida Grundy for tweeting what amounts to critical race theory 101 (and while BU didn’t fire Grundy, the university definitely didn’t back her up either).

To focus on the social justice activist’s political shortcomings is to miss the forest for the trees – after all, the source of much of whatever power she and other campus censors have is the structural condition of the university; nothing silences a professor like the lack of a secure contract. Not even the biggest and baddest of college activists can hope to stifle discussion as pervasively as precarious working conditions do; to direct our ire at the activist but not the university misdiagnoses the problem from the start.

If we want the free expression of ideas, it’s legitimate to discuss the first figure, the lefty-liberal campus activist, but framing this conversation around labor conditions allows us to bring in the others who, not surprisingly, often go unmentioned in discussions of campus political culture. Perhaps even more importantly, this view demystifies the institution most responsible for this mess: the neoliberal university. Graduate students and faculty censor themselves for fear of being painted anti-Semites, hysterical man-hating feminists, “reverse racists,” and yes, to avoid being labelled “problematic” too. Yet, fundamentally, much of this censorship happens because we’re terrified of being perceived as too controversial and losing a job, or worse, not getting hired in the first place.

Making fun of misguided tactics from progressive campus activists is satisfying, but it isn’t constructive, not when the right already spills so much ink engaging in this flavor of activist-bashing. Instead, to the extent that students are using social justice discourse, intentionally or not, to jeopardize academics’ jobs, we need to identify and challenge this. If censorship and appeals to power are becoming instinctive tactics for college activists, we should advocate for bottom-up collective action instead. But most importantly, if more academics had access to collective bargaining agreements, long-term contracts, and tenure, attempts to censor difficult discussions, whether by social justice activists, Zionists, racists, or anyone else, would be much more likely to meet with just the sort of critical intellectual engagement we all so desperately desire.