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Chapter 8. Sexual harassment is only the tip of the iceberg of a cultural issue in economics

Updated: Feb 5

This is a summary and digest of thoughts coming out of our workshop on sexual harassment, consent and positive female sexuality held virtually in early December 2020.


Is sexual harrasment really such a big problem in economics? Yup.

It was 2018 when the AEA published its Report on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession with a special introduction on the topic of sexual harassment. The NYT reports: "Nearly 100 female economists say a peer or a colleague has sexually assaulted them. Nearly 200 say they were the victim of an attempted assault. And hundreds say they were stalked or touched inappropriately, according to a far-reaching survey of the field." According to the testimonies shared in this report, most women had experienced harassment or assault from a more senior academic often at or after seminar presentations or conferences. This is, to be politically correct, messed up.


Atmospheres matter. Discussing with friends I often find myself complaining about a perceived atmosphere of hostility, mistrust and doubt in the economics profession. Rather than assuming that researchers have something interesting to say, they must often prove that they are not talking nonsense. They must be ready to be attacked by their audience on the smallest errors in their analysis, in ways which do not signal "hey, thanks for sharing your research but I think you wanna be careful about this and check that" but rather "why the hell are you wasting my time with this shit and here let me show you how much more I am an expert on your research field than you are". I have not experienced this myself but I have seen it happen and simply the fact that I know this could happen to me, or, that it will once I get there, scares the shit out of me. What does this have to do with sexual harassment and assault? It is the atmosphere created by such a behaviour. Atmospheres often depend on the people in the room with the most power (i.e. senior professors) and are therefore very hard to change when you are not part of that circle. In particular, it seems to me that the atmosphere in economics is hard to change because we are not used to thinking about the way human psyches interact in a non-derogatory way. "Niceties" or "touchy-feely" are the types of belittling words some people mistakenly use to describe decency in professional relationships. The notion that benevolence among researchers is a luxury good but in principle in the way of getting ahead rather than the foundation of any successful academic career is pervasive. And it seems to me that those who use belittling language in this context may do so to hide behind a protection shield from something they for once understand only poorly. It is absolutely okay to be awkward and/or not understand subtleties in human interaction very well. But it is not okay to approach the issues associated with such behaviour with arrogrance and ignorance rather than humbleness and willingness to learn.



Why we should all care about the atmosphere in the room. It is not only much nicer for everyone to be in an environment where people are benevolent towards one another, but the normalization of toxic environments on the other hand is conducive to other much worse types of abuse. You can think of it as a negative externality if you like. A toxic and threatening environment in which the powerful (professors) are allowed to abuse their power towards the less powerful (junior researchers) in the name of their great intellect and/or academic clout is conducive to (sexual) harassment because it normalizes the type of disrespect and undermining of a person's integrity that are underlying both actions, verbally attacking someone else in front of a crowd (prevalent in econ seminars, conferences, job market talks) and sexually harassing or assaulting someone else when nobody else is looking (prevalent in and after the same events). I am not saying that everyone who is verbally aggressive is a sexual predator or vice verca, I am just saying, the strong prevalence of economists at the intersection of verbally aggressive and powerful and the lack of outspoken disagreement with such behaviour leads to an atmosphere conducive to other types of abuse.


Efficiency bites itself in the tail when it interferes with fundamental ethics.

Some may ask: is it inefficient to shut up a super smart professor from giving a derogatory but super smart comment? I think there are at least two sides to this question. On the one hand, you may upset a great mind who would have given amazing comments and now you pay the price of not getting them. You may also face social backlash from those interested in keeping the social order which you would go against by figuratively telling him or her to shut up. Clearly, doing so entails considerable risks for anyone not in a very safe and comfortable career position. On the other hand, imagine how many other smart people may not voice their comments or questions because of the threat of being bullied. Imagine how many other smart people may avoid presenting their amazing research in the first place to avoid being talked to in such a way or drop out of the profession altogether because they do not want to put up with it. I clearly know my answer to the initial question. But regardless I wonder whether we should be asking this question in the first place. Do we want to be a profession where the first question we ask when it comes to protecting the human integrity of our members is whether that is efficient? If yes, then maybe the question of where the pipeline leakes is answered easily because it is right here in the lack of ethics. However, if a sufficient number of senior professors agreed that changing the atmosphere is an endeavour worth exploring, maybe there would be some uncomfortable situations in the short run, but in the medium- to long-run we may finally see the changes everyone is saying they really want to see: more women and other minorities in the profession and a more open exchange of ideas. Think about it.


What can we do about it? First, we need to differentiate between bullies and those who may simply be unaware of the negative externalities caused by their behaviour. Maybe they think they are doing the person a favour by "preparing them for the field" or maybe they have simply gotten used to talking to people in this way because had they not, they would not be where they are today. All of this is human and we do not want to engage in counter-bullying. However, if change is to happen, we need to start talking about this and explaining to people that it is desireable for them to change their behaviour. As a first step, call bullies out on their derogatory behaviour. It is important that (prospective) students see this so they understand that they will not have to face the same treatment and be left alone with it. If you feel too uncomfortable doing this, try to make a counter comment letting the junior know that you on the other hand think their research is interesting and something they did well (balance the atmosphere) and maybe try speaking to the bully afterwards to let him or her know about your concerns with their behaviour. Then, get as many other professors as possible to agree on a code of conduct stating that the tone of conversations should always be benevolent. Remember, this is not about telling someone whose research is bad quality that it is good quality - it is about communicating what you have to say in a way that respects the other person's integrity, whatever seniority status they may have. Make non-abiding people understand that their comments, as smart as they may be, are unwelcome. If a sufficient number of professors coordinated on such actions, the atmosphere would become non-conducive to bullies so that they, instead of people into "niceties", are silenced. Wouldn't it be nice?



Sexual harrassment in our community.

When we read this report in the spring of 2020, we decided to open a document in our community where people could anonymously share their own experiences. Two of us took the opportunity to bravely do so. One story was about an office setting with repeated verbal and sexually offensive behaviour by a former superior. The participant was also sexually assaulted during this time. The other story was about a case of questionable consent on a sexual relationship between a participant and a former superior. There may be something healing about writing and reflecting about scarring experiences. A lot of us do not like to talk about or share what we have experienced because we feel that we are partly responsible for it or because we feel that our story may not be shocking enough compared to what others might have experienced. While we understand and relate to such thoughts, we wanted to give our participants a judgement-free space to share and reflect on their experiences if they wanted to. The intention was to convey a sense of "you are not alone".


Silence does not mean we can look away.

It is very important to remember that just because people may not be talking about sexual harassment much, it does not mean that it is not happening. A survey of a representative sample of 4,495 women aged 16 and above in Switzerland on sexual violence in 2019 showed that 22% of the responding women had experienced non-consentual sexual activities. Many more go unreported. Research by the Center of Employment Equity at the University of Massachusetts Amherst found that the overwhelming majority (99.8%) of people who experienced sexual harassment at work never filed formal charges. Evidently, most people do not feel adequately supported by their employers to report harassment, quite the opposite. Rather than blaming people for not reporting their experiences, it may be worthwhile to assess how different environments make doing so intimidating, and start working on that.


What is sexual harassment?

The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission states: "Harassment can include sexual harassment or unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature." Such unwelcome attention can take many forms in reality and range from sexual jokes or looks to outright coercion. Unwelcome is the keyword here. Unbalanced power dynamics can make it tricky to infer what is wanted and what isn't because the junior person involved may not disclose his or her true discomfort if he or she believes this may negatively impact their future relationship with a superior. If you are a superior and you cannot read the room almost surely, be conservative (I did not think I would ever say these words but here I mean them).


Who experiences sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment is most often 'visible' in the majority of a society. Given the poor representation of minorities in economics for us it would be cis-gendered white women. Of course, it can also happen to men. What about sexual harassment at the intersection of BAME (black, asian and minority ethnic) or POC (person of color) folks and various gender identities such as transgender, intersex or non-binary? We know little about it but we want to emphasize that cis-gendered white women are not the only ones experiencing harassment and that we want to be allies to all of you. We talked about intersectionality in greater detail in Chapter 6.


How to combat sexual harassment? As none of us is an expert on the topic, we invited Paola Antognini from Viol-Secours, a Geneva-based feminist association for the fight against gender-based and sexual violence. The association accompanies and supports women, transgender, intersex and non-binary people, who have experienced gender-based and sexual violence as well as their entourage from the age of 16. They also set up prevention projects aimed at preventing sexual violence and limiting their consequences. Paola challenged us to think about our own ideas and perceptions about sexual harassment, explained the legal situation in Switzerland and debunked a few very common myths about it. An example of such a myth is the idea that most victims of sexual violence are preyed on by a stranger with a weapon in an empty street at night. Another one is that it only happens to women wearing promiscuous clothes. Both are far from reality. Most reported incidents of sexual violence happen in public spaces, within the household or at work in everyday-life situations. Why do we need to talk about these myths? "We define myths as a set of images, representations, prejudices and unverified statements, accepted as truths, which have the function of naturalizing and justifying behaviour.” (Ducret V. et Grela C. (1989), « Pile je gagne, face tu perds », les mythes autour du viol dans les tribunaux, à travers la presse). Myths feed a common misconception that victims of sexual harassment are themselves to blame if they are harassed because they went alone into a dark alley, or because they wore that dress Tuesday night or because they smiled a moment too long at their co-worker (...). People who say or imply such things engage in victim-blaming, thereby creating or exacerbating toxic environments where harassment is prone to happen by undermining the integrity and self-confidence of (potential) victims and excusing the predatory behaviour of (potential) perpetrators. I am often surprised by how many people seemingly thoughtlessly make comments along those lines. I hope you do not know what you are saying. Please rethink, stop and ask others to do so as well. We can only combat sexual violence if we manage to create environments that empower victims to speak up and hold perpetrators accountable. Check out Paola's slides below to read about some other myths and check out this video to learn about what constitutes consent.


Viol_Secours_2020
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What are the reporting mechanisms available to us?

All of our universities as well as Viol-Secours have reporting mechanisms with most offering anonymous and non-anonymous procedures as well as other types of longer term support which you can find under Links. We do encourage you to make use of them should you feel the need to. And we are here as well if you are in doubt.


Does economics have something to say about sexual harassment? Unfortunately, yes.

In a nutshell, Basu (2003) shows that there is an economic reasoning to forbid sexual harassment in terms of Pareto efficiency. Hersch (2011) links the risk of experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace with wages to estimate the cost of sexual harassment in the workplace. This workshop was the first one where participants put a disclaimer in their slides to indicate that they disagree with the message of the paper and views expressed therein. Reading them was outright discouraging and made me wonder which ethics commission ever deemed these research questions appropriate. Economists have many interesting things to say but the efficiency of preventing sexual harassment is not one of them. In fact, it is a purely ethical matter and thus the question of efficiency has no information value for a discussion about it. Is it extreme to take this stand? If so, the economics profession may wish to rethink hard about why their pipeline is so leaky.


Basu_2003
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Hersch_2011
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What about psychology? Ironically, the reading became more offputting after that. "The Cultural Suppression of Female Sexuality" seemed like a relevant topic to discuss in conjunction with sexual harassment. After all, the latter can be seen as a tool for the former. The authors acknowledge and analyze the cultural suppression of female sexuality, that is, the double standard of sexual morality which has condemned certain sexual activities by women while permitting the identical actions to men. Their stated goal was to assess the channels most likely to be at the root of these double standards. To do so, they compared three hypotheses: (i) women have a milder sex drive than men (counter argument: sexual revolution in the 60s-80s) or women have a higher cost of casual sex due to possible unwanted pregnancies (counter argument: widespread contraception), (ii) men curtail female sexuality because it presents a threat to the orderly society they want, (iii) women cooperate to stifle each others' sexuality because they use their sexuality as currency in exchange for favours by men. The authors then go on to argue why it seems to them that (iii) is the most likely option. The arguments go: "Adult women feel more disapproval from female peers than from men over engaging in sexual activity beyond the current norms." Or: "Women support the double standard more than men.". (...)


Most of us took stark issue with this paper because it argues in complete disregard of how socially contructed norms --- or the presence of preferences endogenous to social norms (Bertrand, 2020) --- influence behaviour. We have written about this in greater detail in Chapter 5 but the logic goes that a girl who grows up learning that her sexuality is bad and shameful may wish to behave in a pro-social way by reflecting this belief in her actions throughout her life. It may be a conscious choice but it is by no means a free one because it is taken conditional on the construct of the social rules surrounding her. Adherence to social norms is very human and a major discussion point in the contemporary literature on gender equality. The conclusions drawn in this paper are not robust to this mechanism and thus we asbolutely do not agree with them.


Baumeister_Twenge_2002_presentation
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Baumeister_Twenge_2002_discussion
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Positive female sexuality is hard when women are constantly sexualized.

We did not get to speak much about positive female sexuality in the workshop but we do think that it is an important and very much related topic. Why is that? We live in a society where women are often perceived as primarily sexual objects and those who are not tend not to be well respected. Girls learn that they better be 'hot' and 'cool' but still 'hard to get' and not too 'slutty'. When a woman is perceived as beautiful and sexy, she is often perceived as only that. This may translate into people commenting on her looks excessively while overlooking her work or personality traits. It may come in the form of repeated sexual advances even when this is not asked for. She may walk down the street and someone may get uncomfortably close to her, comment or whistle, also known as 'catcalling'. It may also come in the more subtle but no less harmful form of unwelcome (sarcastic) sexual or sexist comments. It happens. All the time. This 'sexualization' of women makes the victim feel bad. It is a type of bullying and it prevents women from understanding that their sexuality is something natural and beautiful and not something to be ashamed of. We all have experienced it one way or the other and we will likely keep experiencing it. This is a real burden and we cannot change it now. But whoever needs to hear this: it is not your fault.


In recent years, much more attention has been put on female pleasure. While mainstream porn and Hollywood stereotypes still largely give a distorted picture of actual sexual female pleasure, more and more attention has been put on researching the female orgasm. Sex toys geared specifically towards women are booming. There is a whole range of feminist porn. And a prominent feminist and actor, Emma Watson, has been advertising OMGyes, an affordable and subscription-based website with how-to videos and interviews by real women talking about and showing how they reach their own orgasm. This definitely puts self care on a whole other level. Treat yourself!


The Apéro

Finally, during our Apéro, we had an amazing Q&A session with Prof. Eleonore Lepinard who generously shared her experiences with us and answered our many questions. The content shared remains private.


References


Basu, Kaushik (2003). The Economics and Law of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 17 (3): 141-157. https://www.aeaweb.org/articles?id=10.1257/089533003769204399


Baumeister, Roy F., and Jean M. Twenge (2002). Cultural suppression of female sexuality. Review of General Psychology 6.2:166-203.

http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.487.3191&rep=rep1&type=pdf


CSWEP (2018). 2017 Report on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession. CSWEP News, Issue I. https://www.aeaweb.org/content/file?id=6769.


Hersch, Joni (2011). Compensating Differentials for Sexual Harassment. American Economic Review Papers and Proceedings, 101 (3): 630-34. https://www.aeaweb.org/articles?id=10.1257/aer.101.3.630