Publication Date

September 27, 2018

Perspectives Section

From the Executive Director

AHA Topic

Professional Life

The executive director’s column this month will yield to a report that has just been completed, the dissemination of which is a high priority for the Association. The AHA surveyed attendees at its last five annual meetings about sexual harassment they witnessed or experienced. The full report will be posted at www.historians.org/sexualharassmentreport. A summary appears below. The text represents a collaborative effort, and we are grateful to Susan Kent (chair, AHA Committee on Gender Equity) and Kevin Boyle (AHA vice president, Professional Division) for their hard work.

Mary Beth Norton, president
James Grossman, executive director

The AHA TownhouseLike other scholarly associations, the AHA has long recognized the importance of combating sexual harassment in our ranks, but recent events have brought those concerns even more to the forefront than previously. Accusations of misconduct against prominent men in and out of academe and the development of the #MeToo movement, along with requests from our members, led the Council of the Association to consider updating and revising our sexual harassment policies. In addition to placing the topic on the agenda of the January 2018 Council meeting and sponsoring a late-breaking session to discuss sexual harassment at the annual meeting, the Council decided to survey AHA members about personal experiences at the last five annual meetings. We focused on those venues on the advice of our general counsel, because we have legal control over such settings.

Because the American Political Science Association (APSA) had recently polled its own members about sexual harassment, with APSA’s permission the AHA decided to adapt its survey instrument for our use, while retaining the same categories to produce comparable results. The survey was sent to 12,735 AHA members who had attended one or more of the past five conventions. AHA members interested in making comparisons can access the APSA results at its website, https://www.apsanet.org/.

Respondents to the survey totaled 1,656: 58.5 percent were women; 40 percent men; and less than 1 percent gender non-conforming. Eighty-two percent were white; nearly 6 percent Latino or Hispanic; 3.5 percent African American or Afro-Caribbean; 3.5 percent Asian; under 1 percent Native American; and another 1 percent Middle Eastern or Arab American. Three percent of the pool described themselves as “other,” while just over 4 percent chose not to identify their race or ethnicity. Tenured professors comprised 46 percent of the respondents; untenured professors made up 18 percent; graduate students, 10 percent; non-tenure-track faculty and independent scholars, 10 percent; and a wide array of K–12 teachers, retired professors, and library, archive, and museum professionals made up the rest.

The survey posed a number of substantive questions about experiences of sexism members had encountered at AHA annual meetings in the past five years. Nearly 28 percent of the 1,656 respondents report being put down or condescended to at an AHA conference at least once. Almost 15 percent had heard sexist comments uttered in their presence; 10 percent had been the object of behavior that made them uncomfortable, such as leering, staring, or ogling.

A second set of questions queried members about behaviors that amounted specifically to sexual harassment. Seventy-seven respondents—5 percent of the total—had received unwanted attempts to establish a romantic sexual relationship at least once. Slightly more than 1.25 percent had felt bribed to engage in sexual behavior with some sort of reward or special treatment; nearly 1 percent reported being threatened with retaliation for not being “sexually cooperative”; and fully 5 percent had experienced being touched in a way that made them uncomfortable. Even though relatively few respondents recounted such offensive behaviors, the Association regards these reports as revealing unacceptable and unprofessional conduct unworthy of members of the historical profession.

Qualitative responses to open-ended questions yielded a mix of results. Many people commented that matters had improved dramatically over the course of their careers, although many women believed that their older age accounted for a decrease in unwanted sexual attention. A great many respondents noted that while they themselves had not been sexually harassed, they had either witnessed such behavior or had heard credible reports of it.

Accounts of general sexism, as distinct from specific episodes of sexual harassment, animated many comments. “The put-downs usually involve male scholars not tak[ing] women’s work or work on women’s history as seriously as their own work,” noted one member, a problem that ranged across age and academic rank. “Some male job candidates have been condescending to me, assuming I was a secretary instead of a professor on a search committee,” wrote another member. “Mostly, that’s bad for them, though, since that eliminated them from consideration. If they can’t deal with a woman on a committee, they really shouldn’t be grading women in the classroom.”

Two respondents described a panel session in which a historian claimed that the women who participated in anti–Vietnam War protests were “easy.” “It was an erroneous and sexist assertion,” one of them said. “But it wasn’t harassment. I wouldn’t think the AHA should do anything, but it was unfortunate that the chairs of the session didn’t acknowledge one of the people in the audience who voiced disagreement and allow for a reply. The statement just hung there and the conversation went on. I think this is more typical of the way sexism goes down in the profession.”

The survey also asked members to recommend ways that the AHA could make its annual meeting more inclusive, more welcoming, and safer with regard to sexual harassment. Almost a third of all respondents offered advice. The most frequent comment concerned the continued use of hotel rooms and suites as interview sites. Despite the AHA’s efforts to reduce the incidence of this practice, it still exists and creates uncomfortable situations for people in vulnerable positions. Respondents urged greater efforts to end the use of hotel rooms and suites by making more professional spaces available for interviews. Some advised the AHA to abandon the use of hotels altogether for its annual meetings—to look to college campuses or convention centers instead. Others urged the elimination of job interviews at the annual meeting so as to cut down on the potential vulnerability of young scholars to unwanted sexual advances. They noted that the use of digital interview tools would make it possible for search committees to skip AHA interviews. Because of such continuing concerns expressed in the survey, the AHA Professional Division will place the issue of interviews at the annual meeting on the agenda for its next meeting.

The second most frequent comments called for more gender balance on panels. Program committees have made great strides in this direction, but respondents expressed a desire for more to be done.

Many respondents urged that the AHA develop a code of conduct of professional behavior to include in all registration materials. Members would be expected to conform to the principles established as a condition of their attendance at the annual meeting. Along these lines, some respondents also endorsed the creation of a reporting apparatus where violations of professional conduct could be registered. Most of all, these commentators urged that AHA guidelines be enforced with some kind of sanction for those who do not comply. (At its June 2018 meeting, the AHA Council put such a policy into place.)

Many respondents remarked on the role of alcohol in producing situations that lead to sexual harassment; they recommended that networking venues be broadened out from evening “smokers” and other events serving alcohol. More breakfast or luncheon opportunities, they noted, would make it possible for members to meet and talk with one another without the presence of alcohol. (These are expensive to organize, though we can explore possibilities for more “brown bag” lunches in which members supply their own food. Other associations have had good experiences facilitating networking with “dine-around” dinner programs.)

Finally, a great many respondents believe the AHA is doing a good job in attempting to deal with problems that exist within our society generally. The survey itself, many noted, constitutes a promising start to a long-term process of monitoring progress and reporting results.

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