This article is published in the January 2008 issue.

2008 CRA Snowbird Session Focus: “Practical Solutions to a Continuing Problem: Sexual Harassment”

Expanding the Pipeline

Many believe that the problems of sexual harassment and gender discrimination have largely vanished in our computer science community. While the prevalence of explicit discrimination and open harassment has diminished, it has not gone away entirely and implicit bias continues to exist. Discussions among female researchers on on-line forums and in professional groups indicate that graduate students and junior faculty in particular have concerns, and at times experience disturbing instances. There seems to be a consensus that departmental leadership plays a crucial role in creating a better environment. With this in mind, the 2008 CRA Conference at Snowbird for department chairs and labs/centers directors will include a panel session on sexual harassment and gender discrimination.

Clearly progress has been made in academia in dealing with sexual harassment and gender discrimination. Most academic institutions make available a range of written and on-line materials, have processes in place to deal with reports of discrimination and harassment, run regular training sessions, and include discussion of bias and harassment issues in orientation programs for students and faculty. Consequently, a considerable number of people, at least within academia, believe that explicit sexual harassment is a thing of the past, and that more subtle forms of gender discrimination have waned. Unfortunately, there continue to be disturbing incidents of harassment, and “implicit bias” is a pervasive phenomenon, particularly in male-dominated fields such as computer science. This is substantiated by a large body of research in the social sciences, as well as in discussions among female researchers.

In some sense, explicit harassment should be easier to deal with than subtle, unintentional bias. After all, there is overall agreement that an incident and/or pattern of harassment should be reported to the administration so that processes within the university can be followed. Nonetheless, there is often significant uneasiness about reporting such incidents. Women experiencing harassment, especially graduate students and junior faculty, may be unsure at what point the legal threshold has been crossed and how to react in situations that feel uncomfortable. Even when a clearly illegal incident takes place, filing a complaint is often viewed as a last step because of concerns about not being believed and about possible retribution for making the complaint. Senior faculty may assume that harassment and discrimination do not happen in their department and discredit the complaint. Even if they believe the complaint, their view may be that little can be done with respect to the behavior and attitudes of certain individuals.

While explicit harassment is clearly egregious, implicit bias is also an important current issue. While often unintentional, it is still damaging to women’s careers. Implicit bias, which has been widely studied, manifests itself in undervaluing the capabilities and contributions of women in male-dominated fields. Because it is not as obvious as explicit sexual harassment, people are less aware of it and there are fewer procedures in place for countering it.

Efforts to improve the climate and diversity in academia need to address the full range of issues from explicit harassment to implicit bias. A number of the NSF-funded ADVANCE projects are trying to develop approaches for addressing these problems. For example, workshops organized by the STRIDE committee within the University of Michigan’s ADVANCE program argue that academic departments need to: 1) build up a critical mass for currently underrepresented groups, 2) continue to work towards eliminating biased evaluations, 3) recognize the impact of the accumulation of disadvantages affecting members of underrepresented groups, and 4) recognize and address the range of subtle biases that too often influence and guide expectations and decisions regarding members of an underrepresented group. The achievement of such goals requires strong departmental leadership.

A recent discussion on a dedicated on-line forum for female computer scientists suggested that graduate students and junior faculty would welcome more information and more support on these issues from their departments. In particular, they would like to see their department leadership take a more active role in informally monitoring gender bias and fostering a more supportive department environment. Motivated by this discussion, the 2008 CRA Conference at Snowbird will include a session that will explore the question of what departments and individual faculty can do to minimize the likelihood of sexual harassment, to neutralize the effects of implicit bias, and to promote a departmental climate that is supportive of everyone. The discussion: 1) will focus on practical solutions departments can effectively implement, including ways of responding to harassment that does not meet the legal threshold but is detrimental to the environment and all involved; and 2) will be based on strategies that are grounded in extensive research from the social-science literature. Often the strategies are also applicable to dealing with other forms of discrimination (racial, ethnic, etc.). The session will be interactive, with participants discussing case studies similar to actual situations people have experienced. The panelists include Eric Grimson (MIT), Susanne Hambrusch (Purdue University), Maria Klawe (Harvey Mudd College), and Valerie Taylor (Texas A&M).

Lori Clarke is a Professor in the Department of Computer Science at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, vice chair of CRA’s Board of Directors, and co-chair of CRA-W. Susanne Hambrusch is a Professor in the Department of Computer Science at Purdue University and a member of CRA-W. Martha Pollackis Dean of the School of Information Science and a Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Michigan, and a member of CRA’s Board of Directors.

2008 CRA Snowbird Session Focus: “Practical Solutions to a Continuing Problem: Sexual Harassment”