In the presence of

Oct 16 2012 Published by under [Life Trajectories]

The high school I went to cared a great deal about students accepting responsibility for their decisions. There was an honor code and various rules to reinforce the need to think about one's actions. One of these rules was the "In The Presence Of" rule.

This rule was fairly simple and straight-forward, leaving little room for interpretation. Basically, if you were in the presence of someone breaking a rule you were just as guilty as they were even if you were not participating. You're chatting with someone smoking behind the gym, you're getting treated like you were lighting up to. It was your responsibility to either discourage certain activities in your presence or leave those performing them to themselves.

I bring this up because there are professional contexts where this concept is pretty useful. Certainly this is true in instances of misconduct, but I'm specifically thinking about sexual harassment. If you think this isn't still a problem in science, you might just have your head up your ass. I hear several stories a year about a female scientist being subjected to some form of inappropriate conversation from a (usually senior to them) male scientist. I've seen it in action and even been directly confronted with this stupidity.

Whereas I am all for women standing up and calling out this kind of bullshit, it's naive and a cop out to lay this responsibility entirely at the feet of those at the wrong end of the power dynamic in these interactions. If the goal is to stamp out indecent behavior by male scientists, then other male scientists are in just as much (and better, in many cases) of a position to do so. Which brings us back to our high school rule.

Dudes. If you are in the presence of someone making a woman uncomfortable with their conversation, gestures, physical contact, etc., and you just let it go, you are as guilty as the jerk is. Find a way to let your colleague, be they senior or junior, know that their behavior is not acceptable. It's neither easy or comfortable, especially if you are caught off-guard, but watching it happen and doing nothing is just another way we promote harassment around us.

18 responses so far

  • My high-school also had an honor code, but it didn't include an "In The Presence Of" rule. Rather, we had a rule that any student with knowledge of a fundamental infraction by another student--lying, cheating, or stealing--had an obligation to report the infraction to the Honor Board. Any failure to report was considered an infraction as well.

  • FSGrad says:

    You. Are. Awesome.

    Yet again.

  • Kati says:

    Thanks for posting this.

  • lmm says:

    My high school had that too, but it dated from the days when most of the rule-breaking was pot-smoking, and they wanted to avoid the situation where the only person who got in trouble was the one who got caught holding the joint.

    On the larger point, though, agreed!

  • Mac says:

    Well said and much appreciated!

  • Joshua King says:

    This post will score you huge brownie points with binders full of women. Leadership, blog-style.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    That was the goal, since the top shelf in my office is full of them.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    "....nor tolerate those who do" was how an Honor Code I was under at one point put it. It isn't that difficult.

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  • A says:

    The specific wording of "just as guilty" seems incredibly wrong to me. Certainly, e.g. doing nothing in the presence of a groper is still distinctively better than groping too?

  • Kate Clancy says:

    This is so fantastic. Thank you. I am giving a talk at the American Association of Physical Anthropology meetings in April as a part of the Ethics Symposium, and was invited to speak about lab and field sexual misconduct. I'm going to refer to your post for sure.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    A, I think the whole point of this post is that I believe that witnessing something like groping and giving it a pass is, in fact, just as bad. It's silent compliance and it is a major factor in the continuation of such behavior. If people don't feel like there are repercussions to their actions, they will keep doing it.

  • A - groping is considered sexual assault. If you think saying or doing nothing when witnessing a crime of sexual assault is OK, do you also think its OK to do nothing while witnessing rape, another type of sexual assault?

  • A says:

    I strongly believe that theft is not as bad as murder - this is not an endorsement of theft.

    @ proflikesubstance
    I agree with you that the silent compliance is essential for the continuation of such behaviour, and that the passive enablers hence have a moral liability for the misconduct. I am simply baffled by that fact that you see absolutely no distinction in responsibility between the original perpetrator and the enablers.

    @ ScientistMother
    My first post only had two sentences, maybe you could read it again?

  • A - Perhaps you should use a better example, because your issue was with the concept that doing nothing make the person "just as guilty". Are you just as guilty standing by and doing nothing when someone is assaulted? Do you watch a theft happening and not call the cops? Calling the police would be considered doing something. Reporting a crime is doing something. Reporting groper is doing something.

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  • ALDHgal says:

    Sexual harassment often occurs in circumstances where there are no witnesses. This gives the victim of the harassment no real options for redress, and is a source of real power for the perpetrator of the harassment. In those instances where a witness exists, I would certainly hope that that person would step up and do something about the situation.
    In this case the moral distinctions for perpetrator and enabler are pretty small, indeed. Just ask a victim.

  • A. Marina Fournier says:

    ALDHgal says:
    Sexual harassment often occurs in circumstances where there are no witnesses. This gives the victim of the harassment no real options for redress, and is a source of real power for the perpetrator of the harassment.

    I was newly pregnant when we had to move out of our rental. I forget who we hired, but there were at least two incidents of "accidental" brushing up against my breasts and rear. I did my best after the second one to avoid him physically. Wouldn't have been enough for a case, but I did inform women, or offices proportionally high in female staff, not to consider his firm for moving, and why.

    No other mover we've hired has been like this. Most of them wouldn't have dreamed of it.

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