Sexual Harassment in Philosophy (guest post by Janice Dowell and David Sobel)


The following is a guest post* by Janice Dowell and David Sobel, professors of philosophy at Syracuse University. It is also posted at PEA Soup.

[Betty Tompkins, “Women Words (Warhol #1)]

Sexual Harassment in Philosophy
by Janice Dowell and David Sobel

Our aim in this short post is to provide a brief summary of the general picture of sexual harassment as it applies to the academic community and to philosophy in particular. In a follow-up post, we will offer a number of proposals for how departments and individuals can act to fight harassment and support victims. Some of those proposals will no doubt seem controversial to some. Understanding why those proposals are warranted will require first understanding the extent and repercussions of harassment.

We need to understand that we as philosophers and teachers operate in a world in which sexual harassment is not rare. This recognition should be reflected in our practice, and two points are especially important.

First, philosophers are well aware both of the multiple ways in which language communicates information and of the effects of language that extend beyond communication. So, we should be particularly alive to such considerations in the language we use for teaching and discussing philosophy. When we casually and unnecessarily offer examples involving rape, sexual harassment, or false accusations of either, we should be aware of how probable it is that some audience members, readers, or fellow discussants will have been sexually harassed or assaulted and disbelieved or dismissed upon reporting.

Second, understanding the general picture is relevant to whether and how we should make institutional changes in philosophy. Some philosophers take the view that since they personally know so many philosophers and know of so few prosecutions or credible accusations, sexual harassment must be very rare in philosophy. If that view is right, institutional reforms may not be urgent, or even warranted at all. But if it’s wrong, the status quo is much harder to defend.

With that in mind, here’s our brief guide for the perplexed, all of which is taken from publicly available materials.

  1. What is sexual harassment? 

According to the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission: “Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.”[1]

  1. How common is sexual harassment in general? 

Estimates about the prevalence of sexual harassment in the U.S. vary: between 25% to 85% of women report having experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. This is a significant range. But it is worth noting that even the low-end estimate of 25% is quite high.

  1. Is sexual harassment also common in academia?

There’s less literature on this. But there’s some.

  • If you want documented cases, one resource is the website ‘Not a Fluke’, which is maintained by Julia Libarkin of Michigan State University. It lists 655 publicly documented cases in total, 15 of which are in philosophy (1980-2017). This list includes only the rare cases in which there is a public finding or admission of guilt. That list partly formed the basis for a recent study—which is forthcoming in the Utah Law Review—of 221 harassment complaints by graduate students against faculty members. According to that study, one in ten female graduate students at major research universities report being sexually harassed by a faculty member. (For a summary, see here.)
  • If you want survey data, there’s: a 2014 survey of 666 scientists who did field research away from their home universities, which found that 64% reported experiencing sexual harassment and over 20% reported sexual assault, primarily by academics at institutions other than their own; a 2016 survey of 525 graduate students at the University of Oregon, which found that 38% of female students and 22% of male students reported being sexually harassed by faculty or staff. For more recent and comprehensive data, one might consult the joint 2018 report by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, which cites a number of studies, including one indicating that, at 58%, higher education has the second highest rate of sexual harassment, surpassed only by the military. (Also, for more general data on research universities, you might also read the 2015 report commissioned by the American Association of Universities.) These findings fit the general pattern of several similar surveys going back to the 1980s. 
  1. If cases of sexual harassment are so common in academia, how come I know about so few of them? 

Some of us hear a good deal more about cases of sexual harassment in philosophy than others. It may be that those who have made it clear they are safe to talk to, for example, by publicly expressing sympathy for victims, have more opportunities to talk to victims than those who don’t. But we can give less speculative, data-driven explanations for why some of us hear so little about harassment in our profession.

We’ll focus on a few reasons that are particularly germane to sexual harassment, and especially sexual harassment in academia.

  • Victims leave their profession or change jobs. In general, a well-documented harm of sexual harassment is that victims often leave their profession. According to one estimate, 80% of victims of sexual harassment change jobs within two years. If philosophers who are sexually harassed cease to be (professional) philosophers, and so plausibly cease to interact with other (professional) philosophers, this could lead many (professional) philosophers to underestimate the prevalence of sexual harassment in philosophy. Even in cases in which a philosopher changes jobs, but remains in the profession, departmental memory and awareness of the problem can be lost.
  • Perpetrators also change departments. For legal reasons, this may mean colleagues are unaware that one of their own is a perpetrator.
  • Fear of retaliation. Say that a victim wants to stay in the profession. If so, the fear of retaliation generates strong incentives to not come forward with a formal complaint or incentives to move to another department if they do. In general, such fears are well-founded. A 2003 study found that 75% of employees who spoke out against workplace mistreatment faced some form of retaliation. In academia, and especially for graduate students in academia, such fears are especially well-founded: their careers depend upon letters of recommendation (and, often, other more informal reputational assessments) from people that are likely to be or be colleagues with their harassers. A similar point applies to other academics who lack permanent job security: to quote an anonymous academic writing in The Guardian, “no one can afford to be known as ‘the one who complained’.” Perhaps for this reason, the targets of harassment tend to be more vulnerable members of university communities, particularly women and those who are LGBTQ and, of those, especially those who are black or brown. So there are likely to be far more incidents of abuse than public or formal accusations thereof.
  • Inadequate institutional responses. Aside from those sort of disincentives for victims to come forward, it is also often difficult for victims to marshal sufficient evidence to justify a formal finding by an institutional body. But even when victims can marshal such evidence, institutions have strong incentives—to avoid negative publicity or alienating major donors; to avoid problems with boards of governance; or to appease powerful, tenured faculty—to avoid proceeding with complaints at all, or at least avoid proceeding with them in a public fashion. Hence the reluctance of several large universities to take significant action even with serious and high-profile accusations of sexual harassment: consider the Chronicle of Higher Education’s overview of institutional responses to 15 high-profile cases of public accusations, four of which are against philosophers. And for more general discussion of university responses to sexual harassment, including student-to-student harassment, see this special issue of the Journal of School Violence. (The documentary The Hunting Ground also provides ample evidence that colleges and universities act on the above incentives.)
  • Requirements not to discuss an ongoing or completed investigation. It is common for Title IX offices to require complainants not to discuss an ongoing investigation with anyone. Non-disclosure agreements may also prohibit victims of successful complaints from discussing their case.
  1. Maybe the evidence indicates that harassment is fairly commonplace in academia. But, how bad is that, really?  Harassment is different from assault—it’s just words.

The harms caused by harassment are often quite serious.

“Our findings confirm that sexual harassment is a stressor that is associated with increased depressive symptoms. Our quantitative results show that women and men who experience more frequent sexual harassment at work have significantly higher levels of depressed mood than non-harassed workers, even after controlling for prior harassment and depressive symptoms. Moreover, we find evidence that sexual harassment early in the career has long-term effects on depressive symptoms in adulthood” (from Jason N. Houle, Jeremy Staff, Jeylan T. Mortimer, Christopher Uggen, and Amy Blackstone, “The Impact of Sexual Harassment on Depressive Symptoms during the Early Occupational Career“, Society and Mental Health, July 2011.

See also “The Hidden Health Effects of Sexual Harassment“.

Above we discuss the high rates of victims who leave their profession or change departments and of those who are subject to professional retaliation.

“Eighty percent of the women in our sample who reported either unwanted touching or a combination of other forms of harassment changed jobs within two years. Among women who were not harassed, only about half changed jobs over the same period. In our statistical models, women who were harassed were 6.5 times more likely than those who were not to change jobs. This was true after accounting for other factors—such as the birth of a child—that sometimes lead to job change” (our italics) (from Heather McLaughlin, Christopher Uggen, and Amy Blackstone, “The Economic and Career Effects of Sexual Harassment on Working Women,” Gender and Society, 2017).

“Obviously, each individual diminishes her earning power as she starts over. And collectively, this rash of exits is one reason that women as a group haven’t advanced to the highest levels of power in any industry” (from Nilofer Merchant, “The Insidious Economic Impact of Sexual Harassment“, Harvard Business Review, 2017).

See also “Sexual Harassment and Assault at Work: Understanding the Costs” by Elyse Shaw, Ariane Hegewisch, and Cynthia Hess.

Findings revealed that general incivility and sexual harassment were related behaviors and tended to co-occur in organizations. Employee well-being declined with the addition of each type of mistreatment to the workplace experience. See Sandy Lim and Lilia M. Cortina “Interpersonal Mistreatment in the Workplace: The Interface and Impact of General Incivility and Sexual Harassment“, Journal of Applied Psychology 2005, Vol. 90, No. 3.

To summarize:

  • There’s strong evidence that sexual harassment is common in general and in academia, and is especially perpetrated against women.
  • Professional philosophers may underestimate its prevalence because victims leave the profession or change departments, or do not make public accusations due to their legitimate fear of retaliation or their reasonable expectation of an inadequate institutional response.
  • Harassment causes serious harms to victims, to others in the environments in which they occur, and to the profession, which loses talented contributors.

Echoing and expanding on these points, the journal Nature summarizes the findings of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine 2018 major study mentioned above thus:

“Sexual harassment is pervasive throughout academic science in the United States, driving talented researchers out of the field and harming others’ careers… The analysis concludes that policies to fight the problem are ineffective because they are set up to protect institutions, not victims—and that universities, funding agencies, scientific societies and other organizations must take stronger action.”

We agree. The empirical data and recent events in our own profession together indicate that institutional responses are often, at best, inadequate, and, at worst, protective of harassers.  This suggests that in order to combat the problem of sexual harassment in our own community, philosophers and philosophy departments can no longer simply rely on institutional responses.  We must find steps that individuals and departments can take to prevent harassment and support its victims.  Such proposed steps will be discussed in next week’s follow-up post.


[1]Here our focus is on sexual harassment.  However, there are other forms of discrimination and harassment that are important to be mindful of. For a detailed discussion of the law and its interpretation regarding harassment, see the “Discrimination and Harassment Policy and Procedures” page of the Office of Institutional Equity at Johns Hopkins University.