I have recently participated in the audience of a panel discussion about Women in STEM, in particular in Mathematics organised in memory of Maryam Mirzakhani at the University of Sydney.
The first part of the discussion was really interesting, with personal experiences of the researchers invited, who were quite diverse in terms of origin, stage of the career and experience.
One of the first points touched in the discussion was about the definition of success. This is quite relevant not only for female researcher but for all the people: it is definitive true that the usual definition of success (the one the universities use to rank the researchers) tend to give a privilege to subgroups of people and diversity of experiences is not always valued.
In the end of the discussion, however, I found myself quite distant from some of the points discussed.
First, most of the researchers in the panel said that every woman will face sexual harassment in her career: this may be due to a broader definition of sexual harassment, but I was lucky enough to have never experienced something like that; I hope that most of the female (or also male) researcher never face something like this!
Then, some of the researchers in the panel share the idea that the only solution to bias, harassment or dis-functional environments is standing up. I agree with that only in an ideal world (ok, maybe in an ideal word this problem would not exist). In reality, in my experience and in stories I’ve heard standing up is extremely dangerous, in particular for early-career researchers. When it happened to me, I wanted to change things and I wanted to make a formal report. I actually made a report for a very specific situation which was part of a bigger picture. But there was a little problem: the report was first read internally and the investigation was carried on internally. Therefore, the investigation just ended up saying that the two people involved were saying different things and there was no solution. In that particular situation, I could rely on an external source and my case was treated with integrity and full support. However, when I wanted to report the sexist behaviour of the environment where I was, people in my department just told me that they would have stayed close together in saying that I was lying, even if they knew that there were problematic people in the group; they also made me notice that they could have destroyed my career and that the best thing for me was being quiet and leave. I decided to leave, as well as other women in the group. And we were not the first ones.
The only way my case could have been treated was with internal investigations. But you have to find someone supportive to decide to stand up. What do you do when standing up means destroying your career with no particular change?
The idea that it’s women’s fault if things do not change and it’s women’s duty to stand up and speak about their experiences is simply not fair. Sometimes you can, sometimes it is better to look for a job where your work is supported and valued. When I experienced a negative situation in my working environment the only thing I wanted was someone super partes, who could judge the situation honestly and ask people to change their behaviour. But if we rely only on internal investigations, we will never obtain a solution to these problems, because organisations often want to protect themselves. But if everything is the woman’s responsibility, how would be possible to change the way situations like this are assessed?
I think universities should have clear statements and clear procedures, as fair as possible, to address harassment and that should be the goal of each of us. Not just one person standing up once.