Heterodox essay claims that overpolicing for sexual harassment reduces scientific collaborations for women

August 24, 2022 • 12:00 pm

Eleven years ago I was the elected president of the Society of the Study of Evolution (SSE), America’s premier organization for evolutionary biologists. I considered it a great honor to serve in that capacity. Now, however, I wouldn’t be so pleased, for over the past 5 or 6 years the Society has joined many other societies in organismal biology by becoming, shall I say, “quite woke.”

I smelled trouble when the SSE issued a statement declaring that sex (and gender) were continuums rather than binaries, which I beefed about here.  Yes, gender could be seen as a continuum, but not biological sex, which for nearly all animals has two simple classes distinguished by gamete size. And that’s because of evolution. How could an evolution society make a statement like that? It’s ideology, Jake!

At that point I saw things were going to get worse, as they have. The SSE then began issuing pronouncements on political issues, which in my view is something that scientific societies should not be doing.  Finally, the annual meetings have turned into venues for ideology, which included changing the names of awards named after evolutionists deemed ideologically impure, and became heavily laden with diversity presentations and initiatives. As I wrote earier this year:

Call me an old grouch, but in my view the organizers are consciously turning societies devoted to the promotion of science into organizations devoted to the promotion of social change. Yes, organizations should not discriminate against any class of people so long as they’re qualified to give talks or attend meetings, but it’s another thing entirely for a meeting to promote equity on the grounds that science is structurally racist. In fact, I think scientific societies should remain politically neutral while obeying any anti-discrimination laws. Effecting social change should be the purview of individual members of societies, as different members have different views (I know a lot of people who object to the fulminating wokeness of evolution societies.)

For the last several years, the SSE (and related American societies) have been policed by roving “Evo Allies” (trained at substantial expense) who walk around the meeting to search for potential cases of sexual harassment—despite there already being a perfectly satisfactory way of dealing with harassment complaints. I am not of course in favor of sexual harassment, but this procedure seems extreme. It’s also expensive, with the trainers charging tens of thousands of dollar for their services.

This policing, and its potential bad consequences, especially for women, is the subject of a new article on the Heterodox STEM Substack pageby Williams College professor Luana Maroja, an evolutionary biologist who has written on my site.

Maroja first describes her “lived experience” with the harassment police at the SSE meetings (this was in 2019, when the meetings were live). A snippet:

In 2019 my professional society (The Society for the Study of Evolution – SSE) hired a consultant to help “prevent sexual harassment at the [annual] conference.”  The initiative consisted of training volunteers to be “allies” (they got buttons and walked among us signaling their role as meeting police), projecting messages (powerpoint slides) on the walls of the poster session saying “stop harassment now,” and putting posters in all bathrooms along with anonymous boxes for depositing complaints about harassment.  This came at a cost: about $10 dollars increase in registration fees per participant, resulting in tens of thousands in the consultant’s pocket.  But aside from cost, are these initiatives a net positive or a net negative for scientific interactions?

I have been attending the SSE meetings since 2003.  Compared to conferences in my home country, Brazil, SSE conferences were a paradise – nobody ever grabbed my rear end, said nasty things in my ear or followed me around.  Yes, there was the normal degree of flirting, but it was polite, with people backing off when they were rebuffed.   Perhaps I have thick skin, but I don’t think anyone would say that serious harassment or sexual violence were commonplace at the American meetings, and there were already procedures in place—involving both the local police and the conference administrators—to deal with serious offences.  Many people think it’s a good thing to raise awareness about even minor actions that might be perceived as unwanted attention.  But is it?

Her answer is “not really,” for she gives data showing that there appears to have been a “chilling effect” from overpolicing sexual interactions. Her informal survey of her colleagues revealed that male scientists have become more wary of mentoring or even talking to junior women for fear of such accusations.

But of course this is anecdotal. Maroja then adduces real data from a paper by Marina Gertsberg, a senior lecturer in Finance at the University of Melbourne. Click on the link to read it (a pdf is free). It’s from SSRN, which appears to be a kind of ARχiv of preprints, so it hasn’t yet been published; be aware of that:

Gertsberg surveyed the number of new collaborations (judged from c.v.s of faculty) between men and women in Economics before the #MeToo movement (2012-2017) compared with afterwards (2018-now). These were compared with new collaborations between men and men, and with collaborators inside and outside the faculty member’s institution.  There are graphs, but read Luana’s piece or Gertsberg’s paper to see them; I’ll just give a summary:

Gertsberg’s abstract:

How did #MeToo alter the cost of collaboration between women and men? I study research collaborations involving junior female academic economists and show they start fewer new research projects after #MeToo. The decline is driven largely by fewer collaborations with new male co-authors at the same institution. I show that the drop in collaborations is concentrated in universities where the perceived risk of sexual harassment accusations for men is high – that is, when both sexual harassment policies are more ambiguous exposing men to a larger variety of claims and the number of public sexual harassment incidents is high. The results suggest that the social movement is associated with increased cost of collaboration that disadvantaged the career opportunities of women.

From Luana’s paper:

The data shows clearly that new collaborations are strongly and significantly reduced inside institutions (where the fear of harassment accusations will be highest). The paper also shows that, where the fear is highest (in institutions where harassment accusations are common and policies are vague), the reduction in collaborations is also higher.

This represents a huge loss to both men and women, but it especially harms women.  Indeed, the academic output of females fell significantly after #MeToo (a decrease of between 0.7-1.7 projects per year, with the loss in male collaborators explaining 60% of this decline), while the output of males did not (they were apparently able to find other male collaborators).

I should note, for those who want to know, that Maroja is a woman.  But she also found a decrease in collaboration in a field of “hard science”— physics—and gives a tweet from a physicist showing the decrease in the total proportion of male-female collaborations over all same-sex collaborations (“same effect” in Strumia’s tweet refers to the effect showed by Gertsberg). The proportion of male-female collaborations dropped significantly in 2016 and has stayed low for six years.

There can, of course, be other explanations for these data, and feel free to suggest them below.

No sane person is in favor of sexual harassment. Maroja’s message is that it can be taken too far, to the point that men shy away from collaborating with women for fear of accusations of harassment. Some of my colleagues, who are not harassers, will nevertheless not talk to a female undergraduate unless there’s someone (preferably female) either overhearing the conversation or witnessing it.

Ideally, all women should not be viewed as potential complainants, nor should all men be seen as potential harassers or predators. This infantilizes both sexes and, when it comes in the form of roving vigilantes at meetings, is also patronizing.

Maroja concludes this way:

It’s clear that well-intentioned actions (protecting women from harassment) can be taken too far.  I hope that our scientific professional societies will absorb these data and start taking steps to bring people together rather than separate them.  Good starts would be clarifying harassment policies and keeping “harassment consultants”, who profit from promoting the idea that harassment is everywhere, out of conferences.  Another important step would be to eliminate anonymous complaints, which set the bar for a complaint too low and can be used for revenge and to bring down competitors and enemies. Both of these effects lead men to worry about what they might be accused of and to thus limit interactions with women. Finally, any sexual harassment judgements should only be made after a pre-defined, fair process where the accused can challenge the accuser– a person should be considered innocent until proven guilty.

31 thoughts on “Heterodox essay claims that overpolicing for sexual harassment reduces scientific collaborations for women

  1. “For the last several years, the SSE (and related American societies) have been policed by roving “Evo Allies” (trained at substantial expense) who walk around the meeting to search for potential cases of sexual harassment— …”

    This made me nauseous. I instantly saw the Taliban agents who are assigned to the equivalent in the streets of Afghanistan. And rabid Hitler-youth sharp-eyed for any signs of Jewishness previously masked. And the cadres of Little-Red-Book-carrying Red Guards turning in even their parents for saying “Mozart is so pleasant.” Et f’in cetera.

    Let’s be honest about the ability for these purity-terrorists to subsume whatever they need under the umbrella of ‘violation.”

  2. Seems absurd that women should have to exist between being attacked and ignored. Perhaps we should go back to the old ways – train women in martial arts. 😉

    1. You miss the point. Women aren’t being ignored. They are being avoided with wary suspicion as potential assassins.

  3. In the past 20 years or so I must have been to about 30 major international conferences in a STEM field (astrophysics), and I’m not aware of any incident of harassment occurring in any of those conferences. Now, I could just be oblivious to it, or perhaps incidents occurred but were not publicised, and perhaps I would not be in the right circles for the informal spreading of such information. Despite this, just about every conference these days has a fairly draconian “code of conduct”.

    So, as a genuine request for information, for those having been to academic STEM conferences, from your personal knowledge of such events, how often is sexual harassment occurring?

    1. The intimacy of field work in archeology and the like can be problematic. https://anthropology.washington.edu/sites/anthropology/files/documents/archy.rec.nov.2014.sex.harass.pdf
      Know that most women do not make such things public because the costs are grave. Even with the Purity Police strutting about the place, most woman who experience a real sexual harassment problem (these are always with people who have power over you, and who will deny whatever you accuse them of) would rather keep silent.
      I have had quite a few very unpleasant experiences with men who wanted to exploit their power for sexual gratification, but never in academia, STEM or none-STEM. I personally know of only one case with a minor lecturer and a student (humanities, the student never got her credits for the course as she did not want to be touched by that disgusting man who was 20 years her senior and started to fondle her when she came to collect his signature — no, she did not report the incident). On the whole, I believe these things to be relatively rare at universities, not counting normal attraction and its complications.
      Media and the arts and politics is the place were the real problems are.

  4. A factor in this and related woke trends is briefly summarized by our host: “It’s also expensive, with the trainers charging tens of thousands of dollar for their services.” But strictly economic factors leave out another, equally important coinage of academia: status, pursued at least as avidly as $. Reviewing a comparable trend in a galaxy far away 70-80 years ago, Zhores Medvedev wrote: “the “‘creators” of the new biology, throwing off all restraint, distributed among themselves responsible posts and took over key positions in ministries, academies, institutes, and universities, and on editorial boards and executive boards.” Perhaps all academic subjects in the US will before long reach the intellectual quality attained by biology in the galaxy Medvedev wrote about.

  5. There’s a reason it’s a cliche that “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.” I’m sure that many of these people mean well, but meaning well is just the beginning, and it’s barely that. It’s no more good enough to institute some policing system without thinking it through, planning, evaluating, testing, and adjusting the plan based on results than it is okay to invent a just-so story about some phenomenon and saying that’s actually the cause.

    ACTUALLY DOING GOOD is hard work, and it requires discipline and rigor. Self-righteousness is not enough. But it can do a lot of harm.

  6. This blog post from 2020 may be interesting to readers here (the author is a professor of economics at George Mason University):
    Bryan Caplan: Mentoring: The Rationality of Fear. Feb 2020
    Some months ago, Lean In published the results of a survey by Sandberg and Pritchard showing a dramatic increase in the share of male managers who fear close interaction with female coworkers …

  7. I can corroborate Dr. Maroja’s account of the 2019 SSE meeting. Evo-allies were runnning the hallways, literally looking for trouble. As an older male in a Hawaiian shirt, I was subject to special scrutiny. At one of the socials, during a conversation with a younger female colleague, two of the ‘allies’ descended to eavesdrop. I won’t attend another SSE meeting until I am sure the behavior police are gone.

    1. I gave up my SSE membership (as well as my Society for Integrative & Comparative Biology membership) for similar reasons. No plans to rejoin.

  8. “Many people think it’s a good thing to raise awareness about even minor actions that might be perceived as unwanted attention. But is it?”

    Increasing the sensitivity of the “harassment classifier” does not necessarily increase its accuracy. If they can detect instances of harassment with high accuracy, but cannot detect instances of non-harrassment (e.g. being flirtatious at a conference but backing off when asked), their techniques are like a clinician diagnosing pneumonia by just assuming it is always absent. This technique will be correct most of the time but since it cannot detect actual instances of pneumonia it would be worthless. High sensitivity, to both harassment and non-pneumonia, but very low specificity.

    Of course, harassment police advocates may define practically all interactions between males and females as instances of harassment, just as many CRT believers define practically all white/black relationships as racist; then they can argue that their results must be true “by definition”. This, of course, is cheating.

  9. Having behavior police at conferences is demeaning. Unfortunately, because researchers are expected to attend conferences—and benefit professionally from doing so—it’s not practical to protest by not attending. This is great for the DEI consultants!

    The larger issue is the one that Maroja rightly focuses on—the chilling effect these behavior police have on collaboration and engagement. Maybe some people feel safer having hall monitors (or DEI bureaucrats) around to protect them, but this sure doesn’t seem like a good way to encourage collaboration unless it’s among members of one’s own identity group.

    It’s impractical to have the behavior police around all the time, so people will just have to figure out productive ways to work together on their own.

  10. The “roving EVO Allies” sounds like a scary innovation – I hope that it doesn’t make it to this side of the Atlantic.

    I’m away on holiday at the moment, but I’d be interested to know if my various female academic clients have noticed a similar change in the collaborative environment in their disciplines – I’ll make a mental note to ask them.

  11. Since women are stunning and brave, they should do mentoring and collaborating themselves, and should also clean the sewers and fight in wars. Surely they are as capable as any guy. With all the talk about opportunity for women, I think the men in all of these fields should embrace the gender equality, and kick back without hesitation. All the arguments to refuse are neatly in place.

    They could give a pep talk to women coming for help, advice, mentoring etc. tell them that there are surely brilliant women that will surely help them, and that as a white guy don’t want to selfishly steal an opportunity from them, maybe end with an encouraging “You go girls!”. I’d probably grin from ear to ear while I walk back to the office, enjoying the afternoon.

    More seriously, I know of the chilling effect, too, of course affecting exactly the people who were already mindful anyway. If I was in that position, hypothetically speaking, I would categorically refuse mentoring or collaborating with women, unless it’s strictly and always a group project (I would not say anything, just find ways evading those situations altogether). I think it‘s totally understandable why these numbers tanked, especially as we’ve seen here how quickly absolutely nothing can become a career and life-changing event. Have it their way, and enjoy life. There is no need to put up with any of this.

    1. “If I was in that position, hypothetically speaking, I would categorically refuse mentoring or collaborating with women..”

      I would like to think (I’m not very brave, actually) that I would talk openly with potential female collaborators about the problem these “police” cause, sticking their nose into everything and ready to hand out career-ending “tickets” like a parking meter monitor when something doesn’t pass their highly “trained” smell test. I would tell them I have no interest in harassing them, and if I do or say something objectionable please come to *me* first about it; let us work it out together rather than calling in the DEI police to shut our work down altogether. I would ask their honest opinions, and try to produce a framework of expectations as we go forward. The collaborators might even brave up and tell the police to take their noses elsewhere- they’re doing just fine thank you very much.

      But knowing how deep the DEI conditioning goes in the minds of many students and researchers, having such a conversation might just bring charges of harassment against me- discussing things that “harmed” or “triggered” them in some way.

      What a scam the DEI crowd has pulled over this country, starting with academia. I can understand the willingness of many otherwise intelligent voters to hand this country over to those who would snuff out democracy altogether rather than put up with this …. stuff.

  12. In answer to the comment #4 question: at the many academic STEM conferences I attended between the mid 1960s and the mid 2000s, I never noticed a single incident of the kind queried. But, of course, I was not concentrating on the incessant search for signs of such behavior. These new, highly trained “allies” for the promotion of virtue and prevention of vice will be able to detect cases, if not of full-on harassment, then at least of micro-harassment. Their training no doubt equips them with the exquisite sensitivity to detect even the most micro of micro-incidents.

  13. There is much the same fear in industry, and it is completely justified. It is irrelevant that 99% of women would never make a false accusation of harassment out of anger or as a strategic move. A man who has spent decades accumulating skills and seniority does not want to be anywhere near someone who has the power to wish him into the cornfield with little or no risk to herself.

    Every man with any grasp on reality knows that some men are cads. Again, it is not relevant that 99% of men behave as gentlemen. Women who interact with men are eventually going to encounter some cads. The old rules were developed to ensure that when this happens, the cad is unlikely to have an opportunity to misbehave.
    Of course, the old rules don’t seem appropriate in the modern age. Nobody will accept being chaperoned, and we are not going back to limiting women’s access to places and situations.
    I suppose it is an example of Chesterton’s Fence. During the sexual revolution, a lot of traditions were discarded, with the assumption that they had been implemented in the first place only as a tool of oppression.
    Yet the reality that some men are cads remains, because it is just a reality of humanity.
    In rediscovering the problem, giving women almost unlimited power to destroy men accused of harassment is a temporary solution. Harassment does not lend itself well to regular due process, because it is often one person’s word against another.

    Where men know that some of them are cads, a lot of people of both sexes are unwilling to believe or admit that some women might be willing to use whatever power they have available to them for the wrong reasons. But it is just as much of a universal reality as the cad thing. I have sat in on more than one meeting where women just came out and told the boss that if they did not get the outcome they desire, they would accuse either him or their direct supervisor of harassment.
    Thinking on it, I was really there as his chaperone when meeting with a very junior employee with vast amounts of power over any male that might find himself alone with her.

    Hopefully, our solution to the issue is going to evolve to a point where everyone has reasonable protections available to them. Until that happens, avoidance seems to be a popular strategy. That is especially the case when we enter situations where someone’s casual and innocent remarks or actions might later be reinterpreted and used against them.

    1. “I have sat in on more than one meeting where women just came out and told the boss that if they did not get the outcome they desire, they would accuse either him or their direct supervisor of harassment.”

      More and more I’m thinking it would be wise to invest in a small hidden spy camera to wear around. This might be inadmissible as evidence in court, but when the subject comes up you at least could repeat the conversation you had word for word. It’s a sad sign of the times that human beings have to protect themselves from other human beings in this way.

      BTW, I loved your reference to “wish him into the corn field”. I’m older and understand the reference, but anyone who didn’t get it should look it up. It’s one of my favorite Twilight Zone episodes, and one of the spookiest.

      1. I figured that many here get the reference.
        The story about the women threatening false accusations sounds like something made up, but I saw it several times. In the old days, an employee with serious work deficiencies that could not be handled at a department level would have a private counseling session with the boss. Once this stuff started happening, the rules were changed to require a witness present, which was almost always me.
        The first one was a woman who had been hired as an unskilled kitchen assistant. She was often late or left early, did substandard work, and spoke to her supervisor in inappropriate ways. So she was summoned for a meeting, where she would be able to explain her side of the situation, counseled on the importance of her job, and told that further escalation could lead to dismissal.
        Not much drama to this point. But apparently to her, we had started negotiations. She rejected the idea of any complaints about her job performance, then just came out and made the threat of filing harassment claims on either her supervisor or the boss himself. In exchange for her not doing so, we were expected to move her to a better job in her department, a job that one usually earns through seniority and good job performance.
        We sent the details of the meeting to the head office. Later, she ended up being fired for some offense that I do not recall, and on her last day, “slipped” and fell down some stairs in an area she had no business being in.
        Variations on this happened with some regularity.

        The “believe all women” folks either have never encountered such people, or their religion keeps them from noticing that they exist.

  14. I’d be very interested to see the content of the training for “allies.” If I had to guess, the entire program very likely tilts heavily toward the “be offended” side, and I’m not convinced that’s the best way to go.

    I’ve always, even as a teenager, been recognized as a male who is very respectful of females, including any that I may have been “interested” in or flirting with, and so on.

    Honestly, some of the more baffling examples of “harassment” I’ve heard reported in recent years seem to me to be anything but. What shall we make of a person who gets the vapors over what is now termed an “unwanted advance”? This used to be known as, I don’t know, flirting, getting to know someone, and yes, indeedy, even trying to “pick up” someone one is interested in. This, quite literally, has been deemed incredibly offensive, “harassing” and even, absurdly, “violent.”

    But critics of such hyper-sensitivity have made some interesting observations:

    * Often, an advance is seen as inappropriate only when the subject of the advance is deemed insufficiently desirable
    * As with most of these sorts of things, the “offense” is entirely determined by one person’s subjective judgment; a perfectly reasonable, respectful advance can be described as … well, as whatever, according to the subjective impressions
    * Women have long been given (mostly) a pass on having to take the risk of approaching someone they are interested in; regardless of shifting views on this, in practice, in the real world, “advances” continue to be overwhelmingly made by men … because that’s how women want it
    * Women may, at some point, come to rue a wave of hypersensitivity that effectively drives many men away from taking a risk that has been made even greater than simply being rejected or refused

    Perhaps men should stage a kind of reverse “Lysistrata”…. well, not going to happen, but it might send a message.

    1. What a sad commentary on our times. If young people are dating less, as they appear to be, it’s no leap to consider that it might be at least in part because the males are scared to death of how their behavior might be misconstrued.

  15. “harassment consultants” – reminds me of the Little Rascals Daycare case in North Carolina about 30 years ago. A policewoman had just completed a seminar in “detecting pedophiles”, and by golly, she was going to get a conviction even if it meant brainwashing kids and destroying evidence. All the convictions were eventually tossed out, of course, but not until after a business was destroyed and several lives ruined. [And lots of young kids traumatized.] As the old saying goes: If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

  16. Between 1970 and 2005 I’ve been to most Populations Genetics Group meetings in Britain, almost all ESEB meetings and five SSE meetings, and sundry others, and I don’t remember any impropriety. (I’m female.)
    I’m quite sure ‘harassment’ is an invented problem of some money grabbing organization.

    Anyway, what sort of paternalistic attitude is this? Are women supposed not to be able to deal with unwanted male attention? Do women need to have their hands held, being unable to look after themselves?

  17. It’s also expensive, with the trainers charging tens of thousands of dollar for their services.

    We have that in the oil industry. Every new “Corporate Head of HS&E” in an oil company would bring in a “new broom” policy requiring new training courses. And remarkably, the only new company who services this “new” need for training in exactly the right way happens to have a part- (or sole-) owner who is a spouse, child, or close relative of the new “Corporate Head of HS&E”.
    Meanwhile, the people (contractors, why have staff?) who actually deliver the training change the logos on their coursework documents, sometimes miss the old name in the body text, print out new sets of handouts (which the printers notice “same old stuff, again ; different logos, run of 200, lever-arch not ring-bound”) and churn through the same material to the same recycling group of faces.
    3 years later, new “Corporate Head of HS&E”, new broom, printers dust off the old master copies.
    When you work for 6 different companies in the same town, year in, year out, you get to know the trainers pretty well.
    Cynical? Moi?
    Suivez la monnaie! (Follow the money!)

  18. My main mentor was female (and a great mentor she was), I would have loved to have been ‘sexually harassed’ at the time, but alas….

  19. “sex, which for nearly all animals has two simple classes distinguished by gamete size”

    Except sex distinguished by gamete size does not indicate two simple classes; it indicates two common classes among several, and it incorrectly implies that sex is determined solely by gamete size and not by a chorus of chemical interactions across several organ systems which themselves also do not result in a binary output of post-puberty bodies but instead result in two common classes among several. And as any evolutionary biologist should know, this is because of evolution.

    The cultural issues resulting from non-binary sex types should not preclude us from an objective assessment of data, free from preconceived compartmentalization, or from using language that most accurately describes that data. Sex is not binary, and we need to stop saying that it is, because “binary” is not what we observe genetically, anatomically or developmentally. To declare non-normative sex types as “abnormalities” is to insert personal bias for a binary into a system – evolution – where binaries not only do not exist but also where if binaries did exist the system would not be the system we recognize today. Non-normative sex types are just another natural variation of endless forms most beautiful, nothing more, nothing less.

    1. I don’t think this is correct. For your sentence—”Except sex distinguished by gamete size does not indicate two simple classes; it indicates two common classes among several…”—can you provide examples of organisms for which there are not two clear sizes of gametes (eggs and sperm), aside from the few well known rare examples of isogamy (same-sized gametes). I think you are confusing binary gamete size with non-binary correlates of sex such as mechanism of sex determination, behavior etc. A classic example of confusing levels of analysis.

      1. That’s a fair correction and an interesting case of the complexity of the issue, how we define sex. Yes, the sex type of the gamete is binary, but that is a definition of just that: the sex type of the gamete. That is not the same thing as an egg (female gamete) that has a 23rd chromosome of XX which will, if matched with a sperm, produce a non-binary sex type individual of that organism. So is the sex of the individual defined by their pre-fertilized gamete pair or by the actual genes of the individual? And given that the sexes of a species is defined by its individuals, would that same definition apply to the species or not? It seems to me that viable gametes/gamete pairs would be the product of specific sex types of individuals and thus only define the gametes themselves. And given that gametes are the actual mechanism for procreation, it stands to reason that those sex types would be the majority types of the species in order to procreate, and that is what we observe in nature. It does not seem to me that either of those facts/conclusions amount to the definition of “sex” for the species as a whole.

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