Week Four: Addressing a troubling truth

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Thursday, June 22, 2017


Lisa McDonald

I watched nine hours’ worth of videos, took extensive notes, and composed a beautiful article…that won’t actually be published on FYI.

Now what on Earth could I have spent so much time on this week that wasn’t an event for FYI? I’m glad you asked! The event was the third meeting of the National Academies ad hoc committee to study sexual harassment in academia.

When I saw this meeting last Friday on the schedule of events for this week, I asked Mitch if I could watch it and he agreed. Since the meeting is part of a larger study being conducted under the guidance of the National Academies’ Committee on Women in Science, Engineering, and Medicine—a study that won’t be published until next June—there weren’t concrete policies discussed, and thus couldn’t be written up as an FYI Bulletin. However, the discussion during the meeting resonated deeply with me, and I’m so glad I took the time to watch not only the third meeting on Tuesday but also videos from the second meeting, which happened in March.

I wrote a lengthy article condensing the meetings down to the main takeaways on my personal blog, but for this post I want to focus on a specific talk given during the third meeting that inspired me.

Enobong (Anna) Branch, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, gave the first talk of the third meeting. She discussed sexual harassment through the lenses of gender salience and racial frames. In other words, Branch talked about how non-white women, like Black women, experience harassment differently from white women since Black women face discrimination for both their gender and race. These intersecting identities of race and gender create new oppressions that only Black women experience, different from oppressions experienced by either white women or Black men. While recognizing sexual harassment of women is important, Branch said, it’s also important to recognize that not all women experience sexual harassment the same way due to these other identity factors.

After the third meeting ended, I mustered up the courage to email Branch, thanking her for the inspiring talk and how much it meant to me. And today, I received a reply! :) She had seen my message, and thanked me for sending it. I feel so special!

The fourth meeting of the committee occurs in October, but no set location or agenda has been revealed yet. I already forwarded my article and information on the study to my physics professor back in Iowa as a possible activity for the Women in STEM club on campus to learn about this fall. I really hope, just like the panelists do, that this study will be only the start to initiating widespread change in the academic community.

Lisa McDonald