In 2015, UC Berkeley experienced a series of high-profile sexual harassment incidents, prompting the graduate students in the Statistics Department to hold a roundtable event. While this response was initiated by overt sexual harassment, our discussion extended to other subtler gender biases. This article outlines the events that lead to the roundtable’s inception, the details of organizing and hosting the event, and our thoughts on what did and didn’t work.
The most high-profile incident involved Astronomy Professor Geoffrey Marcy, who was found in violation of campus policies after several women came forward accusing him of sexual harassment over the course of his tenure at UC Berkeley. To add insult to injury, upon uncovering details of the situation long before it became public, some claimed that the university mishandled the case by simply giving Marcy a metaphorical slap on the wrist. It was not until faculty in his department circulated an open letter of disapproval that Marcy finally stepped down from his position.
It was becoming clear that sexual harassment was pervasive at all levels of the academic ladder and that such incidents were not being properly addressed or punished. While the campus scrambled to respond to the Marcy incident, several more stories received media attention: to name a few, an executive assistant at Berkeley Law accused the dean of the law school of inappropriately touching her and making her feel uncomfortable, for which he was found guilty; several undergraduate women came forward, stating that they sought help from various resources on campus after being sexually assaulted, only to be dismissed and not taken seriously by the officials charged with protecting them; and the Vice Chancellor of Research resigned amid an investigation of alleged sexual harassment of a former employee. In fact, there have been reports of a whopping 19 campus employees violating sexual harassment policies since 2009.
As the scope of these offenses became public, the campus responded by creating new leadership roles to combat sexual harassment. However, many of these actions appeared only to signal that the campus was aware of the problem rather than directly providing support to students, faculty, and staff on campus.
Initiating the Roundtable Event
To take tangible steps, the chair of the Statistics Department, Michael Jordan, asked the Statistics Graduate Student Association (SGSA) to host a departmental event about these issues. The idea was to have a meeting for the students that was run by the students rather than a mandatory meeting held by an administrator.
We reached out to several groups on campus for guidance on how to run the event in a way that would be not just useful and informative but would also encourage participation and open discussion of the issues. Maria Lucero-Padilla from the Office for Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination (OPHD) generously shared many materials and guidelines with us in preparation for our discussion. She helped us identify themes among the case studies we collected and give structure to the conversation. We would like to thank her for her help.
Our first gender biases roundtable discussion in 2015 was met with overwhelmingly positive responses, and we decided to repeat the event in 2016 with new case studies and new themes. However, we strongly believe that the conversation about gender issues is not over. By writing about our experience running this event, we hope to teach others holding similar events the lessons we learned and to get feedback on how to expand this program to encompass other types of diversity beyond gender.
Planning and Running the Roundtable Event
The planning committee
In order to emphasize that participation in such a discussion is important for both men and women, we decided to enlist members of both genders to help plan and run the meeting. A meeting run only by men runs the risk of being construed as condescending or “mansplaining,” whereas a meeting run only by women might make male attendees feel uncomfortable and attacked. We recognize that not all individuals identify with this gender binary; however, all participants from our department identified with one of these two genders, so we chose to draw this distinction when reflecting on participants’ roles and experiences.
The first year, we circulated a call for submissions and a form to submit anonymous anecdotes to women in the Statistics Department and a limited number of people involved with diversity issues at the Berkeley Institute for Data Science (BIDS). The second year, we circulated the form more widely to the entire Statistics Department and to all affiliates at BIDS. Both times, we received fewer than 10 submissions of stories.
Several common themes emerged in the gender bias anecdotes we received. Some stories observed competitions in which the woman was subtly undermined (e.g., when hiring new faculty). Several women described repeatedly being seen as the “token woman” (e.g., being asked about babies instead of about research or being the first woman ever hired in a department). Several anecdotes about sexual harassment involved status and power dynamics (e.g., students writing inappropriate comments to their GSI in evaluations and tensions between colleagues in the same lab).
During the event
The meetings lasted for about two hours and were held in the evening (from 5:00 to 7:00 p.m.) in order to minimize conflicts with class times. Professor Jordan kindly funded dinner in order to encourage attendance. Both years, we had around 16 attendees. The group was about three-quarters male, which reflects the gender ratio in the department.
Below, we outline some of the main factors that we believe contributed to the success of the roundtable events.
Small group discussions are a good way to encourage participation
Based on our observations, it looked like everyone in the small groups spoke to each other. When we brought the discussion back to the whole table, only a few outgoing people volunteered ideas. Forming small groups allows even the quietest people to participate because they don’t feel like the spotlight is on them.
There may be some need to informally “spread out” the women participants to various small groups so that each small group benefits from perspectives from both genders. Although we recognize that it can be difficult to be the lone representative of women in a group, the gender ratio of participants necessitated this.
Individuals enjoy and benefit from this event regardless of their gender
We thought hard about how to keep the discussion from being a rote affirmation of what we all already know are the social norms around sexism. There is a danger in these types of events that everyone goes through the motions that we know are expected of us without really gaining any new perspective on gender issues.
We wanted the roundtable to be the kind of discussion that would allow people to express contradicting opinions and come in contact with genuinely different points of view. To facilitate this, we chose anecdotes that were relatively ambiguous incidents that might seem superficially minor but become problematic when viewed in the context of what women deal with in a sexist society. This both allowed participants to freely advocate for opinions that would not have been politically correct had the incidents been more serious and enabled women to share the many reasons why a seemingly innocuous incident could be hurtful or dangerous.
The event works well when the participants know each other
In this regard, the timing of the event and group dynamics worked in our favor. The Statistics Department has around 50 PhD students, with eight to 12 per incoming cohort. Students take many of the same classes together during their first year, so they get to know each other well after several months. We held this event at the end of November. By this time, most of the new PhD students had met each other and were comfortable together.
Participation is greatly enhanced by encouragement from senior faculty members
The downside of having the discussion later on in the semester is that it often ends up being around “crunch time” for students. Email encouragements from both senior graduate students and the Department Chair as well as in-person discussion of the upcoming event at informal department gatherings helped boost the number who RSVP’d “yes.” In both years, a good mix of class years attended.
Getting volunteers to help lead future events is trickier. Participants agreed that future discussions should be extended to include broader themes of diversity, such as race, sexuality, and gender identity, but so far, nobody has volunteered to help organize a broader diversity discussion. The tension here is that the students currently leading the gender discussion (three Caucasian females and a Caucasian male) feel that they cannot speak to other aspects of diversity, yet actively targeting others to take on that role can be problematic.
We plan to continue holding this type of discussion at least once a year and expand the content to include all aspects of diversity. We hope to recruit additional leaders to help represent a broader base of diversity.