A Political Scientist Says #MeToo

A professor shares her experience of harassment and sees support as well as backlash, enabled in part by a controversial anonymous online forum for political scientists.

January 11, 2018
Rebecca Gill

The #metoo movement is all about personalizing the issue of harassment, bringing it from the abstract to the concrete and personal. But every choice to disclose involves professional and personal risks, as evidenced by one professor’s recent comments at the Southern Political Science Association and on social media.

Rebecca Gill, professor of political science at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, has received dozens upon dozens of supportive notes since sharing her own account of harassment at the meeting last week. She said she has full confidence in the support of her administration, from her department chair to her campus president, too. But she’s also been subjected to backlash and personal attacks, namely on the blog Political Science Rumors.

“As someone who’s very recently done this, I’m not sure I’d recommend it -- this is not a joyous journey,” Gill said Wednesday of sharing her experience. “It’s hard. It really makes you vulnerable, and I don’t think we’ve gotten to the point where we have a satisfactory way of dealing with the aftermath of telling stories like this.”

Still, Gill added, “my gut reaction is to say that more people being able to talk has to be better. And I do feel better, I guess, since I’ve carried this sort of embarrassing episode around for a lot of years.”

Gill’s account came during a meeting panel on mentoring across genders. Knowing she wanted to talk about impostor syndrome -- a feeling, not uncommon among graduate students, that one is somehow a “fraud” who doesn’t belong in a given milieu -- Gill tried to research how sexual harassment can exacerbate it. Yet there was little explicit writing on the crossover of those two phenomena, despite the impact they’d had on her graduate school experience. In the end, Gill decided to connect the dots with her own story.

To anyone who’s been following the #metoo movement or its academic spin-off, #metooPhD, Gill’s account will sound all too familiar: senior professor takes interest in graduate student’s work. Student takes course from said professor and attends social outing with class to celebrate final day of the course. Professor showers student with attention at said outing and conversation veers off course -- way off course.

“I could see it happening right before my eyes, and I did my best to communicate my discomfort without making the situation worse. But it didn't work,” Gill said in her comments, since posted to Facebook and Twitter. “He started to talk about how ‘mysterious’ I seemed the first time he’d seen me. Finally, he asked if I would consider having an affair with him, suggesting that it would be good for my career to work with him. I felt frozen and disoriented.”

Gill said she told the unnamed professor that he couldn’t possibly expect her to answer and soon left the pub with a friend. As the shock of the encounter started to wear off, she said, “it was replaced by a deep sense of shame and embarrassment. Who was I kidding? Of course he wasn’t interested in my work. What did I have to say about these topics that hadn’t been said before, and better? What a fool!”

The incident marked the beginning of what Gill calls her “harassment sabbatical,” during which she kept teaching but stopped writing. Everything she tried to put down on paper seemed “idiotic,” she said.

Initially, Gill told no one about the incident. When a senior member of her dissertation committee suggested adding the alleged harasser to the group, Gill said she felt forced to confess in another “humiliating” incident (shrugged shoulders and looks of disappointment). Another faculty member she told allegedly said that “really sucks.”

Gill withdrew more from the department and her studies, even taking a temporary job in another state. She eventually found her way back and finished her degree and now, as a tenured faculty member, she wants her colleagues to know that “if impostor syndrome is the unrealistically low assessment of one’s own talents, adding sexual harassment to the mix provides specific, tangible confirmatory evidence that the low assessment isn’t unrealistic after all -- that the stereotypes are true. That you don't belong.”

Gill said her comments were not aimed at outing her harasser, who, she said, is still editing a major journal, but rather directing attention toward “developing effective bystanders.” The men on her committee didn’t mean to fail her, she said, they simply didn’t see the impact their colleague’s alleged conduct had.

Reaction -- Good, Bad and Ugly

Still, Gill’s comments sparked a long conversation on Political Science Rumors, and one professor in particular has been named again and again in relation to Gill’s account. That professor did not immediately respond to a request for comment, and Gill said she was not prepared to comment on any inadvertent outcome.

Beyond naming someone, some commenters on the site have enthusiastically offered Gill support. Others have questioned her methods and motives. Why put comments on social media? Why wait 15 years to say something? Why tweet in advance of her comments to say that they would “basically name” someone? And why not make a formal report according to institutional procedures? Some have alleged inappropriate behavior on Gill’s part.

Gill said she expected some negative reaction and has been surprised, in some ways, that it hasn’t been worse. She’s not monitoring the blog, she said, but friends have offered to alert her to anything personally threatening.

Political Science Rumors, which shares an anonymous moderator with a similar site for economists, is popular among some political scientists for providing the “backstory” on disciplinary goings-on. But its moderators have been criticized over the years for allowing often personally cutting comments about those in the field and arguably sexist content. The economics site has hosted conversations about having sex with undergraduates, for example (one person searching out “sorority girls” and getting into advising, since “there’s always a way for them to pay you even if they don’t have money”). The political science site recently hosted a conversation about why there were so many reports of harassment in the field, with some incisive comments and then this: “Because poli sci women are just so irresistible … no wait, that can't be it.”

Unsurprisingly, Gill isn’t the first person who’s found fault with Political Science Rumors or the Economics Job Market Rumors forum. Jennifer Diascro, associate academic director at the University of California’s Washington program, for example, has blogged about the biting reaction anonymous commenters on poliscirumors.com had to her account of her tenure denial: one attributed any academic success she’d had to a family academic pedigree and harshly criticized her for having said that family obligations and gender played a role in her failure. And in August, a study using machine learning, text mining and econometrics found that posts specifically about women contained 43 percent fewer academic or professional terms and 192 percent more terms about personal information or physical attributes.

Reached via email, an anonymous moderator for both sites said that Political Science Rumors is against general censorship, and that it’s been criticized in the past for deleting posts about another academic misconduct-related scandal in the field.

The site’s moderation policy changes over time to keep up with what is “acceptable/unacceptable” in society, however, the moderator said. At present, the site prohibits “sexist, racist and other defamatory posts” and has “a much lower percentage of such posts than other forums like Twitter and Reddit.”

Over all, “we provide an anonymous forum to promote dialogue that can be difficult to have in person. Moderation is a fine line, each post is considered carefully,” the moderator said. In the Gill case in particular, it is “not clear what is true and what is not, so we are leaving many posts on the matter open for discussion, waiting for evidence.” Should any come to light, “we will delete posts that have been deemed unfair or untrue.”

Asked whether the site contributes to the sexism in the field or enables it through anonymity, the moderator said, “The anonymity encourages open discussion and inclusivity, and we do our best to make sure everyone is welcome. Indeed the percentage of female users on these sites is higher than the percentage of female professors in political science and in economics, so we are doing much better than the field.”

Earlier this week, the American Political Science Association’s Committee on the Status of Women in the Profession released a statement condemning harassment. It says, in part, “We support the right of women political scientists to speak of their experiences. We deplore the harassment that thwarts women’s abilities to rise to their potential as scientists and scholars and contributes to enduring gender inequalities in our profession. The experience of harassment, particularly by a trusted teacher, mentor or senior colleague, can reduce a woman’s productivity, deny her recognition, undermine her confidence and limit her access to professional networks.”

While the committee recognizes that every case is unique, the statement says, “we are confident that our disciplinary associations, including but not limited to APSA, as well as the universities where we are faculty members, will take proper steps to investigate and adjudicate each allegation.”

Mala Htun, committee chair and a professor of political science at the University of New Mexico, said in a statement Wednesday evening that the committee is concerned “that heightened attention to sexual harassment nationally and in the discipline, including backlash against women who speak of their experiences, would discourage other women from coming forward. We want to support women and combat all forms of gender discrimination in political science.”


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