Sexual Harassment in Academia


Yes, we are still talking about this, largely thanks to Colin McGinn. What I would like to do here is merely propose a hypothesis, born of reflection on all the incidents of harassment that have ever come to my attention within departments I’ve studied or served in. In every instance I can think of, if I try to recall as many details as I can about the object of the complaint, that person seemed to fit the diagnostic criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder. The gender ratio of NPD is apparently 75% male, and the incidence in the population about 1%. The percentage of heterosexuals is a contested issue, with some estimates as low as 90% and some as high as 98%: let’s call it 95%. If you are male in an academic environment with a narcissist colleague, you will soon enough conclude that the person is annoying and insufferable, but not much beyond that. If you are female, your experience is likely to be dramatically but often invisibly different. That suggests that there are two root causes of the persistence of sexual harassment in academia, and it may be that neither can be ameliorated to any significant degree. The first is the sheer ratio of men to women (duh): if a large majority respond to the problem person with “well, he’s annoying and insufferable, but so what?” instead of merely half of the group responding that way, action will obviously be lackadaisical. Second, if the person is already tenured, what can one do ultimately? Nothing will be effective short of firing the person, since the behavior pattern is likely to be incorrigible. Consider this one more argument for the abolition of tenure.


6 comments on “Sexual Harassment in Academia

  1. Aeon J. Skoble says:

    Not a good argument against tenure. 1, if guilty of sexual harrasment, you can be fired regardless of having tenure. 2, if not guilty of sexual harrasment, tenure might be why you’re _not_ fired for the mere suspcion.

    • poseidonian says:

      So much of these discussions are conducted in the absence of any hard data other than the gender ratios themselves, and on anecdotal data seriously compromised by personal bias. That said, *my* impression has been that difficult people are more common in academia (my comparisons were to law-world and business-world, two settings I spent some time in) than elsewhere (as it happens, I have only *ever* worked with difficult people in academia), and that the fact that a strata consists of people rather hard to get rid of probably had something to do with it. But I lack hard data, just as I lack hard data about how much sexual harassment actually occurs. That said, suppose we agree that tenure should not be abolished: the bulk of my post still has something important to tell us if true. Trying to get normal people to stop acting like it’s 1950 when they already don’t, as a means of reforming people with personality disorders who don’t care, is likely to have no effect other than to wrongly discredit feminism, annoy men and frustrate women.

  2. Aeon J. Skoble says:

    Oh sure – I wasn’t defending harassment or harassers, just the non-sequitur inference “harassment is a problem, many harassers are tenured, ergo abolish tenure.”

  3. Aeon J. Skoble says:

    My first comment seems to have been deleted.

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