Dear Members of EASST
Over the last couple of months there have been messages in social media and other places about abuse and sexual harassment within the STS community. In the EASST Council we take these messages seriously and are working to create an ethics and code of conduct policy for EASST. We appreciate and are inspired by the work 4S has already conducted. At the same time, we are aware that cultural contexts differ, for example, between the US and Europe and that we need to consider how we formulate our aspirations in the EASST setting.
From a personal point of view, and as President of EASST, I want to express my respect for the courage it has taken to raise issues of harassment as well as more nuanced questions of appropriate professional conduct and abuse of power, and send my sympathy and solidarity to all who have experienced harm. It is utterly important to me that our community is a respectful, generous and friendly space. I want all of us to treat each other in a helpful and supportive way, whether we are early career or very experienced, have tenured positions and many citations or have just embarked on a PhD study.
A good friend and colleague advised me to say a little about my own positionality. I am a senior white woman (I simply cannot find a way of calling myself powerful, although others might) in Denmark. I have experienced my share of sexism, harassment and hard criticism in academia, and I dealt with it by gritting my teeth, ignoring the worst and working harder. I don’t necessarily think that was the right thing to do. However, when I was younger, it seemed the only way. Against this backdrop, I welcome that younger generations might have other ideas about what is acceptable behaviour in academia and how we should deal with abuse. I want to listen and learn. But I am myself struggling to make sense of it all.
Even with the best efforts, it is likely that there will still be situations in which harm occurs. As we know well in STS, science is not a place outside of society, and our societies are still significantly structured by multiple forms of oppression, such as sexism, racism, homophobia, gender normativity, and ableism, to name just a few. Of course, clearly illegal and violent behaviours such as sexual harassment have to be dealt with according to the law and to the rules of the institution in which they happen. However, when it comes to the more subtle forms of possible misconduct, I know from my long experience as a manager in a university that people seldom agree on how a particular situation should be interpreted. These are often complex histories – usually more complex than can be communicated in tweets or blog posts. While social media can be useful for getting a debate going, they are often not the right place to have nuanced discussion and make sure that all voices are being heard. While it is easy to assign blame or voice calls for exclusion on social media, it is more difficult to engage in mediation or restorative processes to address harm and repair relations.
It is vital to me to acknowledge and respect people’s experiences. At the same time, it is essential for me to ask how our STS community can become a space that does not address harm through exclusion and punishment alone, but that also fosters learning, remediation and growth, particularly when we are discussing more nuanced questions about what constitutes appropriate academic conduct. Since academic scholarship is built on organized skepticism and constant review of our work through peers, there will always be moments that are tough. Getting a paper rejected, or being met with hard criticism after a conference presentation hurts – whether you are a PhD student or a full professor. Being an academic community, we cannot disallow criticism, as this is foundational to how we develop knowledge. Sometimes academics disagree on the merits of a piece of work and that has to be ok.
I do believe, however, that we have much to learn in terms of how we formulate criticism, how we decide what to cite, and how we praise or ignore certain kinds of work. Certainly many of us (me included) would do well to apologize more often if someone has been hurt by our actions and become more attentive to how power differentials influence the way people are being affected by our actions.
Our goal should be to foster a supportive community in which we help each other to acknowledge our shortcomings, grow and affect positive change in our community and beyond. This goes for PhD students as well as full professors. Let us work together for positive changes and acknowledge that we need each other to help us become better as scholars but also as people.
As I said above, these are my personal thoughts at the moment. I do think we need to talk much more about these issues. And I want to listen as well as share my own views. I therefore welcome your thoughts on these crucial matters in the months ahead.
I wish you and your loved ones a happy and peaceful holiday. I hope you will all contribute to making STS into a better community in the future.
Maja Horst, President of EASST