It May Not Be Your Fault, And It Is Your Responsibility

Acknowledging that a problem exists is not the same as accepting blame for it. Taking steps to solve the problem is taking responsibility for it.

Recently I met with staff leaders of a major biomedical science association. I’ll call them the Generic Biomedical Science Association (GBSA) for convenience and to protect confidentiality.  All three are women. Their boss, the CEO, is a woman. I had reached out to GBSA at the recommendation of a colleague who thought that they would be receptive to my work to end sexual and gender-based harassment at meetings and conferences.

I knew of GBSA’s public image that they are committed to the advancement of women and minorities in their field. They are careful to ensure representation of women, underrepresented minorities, and early career scientists and clinicians in their governance structure, and among their meeting presenters. They say all the right things, on paper and on their website and, most likely, amongst themselves. That’s why I thought they’d be interested in the work that I’m doing on harassment.

What I heard on the call was a nearly non-stop barrage of defensiveness, diversion, and denial that went on for the better part of an hour. I got a detailed and lengthy description of all the things GBSA does to help advance the careers of women and underrepresented minorities; an explanation of what is in their ethics and conflict of interest policies; and a lot of denial that any act of sexual or gender-based harassment that might happen at their meetings could possibly go unnoticed or unreported. There were several attempts made to divert the conversation to talk about workplace harassment, as if the workplace harassers never go to meetings and therefore such behavior is confined to workplaces. When I asked if they had ever received a report of an act of harassment or bullying at their meetings, I was told about incidents that involved questions or comments directed at speakers during sessions and committee meetings. Granted, these incidents of bullying were addressed in the moment and that is a very good thing. But that kind of public bullying was not what I was trying to talk about.

Here is what I wish I could have told them:

Diversity is not the same as full inclusion.

Saying something doesn’t make it so, even if you write it down, have it approved by your Board, and post it in on your website.

When you produce multiple meetings a year, totaling tens of thousands of attendees, not all of them are going to be the kind of high-minded, ethical, and enlightened beings that you want to believe they are.

Just because no one has ever formally reported harassment at your meetings doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.

Acknowledging that a problem exists is not the same as accepting blame for it. Taking steps to solve the problem is taking responsibility for it.

OK, that was the step back. Here’s the step forward.

I’m doing some work with a scientific society – call it the Society for Basic Science (SBS) - that is tackling the issue of harassment at meetings face-on.

SBS has developed a code of conduct specific to behavior at meetings. They have involved volunteer and staff leadership in creating the code, had it vetted by legal counsel, and their Board is currently voting on formal adoption of the policy. They have established a set of procedures for addressing incidents at their meetings, and they asked me to train their meetings staff in preparation for their next conference.

The workshop participants were staff and volunteer leaders. Nearly half of the participants were men, and about 20% were members of racial or ethnic minorities.

Participation was lively. We had excellent discussions about what kind of harassment happens at meetings, why it happens, and what specific steps they as individuals and the organization as a whole can take to end it. Even the folks who told me how much they hated doing role-playing did the work needed to develop their skills for dealing with harassment as a target, as a bystander, and as a representative of SBS. We had a chance to talk about implicit bias; microagressions; harassment and bullying related to race, religion, and other personal characteristics; and how to be an ally when you are the one standing in privilege because of your gender, race, class, or combination thereof. They got squirmy and uncomfortable and they stuck with it, and with each other, through that discomfort.

Never once did I hear a word about this training, or this policy, being unnecessary. They are doing the work – work that is often challenging and uncomfortable – that lies behind the words in a diversity and inclusion policy or a statement of ethics.

They are not to blame for the bad behavior of a few people at their meetings. They are taking responsibility to ensure that the bad behavior of a few is stopped and, ultimately, prevented.

Responsibility, not blame. That’s how you make a difference.