How To Stop Sexual Harassment Or Other Misconduct At Conferences

Yihui Xie 2017-12-16

The statistics community must have been shocked to learn how terrible it could be for females to attend conferences from a courageous post published by Kristian Lum a couple of days ago. At least I was shocked, and have been thinking about how we could prevent this in the future since I read her post.

Today I read Xi’an’s post “how to make ISBA conference safe for all?”. I guess we certainly want to make all conferences (not limited to ISBA) safe for all. While I’m glad to see ISBA respond and take actions quickly, and like the idea of “contact referents” (who you can reach for help in case of other people’s misconduct), I doubt if it will be effective if the number of referents is too small compared to the number of attendees.

For this idea to be effective, I think the key is that there is always at least one referent available anywhere at the conference. My proposal is that we add an option on the conference registration page and ask if the attendee is willing to help. If he/she says yes, we print a special icon or add a ribbon to his/her name badge, indicating that this person can be reached in case of harassment or misconduct. I believe most people would be happy to help. Of course, the potential offenders will also see this option when they register, and hopefully will feel the pressure from the masses when attending the conference.

The other thing that shocked me was that it seems pretty much everyone in the Bayesian community knows the offenders mentioned in Kristian’s post, but they still managed to continue the harassment for decades! How could that be possible? Were the organizing committees aware of these offenders? Why were they still allowed to attend the conferences? Dan Simpson mentioned that the Bayesian conferences were pretty cliquey. I didn’t expect that these conferences could be cliquey to this degree, to essentially protect the offenders and cover their misconduct for decades, since what happened inside has been totally unknown to the outside (until Kristian wrote the post). For example, everyone inside seems to know “S”, but no one outside knows who that “S” is (including me). How can we solve this problem?

Again, I think we could add a text field on the conference registration page to let people report the names of past offenders that they know. The report could be (perhaps should be) anonymous. The one who has been reported for many times should be banned from the conference.

I think the above things are relatively easy to do. The hard way to go, and perhaps also the most effective way to go, is to take legal actions against misconduct that is essentially crime. The offenders shall be punished. We need some legal advice, e.g., what could be legally valid evidence of harassment, and how to save such evidence for future use in the court? In Kristian’s case, how could she prove she was harassed under the water after she left? I guess it is hard. I’m not a lawyer, and statisticians are often not lawyers, either.

Lastly, I just want to say that I believe most males will be happy to help fight against sexual harassment. It might be tempting to hate all males or Bayesians after reading a post like Kristian’s, but that would be irrational. For that, I appreciate Alicia’s reply under Kristian’s tweet, although it could be easily misunderstood in this particular context (well, as I have said many times before, Twitter and social media in general, are the worst places to discuss anything serious).

P. S. Amelia McNamara wrote a blog post “On microaggressions” on Dec 19, 2017. It turned out that “S” was Steven Scott. I attended the same JSM session as Amelia and Karl, but I left early, so I missed his talk, and didn’t know it was so bad.