Don't Stay Neutral

by Keith Seitter, AMS Executive Director
Back in September, I had the privilege of taking part in an excellent workshop on sexual harassment in the sciences that was convened by AGU in collaboration with several other societies. Several sessions of the workshop included discussion on how to reduce the potential for harassment at scientific meetings, so with the 97th AMS Annual Meeting just around the corner, I want to take this opportunity to address these issues.
First, it is important to recognize that sexual harassment in the sciences is more prevalent than most of us would like to believe. We have all read about some of the high-profile cases of truly egregious misconduct between senior scientists and students or junior colleagues. Much, much more common are types of harassment that may fall well below the legal standard for prosecution but are, nonetheless, unacceptable levels of behavior in a professional setting. As the workshop highlighted, these forms of harassment are able to exist partly because many of us are reluctant to take action when we see them (or even when we experience them)—choosing instead to “remain neutral” and not call someone out on behavior that has made someone else uncomfortable.
AMS has an excellent statement of “Professional and Respectful Conduct at AMS Meetings” that can be found here. This statement makes it clear that AMS expects all attendees to adhere to levels of professional behavior that ensure attendees will feel safe and comfortable throughout the meeting and all associated activities. It includes actions AMS will take if attendees do not adhere to these guidelines. As noted in the conduct statement, AMS has established several mechanisms for reporting unprofessional behavior at a meeting (which include sending an e-mail to [email protected], leaving a message on a special hotline at 617-226-3965 that will automatically alert a response team of senior AMS staff members, or simply letting anyone with a staff badge know about the issue).
The most powerful and effective mechanism to ensure a climate of safety and comfort at meetings, however, is for all of us to do our part and not stay neutral if we see or experience behavior that is not consistent with professional and respectful conduct. Take a few minutes now to imagine a scenario in which you see something that makes you or someone else uncomfortable, and think of some phrases that you could be comfortable saying. It can be simple, along the lines of “It is not OK to talk that way” or “that is not the way we do things.” A few simple words can have an enormous and immediate impact. The important thing is that you say something. Doing so will promote a climate of respect and help ensure that the kind of behavior we all expect at a scientific meeting is, in fact, what we experience.
(A version of this post appeared in AMS Executive Director Keith Seitter’s “Letter from Headquarters” column in the November 2016 BAMS.)