Monday, 22 April 2013

Place: Sexual Harassment and Archaeology

Last week, a couple of quite cool things happened. The first one was that one of my favourite examples of internet feminism, Everyday Sexism, celebrated their first year of existence. They celebrated with a piece charting their development from initial idea to a project that has changed the lives of its founders and given a voice to thousands of men and women. You can read it here. The second thing was that a group of archaeologists on twitter got talking about sexist practice in our discipline, after reading this article by Kate Clancy on harassment and fieldwork. It got me thinking- I've been a member of staff at fabulous excavation for the past three years. We've had our fair share of dig romances- couples making up, breaking up, hooking up (disclaimer- my only dig romance was when my husband came to visit last year. Him bringing me a cold drink at lunchtime is the best part of this). They are almost always created from the intoxicating mixture of conditions that excavations present: intense, long, physical working days. High temperatures. Pheromones running riot as personal hygiene trickles away alongside inhibitions. Add to that the opportunity to drink alcohol for the first time for a lot of our students and you have a perfect storm of potential for unrequited affection and inappropriate behaviour. To my knowledge, a harassment situation hasn't happened. I know that if I hear anything I regard as offensive in my trench, I will stop the conversation and move the talk to another subject. If I was worried about someone's behaviour, I think the staff would get together, discuss it openly, and develop a strategy for preventing harassment both on site and off it. 

But what if that harassment was coming from a staff member? It's a very egalitarian dig, and I think that our director would happily get involved on behalf of anyone who felt uncomfortable (he's fab, and probably why the whole project is so great). But in another place? In another situation when the director wasn't supportive, wasn't interested or was themself in thrall to outside circumstances? What if an external funder was behaving inappropriately towards a member of staff? What price the security and happiness of junior staff or students when compared to losing funding, or losing local support? What if, as Kate Clancy documents, individuals don't feel safe to report abusive behaviour in fear of losing their jobs? There's a BAJR (British Archaeological Jobs Resource) feed all about sexual harassment in commercial archaeology- and during our conversation on Monday the point was made that research excavations should be encouraged to sign up to similar principles of equality as those enshrined in employment law which apply to commercial sites. The American Anthropologial Association issued a statement to that effect in response to Clancy's research.

I think that these well meaning statements are missing the point. Research fieldwork projects are already signed up to codes of conduct for ethical behaviour through their individual institutions. Having "procedures in place" is not the answer, because the problem, as Clancy identifies, is that the repellent activities of those who harass and abuse others in archaeology are carefully choreographed to take place in a fashion which does not damage the career prospects and personal life of the abuser. In her words "It's all about who's watching." Perhaps one of the reasons that the excavation I work at doesn't suffer from this type of behaviour is that there is usually somebody watching, and that somebody is a person who cares about equality, personal safety and not behaving like a total ars*hole. Without calling out individual perpetrators, all the guidelines in the world won't hold them to account. In addition to projects where sexist bias and harassment is a concrete reality, there is one HUGE sphere in which nobody is watching. In which you can do what you like to who you like and probably get away with abuse. That's the digital world. Offensive emails. Creepy Twitter trolling. Abusive comments on a blog. All these can be anonymised. Nobody's watching, except the victim. It makes me think of my only brush with harassment, and wonder if it might have escalated quickly into something much worse in today's digital world.

During PhD induction, I sat next to another new student in one of the induction workshops. I was late, I just sat down. In the group worked that followed, I was already getting uncomfortable with this individual. He kept asking me increasingly personal questions, edging closer and closer in spite of my completely unsubtle piss-off glares and dismissive replies. When he asked me if I was single, I told him I was engaged. He asked me if I thought my now husband really loved me... then tried to stroke my hand and asked for my number. I gave him a fake one, a death stare, and a telling off. It didn't stop him following me around campus for the remainder of the week, until I brought husband to a social event for new PhDs. I was freaked out, frightened and effing furious. The only thing that stopped one man misbehaving was the sight of another, bigger man. My wishes were completely ignored in this situation- if I'd been single, would he have seen me as fair game? Would the stalking have developed from unwanted seating arrangements to following me home? Why was my lack of interest only valid when caused by my being another man's possession? In a world where you can find someone online the instant you know their name, what could have happened next in that situation, if it took place now? Facebook messages? Emails? Tweets? Finding this blog and posting horrible comments that I would have to read as moderator? Sexually explicit trolling? Sexist abuse of my work? What if the individual had been another archaeologist- someone I had to see at departmental events, knowing they were behind such a campaign of bad behaviour, or at least suspecting it? Would I have had the confidence to take such abuse to a senior figure in the university, or go to the police? Would I directly reply to such messages, or would that be giving the individual the response they crave? I don't know.

The third cool thing I did last week was attend a meeting for a new project I'm proud to be working on, that is looking to address some of these issues. Set up by the amazing Dr Sara Perry from York University, the Gender and Digital Culture project is looking to examine the use of digital culture by different groups, explore online experiences both positive and negative, and explore both the potential for the promotion of equality and potential for abuse in digital contexts- and not just in archaeology. I'll probably be writing more about the project in the future, but I really hope that we can develop some ideas to ensure that, even online, there won't be a place where harassment and sexist abuse can happen without repercussions.

What about you? Have you experienced anything like this, online or offline? You can comment anonymously here, of course. 

** Ironically, I had a massive "sexist pig" moment the day before our meeting. Went to bank to make a transfer to send money for images to the Italian Soprintendenza. Bank MANAGER (it said so on his name badge) asked me, in a voice I'd use to my 9 month old second cousin, "Do we need to change our name today?" I must have looked shocked, and said "What?" I had no idea what he meant. He replied "Weeelll, I saw your ring, so we need to change your name, don't we?" Because a married woman can't be in the bank except to transfer financial control to her husband. And any woman in the bank needs to be treated like the itty bitty kittykins with cotton wool for a brain that she is. God help the women who work with this individual.

Let me through that perspex screen and I'll....

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