Since the #MeToo movement, there has been a global reckoning with gender-based violence, harassment, abuse of power and sexual misconduct inside and outside of the workplace. The problem has been well documented in the public sphere, with documentaries and films like Missrepresentation and Bombshell exposing the chronic sexualization and devaluing of women in the public sphere, and the sexual and mental harassment that they face behind the scenes.
Universities are only just starting to acknowledge and reckon with the problem. The documentary Picture a scientist laid bare the scope and range of harassment issues women have faced and continue to face in science today. Amnesty International just launched its #letstalkaboutyes campaign to highlight the problem of sexual and mental harassment on campus, particularly within the student population – with many students going through to Masters, PhD, and then embracing an academic career, Amnesty hopes to highlight the importance of starting early with harassment awareness.
Intimidation of female scientists
Sexual and gender-based violence represents one easily identifiable end of the harassment spectrum. But it’s important to explain the context in which perpetrators feel that they can engage in such actions with impunity. This is a context in which women are marginalized in debates, and seldom treated as equal partners, such that their voices are less heard. One particularly acute problem women contend with is essentialisation: often, when men speak, they are heard on merits, whereas when women speak, they are attacked on personal characteristics that have nothing to do with their arguments. This process of essentialisation turns an argument about what someone is saying into one about what someone is, and it’s being used to discredit women.
This happened, for instance, when Marion Koopmans, advisor to the Outbreak Management Team and professor of virology at the Erasmus MC was attacked on social media after her televised addresses regarding the corona crisis. In response, the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences advocated research into intimidation of specifically female scientists. Female politicians also get their share of harassment. Sylvana Simons was branded as an enemy of the Netherlands, leading to a torrent of racist and sexist abuse, including death threats. In this regard, women with progressive ideas, especially women of colour are singled out for particularly harsh treatment. They are often essentialised as ‘enemies’ of a system or a way of life, building on tropes of women as irrational, hysterical and untrustworthy, and if they push back, they are caricatured as weak and overly sensitive.
While essentialisation has always been a problem for women in public life, in the age of social media where anonymity and group effects can make some people feel less responsible for the consequences of their words, there has been an explosion of online threats of a gendered or sexual nature. Within some online spaces, particularly ones where moderation is poor, once a woman has been essentialised, she is considered ‘fair game’ for attacks by some people.
Tolerance, reason and dialogue
Therefore, we pledge that we will create a public space in our university where women can express themselves freely, where their arguments will be heard on merit and addressed respectfully, where constructive, collegial critique will address substance, not character. We will do this by endorsing leadership practices that prioritise social safety. Our thriving community of female academics, teachers and scholars shall be free to publish academic and journalistic work without seeing their names used as fodder in culture wars that have no place on our campus.
Erasmian values are values of tolerance, reason and dialogue. There is no dialogue to be had when women’s words are deliberately twisted, when their detractors patronize and admonish, when the critique is ad hominem. Diversity will not thrive in our public space so long as the voices from groups marginalized in academia are drowned out by attacks on their character, and the (online) ramifications of this essentialisation.
Condemn personal attacks
We support constructive critique, we encourage discussion and discord on matters of contents, and we welcome reasoned debate that presents a multiplicity of viewpoints. We condemn wanton attacks on persons, especially in a climate where attacks that begin online sometimes lead to attacks in the real world.
We call upon all Erasmians to stand up against this kind of discourse when they hear it, and upon colleagues to stand up for their peers in solidarity when they are unfairly approached and unjustifiably attacked. We support leadership initiatives, through training and role-modeling, that prioritise social safety and we support the initiative that universities protect scientists who are threatened due to their participation in public debate. We owe all people on our campus regardless of their gender, background and sexual orientation, a safe and inclusive academic environment to thrive in.
Semiha Denktaș, Ginie Servant-Miklos, Liesbeth Noordegraaf-Eelens
Jane Murray Cramm, Hanneke Takkenberg, Teresa de la Hera, Han van Ruler, Teresa Bago d’Uva, Laura den Dulk, Inga Hoever, Franziska Weber, Kees Ahaus, Roland Bal, Eveline Crone, Moniek Buijzen, Werner Brouwer, Victor Bekkers, Inge Hutter, Payal Arora, Ruud Welten, Gabriele Jacobs, Nine van Gent-van der Feltz, Martine van Selm, Erik Hans Klijn, Willem Schinkel, Matthias Wieser, Jeroen van der Waal, Ellen Hey, Hub Zwart, Jurian Edelenbos, Maartje Luijk, Darren McCaugley, Katinka Dijkstra, Pilar Garcia Gomez, Wendy Tieman, Jan van Ours, Kirsten Rohde, Enrico Pennings, Hanan El Marroun, Xandra Kramer, Gabi Helfert, Patrick Groenen, Benedict Dellaert, Arwin van Buuren, Nicola Kleyn, Ansgar Richter, Gijs van Soest, Arfan Ikram, Pursey Heugens, Alessandra Arcuri, Louis Visscher, Peter Roosenboom, Robin van den Akker, Mark van Ostaijen, Pearl Dijkstra, Marijke Weustink-van Ditzhuijzen, Mireille Spapens, Myra van Esch, Gera Noordzij, Margo Strijbosch, Maria Grith, Anna Baiardi, Michel van der Wel, Hans van Kippersluis, Han Bleichrodt, Anne Gielen, Dinand Webbink, Dick van Dijk, Dennis Fok, Brigitte Widdershoven, Jeroen Jansz, Lilian Jillissen, Stijn Reijnders, Ana Uribe Sandoval, Marieke Veenstra, Jason Pridmore, Henk Bolk, Brigitte Hoogendoorn, Richard Hageman, Laura Hering, Daan Stam, Stefan Sleijfer, Joke Boonstra, Lieke Skidmore-Vencken, Michel Lander, Laura Zwaan, Chen Hu, Lizzy Boonen, Corine van de Sande, Farshida Zafar, Sandra van Thiel, Wibren van der Burg, Karin Arts, Arjun Bedi.