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How the #MeTooPoliSci Collective is making a difference in political science

Here’s the 10th and final article in our series on the gender gap in political science.

- August 29, 2019

In the past two years, two female political scientists publicly reported that they had been sexually harassed and assaulted. While sexual harassment is disturbing in itself, it’s also a symptom of broader gender discrimination that holds women back — in the world at large, and in political science in particular.

Before these women came forward, political science had no effective organization or body to support those who’ve been sexually harassed. That’s why we launched the #MeTooPoliSci Collective. Here’s a history of our movement, and an explanation of how we intend to combat bias incidents more broadly.

How we created #MeTooPoliSci

In January 2018, our colleague Rebecca Gill, a University of Nevada associate professor, discussed on a panel at the Southern Political Science Association how a mentor’s sexual harassment hurt her career. Feminists and allies sought to support Gill and immediately called on the leadership of professional organizations to investigate the allegations.

Since we had first gathered information through a social-media hashtag, we began calling ourselves the #MeTooPoliSci Collective. Seventy-five political scientists organized within the Women’s Caucus for Political Science (WCPS), an established women’s organization in political science, moved quickly to support Gill. We invited scholars not affiliated with the WCPS to join our efforts — intentionally reaching out to academics who are women of color, queer scholars and those who do not work at research-intensive universities to encourage them to join us in #MeTooPoliSci.

We established communication channels via Slack.com and together searched for strategies for addressing sexual harassment, misconduct and violence. For example, we organized protests at the Midwest Political Science Association and conducted awareness campaigns on social media, coming up with innovative approaches to supporting Gill and others.

Once we began working together, we realized that we needed to challenge the power structures that were not equipped to effectively address sexual harassment in the discipline. To do that, we needed to work with the leadership of political science professional associations to create a culture of intolerance for sexual harassment.

Today, #MeTooPoliSci involves 25 political scientists who use their time, talents and resources to expose identity-based discrimination and combat these bias incidents. We called for a boycott of the Midwest Political Science Association until effective protocols are developed to transparently and equitably address claims of sexual harassment. We’ve also worked closely with the leadership of the American Political Science Association, recommending best practices and anti-harassment initiatives, such as bystander training and ombudsmen.

#MeTooPoliSci draws on scholarship to have impact beyond the academy

In February, our colleague Vanessa Tyson publicly reported that she had been sexually assaulted by Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. The #MeTooPoliSci Collective immediately mobilized to support Tyson and to call for the Virginia legislature to investigate.

The collective started a fundraising campaign to assist Tyson with legal fees. We published an op-ed in The Washington Post about how black women’s experiences with sexualized violence have been and are obscured both in black activist circles and in the larger #MeToo Movement — even though the hashtag was coined by Tarana Burke, a black woman. And we appealed to #MeToo efforts to take an intersectional perspective on how misogyny and white supremacy combine to leave black women especially vulnerable to violent intimidation.

An intersectional approach guides us in combating structural inequality

Using an intersectional approach guides the #MeTooPoliSci Collective’s work against structural inequality within political science.

Too many scholars are held back because of their gender, sexual orientation, religion, race or class, biases that are masked by claims of rewarding academic merit and scholarly excellence. Scholars can start to believe that they themselves are the problem, rather than the structure of the academy that was never designed to embrace them or their scholarship. We work to offset that socialization, and have called for a more inclusive representation of scholars and scholarship within the discipline.

Here’s what the #MeTooPoliSci Collective did to fight bias

The #MeTooPoliSci Collective has worked to move beyond reacting to colleagues who’ve suffered harassment and bias — and to try to change the political science culture that permits sexual harassment.

The #MeTooPoliSci Collective secured funding to host a preconference workshop at the 2018 meeting of the American Political Science Association (APSA). At the workshop, a representative from the Boston Rape Crisis Center trained us in bystander intervention; a lawyer who specializes in sexual harassment in the workforce taught us about legal statutes concerning gender discrimination; and we attended panels by academics working on organizational change within departments and professional associations.

We published aspects of this preconference workshop and original scholarship on #MeToo in a special issue of the Journal of Women, Politics and Policy. The issue offers a variety of approaches to challenging sexual harassment, testimonials from those who’ve been harassed and assaulted, and suggestions for best practices and resources for political scientists being harassed. We negotiated to ensure that the issue would be open access. It has become one of the journal’s most viewed issues in recent years.

In collaboration with APSA leadership, we administered a survey on the experiences of women in the discipline. With the data we collected, we wrote a proposal for the National Science Foundation, seeking support to address the power inequities that lead to sexual harassment, misconduct and violence in political science. We’ve since received a prestigious NSF Advance program grant to support our project, “#MeTooPoliSci: Leveraging A Professional Association to Address Sexual Harassment in Political Science.” With this, the #MeTooPoliSci Collaborative will partner with APSA to develop research-driven interventions that change the political science climate and culture that enable gender discrimination and sexual harassment.

All these efforts are paving a healthier and more just path for the discipline. Our story shows that sometimes hashtags can lead to movements for real change.

Previously in this series:

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Nadia E. Brown is associate professor of political science and African American studies at Purdue University and the author of “Sisters in the Statehouse: Black Women and Legislative Decision Making” (Oxford University Press, 2014). She wrote this piece on behalf of the #MeTooPoliSci Collective and is a principal investigator on the NSF ADVANCE Partnership grant.