The American Statistical Association (ASA) has recently appointed a Task Force on Sexual Harassment and Assault, and I’ve been asked to lead it. This is the story of how the task force came about, and about an organization that isn’t afraid to tackle a difficult issue.
It all started last October, when I had the opportunity to attend the amazing ASA-sponsored Women in Statistics and Data Science (WSDS) conference in La Jolla, CA. This was the 3rd year the conference was held, but the first that I was able to attend. The conference was great, and gave me the opportunity to catch up with old friends, former students, and colleagues, some of whom I hadn’t seen in years. I met new people who I know I’ll stay in touch with, and who will become those friends, colleagues, and maybe even students down the road! And I met the future of our profession, and I can assure you we’re in good hands.
I have to admit, though, I was a little bit skeptical at first. I’ve pondered the question of whether we really need leadership training programs that are only for women. Short answer – we do; you can find the long answer here! I also wondered whether we needed a conference that was geared towards women. I can now say that the answer to that question is a resounding yes and I’m sorry to have doubted!
The energy at the conference was far different than what I’ve ever experienced in my 20+ years in the field. The scope of topics was wide, with several statistical methods talks, some programming talks, and several sessions on what some people call soft skills (e.g. goal setting, communications, networking, mentoring), but what I think of as hard skills, since they are often the most difficult for statisticians to master. Most statisticians can prove the central limit theorem, but ask them to communicate how to prove the theorem, and they may have more difficulty.
It wasn’t only that those issues were addressed, but the fact that they were addressed in a space in which women could feel free to be honest without wondering if they were being judged based on the length of their skirt was liberating. Discussion felt freer, less inhibited. Speakers seemed more relaxed and less rushed.
And the stories. When I think that maybe we haven’t come as far as I’ve hoped, I go back to what I learned at WSDS. I think about women like Dr. Donna Brogan, who faced sex discrimination throughout her career, but fought it at every step of the way. She fought so that universities would be required to offer the same benefits to women as they do to men. I think about the women who came before me, and how the fights they fought made it possible for me to be where I am today. I hope that the fights I’m fighting will make it better for the women who come next… but I’ll come back to that.
I sat on a panel at WSDS called “Too Young to Lead, but Stepping up Anyway.” I was so humbled to be on this panel with amazing women who all have leadership responsibilities in their organizations, and who all came into their leadership roles while relatively young. I learned so much from listening to what my peers had to say and hope that what I said helped inspire others to consider their own leadership paths. After our session, some of the other panelists and I spent time talking with a couple of young women who are starting out in the field. I had mentioned this blog during the session, and this group of women came to talk to me about my post from April, 2017 regarding sexual assault in the field. As we discussed the issue of sexual misconduct in statistics, these young women expressed concern that the ASA was not doing all that it could to ensure that the field of statistics was safe and welcoming for everyone. To me, this was horrifying – how could we grow participation in our field by women and underrepresented groups, if we are unable to create a safe and inclusive environment?
One of the things I love about being in a position of leadership is that I have the ability and security to speak up on behalf of those who feel that their voice is not able to be heard. In this case, I volunteered to reach out to the executive director of the ASA to suggest that the association consider convening a task force on sexual assault and harassment in our field. This was after instances of sexual assault/harassment in Hollywood and in journalism had received considerable media attention, and provided an opportunity for the ASA to be a leader in how professional organizations respond to instances of sexual misconduct. I sent an email – both the executive director and the ASA president responded in less than 24 hours pointing me to the meeting code of conduct that the ASA has had in place for some time, and with high enthusiasm for the Task Force, asking that we help draft charges for the group, and that I present the idea to the ASA Board at the November meeting.
These young women I had met, along with and other leaders, helped put together charges for the committee (http://ww2.amstat.org/committees/commdetails.cfm?txtComm=ABTBOD05) in a very short amount of time, and on November 17, 2017, the ASA Board of Directors approved the formation of the Task Force on Sexual Harassment and Assault, with the charge our informal group suggested. I was asked to lead the task force, and the membership was set over the next couple of months, as the ASA President was currently in transition, and the Board felt comfortable that given the meeting conduct policy already in place, these issues could be addressed in a timely, but not necessarily urgent, fashion.
And then… one woman was brave enough to do what no statistician before her had done. On December 13, 2017, Kristian Lum published a very moving blog post on Medium (“Statistics, we have a problem“) that called out two men for sexual harassment and assault. And without naming their names, she identified them pretty clearly. This very frank #metoo moment turned the world of statistics on its head. Many questions arose about how to deal with issues of sexual assault or harassment at conferences; at academic institutions; in industry. There are few people in the field who haven’t been touched by Kristian’s story. There is broad agreement that this type of behavior is not acceptable, but professional organizations in statistics were scrambling to figure out how to deal with it. We recognize that this is a difficult problem, as it broaches questions of personal vs. professional ethics and whether there should be a difference (https://newrepublic.com/article/146733/scientists-accused-sexual-misconduct-can-still-get-government-grants).
I come back to my ability to fight the fights that will make the field better for those coming after me. I’m proud to be leading a Task Force that will help identify the extent of the problem of sexual misconduct in statistics, and help recommend solutions. I’m confident that the measured fashion in which the Task Force is moving will lead to recommendations that will have long-term implications. I hope that the changes that the Task Force proposes will help to make the field of statistics a safer and more welcoming place for all.