Let’s ban alcohol at academic events to reduce sexual harassment and other unwelcome behaviour [MeToo]

As the discussion around harassment in academia (sexual and otherwise) is increasing, we learn that it is not healthy, definitely not rare and not reported as often as it happens. While thinking of various solutions to prevent or reduce its occurrence, I had been contemplating on the possibility and effectiveness of banning (or minimizing) alcohol at academic events. This is not a fully-written proposal (which would be updated soon), but here are a [temporary] collection of thoughts and notes on this idea that I’d like to propose.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this and appreciate constructive feedback.

Background

  • Alcohol makes people less inhibitive and hence more aggressive and offensive. There is sufficient evidence linking presence of alcohol to increased harassment:
    • “Research suggests that alcohol consumption by the perpetrator and/or the victim increases the likelihood of acquaintance sexual assault occurring through multiple pathways. Alcohol’s psychological, cognitive and motor effects contribute to sexual assault.” [Abbey, JSA, 2002]
    • “Contrast analyses indicated that both the direct and moderated effects of male drinking significantly contributed unique explanatory power in the prediction of gender harassment above and beyond that of females’ demographic vulnerability; unit gender composition; and a reckless, tolerant, or generally permissive work unit culture.” [Bacharach, JOHP, 2007]
    • “When alcohol consumption in and around the workplace increases, so does the risk of harassment of women by male coworkers” [Myers, Cornell Chronicle, 2004]
  • Alcohol is not necessary for the primary purposes of academic meetings: academic communication, scientific discussions and professional networking
  • Alcohol’s presence is not inclusive of few cultures and identities who do not consume alcohol, and hence presents an unwelcoming and hostile environment, in addition to preventing them from fully participating in the event
  • While it is easy to point out that Alcohol itself does not cause unwelcome behaviour and is not the primary cause for harassment, however it’s presence is associated with higher incidence of harassment. To compare it to recent controversy, related to the name of a machine learning conference NIPS (now NeurIPS), where some members petitioned to change the longstanding name of NIPS to avoid any sexual connotation. Although the name itself does not make any sexist jokes – bad participants use it to make sexual jokes. If one were to believe a mere conference acronym is encouraging sexism, then by the same token, it’s not hard to believe that alcohol is encouraging sexism and harassment. If the name change were to make the environment more welcoming, banning alcohol would amount to just as much or even more!
  • Another [potentially controversial] analogy is to guns – guns by themselves don’t kill people, bad actors do. They are instruments to maximize the violence and damage. Alcohol can be thought of as a catalyst to the bad actors!
  • One might say “alcohol is deeply rooted in many cultures and is the norm of social interactions”. However, professional academic interactions do not have to mirror non-academic social life
  • I believe banning alcohol would reduce unwelcome behaviour and reduce various forms of harassment.

Proposal

  • Ban alcohol at academic events.
  • If it can’t be banned right away,
    • minimize the amount and strength of alcohol consumed to bare minimum – no more than 1 beer or wine!
    • when serving attendees, there must not be any visual or verbal enticement towards alcohol – always present both non-alcoholic and alcohol drinks at the same time.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Why are you blaming alcohol instead of the harassers?
    • This is simply an attempt to try reduce the incidence of unwelcome events. We recommend any series of actions and/or policies that have the potential maximize value of the academic event (such as a conference) and minimize the harassment. Wouldn’t you want to try this if it meant avoiding even just 1 event of sexual harassment?
  • Why limit the fun of good people for fear of few bad apples?
    • Good question. Possible solutions could be to limit the amount of maximum consumption, which needs to be debated.
  • What about harassment outside the conference premises?
    • The Scientific societies have no control over it and are not responsible for what happens there. However, participants are still expected to abide by the “Code of Conduct” (or similar policies) during the entire duration of the event. Hence, victims of harassment must report any violations to the organizers immediately, and take any appropriate measures necessary to stay safe.

References

  • Abbey, Antonia. “Alcohol-Related Sexual Assault: A Common Problem among College Students.” Journal of Studies on Alcohol. Supplement, no. 14, Mar. 2002, pp. 118–28. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4484270/
  • Bacharach, Samuel B., et al. “Harassing under the Influence: The Prevalence of Male Heavy Drinking, the Embeddedness of Permissive Workplace Drinking Norms, and the Gender Harassment of Female Coworkers.” Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, vol. 12, no. 3, July 2007, pp. 232–50. PubMed, doi:10.1037/1076-8998.12.3.232. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17638490
  • Linda Myers, 2004, “Study shows link between drinking and gender harassment in workplace”, Cornell Chronicle, URL

Keywords: metoo, metoostem, academia, alcohol, sexual harassment

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