Confronting Harassment in the Field

This column originally appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of History News.

In social media, blog posts, and conference sessions, people have been sharing their personal stories of sexual harassment and gender discrimination in the history field. From inappropriate behavior and threatening sexual advances and assault, to hiring and advancement inequities and debilitating work environments, these occurrences within historic sites and historical organizations demand attention. From all of us.

A main takeaway from two sessions at the 2019 AASLH Annual Meeting on this topic (“Gender Equity and Facing Sexual Harassment and Mistreatment in the Cultural Field” and “#MeToo, AASLH, NCPH, and the Field”) is simply that everyone needs to be talking openly about preventing and eliminating harassment and discrimination. History workers of all genders, all sexual orientations, and in all workplaces.

As one participant noted, “This isn’t a women’s issue. It’s a human rights issue.”

More frequent and open discussion about sexual harassment and discrimination, whether that conversation happens at conferences like AASLH’s, in staff or board meetings, in classrooms, or during employee onboarding, serves to destig­matize and encourage more discussion. Equally important is hearing a definitive message from the top, from the CEO and board. Staff and volunteers must know that their leaders believe that safe, productive, and welcoming workplaces are an absolute priority and that they will enforce these values with no tolerance for harassment. Leaders can make it a point of discussion in meetings to remind staff members of the organization’s standing human resources policies and commitment to dealing with issues justly and promptly. Would staff and volunteers be comfortable approaching leadership with harassment concerns? Do they know their bosses and colleagues would listen and take appropriate action? If there’s a hotline or other route for reporting inappropriate behavior, do they know where to find it? Does your organization have policies for frontline volunteers and staff in their interactions with visitors? Would staff, volunteers, and interns at your organization feel bold enough to speak out about an “import­ant” person, such as a donor, board member, or supervisor? Are staff members empowered to take matters outside the organization, and are they able to safely approach authorities with the issue?

Making sure that all of us in the history community understand our rights, know how to spot and confront inappropriate behavior, and know our experiences will be taken seriously and acted upon will mean making a concerted effort. Graduate programs can prepare students for what is and is not appropriate in the workplace, extending strong university HR resources to help protect interns and new professionals, and empowering graduates to know the frameworks that can help them in their new jobs. History organizations of all types must revisit their policies covering sexual harassment and discrimination, raise these topics in team and board meetings, and emphasize the seriousness and ramifications of inappropriate behavior.

Since associations like AASLH serve such a wide range of institutions and history practitioners, at each stage of their career, and from volunteer to professional settings, they have a unique role to play. We will continue to provide resources, raise awareness, and offer training. There will be ongoing Annual Meeting sessions and workshops, and discussion within our publications, such as History News. As we expand AASLH’s program of continuing education webinars and online courses, we will be considering topics on the problems of harassment and discrimination.

This past spring, AASLH adopted a Meeting Safety and Responsibility Policy which is meant to address a variety of harassment and discriminatory behaviors.

Rules and norms, of course, cannot prevent all violations, but their existence is a reminder to all and gives the organization a starting point from which to take action in cases of discrimination and harassment.

We also will be working with our colleagues at the National Council on Public History (NCPH) to use our two Annual Meetings (AASLH in the fall, NCPH in the spring) to develop tools for confronting sexual harassment and gender discrimination. AASLH will be assisting NCPH as well with a fieldwide survey in the next several months about these issues in the history community. More than a third of women and more than 20 percent of all adults in the U.S. have experienced sexual harassment at work, according to a 2017 Marist poll. These figures may be even higher for women of color and transgender women, who face additional obstacles to combatting harassment. We must understand what the impact has been within the history field so we can better form actionable policies and help those we serve do the same at their institutions.

All of us must refuse to ignore or cover up these issues, continually raise these topics, and make sure our organizations have stated values and policies in place that address and demand meaningful consequences for behavior that threatens the inclusivity and well-being of our field.

Further Reading:

American Association for State and Local History, “Are You Protecting Your Staff From Sexual Harassment?”

American Society of Association Executives, Meeting Safety and Responsibility Policy

Joan Baldwin and Anne Ackerson, Women in the Museum: Lessons from the Workplace

Leadership Matters, “#MuseumsMeToo: Aren’t We Done with Excuses?”

Gender Equity in Museums Movement

National Council of Nonprofits, “Sexual Harassment in the Nonprofit Workplace”

New Museum, “Some Notes on Sexual Harassment”