Free Speech, Science / Tech, Top Stories

Is It Sexual Harassment to Discuss this Article?

Jordan Peterson recently tweeted that, “The STEM fields are next on the SJW hitlist. Beware, engineers.”  I’m convinced that Peterson is correct and I feel that my ongoing case has allowed me to see a likely avenue of attack from those who support the equity agenda. They will characterize any discussion of sex differences, no matter how calm and rational, as a form of gender harassment which in turn constitutes sexual harassment. In other words, if you dare to discuss the science of sex differences—even at a university—there’s a good chance that you’ll be accused of violating US law. But I’m getting ahead of myself, so let me back up and explain in more detail.

For me, it started when Google fired their engineer James Damore for daring to suggest that men and women are different and that those differences can explain much of the gender gap in tech. I was disturbed by Google’s unwillingness to explore these ideas and I spent nearly a year discussing gender differences at the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering at the University of Washington where I work.  Then I wrote an article for Quillette entitled “Why Women Don’t Code,” in which I repeated many of the same ideas that got Damore into trouble.

My article initially generated a great deal of interest. Many news organizations wrote about it including Inside Higher Ed, the Seattle Times, the Stranger, GeekWire, and Campus Reform. I was invited to do two podcasts and a segment on our local news. A half dozen people put signs outside their office doors meant to counter my article with slogans such as, “I look like a computer scientist. So do my colleagues of every gender.” Nearly 50 messages were sent to a school-wide mailing list in just two days. But the intensity did not last.

And then the news came. On October 24, a group of graduate students announced that, “More will be done to address gender harassment at the Allen School.” At the University of Washington, graduate student employees are unionized and this group of graduate students had filed a grievance with their union. They complained that, “the school leadership’s past silence in response to gender harassment (see a timeline of incidents here) contributed to a hostile work environment.”  The timeline they provide is about my Quillette article.

I haven’t checked every date and detail, but the timeline seems to be accurate. What I find most surprising is that the students feel that this narrative of events constitutes “gender harassment.”  Consider, for example, this paragraph that they include without explanation as to how it constitutes harassment:

SR replies-all with a “thought experiment” asking “how to make someone like James Damore feel welcome in CSE,” quoting Damore’s memo and calling Damore’s position a “defensible position.”

As this process has unfolded, I have come to realize that the mere mention of James Damore awakens a tribal response from supporters of the equity agenda. Saying anything positive about Damore is considered a form of harassment.

The grievance has been settled and the University of Washington does not discuss the details of such settlements, but the graduate students mentioned that, “We are happy to report that the University has agreed to several of our grievance demands.” They list three specific areas:

  • The school will offer new “intersectional diversity and sexual harassment training” for student employees and their supervisors.
  • A new student advisory group will be set up that will help the school “make progress” on equity issues.
  •  A group of mostly senior faculty will review the introductory programming courses “to ensure that they are inclusive of students from all backgrounds.”

The third concession hits closest to home because I designed the introductory programming courses and my primary work responsibility is teaching and managing the courses. Why my courses should be investigated is not entirely clear, but I have heard it suggested that students might be reluctant to take a course from me because of my Quillette article.

I encourage people to read the timeline compiled by the graduate students and I have collected all eight of the emails I sent to mailing lists during the 2017-18 academic year so that people can read those as well. You can judge for yourself, but my intent was to sincerely discuss this issue with others in the school. I pointed them to Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, Gad Saad’s invited talk at Google, Heterodox Academy’s excellent summary of research on both sides of James Damore’s memo, information about the Chicago Principles, and the discussion on gender that Pinker had with Elizabeth Spelke at Harvard which I described as “an example of a true class act with scholars disagreeing without being disagreeable.”

How can this be considered harassment? Claire Lehmann provided the answer in a recent Quillette article entitled “Redefining Sexual Harassment,” in which she explores a report released earlier this year by NASEM (the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine) about sexual harassment in STEM fields. Lehmann explained that the report was able to cite alarmingly high percentages of women who were harassed because the most common form of harassment reported is gender harassment, which can be something as saying that “women don’t make good supervisors.”

My only complaint about Lehmann’s article is that she made it sound like this is a new interpretation. The task force who wrote the report did not make this up, although their suggestion that we seriously address it (recommendation 2) is new. Consider, for example, this section from the primary web page on sexual harassment hosted by the EEOC (the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission):

Harassment does not have to be of a sexual nature, however, and can include offensive remarks about a person’s sex. For example, it is illegal to harass a woman by making offensive comments about women in general.

This wording has remained unchanged since at least 2009 according to the Wayback Machine.  But Lehmann is correct when she says that most people are not aware of this. The report mentions that:

Women who experience the gender harassment type of sexual harassment are more than 7 times less likely to label their experiences as “sexual harassment” than women who experience unwanted sexual attention or sexual coercion (Holland and Cortina 2013). This illustrates what other research has shown: that in both the law and the lay public, the dominant understandings of sexual harassment overemphasize two forms of sexual harassment, sexual coercion and unwanted sexual attention, while downplaying the third (most common) type—gender harassment.

Unfortunately this leaves us with a great deal of ambiguity about what constitutes sexual harassment. The report defines the gender harassment form as, “verbal and nonverbal behaviors that convey hostility, objectification, exclusion, or second-class status about members of one gender.” Courts will ultimately decide whether such a broad definition is appropriate, but the implications are disturbing.

As an example, consider the Greater Male Variability Hypothesis, which posits that, although men and women may have the same average ability in many areas, men tend to have a higher variance, leading to more outliers at the extremes (the tails of the distribution). The theory is often summarized as “more idiots and more geniuses” among men versus women. Quillette readers will recall that a peer-reviewed article on the subject that had been accepted for publication was withdrawn because of the controversy it generated.

This raises an important question. Is discussing this theory a form of gender harassment and, thus, a form of sexual harassment? When Larry Summers mentioned it in a public discussion of gender imbalances in STEM, many called for him to resign as President of Harvard, which he did soon after.

James Damore also discussed this idea in his ten-page memo on gender differences and the National Labor Relations Board released their opinion that his discussion of this theory did in fact constitute sexual harassment:

Statements about immutable traits linked to sex—such as women’s heightened neuroticism and men’s prevalence at the top of the IQ distribution—were discriminatory and constituted sexual harassment, notwithstanding effort to cloak comments with “scientific” references and analysis, and notwithstanding “not all women” disclaimers.

I find it amusing that they put the word “scientific” in quotes, as if they aren’t quite sure whether this is real science. The waters are even more muddied by yet another ambiguity. Although discussion of sex differences is considered sexual harassment, it does not necessarily constitute illegal sexual harassment. From the EEOC web page:

Although the law doesn’t prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not very serious, harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision (such as the victim being fired or demoted).

This increases the likelihood that individuals who cross the line by discussing sex differences will be warned not to repeat the behavior and will probably be okay as long as they comply. Only stubborn individuals who continue to express themselves are likely to be accused of breaking the law. Recall that our graduate students claimed that my repeated discussion of this topic had created a hostile work environment.

Count me among the stubborn and you will understand why this settlement of the grievance put forward by our graduate students is disappointing to me. I’m unhappy that my courses are being investigated, but in some ways, the new forms of monitoring and the new training workshops are more disturbing because they represent an ongoing attempt to pressure me into silence.

I am also disappointed with the University of Washington for settling the case without resolving the central question of whether my discussion of these issues constituted gender harassment. It leaves me and others like me with no clarity about where our free speech rights end and where illegal sexual harassment begins. And, even more disappointing, it means that we have failed to properly educate those graduate students. We could have rejected their claim of harassment and championed the idea that universities need to preserve the tradition of open discussion of all ideas, encouraging them to become the kind of antifragile scientists and engineers our society needs. Instead we left them with the impression that they were right to see themselves as victims and to encourage them to continue to try to silence ideas that leave them with hurt feelings.

I expect to see more of this going forward as the #MeToo movement broadens out. Recommendation 3 from the national academies report is to, “Move beyond legal compliance to address culture and climate.” The next phase of the culture war will include attempts to silence any discussion of sex differences within the STEM disciplines.  As Jordan Peterson said, “Beware, engineers.”


Stuart Reges is a Principal Lecturer at the University of Washington where he manages the introductory computer science classes at the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering.