News / Toronto

#MeTooPhd: One former academic's effort to break the silence on sexual harassment and assault in academia

Oregon-based Karen Kelsky started an anonymous survey compiling survivors' stories and already has over 1,000.

Based in Oregon, former professor Karen Kelsky is collecting stories about sexual harassment and assault in academia.


Based in Oregon, former professor Karen Kelsky is collecting stories about sexual harassment and assault in academia.

They may not be as well known as Harvey Weinstein or Matt Lauer, but across North America there are hundreds of men accused of sexual harassment and assault holding great power over the women in their academic fields.

Women often didn't report the misconduct because they were worried it would end their career in an insulated, precarious industry where they depend on the recommendations of powerful men to get to the next step.

The stories of these women, ranging from grad students to professors, are now collected in a database started by Oregon-based Karen Kelsky, a former tenured professor who now runs an academic consulting business.

She started a survey on Friday and at press time had already received more than 1,000 responses, including a handful that name the University of Toronto and York University.

All the accusations are anonymous, and accusers are not named. Metro has not independently verified any of them.

Post-Weinstein, Kelsky started thinking about all the stories of sexual harassment in academia she had heard and "filed away" in her mind during her career.

"The absolute majority of cases of sexual harassment are never pursued by the institution, and they're silenced, and their harassers are enabled," she told Metro.

"Really the first thing I wanted to provide was a space to share stories so the victims would know they're not alone."

She hopes women can feel less "powerless and unheard and invisible" and that some may "go public and speak the name of their harasser in more formal ways."

While high-profile men in fields like media, entertainment and politics have been toppled by sexual-misconduct associations in recent weeks, Kelsky said academia is another place where predators thrive.

The "intensively hierarchical" structures mean women are dependent on (mostly male) superiors for reference letters, jobs and conference invitations — a situation made worse by precarious employment.

"People outside the academy joke about our arcane statuses, but they matter intensely in the academy, and the people who are higher up have almost complete control and power over the people below," said Kelsky.

She hopes a "#MeTooPhd moment" can arise "in which women do feel empowered to come together in groups and take down powerful known harassers in their fields."

And that institutions will start taking the problem seriously and make harassers face real consequences.

The most heartbreaking thing from reading the responses, she said, has been how many women said they left their university or their field or academia entirely because of their experiences.

"The loss to the sum of human knowledge of women's contribution is incalculable."

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