How to stop sexual harassment? Change the culture

Sharon Inkelas, UC Berkeley’s top administrator on issues of sexual violence and sexual harassment, talked about her work and plans for the future on Wednesday. (UC Berkeley video by Stephen McNally)

UC Berkeley is well on its way to improving its policies, practices and approach to issues of sexual violence and sexual harassment on campus, the school’s top administrator on the issue said on Wednesday.

Speaking at a Campus Conversation in Alumni House, Sharon Inkelas, the special faculty adviser to the chancellor on sexual violence and sexual harassment, said that since she started in the new position in 2017, she’s helped bring together the counselors, investigators and lawyers who were trying to combat the issue.

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Inkelas runs a clearinghouse website with information for survivors and anyone interested in learning more.

“Before I started this position, the campus was a mosaic that was missing its grout,” she said. “The tiles represented all these wonderful resources that we have on campus and they weren’t as connected as they could be, so I decided that I would be the grout and flow among them.”

Over the course of the hour-long conversation, Inkelas, who is also a professor of linguistics, took questions from the audience and explained how UC Berkeley has responded to some high-profile incidents of sexual harassment on campus.

Key to improving the environment, she said, is changing the culture among students, faculty and staff.

Speaking of the power dynamics between professors and students common in academia, Inkelas said she was working to “educate and train the people who have the power, so that they are more aware of the impact of their actions and the need to infuse respect and inclusivity into everything that they do.”

“Often,” she added, “blindness towards the (disrespectful) actions, micro-aggressions or implicit bias — if those are allowed to occur, it creates the kind of environment where harassment can take root.”

two people in chairs look at the camera

Sharon Inkelas, left, spoke during a Campus Conversation on Wednesday. (UC Berkeley photo by Stephen McNally)

It is also important to train students to know “what they deserve” when working with faculty or staff or socializing with other students, and where they can find help if they feel like they are being harassed, she said.

But, Inkelas noted, all of the evidence, including the campuswide MyVoice survey sent to 50,000 faculty, staff and students, found that rates of sexual violence or harassment at Berkeley are not higher than other large schools.

“We have no reason to think that they are more pervasive here than in any other university or any other large organization,” she said. “They are in line with what we have seen from other universities nationwide. Of course, one case is a case too many.”

So how will Inkelas know she’s succeeded in changing Berkeley’s culture when it comes to sexual violence and harassment?

Key will be surveys like MyVoice, that quantify what faculty, staff and students consider to be appropriate behavior when working with colleagues or students.

The results of the 2018 survey were positive, she said, but few of those who participated appeared to think their fellow Berkeleyans shared the same values.

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“People do generally believe survivors, they don’t blame sexual assault on the survivor being drunk, they do think that respect is important in the work place,” she said. “We also learned in the survey that while people individually hold those positive values, which are needed to get culture to change in a healthy direction, they didn’t believe that others did.”

“Part of changing the culture is getting people to realize that the things they believe are actually shared norms,” she added.

Campus Conversations will continue on February 27 with Vice Chancellor for Equity and Inclusion Oscar Dubón. More information is available on the Campus Conversations website.

Contact Will Kane at willkane@berkeley.edu