We know it happens, and far too often: Young women in academia – especially in scientific fields – face sexual harassment that can range from inappropriate comments to actual assault. The perpetrators are frequently their male supervisors.
But in the past year, as high-profile cases have peppered the news, more women — and men as well — have begun to speak out about this issue. At times, the discussion has seemed to result in purposefully public shaming, which strikes some people as an unfair trial by media at best and a witch hunt at worst. The underlying message being sent is clear, though: Sexual misconduct that long passed as normal behavior in the hallowed halls of academia must now stop.
On Tuesday, one of New York City's greatest science institutions became part of the story. A months-long investigative report by Science magazine revealed that a curator at the American Museum of Natural History who is an internationally known paleoanthropologist had been accused of assault by a former research assistant. The swirl of negative publicity around Brian Richmond, which includes other allegations of sexual harassment, has triggered three rounds of investigation by the museum. Richmond denies all the accusations, saying only that he exercised "poor judgment in the past by mixing my professional and personal lives."
At the center of the Science report are two academics thousands of miles apart: Rebecca Ackermann, an associate professor at the University of Cape Town, and Bernard Wood, a professor at George Washington University.
Ackermann, who is 46, and Wood, who is 70, became aware of the alleged assault involving Richmond at a conference last year. But very different experiences informed their reactions. As a female anthropologist, Ackermann says she has dealt with harassment throughout her entire career. But she never reported anything -- not even a number of years ago, when students who had visited a Kenyan field school where Richmond taught brought back stories of inappropriate sexual advances.
"I’d had conversations with those students when these incidents had happened, and they didn’t want to report them," Ackermann told The Post. She understood their hesitation, given academia's historic lack of response, she says. "We just hoped that maybe it was a one-off thing," she said.
Wood had actually been something of a mentor during Richmond's 12 years of teaching at GWU and initially had a hard time believing someone he'd vouched for could have acted as the research assistant had detailed. But as he asked trusted colleagues about their own encounters with Richmond and heard reports of other questionable behavior, he became uneasy.
In an interview with The Post, Wood emphasized that he has no way of knowing whether the assault allegation against his former colleague is true. But he said he has come to realize how often men in academia may cross the line without facing repercussions. "The reality is that they carried on working in their jobs as far as I could see without any substantial restrictions," he said.
Wood now believes that he has a duty, as a man in a position of power, to help counter harassment of women in science. He sees this through a personal lens, too: He has two daughters in competitive fields and a granddaughter just starting college.
"The conversations I had [in recent months] made it quite clear to me that my experience as a paleoanthropologist going through the ranks was almost certainly not the same as someone of my generation who was a female," Wood said.
Wood used his academic clout to get Richmond to end his teaching relationship with the Koobi Fora field school in Kenya, which GWU now runs with the National Museums of Kenya. Meanwhile, Ackermann decided to go to bat for the former students who claimed to have been harassed there. The New York museum solicited her for the young women's accounts of Richmond's alleged misconduct at Koobi Fora and used those as part of its second investigation of him.
And then the investigation ended. Richmond remained as curator of human origins -- and got a positive performance review and a raise, he says.
The lack of response angered Ackermann and left the students demoralized, she says. "When nothing appears to have happened, from our end we were all just deeply distressed."
Richmond takes issue with the timing of the latest probe. "Despite there being no other complaints, a reporter (as well as a former colleague at GWU) decided to dig into my past and publish allegations regarding interactions that occurred years ago in foreign countries with women who were not my students or affiliated with my institution," Richmond told The Post recently.
Some might question whether Science magazine's article crossed any line. Wood considers the events it details a "tragedy" for all parties involved. Ackermann agrees that it's a shame that the accusations against Richmond are being dealt with in such a public forum.
"If the [museum] had actually done something, if the institution had been transparent and shown that it had done its due process, maybe this wouldn’t have to take such a public path," she said.
But, she added, "it’s the necessary consequence of inaction, inaction again and again and again."