Confronting the Realities of Sexual Harassment in Education and Edtech

column | Diversity and Equity

Confronting the Realities of Sexual Harassment in Education and Edtech

By Mary Jo Madda (Columnist)     Mar 12, 2018

Confronting the Realities of Sexual Harassment in Education and Edtech

When I was 24, I entered into my third year of teaching. I was bright-eyed, optimistic, and excited to start out a new role that combined administration with teaching middle-school math. I felt in control of my career and my job. But about six months in, an awkward encounter left me wondering whether that sense of control was indeed as real as I thought it to be.

While closing up my classroom one afternoon, the father of a student casually strolled up to me. I turned to greet him, assuming he had a question about his son’s performance in my class. But instead of asking me anything of that nature, he said:

“You know, Ms. Madda, those heels you’re wearing today are really sexy. Some of the other fathers and I were talking about it earlier. You should wear them more often. We’d love that.”

Up until that point, I had never dealt with something of that nature in a professional setting, something so overt, something that made me feel like an object rather than a professional. And the worst part? Every time I looked at his son in my classroom from then on, I was reminded of that incident.

As a young educator, I was unsure of what to do. I was scared to bring the matter to our administration—this father was on the school board. I didn’t tell other teachers about it, perhaps out of shame. One thing is for sure, however—it was the last time I ever wore those shoes to work.

And now, having watched the #MeToo movement unfold over the past year within the arts community, I find myself asking, “Is the education industry really all that different?”

Let the record show—the education world is no stranger to sexual harassment. In 2013, Ariel Norling, then an entrepreneur with an edtech startup, experienced sexual assault at the annual June ISTE conference. In 2014, she came forward to share her story.

But since then, the education and edtech reporting worlds have been largely quiet on matters of sexual harassment and assault. That is, until last week—when KIPP, arguably the largest charter school system in the United States, announced that it had fired co-founder Mike Feinberg, citing that “credible evidence was found of [sexual] conduct that is incompatible with the mission and values of KIPP.”

Will the Feinberg episode set off a chain reaction in the education world, much like what has rocked the Hollywood elites? Maybe. After all, the education space bears the unmatched and sacred responsibility of educating children and young people—the very future of this country.

Here’s what I do know: Sexual harassment and assault doesn’t just happen in one or two education spaces. Here is a sampling of what those encounters look like, told from the perspective of six women interviewed from all corners of the industry—from K-12 districts to startups to higher education.

From the Grandiose...

For some women (and undoubtedly some men and non-binary folks, as well), the issues are relatively upfront and center—and leave them without many options.

Take Joanna*, a woman who worked for one of the largest education publishing organizations in the United States. As someone who traveled to conferences frequently, Joanna found herself one night in a compromising situation, in which a senior vice president approached her while intoxicated. While attempting to review some business matters with him, Joanna reports that he strayed off topic, and began to make comments such as referring to a colleague of hers as a “f*cking c*nt.” What made her most uncomfortable, however, was when she began to get up to leave, to which he responded, “Come back here and give us a snuggle.” She did not oblige.

Following that encounter, Joanna reports that communication between her and the VP became harsh: “There was no way to ever get him to understand me.” When she mentioned it to human resources, she noticed that more and more complaints were being submitted to HR from this VP about her behavior. And the eventual result? “I was fired, without severance, but never had any reviews of my behavior shared with me by human resources. I have no idea why it happened,” she reports.

Harassment does not solely relate to unwanted, sexual advances, however. In a similar vein, Lupita* was recently fired by her most recent employer, a higher education institution—a place where she was once told by her director, “You know what will help us raise money? If you wear short skirts or a low-cut shirt to our fundraising meetings.” But according to her, that was only part of what drove her to sue the university for discrimination.

As both a career woman and a mother, Lupita was familiar with the concept of work-life balance. She originally thought her employer was, too—until she started to pick up on discriminatory behavior from her director toward working mothers:

“As soon as we started hiring additional employees… I noticed him making comments about applicants like ‘I don’t think she’d be good because she’ll have to leave to pick up her kid from school.’ Or, in regards to one applicant, he said: ‘I don’t really see any red flags, but she’s transitioning back to the work after being a stay-at-home mom for six years’—even though [this applicant] was named the state’s online teacher of the year while simultaneously homeschooling her children.”

Lupita decided to bring up these negative comments about mothers with her director, but in response, he claimed that she had misunderstood him. And immediately after she raised her concerns, he organized a “mediation” with the university’s Title 9 representative—or so Lupita thought. As it turns out, when she showed up to the meeting, it was one of the university’s human resource representatives—who served her a pink slip. the “Micro”

Joanna’s and Lupita’s stories occupy a part of the #MeToo movement that stand out as upfront harassment practices—but what about smaller grievances, like sexist comments that demonstrate intolerance?

Amongst the ensuing reactions from Hollywood during the Harvey Weinstein scandal, Matt Damon took the approach of, “That’s criminal behavior and it needs to be dealt with that way. The other stuff is just kind of shameful and gross... I just think that we have to start delineating between what these behaviors are.” Several actresses, including Alyssa Milano and Minnie Driver, responded by asking Damon to recognize that micro behaviors are the first steps to macro issues. Milano compared his statement to claiming that stage 1 cancer deserves less attention than stage 4 cancer.

Beth Rabbitt, CEO of edtech nonprofit The Learning Accelerator, takes a similar stance that smaller sexist acts lead to larger issues, describing it like this: “I’ve experienced a lot of discriminatory, misogynistic behaviors over a long time. I have not been overtly assaulted or harassed by anyone in the ed or tech space. Specifically, [but] like so many straws that broke the camel’s back, the many moments add up to a lot.”

For Rabbitt, sexism varies in the ways it’s either purposely or inadvertently applied. She remembers back to 2014, when an organization she worked for invited only their male employees to a special networking event. This year, she listened on as a conversation next to her ensued between men in the edtech startup space, speaking about how to pick up women to sleep with at a conference.

For females moving into predominantly male-run district technology offices, breaking into the “old boys” club can be quite a challenge. Both Melissa Emler, a longtime educator in Wisconsin, and Giselle*, a high-ranking tech administrator in her public school district, join Rabbitt in her frustrations around having to prove oneself and demonstrate competency as a female employee.

Emler, for example, will never forget the slow chipping away of her confidence early in her career. “It was rough trying to work with my boss because I could tell he was threatened... I started to prepare for board meetings by scouring the board agenda, figuring out where he would throw me under the bus.”

Giselle, who is the first female in a technical leadership position in her district, describes how her male colleagues called her “girlie” and “missy” behind her back, and more:

“It’s frustrating when I ask my colleagues multiple times to send emails with technical questions to me. They respond, ‘Well, you’re going to get all sorts of technical emails that you don’t understand,’” as if questioning why I was hired for my job in the first place.”

It should not be ignored, however, that sexist and harassing acts aren’t solely being conducted by men—women are doing their part, as well. Back when she worked for a small edtech startup, Alexis* was one of the few females employees who worked in a technical role. Upon returning to the office after a work trip, she found that a colleague—which she later found out was her manager, a female—had written "For a good time, call Alexis" on the sign on her computer monitor where Alexis had left her emergency contact information.

“It was really unnerving,” Alexis admits, “I assumed that one of the male engineers I managed had written it to publicly embarrass and undermine me. Even though it ended up being a female colleague, my confidence took a huge hit. It was right in front of everyone."

Rabbitt, who has seen similar issues in her line of work, says that “the discrimination starts early” and “as women, we become inured to it—the roles we get to play and how we get to play them becomes assumed in our identities.”

Combatting Sexism and Harassment in Education: What’s At Stake

For every Alexis, Joanna, Lupita, Giselle, Melissa, and Beth out there, it’s not always clear what to do and how to react in these situations—and how to ensure that these behaviors don’t bleed down to the point where students become the targets. Simultaneously, for men who hope to do what they can to combat these behaviors in their colleagues, there are certain actions that might be more helpful than others.

Perhaps the right place to begin is by shedding light on the issue. After all, parents are demonstrating their willingness to be vocal when their children’s safety is at stake. Last month, the group Stop Sexual Assault in Schools, founded by Joel Levin and Esther Warkov, created a spin-off of #MeToo entitled #MeTooK12. According to The Washington Post, “the new hashtag is an effort to highlight sexual harassment and assault at K-12 schools.” For Levin and Warkov, a personal experience led to their efforts: Levin and Warkov hope that shedding light on the issue will ensure that districts and school take more purposeful steps to prevent these issues.

Why is it important that we address sexism and sexual harassment in the education industry—and, particularly, in schools and universities? A sense of ethics or morality is high on the list. The education world is designed to be in service of children and young adults. And if harassment isn’t addressed, can we be comfortable knowing that these practices may, in fact, be “educating” our next generations to engage in the same behaviors? Levin and Warkov are doing their part to ensure that schools remain safe places to learn. But when issues of sexual harassment and sexism go ignored, what does our silence communicate to our children?

To this day, I wonder if my old sixth-grade student ever learned what his father said to me, a teacher, a professional. To this day, I wonder how that young boy is growing up—and if, someday, he’ll say those same things to someone he works with.

*These names have been changed to protect the anonymity of the interviewees, at their request.

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