While we focus on sexual abuse, we can’t forget power abuse

Power abuse comes in many shapes and sizes. We need to put systems in place to control it

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When the new allegations of sexual abuse in Hollywood surfaced, I was surprised that so many women (and men) were piling on. I thought we’d taken care of this problem after Anita Hill courageously declared in 1991 that Clarence Thomas was unfit to stand for the U.S. Supreme Court because of sexual harassment.

Certainly, universities and other sectors responded at the time by adopting strong sexual harassment policies.

But clearly not every industry has cleaned up, which is why we’re here today.

Sexual abuse is, at its base, a form of power abuse. There are several other forms in the workplace, falling into the general category of rankism.

I run a university research lab, where much of my productivity depends upon the effort of students and fellows. Trainees come to my lab to learn stem cell research and to eventually become their own practitioners, be it at other universities or in industry. I depend on the trainees for productivity, related to research publications and patents, which enable me to procure ongoing government grants. The trainees, in turn, depend on me to advocate for them and to help them develop as scientists.

This ‘duty-of-care’ model occurs in many workplaces. In fact, our whole society is built upon it. Since the days of the Renaissance, when budding artists collected eggs and crushed Tuscan stone to make the paint that allowed their seniors to create masterpieces, juniors have been paying their dues. Law firms are built on the practice of articling students and junior associates doing a large part of the work, so the senior partners can cross the Ts and dot the Is in legal documents. Similarly, in medicine, it’s the interns and the residents who put in the incredibly long hours in hospitals, while more senior consultants work normal hours and provide advice.

The system is built on trust and dignity. If the juniors put in the hard work, seniors will advocate for them, and promote their work and their professional reputations.

While we’re free to take partial credit for the work of our juniors, we must be careful not to take too much credit because we must give credit where it is due. In academic publications, this credit is clearly established by the rank order of authors on publications. Similarly, first authors should be given the opportunity to present the work at conference proceedings.

In law, senior partners need to expose associates to clients and not take credit for work they didn’t do. In medicine, consultants need to expose talented residents to department heads.

Because we’re human, there can be significant abuses of power beyond harassment. The most fundamental is taking credit for the work of others.

It’s easy to accept a complement from a colleague when you should be crediting the people under you. It’s more egregious when you pretend to be the expert that you’re not because someone else on your team is really the expert. This is a pernicious form of power abuse.

Juniors will frequently not challenge seniors who take credit for work they didn’t do because their positions (and potentially their careers) hang in the balance. It’s more important to overlook the abuse in order get a good referral.

However, because of hyper-competition, power abuse can be more atrocious. In my world, it can be about ethics, ignoring regulations and taking shortcuts. If no one’s looking and no one’s the better, why not?

However, there’s always someone looking. And when a junior sees a senior breaking rules, what are they to do when their career is hanging in the balance?

Sensitive to power abuse, I try to create an environment of trust around me. Because of this, a junior from another laboratory felt comfortable telling me about a pickle he was in.

Feeling powerless to do something about it myself, I was able to work the channels and suggest that my institution needed to develop a whistleblower policy to allow juniors to report infractions without having to fear repercussions to their career prospects.

I’m pleased to say that through my efforts, and I’m sure the efforts of others I don’t know, we now have a protected disclosure process at the University of Calgary.

Derrick Rancourt is a professor in the University of Calgary’s Cumming School of Medicine, where he chairs the Graduate Science Education’s Professional Development Taskforce.


sexual abuse, power abuse

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