Alumnae Speak Out on Sexual Assault Task Force

The governing council of Harvard Women, an alumni shared interest group, which since our founding in 2013 has focused on how we might support the University in finding solutions to issues of concern to alumnae and women on campus, convened last Saturday. This previously planned meeting focused on the problem of on-campus violence against women and was designed to include undergraduate input on so-called rape culture.

What timing.

What we heard made us even more unsettled than had our reading of Crimson articles on the topic. In response to both these articles and the stories shared during the meeting, we identified multiple mutual grave concerns about the newly announced presidential task force on sexual misconduct.

Concerning leadership, Dr. Steven Hyman is a highly respected scientist with extraordinary credentials. His expertise as a neuroscientist and his experience as an administrator are relevant and valuable, and his sphere of influence is prodigious. As provost, he was among the Harvard leaders who established the Office for Sexual Assault Prevention and Response, which speaks to his commitment to the issue.

However, the vast majority of victims of sexual misconduct are women. Furthermore, without devolving into reductive gender behavior stereotyping, women’s leadership may differ from men’s. Consider International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde’s statement in a 2013 interview in Harvard Business Review: “Studies show that certain characteristics are predominant in female leaders, like the ability to listen [and] the desire to form a consensus … which … is why women are good leaders in times of crisis.”

In a crisis defined by gender conflict, a male-female co-chairmanship would be a forward-thinking leadership model for the task force addressing it. The immediate appointment of a woman with an outstanding record in sexual violence prevention to aid Hyman would do much both to repair damaged confidence and to improve task force outcomes. Imagine a Lagarde-Clinton-esque high-five between female and male leaders on sexual assault prevention!

We are also troubled by the composition of the rest of the group. While there is representation from Harvard Business School, no Business School leaders in the organizational behavior unit are on the list. Faculty from the history and economics departments are included, but there is an absence of psychology department and women and gender studies program faculty. Strikingly, no one from the School of Public Health appears on the list. Additionally, no student advocate for improved prevention and services is included.

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