Co-founder of Maternal Health Initiative, a family planning organization incubated through Charity Entrepreneurship. Formerly worked on policy in the California civil service.
It’s terrible to see how people have suffered due to harassment and abuse in the community. I think this is an important time for us to reflect as a community on what we need to be doing differently.
Some aspects of the problem are more easily tractable (clearer policies on reporting misconduct at orgs; better systems for responding to misconduct), while others stem from aspects of EA that are pretty deeply-rooted (centralization of power; blurry work/life boundaries and a high level of romantic/professional entanglements). Many people seem to be pretty bought into the more entrenched aspects I mentioned, but I feel that their downsides haven’t been sufficiently accounted for. At the very least, I think we need to more robustly account for their risks, and factor them into community norms and behaviors.
If you’re harassed by someone who controls your funding, and they’re also a beloved community member with high status, it’s going to be inherently so much harder to speak up. Yet many EA orgs have harassment policies that are poor or non-existent. Multiple people have told me that they feel such policies aren't necessary in EA because this is a high-trust community with well-intentioned people. I'd argue that when personal and professional lives are so entangled, strong policies are more, rather than less important.
I'd be eager to hear what other actionable changes people feel would be valuable.
I disagree. IMO, many of the issues that EA faces when it comes to sexual harassment/abuse stem from aspects that are particular to the community itself. I did research for a book on this topic, and sexual misconduct and abuse thrive in contexts where power is more concentrated and there is less accountability; basically, the harder it is to speak up about someone, the more likely that their bad behavior will go unchecked and they will continue hurting people.
EA (particularly Bay Area EA?) tends to concentration of power among particular figures. And concentration of many kinds of power, including control over funding and job opportunities as well as things like social status. EA can also be pretty insular. If speaking up about someone means endangering your job and your friends, it’s harder to speak up. That’s not even getting to the fact that you might be endangering your housing situation, or might be worried about how it might affect your impact on the world.
These factors are not totally unique to EA -- I spent a long time in the classical music world as well, and concentrations of power let countless bad actors off the hook. But I would say that they're particularly severe within EA, and understanding the particular factors that worsen things allows for more targeted solutions.
I think individuals and institutions in EA need to do a better job of mitigating risks created by unequal power dynamics. In a previous job, I conducted research related to institutional accountability and sexual assault. One common theme is that the way that institutions and communities respond to bad behavior by key figures is shaped by their norms and systems, with certain attributes making accountability more difficult to achieve. In my opinion, there are several aspects of the EA movement as it currently exists—including the blurrier work/life boundaries for many folks, the outsize power of certain community leaders, the frequent reliance on ad-hoc rather than formal systems, and the movement’s small size—that make accountability particularly difficult, and I don’t feel that we have done enough to create systems that respond to these risks.
Let’s think through an example. (To be clear, this is entirely hypothetical.) Imagine that a woman is harassed by a prominent community leader. She works for a small EA org. Her boss is close friends with her harasser, and the org receives significant funding from his organization. She wants to say something, but she doesn’t want to threaten her job or their funding. Not only that, but most of her friends are in EA circles, and she knows speaking up would be divisive.
Some of the things that make this sort of situation more difficult in EA are based on parts of the community that would be difficult or undesirable to change. But some of them are worth changing, and the existence of all of them makes the creation of robust systems even more important.
I think it’s useful for institutions to think through these sorts of exercises. What if a major donor was engaging in bad behavior? An organization’s leader? To what extent would victims feel able to come forward? How likely would it be that the victim would face negative consequences from speaking up, vs. that the perpetrator would face real consequences?
There are always going to be bad actors. It’s up to communities and institutions to set up systems so that when improper behavior occurs (whether harassment, assault, etc.), it is more likely that bad actors will face accountability for their actions. With rare exceptions, the deck is stacked against the victim and towards the perpetrator; good systems can help reduce how strongly the deck is stacked.
What do these good systems look like?
This is just a start, but hopefully a helpful one! These are conversations worth having.
I’ve been involved with EA since 2015. I think there’s a lot of room for EA to do better when it comes to inclusivity, especially regarding gender (but also race/class/other identity aspects).
The gender skew in EA exacerbates a lot of the issues related to gender. The gender ratio varies a ton across different geographies and cause areas, but in my experience it ranges from roughly 50/50 to overwhelmingly male (70/30 male/female per 2020 EA survey). When I walk into a meetup and I’m the only woman there, that affects my experience. This was particularly the case when I was first getting involved with EA as a teenager: part of deciding whether you stay involved with a community is your answer to “am I welcome here? Is this community for people like me?,” and repeatedly having experiences where I was one of the only women present gave me the sense that this community wasn’t for people like me. That led me to engage less with EA, though I eventually returned; I suspect it’s more common for women and people from underrepresented groups to “bounce off” of EA like this. It is genuinely surprising in many ways that EA doesn’t have more women, as women tend to be way more involved in the non-profit sector more broadly. It doesn’t have to be this way.
But the gender skew also affects things when there are issues. If someone makes some comment that makes you uncomfortable and the rest of your male conversational partners laugh it off, that’s not super helpful. I think that, as a community, we should work to reduce the gender skew—through making EA spaces more welcoming to women, investing in mentorship programs, etc.—and actively take efforts to mitigate issues created by the gender skew. On a macro level, fewer women in the room when decision-making is occurring means that issues that affect women are less likely to receive their appropriate attention. That necessitates that institutions make a more active effort to pay attention to issues that effect women, collect women’s opinions on issues that affect things, and yes, have more women in the room when decisions are happening. On a micro level, note when you’re at a get-together and it’s overwhelmingly monolithic (in terms of race, gender, etc.). Pay attention to how that affects how you treat people in the non-dominant group.
(splitting into a second comment b/c of length)
Could you talk a little about how selections will be chosen? Will there be a peer review process?
Thanks for sharing. He’s been one of my heroes for a long time, and I see him as having both strong overlap with certain EA ways of thinking and serious differences.
He was a person who had an unswerving commitment to justice and improving human flourishing. He recognized the utter injustice of health inequalities and was able to articulate that vision so that it could be understood by many folks who don’t typically care about the suffering of far-off people who look different than them. These ways of thinking are central to EA for me: the sense that we have no right to discount the suffering of far-off individuals, no matter who they are or what they look like; the sense that we have serious moral obligations that require serious commitment.
He was also a person who situated medical problems within sociopolitical contexts, and who believed that comprehensive solutions (i.e., investing in health systems across the board) were far superior to targeted interventions (i.e., bed nets). He was critical of approaches focused on cost-effectiveness, arguing that they were morally abhorrent. In this sense, he is obviously taking a very different approach to the traditional EA approach. But I think that some of his arguments are valuable counters to the EA emphasis on targeted interventions,illustrating as they do that targeted interventions are subsidized by existing infrastructure, and that some initiatives–such as the Partners in Health campaign against multi-drug resistant TB in Peru–can be initially non-cost effective but eventually change market pressures and norms such that, in toto, they are incredibly cost-effective. Farmer’s work reminds us that assessments of cost-effectiveness must take into account that inputs are not stable, and that initiatives can be transformative, and that if we zealously focus on short-term effects, we will miss out on opportunities for transformative change.
I don’t agree with everything that Farmer stated or fought for. But I think the EA community would benefit from the insights from his life and work. Paul Farmer is worthy of the utmost respect for his unwavering commitment to improving the lives of marginalized people, and his death is a tragic loss.
Thank you for sharing! This seems like a great idea. As Scronkfinkle states, there is indeed currently some EA funding going to existing think tanks through Open Phil--not sure about other large funders--but this definitely seems like an area where more funding may be highly beneficial.
I particularly like your distinction between technical expertise and decision-making capability as well as your point that this is a promising avenue for spreading EA ideas. I share your concerns about EAs being overly siloed in EA orgs, and it seems like funding EA work at non-EA think tanks could be a good way to counteract some of those forces.
Fellow UChicago alum here, also from a house with hardcore house culture (save Breckinridge!) and I think your comparison to house culture is useful in understanding some of the caveats of GITV moments. Being part of an intense, somewhat insular group with strong traditions and a strong sense of itself can be absolutely exhilarating and foster strong cohesion, as you say, but it also can be alienating to those who are more on the edges. Put differently, I absolutely think we should encourage GITV moments, but that spirit can go too far. Once you start saying "the people who don't get in the van aren't real members of [GROUP]," that starts pushing some people away.
With EA as with house culture, I think it's important to find a balance between cultivating passionate intensity and acknowledging that folks have other things going on and can't always commit 100%; important to cultivate GITV moments but also acknowledge and build systems and traditions that acknowledge that you can't always get in the van--and, furthermore, that often folks with more privilege can more easily get in the van. If you have a shift at work or have to care for your kid, you can't go on spontaneous trips in the same way that a person with fewer obligations might.
Thanks for sharing these resources, Quinn! I like the discussion of the importance of agendas in the first link and the emphasis on taking notes in the second one; documentation can be so helpful both in the moment and looking back! Glad my writeup was helpful.
Thanks for sharing this. I've frankly been consistently surprised by the low proportion of content on the forum that currently relates to animal welfare. For example, most of the EAs I know--even those who aren't focused on animal advocacy as a cause area for activism/career--are vegetarian or vegan, yet I've only rarely encountered content here that's related to dietary choices. It seems to me that encouraging more engagement related to animal welfare and advocacy would be a great place to invest some time and energy!
However, I'm not sure if a sub-forum would be the best approach to that. I'm not inherently opposed; rather, I'm not sure if it would be the ideal first step. I think it would come down to identifying why it is that there isn't more engagement: are online EAA discussions happening elsewhere, such as in FB groups? Is it a vicious cycle of the current lack of content furthering further disinterest/lack of engagement, as you suggest? A better sense of that could inform solutions: perhaps a sub-forum, as you suggest, or perhaps weekly posts on EAA topics, or concerted efforts to move discussions to here from existing forums. Just a few thoughts; thank you for raising this topic!