Tuesday, October 22, 2013

how not to "deal with it"

i read an interesting article by alice bell describing everyday sexual harassment in science, was surprised by how much it affected me, and then proceeded to vent much more than i expected to on twitter!  

so with this post i will tell a personal story of sexual harassment in my professional life, then offer tactics for how one might deal with such incidents, while giving a hint of how twitter conversations work. 

in the article, bell acknowledges the existence of a "hidden support" system for victims and potential targets of sexual harassment.  She describes "the threads of informal conversation where female academics share experiences or warn each other off" from working with particular individuals who are known to harass or bully.   

i initially responded on twitter with...

and when asked, 

i responded.  

i chose to work with this man during my first semester as a PhD student. once the collaboration began, i quickly recognized that i felt uncomfortable in his presence. his eyes wandered inappropriately. he made comments that i politely tried to ignore. and holy crap the creepy-as-possible winks!  i found myself covering myself with sweaters and scarves when going to meetings with him.

i discussed the situation with fellow PhD students.  they all acknowledged that his behaviour was not normal and said "i'm sorry. that sucks."  the students "supported" me, but no one suggested i (or we collectively) go to a higher authority about the issue.  

our unspoken belief was that his behaviour was SO OBVIOUS that the faculty must have known about it and this had all happened before.  it was up to me/us to figure out how to deal with it

the department head did not seem like a friendly fellow open to discussion, or even willing to remember my name for that matter. there were exactly THREE women in the department of 50 faculty and ALL those women were married to men in the department.  

the students felt like my only allies. i dealt. i avoided him.  it felt like what i was supposed to do.  i moved on with my studies.

was there a human resources (HR) representative i could/should have talked to?  i have no idea.   in the office setting of a normal business this would be the first option.  but in a university?  i wouldnt have known who to go to, even if i wasnt worried about being a brand new student up against the influential force of a senior faculty member, who i assumed was historically supported in his behaviours by other staff.  

do other university groups discuss practical steps for dealing with harassment?  i'm asking.

ten years later...

i'm surprised now by the emotion that has come out of me during the last couple months, after hearing the news of this asshole's "dismissal," and reflecting on what i put up with 10 years ago.  in addition to regular old imposter syndrome, i had to deal with all this crap when many of the other students simply did not.

of course sexual harassment is not limited to science, and i've experienced it in other situations in my life, but i found it most debilitating in my professional life, where i was trying as a naive junior person to gain credibility and respect for my work. 

reflecting on my lack of participation in the recent online discussion surrounding sexual harassment, i stated

 and i was reminded that:

thank you, niall.

so i asked twitter:

popular suggestions include naming and shaming the main problem characters and generally talking about harassment so it's a more visible and acknowledged issue.  many responses remind me that the issue transcends gender, as most people likely have such a shit-list of bullies, or know of people with the reputation for being harassers, bullies and/or misogynists.   so what do we do about it?

to individuals, i say:

  • get a mentor, immediately.  preferably have one mentor, male or female, within the department that you work, and at least one other who is completely external.  NEVER UNDERESTIMATE THE BENEFIT OF MENTORS!  they are your much-needed allies.
  • sexual harassment is never ok and you do not deserve to deal with it.
  • tell the person that he/she is making you feel uncomfortable.  this is not easy.  the person might not be aware of the effect of his/her behaviour and needs to hear.  in many cases, there is not one big thing identifiable as "oh, that's harassment!" but a culmination of little things over time that strip away confidence, perspective and happiness.
  • if you will talk to someone about the situation and/or ask them to talk to the harasser, write down a list of incidents with dates and descriptions.  save email exchanges.  empower yourself with details. 
  • find a higher level HR department of your university/institute where you can file a complaint, especially if you feel you have no allies in your group.   
  • hire assassins.

but we have to be honest - it's not just the harassed and bullied who are going to change the global working atmosphere.   it will take all types of people participating in change and identifying even subtle behaviours in themselves and others.    so here are a few useful resources to read and share.

  • what we teach men.   (this article is fantastic!  "The goal of understanding male-female relations in the workplace should not be to “stay out of trouble.” It should be to see each other as fully human, fully autonomous, and important collaborators and assets to do the work we’re assembled to do.")

i am working on some ideas to benefit the astronomy culture, but please tell me, what are your ideas?!? let's make improvements happen!

UPDATE: discussion this post has raised reminds me that we did try to go through internal department systems for filing complaints.  these efforts were continually thwarted by lack of specific evidence (i never experienced an single "incident" but there was an obvious pattern of inappropriate behaviour over many decades) or, more systematically, by staff members who were not willing to raise a fuss or who were purposely acting to protect this man from any repercussions for his actions.  this is an issue that needs discussion as well - how to deal with internal "protectors" who can ultimately become bullies against anyone that wants to speak up?  


Eva said...

Here I have to apologize. You did come to me with the issue since I was the grad rep at the time. I brought the issue to the Graduate adviser and he asked me to let him deal with it before going to other authorities. I made a big mistake trusting him, since we all know he did not ultimately deal with it. I should have asked other authorities for help. It took way too long to deal with this particular person and I am also unhappy with the way it was dealt with. I am sorry I did not push as hard as I should have. I feel bad about it.

astropixie said...

thank you, eva. it's reassuring to remember that at least i did try to follow some established paths within the department, and that you passed the message on...

Amy F said...

I didn't realize how bad it was. I had just heard that he was creepy. Sorry you had to go through that. Per Eva's apology, I too was in a situation to help many people as GSA President. There are quite literally departments at UT in which female grad students are expected to sleep with male professors. There are people in the administration who know this, and nobody is willing to do anything about it because it is messy and litigious, and can also hurt the student's career. I wish that I had done more, but I don't know what I could have done.

Amy F said...

(That is not to reduce the importance of everyday sexual harassment, just to say that all kinds of harassment, at all levels, occur all over the place, and there is no mechanism for dealing with it.)

Miranda said...

In dealing with this same faculty member when taking his course, I had to spend many hours in his office alone with him working on the class research project. My experience was very similar to Amanda's. The worst was when he introduced me to a visiting colloquium speaker and included an overly glowing comment about how wonderful I was and followed up with yet another wink that the speaker obviously saw. I was so embarrassed by what that whole exchange implied to the speaker, and it left me feeling very dirty. My way of dealing with him was to wear thick bulky sweaters (that bit of advice was definitely passed down class to class), and I started having a male classmate come with me anytime I had to go to his office. Luckily, I had a male classmate who understood and was willing to help me out.

In speaking to people around the department who could've helped, I was told that "such and such older female student is comfortably and successfully working with him, so there must not be a real issue here." The point I would like to make is that just because another female is either oblivious or not bothered by such behavior does not imply there is nothing wrong, and should never be an excuse for inaction.

"Early retirement"? Ridiculous.

Katelyn Allers said...

Thanks for sharing this experience. It really is amazing that we all felt this way, yet it isn't until now that something was actually done about it. It makes me wonder if some brave student had finally had enough and decided to take action (Or, god forbid, his actions became more aggressive). If that student ever reads this-I think we all would give her our thanks and our apologies for not addressing this earlier. It is another good reminder of why we need to report sexual harassment-maybe we could have spared a generation of female students the same uncomfortable bulky sweaters (or worse)!

Big Mark 243 said...

... I tried to find the video on You Tube of the African-American female who faced blatant sexism for declining to participate in a blog forum... but I am not surprised, especially with how gender norms are changing... there are no real lines anymore and for so many men, the 'old boy network' was a way of coping with it...

...I am sorry that you and your fellow scientist had to face such discrimination... but when lil' Pixie grows up to be an astronaut, it will be in no small thanks to women like her Mom who pursued their dreams and interest in spite of the obstacles..!

Charlie said...

Thanks for naming names. I've seen in other online communities how this can call the wrath of the Internet down on you -- presumably the parts of the Internet who enjoy harassing women. I know it's not a risk-free proposition, is what I'm saying. So thank you for sticking your neck out.

Big Mark 243 said...


Here is the video that I was speaking about... but along with searching for it and reading your entry, I was still surprised at how much sexism and harassment was a problem in science..!

Julia said...

I also did not realize how bad it was. His behavior was never normal or acceptable, though, so I can't say that I'm surprised. I am really sorry that you dealt with this, at such an early point in your career. Awful.

Anonymous said...

I know for a fact that somebody did come forward, hence the "early retirement". The fact that the university/department has not taken any responsibility is a shame. No one should be given such an easy way out. Another important lesson perhaps is that speaking out immediately, no matter how hard, might prevent some people falling victim to this type of behavior in the future.

Josh Peek said...

At UC Berkeley we had a prof who was well-meaning, but pushed it too far and made students uncomfortable. We almost put in a joke about it in the annual "X-mas play" -- the idea being social change through satire. But, cooler heads prevailed and we, as a student body, sent an envoy of two to discuss this matter with him. I think that worked very well. In this case, the trouble maker was not malicious, and was receptive to criticism. I am not sure how this goes with the real fuckers.

astropixie said...

anon - i actually did take an issue regarding such a person to a higher level. when he was informally spoken to, he denied any responsibility for his actions and then went around "apologising" to all the women involved for THEIR horrible misinterpretation of his innocent behaviour.

the selfish upside for me is that while he and i used to be buddy-buddy and i could easily get him to buy everyone endless expensive drinks at conferences when he got drunk and inappropriate, now he COMPLETELY IGNORES ME! he has never discussed the issue with me again. if he walks by, he says hi to the person i'm talking to and DOESNT EVEN ACKNOWLEDGE ME.

i also have not seen him get drunk or inappropriate at an astronomy function that we've both attended since this incident occurred. i suspect he was quite embarrassed for being called out, and appears to have changed his behaviour, but never fully took responsibility for his actions.

i am grateful for the person i initially took the matter to for listening tobwhat i told him, for believing and respecting me, and for stepping up to the difficult task of talking to the guy. there are good people out there.

Karen Masters said...

Hugs Amanda. I certainly have a "mental shit-list" as you say. Although it's fairly short thankfully.... Hadn't realised until recently how wrong some of the behaviour I've had to "deal with" really was.....

Dr24hours said...

Thank you for the kind words about my post.

Anonymous said...

Although not directly relevant to the discussion, I would be grateful if anyone had any advice on things happening in the other direction. e.g. a young female student making inappropriate advances towards a senior male supervisors/colleague.

This has happened to me, and after I had got over the shock that it was happening. I began leaving the office door open and ensuring other people were in my office whenever she had meetings with me. Has anyone else had to deal with similar issues?

Anonymous said...

AstroPixie - that sux - although it doesn't change situation, it's awesome you had strength to move beyond it!

I had hormonal, high school teenage (14-18yr) boys making sexual advances. This was what I did:

1) Mentally/Emotionally looked at them as sexually and emotionally immature Children as they thought this was appropriate behaviour.

2) To those who persisted I (casually) chastised "Are you TRYING to charm your teacher?!", "I'm sure you have better things to do than be here after class, off you go!", "That language/behaviour isn't appropriate towards your teacher!", "Thankyou, but no".

3) I reported behaviour to Head Teacher and Colleagues, so they were VERY clear I was not instigating anything.

4) With one student I kept notes of discussions/behaviour, though didn't need to escalate it as it stopped.

I found when the (socialised) person does not receive the flirtatious/sexual response to their behaviour they expected, they get bored and move on.
If they don't move on, there could be some social disorder and things have potential to get very messy (stalking?!). If not moving on, I'd then report escalate/report!!

Goodluck Anon!

Jesse Rogerson said...

I read your blog often, Ms. Bauer. Thank you for sharing.

Anonymous said...

I'm also an astronomer and have my own awful story that's less related to power dynamic, but more a case of another REU student (male) deciding that stalking me (female), breaking into my on campus apartment, and then trying to beat me. In that case, it was a group of women in our lab, with this guy working in the back in another professor's section who complained to the profs when the guy would just rage scream. When it escalated to rage screams and throwing stuff, we talked to the profs again and would just leave the lab meaning no work got done. In the end after he assaulted me, and I called the cops, I was shuttled off campus never to be contacted again.

Within our field I've also heard of serial sexual harrassers who moved institutions and even put themselves in positions of encouraging diversity. I try not to rage smash when I see that their institution doesn't do anything.

Invader Xan said...

I find it more and more disturbing that so many people I know and respect are coming forward with stories like this. It's distressing that this happens at all and that people have to simply "deal with it". But of course, I appreciate how difficult it must be to actually stand up and name names.

I fear that because of this, there are probably a horrifying number of cases which simply go unmentioned, and very likely a huge number of people who, even as I write this, feel as though they have nothing to do but accept it and try to carry on.

Needless to say, this kind of situation is unacceptable. We, as a community, need to try and do something to fix it. Permanently. Unfortunately, the question, as you point out, is precisely what to do...

I'm sorry you had to go through all of this. Mahalo.

Randi said...

I was not under the impression that this was an "early retirement." The faculty member is over 70, and I know that the department has been pushing him to retire for years. Also, his mother died this summer, which, among other things, means that he and his wife will be spending much larger fractions of the year in CA where they have a family house.

All this is to say, I don't think this was ever truly dealt with. At the very least, the department has made no effort to suggest that such actions are unacceptable and that dismissal is a possible result. And he's still emeritus and has an office and everything. So to say that he's being "punished" is a stretch.

Piglet said...

Wow, excellent post, thank you. I am reminded of the celebrated & beloved professor who used to drop his pen so he could look down my dress when I graciously picked it up for him. There are now *2* scholarships in his name at my graduate institution. Not that I'll ever contribute...

I.P. Freeley said...

Given how common this behavior is, I'd like advice on what I should be doing as a guy who supervises female undergrads. It feels like I might be feeding them to the wolves when they go off to grad school. Should I be prepping them to deal with professional harassment? Tell them to wear tank tops and yoga pants when they visit schools as a test?

Anonymous said...

I think it's also worth mentioning that not all harassment is sexual harassment. I have a good example of a senior academic who treats many staff below him with contempt and crosses the line in appropriate behaviour (even via email) regularly.

This guy has had me in tears over professional situations a number of times and almost every woman who works under him has a 'story' about his behaviour. We also have an incredible problem retaining admin staff that have to work closely with him. I think he's a misogynist, but at no point has harassment ever been sexual. He's just a human being that enjoys bullying women in less senior positions, and has little to no respect for the majority of his staff (unless they've got five Nature publications under their belt etc. etc.)

I don't have a PhD (don't need one for my role in the organisation) and that is seemingly the worst of the worst in his opinion - I'm not even worth being basically courteous to because I'm so beneath him and his over inflated ego.

OK that turned into a rant - but this kind of behaviour is endemic in the academic areas I've worked in and everyone knows about it but no one would dare lift a finger (and I'm never going to name him because my career would be destroyed and I'm afraid of the actions he would take in response.)

astropixie said...

submitting on behalf of someone who wishes to remain anonymous:

"Sadly this still goes on, many say and do nothing (for lot so reasons). But some people speak up and insist that formal procedures and processes are followed to investigate and resolve the behaviours. I did this after years of harassment from a senior male colleague at [Australian Institute]. The outcome was my isolation, victimisation and a profound and devastating effect on my professional and personal life. Sadly the procedures put in place are often stressful and distressing and futile when the systemic attitude from the organization is to bury, ignore or forget. I'm happy to discuss with you if you ever decide to set up a real conversation about one of the silent reasons women leave their jobs/careers."

CyndiF said...

I personally never ran into any issues with Greg, but sheesh, the stories about him go back decades. (Between my husband and me, we go back 25+ years in that dept and all the students and staff knew of incidents.) You were right that everybody knew but taking the path of least resistance and doing nothing is sadly common.

MattJ said...

As a male academic I find these stories very distressing and to be honest I haven't experienced (or seen) such behaviour in the last 10 years. I would be interested to know if most people's experience is whether this is predominantly caused by older academics rather than those who have been brought up in a less sexist/discriminatory society. I know that it's not eradicated but I would be even more worried of things were not changing for the better.

I personally believe that it's everyone's responsibility to make sure such things are prevented and that having independent mentors should be compulsory. I know in my institute we do have independent mentors, but these are assigned by the dept. Would it be better for the person in question to choose their own mentor? As it is crucial that the person feels that they can be honest and open.

Andrew Hopkins said...

MattJ: I'm afraid it's not limited to the older "less enlightened" generation (and many of the older generation are fighting the good fight with us, so it goes both ways). I'm certainly aware of one very serious incident instigated by a successful young male astronomer. Unfortunately his female victim was discouraged from taking further action by her Institute. She should really have gone to the police! But when I encouraged her to take it further she told me that she felt her career would be in jeopardy.

I do strongly echo Amanda's advice to seek out a mentor, ask them for advice, and rely on them for support if you find you are having to "put your career on the line". Your career is not in the hands of a single disturbed individual.

I also recommend asking friends and colleagues (or even supervisors) to give recommendations for people to act as mentors, and don't be afraid both to approach people, and then also to break it off if the mentoring relationship isn't working out. It is a choice that needs to be personal because you need to get along with your mentor and they need to feel invested in you enough to spend time in developing your career and providing you with support. When it works it's incredibly valuable.

MattJ said...

Andrew - I know it's not limited to the older generation but it would be at least encouraging if it is becoming less frequent.

I think the issue that any complaint will be bad for a career is probably the most significant issue that needs to be addressed in terms of the complaints procedure. Unfortunately no profession that I know has found a solution to this, as there are always people who are wary about employing people who have been involved in any kind of dispute.

Dave said...

My children enjoy a book called "Cloth From The Clouds" by Michael Catchpool and illustrated by Alison Jay. The blurb on the back cover says

"A poignant tale of the damage done by greed, and the wisdom and courage needed to undo it."

I applaud you for having the wisdom and courage to share your horrible experience of sexual harassment. Hopefully it serves to empower more people to report inappropriate behaviour and more rapidly produce a culture of zero tolerance.

I'm also sorry that you (and apparently many others) had to endure this.

Finally, I'm ashamed by my silence (and thus complicity) on this matter for the following reason.

I took his gas bags course in the early 2000's. There were only four grads enrolled, which as you know doesn't "make" a class. Two female grads, now Dr X and Dr Y, took the first class but then "dropped" the course, to his obvious disappointment. A female astronomy (undergrad) senior, now Dr Z, was probably encouraged/coerced(?) to take the class so that the minimum 5 students were enrolled and the necessary "teaching load credits" generated. She was the only female student in that class of five. Since she didn't know any of us grad students at that time, she sat in a different row (closer to the front) to the other four male graduate students. I remember falling asleep in that class, on a too regular basis since the topic wasn't of much interest to me and he had a boring/monotone voice. At times I would wake up and notice that all four male grad students were also asleep. The female student was the only one awake. Here's the punch line: he would regularly stand directly in front of the female student, with an open stance and one leg on a chair such that his pelvis was pointed directly at her. The four male grad students all noticed this and all knew this was highly inappropriate but didn't say anything. I wish I had spoken out about this.

As noted in your post, it wasn't obvious to whom this type of behaviour should be reported at that time. I'm pleased to say that at my current institute, we have a highly visible and active Access and Equity Committee. The committee is composed of students, postdocs, faculty and senior admin. I would like to think that if someone here was encountering a similar issue to what you (and many other UT female students) faced, they could approach someone on this committee or look at the many useful links of their website (which is advertised in every weekly bulletin).

Anyway, thanks again and apologies again. I'm happily reading the many good suggestions on how to combat this!

Anonymous said...

So I'm wondering, with all the talk of mentoring how can and should mentors/more senior people be more proactive?

I've been in the situation as a male postdoc where I've been going to a conference with a female grad student. Another registered conference attendee was a known harasser (groping+eyes-not-on-the-eyes). I spent a while debating when and how to bring this to the student's attention. Should I mention it beforehand? But maybe that would make her less motivated to attend the conference. Waiting for an airport shuttle bus? But there would be no way I could let her know who exactly this was. I finally settled on at the first coffee break so I could say "see him over there, he harassed some of my friends, if he's making you feel uncomfortable let me know or use me as an excuse to get out of the situation". Luckily the guy didn't come to the conference for some reason so I never had to say anything.

I'm now in the situation of supervising female students and I have a mental shit list (which is probably incomplete for sexual harassers due to pivelege, probably more complete for bullies/people who are generally f***wits). What proactive action should I take so these students know who may be a problem and how can I do that without discouraging them from attending conferences?

PS yes this question is conference specific but could be more general as harassment can happen anywhere.

astropixie said...

anon - you've stated that there are "known harassers" at these conferences. have you considered **talking directly to the harassers** to let them know that their behaviour is inappropriate and making students uncomfortable? and making you uncomfortable as an advisor bringing students in his/her presence? why put the burden on your students to *deal* with the situation when you are the more senior scientist? why not **put the burden on the people actually doing the harassing**?

neither option -- telling your student to look out for harassers or talking directly to the (usually senior level) harasser -- is ideal, but to instigate change, the harasser NEEDS TO KNOW and be confronted about his/her behaviour.

but to address your actual question, i think the best approach is to talk to your students about the existence of harassers and bullies early. you dont have to name names if youre not comfortable, but discussing this issue early on in a student's career is key. tell both male and female students that there is the potential for inappropriate behaviour out there, and if they see it or experience it directly, you are an ally.

let them know that you want them to succeed and these external behaviours will prevent them being the best scientists they can be. they dont deserve to deal with that burden. tell them they can feel comfortable talking to you about any issue, or using you as an excuse to get out of an uncomfortable situation.

support, open discussion, trust, respect, and advocacy are what you can offer as an advisor from the very beginning of a career, not just when attending conferences. there are instances you wont know about in advance, but you can become a trusted ally immediately.

also, please advocate that your students find mentors outside their internal committees so that they have other allies as well.

Anonymous said...

In the case of the known harasser I know the guy was disciplined by his department and was also confronted about his behavior by a much more confrontational person than me. But at a later conference he was being an eyes-not-on-the-eyes creep again. At that conference (not the one I was going to with a student), there were informal efforts amongst the attendees to keep the guy away from any women, blocking his path, moving to another area when he arrived, taking him home when he got too drunk. I'm starting to think that if I see him behave like that again, yes I will say something. However the guy is abusive towards everyone, male or female, so I doubt it would do any good.

Thanks for the other advice. I think I may bring this up with my student next meeting.

Anonymous said...

Josh: Yeah, in academia we have a lot of people who are on or near the Autism spectrum, who have trouble defining appropriate social boundaries. You can usually tell because, as you said, they're "well-meaning", and a polite discussion will fix the problem.

The problem is those that do know how social boundaries work and flaunt them because they're in a position of power. For example, the head of the astronomy group at [Australian University] is a bully who knows how to get in people's heads, has a fine sense of what their triggers might be and how to use them. He encourages his male students and postdocs to be sexist towards the female students (no female postdocs), and he preferentially gives teaching work to them, so that the female students end up going to other departments such as mathematics if they want teaching experience (or, you know, a living wage).

In his case, polite discussion and mocking satire only made matters worse. We had trouble convincing HR there was a problem (their only response to "a person in power over me is making my life hell" is "you should talk to them about it"), and all of the other academics just told us to deal with it because "that's how he is".

So as with Amanda we had an unofficial support network. Weekly coffee breaks with n00bs were a great time to warn them about what to expect (and not everyone has a horrible time) and the culture became one where everyone is waiting for him to move on because no one has been able to do anything about the problem.

Jessica Kirkpatrick said...

I really am interested in how as a community we deal with serial harassers who are being protected by others in their departments.

I know of such an (ongoing) situation, and even though the department is aware of the problem, and the faculty member has been made aware that he is making people uncomfortable, the behavior continues, and nothing (other than occasional scoldings) is done.

Most of the targets of the harassment are so junior that they don't feel comfortable making formal complaints. I feel like this situation is very similar to the one you described.

How do we deal with this as a community or witness to these events if the victim doesn't want to make a formal complaint, and the department wont take action?


Anonymous said...

It is important for people to know that the harrassment was not limited to students. Staff and faculty were also subject to inappropriate behavior. I experienced some of what has been described as a faculty member in a different department. I have been gone from this institution for 18 years, but I reported the dispicable behavior to the university's lead counsel well before I left, so they've known for at least 20 years. The problem, I was told was the lack of evidence. Today, I believe that the overwhelming numbers of women involved should have been enough. Any investigation would have found all the evidence needed.