Tuesday, May 21, 2013

ADVICE: Dealing with Discrimination and Harassment

This is the third in our new series of ADVICE posts as CSWA tries to ensure that information gathered over the years remains available to the current generation of students, postdocs, and faculty. This month, we try to deal with discrimination and harassment:

From: Joan Schmelz and Patricia Knezek [jschmelz_at_memphis.edu; knezek_at_noao.edu]

The good news for women in astronomy is that incidents of overt sexual discrimination and sexual harassment have declined dramatically in recent years. The bad news is that there are still problems, especially for grad students and post docs. Sometimes we don't realize that these problems are still out there until something happens to us or to someone we know personally.

As members of CSWA, young women sometimes seek us out to ask for advice or just talk about problems. We do our best to help, but we are not trained professionals. We thought many heads can be better than two, so we asked for advice from readers of AASWOMEN on two particular issues. We would also like to encourage readers to broaden the topic to other issues. No doubt some of you have developed good responses and advice, and we would like to widely distribute this information in order to benefit all. Rather than betray confidences or reveal personal details for the two issues we are raising here, we have chosen instead to combine similar incidents that have happened to each of us and volunteer to be the guinea pigs.

1) Unethical conduct by a superior - your superior (boss, advisor, mentor, senior collaborator, etc.) has turned on you; the reasons could be sexual, personal, or professional. He starts to poison the community against you. You hear that he is spreading rumors or writing negative comments in letters of recommendation. As a result, you may never get a(nother) job in astronomy. What do you do?

2) Inappropriate behavior in a professional setting - You meet a colleague at a conference/observing run/review panel/etc. He seems interested in your work and suggests that the two of you might collaborate on a project. He arranges to be alone with you on that pretense, and then he propositions you and gropes you. You're shocked. You have no interest in anything but a professional relationship. Now you can't concentrate on what you came to do because you're always looking out for him and trying to make sure you're never alone with him again. What do you do?

From: Joan Schmelz [jschmelz_at_memphis.edu]

Most universities have a procedure to address complaints of sexual harassment and gender discrimination. This procedure should be outlined on the university's web site, but if the link is not obvious, try searching on sexual harassment complaint. Details can vary, but the first few steps you take as the victim should be roughly the same.

1. Write everything down: times, places, nature of the incident, and comments made. Save emails, notes, etc.
2. Tell someone you trust: advisor, best friend, parent, sibling, etc. Talk about the pros and cons of filing an official complaint.
3. If your university is fortunate enough to have an ombudsperson, consider talking to him/her. The ombudsperson is an independent, confidential, and impartial resource available to facilitate cooperation and consensus through education and mediation. Bring copies of the items from (1) to your meeting. You can also bring your trusted confident from (2) if this helps calm your nerves. Prepare for the meeting. Know your facts. Be organized.
4. If you decide to file a complaint, your first official step could be a meeting with your department chair. The ombudsperson and/or your confidant from (2) can come with you. It helps to know there is someone in your corner.
5. You will most likely have to write and sign an official letter of complaint, documenting the nature of the harassment and/or discrimination. Be as detailed as possible. This is where the information from item (1) is most useful. Take time to write this letter. Ask the ombudsperson and/or your confidant from (2) to read it over. Edit it thoroughly.
6. If you have any supporting documentation or statements from witnesses, these should be submitted to the chair at the same time as your official letter of complaint.
7. Once you submit this letter, the department chair is compelled to address your complaint. At my university, the letter goes up the chain of command to the dean. The person against whom the complaint is lodged is also notified and must provide a written response.

From: Anonymous

My advice to the superior problem is to document EVERYTHING. Times, places, nature of the incident, comments made. Save emails, etc. You need to have documentation if you do try to file a harassment claim. Obviously you wouldn't ask for letters of recommendation from this person again, but it helps to have other colleagues/supervisors that can counter any damage that has been done, to the extent possible.

From: Anonymous

If you are a graduate student and the unethical conduct is by your supervisor, there is usually a grievance procedure available at your university.

If the unethical conduct is by, say, a post-doc, mentor, collaborator, etc. there isn't a grievance procedure. For this case, here are suggestions:

- Inform your supervisor(s) immediately, asking that they keep this a private matter. In particular they should NOT talk to the offender until a procedure for dealing with the situation is worked out. Letting them know early on however lets them protect you.
- Contact your university about possible procedures. Interestingly the people in the know are likely to be the psychological counselors or doctors. They will have helped people who have been through this and will have suggestions based on experience (albeit second hand). They can also give you some emotional and psychological support.
- If the administration suggests you start a grievance procedure against your supervisor for not protecting you, do NOT start such a procedure... you need your supervisor!
- An example of a procedure is an official but private meeting, to talk about the situation, with you, your supervisor(s), the student officer (or some other departmental official) and the offender. This can be organized by the departmental official. The meeting needs to have an official element in order for the offender to feel the need to attend.
- Determine what you want the result of the procedure to be. The offender will not be fired - that will remain a fantasy. But their behavior to you and others can be constrained by their colleagues. Perhaps you want them to change their behavior or to create a situation in which they can't behave the same way to other people. For example, the people in the procedure outlined above will now be witnesses who have insight into the offender which will limit the offender's ability to be given positions of responsibility, etc. If your expectations are realistic, then you can be both satisfied and proud of the outcome.
- Expect the people involved in the procedure will want to be open to both parties. Expect them to want to mediate between you and the offender. A natural response for them is to want to say that both of you were at some fault and both of you can take some constructive action to repair the situation. This is unfair and may victimize you - let them know that you feel victimized if this accommodation aspect gets out of hand. But you probably want open, kind people for this procedure - so the discomfort produced is worth it.
- It is not helpful to have "allegations" flying about over which a community can take sides. Also you don't want to have the offender make you "look bad for slandering him." So keeping it quiet is important. Therefore chose only 1 or 2 close friends to confide in, who will agree to keep it quiet. Also select just a few key people, who support you and who the offender respects, to be involved in the procedure. This removes the situation from the realm of gossip. It allows the offender to save face and change their behavior if the behavior isn't known broadly.
- Counteract the rumors with action rather than words. If the offender is saying that you can't accomplish something, then do it and prove him wrong. The offender is probably spreading rumors about other people too. When those people learn of the slander against them, they won't take his rumors about you seriously either. Also you are dealing with fellow, intelligent scientists - they both demand proof and like to figure things out for themselves. So given a bit of time (o.k. months) most of the people working in your area won't believe him anyway.
- Avoid any contact with the offender. Your supervisor(s) may be able to help with this. If the offender increases his unwanted behavior, perhaps they can arrange for you to do some collaborative research at another institution until the procedure takes place.
- Needless to say, one should have this miserable situation documented and to be prepared with this information at the meeting - even though most documentation won't be used because the offender will by this point be known to be offending. Also hopefully it will be a discussion. However if there are witnesses to the incidents, find out if they would be willing to be around in case the people at the procedure would like to talk to them. Or, even better, perhaps your supervisor(s) could arrange to talk to them in private before hand.
- Celebrate surviving this! Don't let it get you down about your field of discipline. Do your research with your supporters in mind -- they are your true colleagues.

Best of luck and big hugs to anyone in this situation!

From: Kelly Korreck (kkorreck_at_cfa.harvard.edu)

Scenario 1: One piece of advice for the problem with one ill-willed advisor is to have 2 if not 3 senior recommenders so that one person's opinion won't be the end of your career. A two PhD advisor situation might be very beneficial. It is very hard when first starting out to have these types of relationships with senior scientists but if at all possible, make an effort to relate yourself to their work and get to know them so you do have someone always in your corner. The other thing to do is to confront this person, not aggressively or tearfully but assertively ask if you have done something wrong and perhaps what you could work on to make yourself a better scientist. Most of the time there will be no concrete answer but you will feel better knowing that it isn't you its them!

Scenario 2: It happens more often than you think. I met a mid-career scientist at a conference and he asked if I was interested in a post-doc. I luckily had a position for the next few years so I suggested others who I knew were looking and suggested that we all work together on a project. Since we do complimentary work, he contacted me afterwards to see if I would be at the next conference and if we could meet up then. Well of course I would meet with him and bring along a few of my other colleagues that could collaborate with us. I got to the conference and he started acting strange and wanted to "take me out to dinner". Since we were all on per diem, I wanted to catch up with my other colleagues, and I caught on that he wanted something other than a collaboration, I told him no and that it was very wrong to ask since at one time he offered me a position that would have made him my boss. Luckily he was not the persistent type and simply said he would leave me alone.

However, the way he did it (and in front of a senior faculty member that I work with) seem to lay all the "blame" on me for this "misunderstanding". This was what made me most angry about the whole thing is that how it was put on me as something I did or something I should be ashamed of or "guilty" of. I did nothing wrong. Anyone in a similar situation needs to realize that it isn't them it is the "system"/"pursuer" that are wrong. Being clear is key - there is no question in my mind that I was not interested in anything but a working relationship. I don't state this to every male colleague I work with but those who seem more interested in me than proper, I simply remind them that we have a working relationship and I don't date anyone I work with. I have to admit that I also have worn a ring on my left hand for a while to drive the point home to another co-worker.