Wednesday, January 22, 2014

My Successful Experience with Sexual Harassment

The following is an anonymous guest post from a regular reader of the Women in Astronomy Blog. The below is a description of an individual's experience with sexual harassment.  What worked for her, might not work for everyone.  If you are being sexually harassed, please contact the sexual harassment officer at your institution for guidance on your particular situation:

In light of some recent blog posts about sexual harassment at conferences and objectifying of women in a professional setting, I wanted to share my 'successful' experience with sexual harassment.  Now perhaps successful it not the proper word to use here, but the below is a description of an experience where I was being sexually harassed, I did something about it, it all turned out ok, and I learned quite a bit from the process.

The Scenario
I was a graduate student and my harasser (lets call him Joe) was a research scientist (20 years my senior) at the national lab where I performed my thesis research. Joe and I were both in the lab's astrophysics group, but we were not working in the same research group/collaboration. 

Joe was a very friendly guy.  He had an espresso machine in his office and would invite me (and other students/post-docs) over to have afternoon coffee with him.  We would talk about research, graduate school, and sometimes life in general. Over time, Joe started talking to me more and more about personal (rather than professional) topics.  He would steer the conversation less about science, and more about things like my weekend plans. In my mind this wasn't a big deal, I figured he was just being friendly.

First Sign of Trouble
Then Joe started saying things about my appearance.  At first they were fairly benign comments about liking my jacket or earrings, but slowly the comments became more flirty. He would say things like (when I was wearing a skirt) "Wow, you have amazing legs, all the running you are doing is really paying off" or (when I was wearing more frumpy clothes) "You have such a nice figure, you should really show it off more."  These comments made me uncomfortable, but they weren't THAT different than him complimenting my earrings. He had crossed a line for me but the line seemed fuzzy and I wasn't sure what to do.

I think from Joe's perspective, he found me attractive, and wanted me to know that.  He probably thought I'd appreciate it—who doesn't like being told they have nice legs, right? However, because he was so much older, in a relative position of power, and a purely professional colleague (we never spent time together outside of work), having these unwanted, unreciprocated, flirty interactions made me feel icky.  


Yet, I STILL didn't say anything. These comments were few and far between, and I did not want to come across as 'overly sensitive' or 'dramatic.' I even talked to a few (more senior) women about it, and they advised me that it wasn't worth the trouble to directly talk to Joe. They suggested that I roll my eyes or walk away when he said things of this nature, and that eventually he'd 'get the picture' and stop.

He Said What?
Then a series of things happened that I couldn't ignore:







  1. Joe was looking for a house-sitter while he was away on a research trip.  He asked me if I was interested in house-sitting for him and said: "I have a hot-tub. You and your friends could go skinny dipping."
  2. I was asking Joe about how to fill out some travel reimbursement forms for the lab.  As we were having the conversation I took off my sweater (I had just come inside from the cold). He replied: "Well if you do a striptease for me, I will definitely help you get your reimbursements"
  3. I have a back problem and would regularly take stretch breaks in my office using some elastic bands given to me by my doctor. At one point when I was working with one of these bands and Joe walked my office and said: "Wow, check out your bondage gear.  If you are like this at work, you must be really kinky in the bedroom."
The above comments were clearly sexual in nature and completely unprofessional.  I just simply couldn't imagine that Joe would ever say these things to a male student/colleague or even someone he considered a respected peer.  

I knew needed to do something about this, but I wasn't sure what.  Unfortunately I was always so completely shocked/embarrassed/upset in the moment, that I wasn't able to say anything as an immediate response.  I always got so flustered and embarrassed that I would laugh nervously, change the subject, or leave the situation as quickly as possible. I think that many people in STEM are not good at picking up on subtle social cues, I believe that Joe honestly thought he was being funny and that I appreciated his humor.  I would like to give him the benefit of the doubt and believe that he hadn't picked up on my discomfort at all.

Taking Action
I decided to contact my department's sexual harassment officer who is a professor trained in the proper procedures to follow when sexual harassment occurs.  He advised me that the first recommended step was to put the harasser 'on notice.'  This entailed contacting Joe (or having someone else contact him on my behalf), stating the facts of the incidents that were making me uncomfortable, identifying the behavior as sexual harassment / unprofessional, and asking him to stop. I was advised to include as many specifics as possible (dates, exact phrasing, etc).  By privately putting Joe on notice (but not filing an official complaint with the lab) I shielded Joe from career/reputation consequences, but clearly let him know that I wanted the behavior to stop. If the behavior continued, the next step would to be to file an official complaint.  The officer told me that by asking him to stop in writing, I was building a paper-trail of the situation so that if the behavior continued, I could provide evidence that I had notified him that I was uncomfortable and asked him to stop this behavior.

Writing Joe was incredibly hard for me.  I imagined that he would somehow blame me for these incidents or that putting him 'on notice' would create an even more hostile/uncomfortable work environment.  But with the encouragement of the sexual harassment officer, I sent him an email, where I described the above behavior and said the following:
Flirtatious remarks, comments about my body, and innuendos or jokes about my sex life are sexual harassment, highly unprofessional, and make me very uncomfortable.  I believe the workplace should be a place where people can be friendly and jovial with each other, but are also mindful of professionalism and appropriate topics of discussion. Please refrain from making comments of this nature around me in the future.
Joe responded:
I am very sorry if my humor was inappropriate, or made you feel in any way uncomfortable.  I know you do important work on cutting-edge topics, and I value your contribution to the lab. I would only want to contribute to the best possible professional environment in the lab. I will strive to be more careful in the future, and always strive to make the most professional environment possible.  If there is anything more I can do in this vein, let me know.
Outcomes
From that point forward Joe was 100% professional and respectful.  At first he was less friendly and a little awkward around me, but I responded with being as normal as possible. I would say hi when I saw him the hallway, and engage him in professional conversations when appropriate. Within a few months of the above email exchange, everything was completely normal, except that he treated me the way I was always wanted to be treated and no longer made weird comments and inappropriate innuendos.  As far as I can tell he never did anything to negatively affect me professionally, and never talked about the interaction with anyone else.  The process worked the way it is supposed to: the behavior stopped, and we were able to move forward with a significantly better professional relationship.

Lessons Learned — So what did I learn from this experience?

It is OK to tell someone they are making you uncomfortable
I really wish that I had addressed Joe's behavior when he was simply making flirty comments. I think by saying something like "don't make comments about my body" I would have clearly given Joe the message that I wasn't receptive to his flirty/joking behavior and prevented the more unpleasant comments that followed.  Having gone through the process of telling someone to stop—and having it be successful—these days I find it a lot easier to address issues in the moment and before they get out of hand.

Pay Attention to Your 'Spidey Senses'
I listen to my gut now.  There are people in my professional life that will make off-color jokes or comments, but they don't set off my 'spidey senses' the way that Joe did.  Something about the way that Joe interacted with me felt charged (even early on) and I should have paid attention to that. These days, I listen to my gut and call people out when I feel uncomfortable. The result, is that I haven't had situations escalate like it did with Joe since.

It's OK to Bring Something up After-the-Fact
I kept being unable to say something 'in the moment' to Joe, and then felt like I missed an opportunity to 'casually' address the issue.  But having documentation of the situation in writing is actually better for all involved.  It means there is a paper trail, so that if things don't stop/escalate there is documentation that you have asked the person to stop.  While it's great if you can make a snappy comeback in the moment to nip the behavior in the bud, this can often minimize the event and not give a clear message to the person that what they are doing isn't OK.  I think that coming back to an incident after reflection gives the proper weight to the problem, and might make the harasser think more deeply about their inappropriate behavior.

Get advice from people who have proper training
While the senior women I talked to about this situation meant well, the advice they gave me (to not directly address the problem) was wrong.  I wish I had gone to speak to the sexual harassment officer much earlier.  I now make a point of knowing who the proper people are to talk to at every institution I work for in case something like this happens again.  I have had coworkers make me uncomfortable since this situation with Joe, but because I've addressed it early on, it's never escalated to this level.

Additional Resources
CSWA's Resources Page for Sexual Harassment
CSWA's Advice Page for Sexual Harassment 
Past Women in Astronomy Blog Posts About Sexual Harassment
Women in Astronomy Advice: Dealing with Discrimination and Harassment

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

this is a great strategy. thank you so much for sharing.

Vesta Duvall said...

I have to say, I admire what that girl did to protect herself from a would-be sexual offender. It really is hard to easily determine if a comment can be considered as sexually harassing. I love how she was able to handle the situation and be very professional about it. Of course, we do realize that not all situations would be the same as her experience, but she showed that maintaining a diplomatic and civil approach towards a workmate regarding an issue she was not comfortable about is a good way to go.
Vesta Duvall