Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Fed Up With Sexual Harassment: The Serial Harasser's Playbook

This is the third in a series of posts this week on the topic of sexual harassment in astronomy. The other posts can be found here (Defining the problem) and here (Survival of the clueless), with more to come later this week. 

With this post, rather than publicly naming the (well-known) serial harassers in astronomy, I'll instead publish their (combined) playbook. I've witnessed some of these individuals practice their "craft," and I've heard even more stories. What's remarkable is how consistent they are in doing what they do. I realize there is some risk in publishing this, because it may cause the offenders to change up their strategy. It'll also no doubt ruffle feathers because sexual harassment is such a powerful and effective tool in maintaining a power imbalance in our field. But I figure that risk is nowhere near as bad as allowing them to negatively impact further lives through their actions. So here I present the Serial Harasser's Playbook, stitched together and averaged over many stories. 

How not to sit with your student at a conference.
Keep in mind that these steps are "designed" so as to provide escape hatches in case the target is not receptive. Any step in isolation, save the last few, are not by themselves strong evidence of harassment, and I expect many commenters (mainly men) to complain. But you should think of this as a slow ratcheting process that can be released with plausible deniability a any one stage. If the woman doesn't cry foul at step N, then the harasser is off to step N+1. If you have a complaint about any of these steps, take them to your campus's Title IX officer for further discussion and clarification. For women: in all things trust your instincts.

Also, for simplicity and to address this to those who are often most vulnerable, I refer to female students in what follows. However, note that this happens to women in all junior positions, including assistant professors and postdocs. Also, note that sexual harassment can be directed toward men by men. Indeed, if you are a man and have a hard time understanding why any of this would be uncomfortable, imagine any of this directed toward you by a physically imposing, senior male colleague with power over your career. If such a man were to start this process with you, would you wave it off as "not a big deal"?
  1. Friendly greeting in the hallway. Big smiles. "Do I recognize you? I've seen you at a conference, haven't I?" Note that this is not inappropriate by itself. It's just step #1. As with the assessment of most behaviors, ask yourself or peers if this happens equally between the prof and other students.
  2. The next greeting involves a soft touch on the arm or back. If you are a guy reading this, think back to the last time a senior professor touched you softly on the arm or back when they greeted you in the hall. It doesn't happen often between men, so it shouldn't happen between a senior professor and an undergraduate woman. There are people who are "touchy" people, so be sure to ask a trusted friend, peer or mentor. But it is always okay to tell a "touchy" person to please back off. They're probably used to this sort of request.
  3. An expression of deep yet sudden interest in the young woman's career and an invitation to go out for coffee to discuss her aspirations and goals. Again, taken in isolation, this isn't a big deal. It happens all the time between colleagues. However, if its happening to you as a student, ask yourself if it feels out of place. If it feels uncomfortable, just say you'd prefer to talk in the department's common area or on the department's (well trafficked) front steps. At minimum, make sure the location is frequented by familiar people. Or ask a friend to accompany you to coffee with the prof (this has happened to me when meeting with a female undergraduate, who asked her boyfriend to join the meeting. I had no problem with it and our conversation was quite natural). Remember also that serial harassers often pose as advocates of women's issues. Be sure to judge them on their actions, not their words. Again, I'll reiterate: in isolation this is not bad. Indeed it can be the beginning of a healthy mentoring relationship. But if taken with the steps that follow...
  4. Steering the discussion toward sexual topics. Here's an account of how this happens. If the meeting is supposed to be professional, don't allow it to wander into personal topics, especially those of a sexual nature. 
  5. An offer to drive you home after a late night at the department. Especially in conjunction with the previous steps this is an extremely problematic situation. Most campuses have shuttle services, or the campus police can provide an escort if you feel unsafe traveling home. Ask the professor if they'd be willing to call in these services if they are concerned about your safety as a student walking home. Also, assess whether the same offer would be made to a male student.
  6. Making sexual jokes and innuendoes. Sometimes professors just need to learn to grow up and stop with this sort of "humor" at work. Other times it is deployed by serial harassers as a way of gauging interest and setting up future advances. It is always appropriate to simply say, "I don't find that sort of humor funny nor appropriate for the work setting. I would appreciate it if you didn't make sexual jokes at work." 
  7. Arm around waist or back to "guide" the woman somewhere ("This way to the seminar.") This is not only sexually inappropriate, but also highly condescending. Would the prof do this to a male student? Even if so, it would not be appropriate.
  8. A frontal, full-contact hug. If a senior male colleague goes in for a hug and you're not comfortable, turn to the side. Or just be explicit and say that you're not comfortable, generally speaking, hugging in the workplace. Sometimes hugging happens among friends and close colleagues. Yes, in some cultures it's a regular occurrence. But any sexual harassment training session will advise professors and managers to avoid hugging as a general rule of thumb. I used to occasionally hug students, but I now avoid it as much to minimize inappropriateness as to avoid liability.
  9. Back or shoulder massage. Do I really need to explain why this is inappropriate between two professionals? However, it happens. I've seen it and heard many stories of "professorial back rubs."
  10. A kiss on the cheek, forehead, neck or mouth. This should never happen. Sure, cheek-kissing may be normal in other countries. It's not here in the states. For serial harassers this is just one more ratchet step along the way to their ultimate goal. If there is no line drawn up to this point, this point will be reached. This can count as sexual assault since it is an unwanted physical advance.
  11. Any description of the professor's sexual life to the student, e.g. "My wife and I have an open relationship." It might sound ridiculous that a professional individual would ever think to say something like this to a younger colleague or student, but this is one serial harasser's favorite line. This is to signal intention while providing an out if the woman becomes uncomfortable. "Oh, I'm sorry, I'm just very open about my life when talking to others."
  12. Any comment or insinuation about the student's sex life. A professor and a student reside in a non-sexual, professional setting called a University's astronomy department. Any discussion of someone's sex life is completely out of place, especially if the discussion is initiated by a senior individual. 
  13. Any comment about the student's body. Generally speaking, if you want to comment on how someone looks, comment on their clothing not their body. This is sexual harassment training 101. Pay attention in those meetings! They're held at your institution for a reason. 
Of course, sexual harassment can play out completely differently than this. But this is the sequence/combination of actions that I've heard the most about. This ratcheting process leaves women off-balance and often confused. Did they do something to bring this on? Was it how they acted toward the professor? Could the professor genuinely be in love with just them? Generally, this is a true play book, designed to be implemented over and over again. 

If it has happened to you, you are generally not alone and it is not your fault. The law is on your side, so please speak up and speak out. If nothing else, please contact the CSWA. We're here to lend an ear and help you push back against our field's serial harassers.