Monday, June 13, 2016

Sexual Harassment: Reports of Serial Groping

Today's guest bloggers are Anonymous A and Anonymous B. A and B are both astronomy postdocs, who realize that they had something quite disturbing in common. They had both been groped by the same senior male astronomer in a public place with multiple witnesses. No one came to their aid. 

Our accounts may sound depressingly familiar to many. The recent, highly publicized sexual harassment cases have initiated some frank discussions about the pervasiveness of this problem in our community — something that far too many women already knew firsthand. We’re adding our voices to this conversation partly to share our individual stories, breaking the silence in solidarity with others who have come forward. But because we happen to have been harassed by the same person, our accounts also illustrate how harassment in our community is ultimately not a problem of individual incidents. 


Anonymous A.

I was a young graduate student attending one of my first conferences. At the conference dinner, I ended up sitting next to a senior professor who I hadn’t met before the conference. His wife and child sat at the next table over, but his young daughter repeatedly came over to our table to talk to her father, and she chatted with me too since I was sitting right next to him. Talking to the small child standing between us required leaning down slightly, but I began to notice that he was leaning unnecessarily close to me when he did this. I tried not to worry about it, thinking I was probably mistaken, but at some point after his daughter went back to her table, he put his hand on my thigh under the table. I froze, unsure of what to do, so at first I didn't react at all. But then he started inching his hand further up my thigh. Finally I got up, excused myself from the table, and left in the middle of dinner.

My immediate reaction was visceral; I felt an intense mixture of shame and anger. This was compounded by the knowledge that I had celebrated my successful talk with a few drinks at the cocktail reception before dinner. I found out the next day that some people thought I had left the dinner because I’d gotten sick from the alcohol -- a story with which I felt compelled to play along, despite adding to my embarrassment.

I did confide in a few friends, who were largely very supportive. One who had been at our table said she’d noticed his creepy behavior, including trying to brush against my breast when I wasn’t looking. However, another person I confided in responded by directly questioning my account (“Are you sure?”), and a friend who wasn’t at the conference suggested that I had put myself in the situation by drinking.


Anonymous B.

I was also a young graduate student when I met this professor, at a party at a fellow astronomer’s house. The professor had been invited as he was visiting our institute. The party was crowded with lots of people dancing. I was standing with my back to the middle of the room, chatting with friends and began to notice that someone kept brushing past me with a lot of physical contact. I kept moving aside, thinking they were trying to get past me and I was in their way. This happened repeatedly until I felt a hand squeeze my backside. I realized that this professor was actually groping me and rubbing against me. I was surprised and embarrassed. Others had seen him do it and everyone just laughed. I turned my back to the wall for the rest of the evening and made sure to avoid him.

I would never have thought to report this type of behavior. This wasn’t a professional setting. But when I heard Anonymous A’s story, I realized that it wasn’t an isolated event. He likely has female students who depend upon him.


We were both very surprised when, while talking one evening at a conference, we discovered that we had both been groped by the same senior astronomer. We realized that these incidents were likely part of a pattern of behavior, and it made us worry for other junior women who may not be able to get away from him as easily as we did. 

This is why it’s imperative for everyone, especially senior members of our community, to be proactive in supporting targets of harassment and speaking out against harassers. The burden of responsibility to speak out cannot fall solely on those who are most vulnerable, whose well-being and livelihoods may be at stake. This applies to everything from the most egregious serial harassment cases to more common micro-aggressions, all of which contribute to a culture of tacit approval. In both of our cases, there were witnesses (including more senior colleagues) who had opportunities to confront our harasser and to be supportive to us. We’ve found that having someone offer even a few words of support, or call out an insensitive comment, can be very meaningful to targets of harassment. Just as the harm of micro-aggressions adds up over time, so too can the positive impact of ‘micro-support’: gestures from those who have more power and can confront inappropriate behavior.