Friday, August 23, 2013

Guest post by Debra Fischer: Harassment hiding in plain sight

Today's guest post is by Debra Fischer, a Professor of Astronomy and head of the exoplanets group at Yale University. 

We’ve all been witnessing the embarrassing charges of sexual harassment by San Diego mayor, Bob Filner. As the number of women coming forward continued to increase, it seemed surprising that this could have gone on for so long. However, the women subjected to his predatory behavior were generally subordinates or emotionally compromised; they were not on equal footing with this man. They may not have even realized that this was a pattern of misconduct rather than a particular, and perhaps flattering interest in them. Bob Filner’s behavior was egregious and should have been easy to recognize – yet it was years before he was exposed.

Fortunately, sexual predators are rare. The problem is that these individuals can also be difficult to recognize. The offenders can be charismatic and may well have high social IQ’s, even though their behavior is actually manipulative and sociopathic. They hide in plain sight in either large or small departments because their behavior is not directed toward their peers – it is directed toward those who would find it difficult to come forth or who might lack credibility.

Students, postdoctoral fellows and junior faculty can all be vulnerable targets if inappropriate attentions come from someone who is in power. The conundrum is that networking is a critically important part of carrying out the business of science. The vast majority of leaders in our field are activists who try to seek out and encourage new talent and this recognition of your talent is an affirmation that you are an emerging scientist and a valued colleague. However, if the attention begins to feel too flattering or if you are the target of inappropriate behavior, it is in your best interest to find the ear of someone you trust. If multiple allegations of misconduct begin to pile up, departments should see this as a red flag for behavior that is detrimental to a vibrant academic climate.