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. 


Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting this.
It hit home *very* hard. I was in a situation in grad school where this happened. I ended up in a relationship with one of the professors. I don't want to give any details that might identify either of us, but it was a very dysfunctional relationship.
It ended when I moved abroad for my postdoc and found out he'd been making the same moves on his grad student that started when I left. He basically ran through your list word for word. I've since found out there were others before me, and there's no doubt in my mind there have been more since us.
I tried to visit my advisor at my old department last year (4 years after I left) and had to meet him in the library because my ex had asked that I not be allowed in the building. He used to run the seminar series at the department and we hardly ever had women come. When people would ask he would give crazy reasons like "she's a witch! I don't want her here!". Turns out they were people that he harassed too.
If people ask me about the department I warn them against him. But I still feel guilty for his students after me. If I could have seen this for what it was then maybe they wouldnt have gone through the same thing. I feel sick for falling for it. And now there's not a thing I can do about it.

berkeleyjess said...

Dear Anonymous, perhaps there is something you can do. Please contact the CSWA if you want help.

I am so sorry to hear that you had that experience. No one should be treated that way.


John Johnson said...

Dear Anonymous: I'm very sorry to hear your story. It's like too many others in academia. You are doing the right thing to warn others away from that department. As Jessica said, the CSWA is here to listen and help. I wish you all the best with your career moving forward.

Anonymous said...

This is spot on: "a slow ratcheting process that can be released with plausible deniability at any one stage"

In my case, it was four years of grooming and manipulation by a senior male when I was a postdoc and then a staff member. Starting with invitations to go walking at lunchtime, then phone calls out of hours to "say hi", constant reminders that my professional success was his responsibility since he was the only one who could see my talent, and finally culminating in emails outlining in detail how our very intimate relationship was the entirely natural consequence of our special mentor/mentee relationship. These imaginary and deluded behaviours were of course denied and eventually I resigned and left astronomy and he remains head of the group. This is in spite of a formal complaint and a finding of sexual harassment in my favour.

So my point is: its very cathartic to have someone or some group to "listen and help", and yes the law is on the victims side in principle; but in reality unless the institute is willing to take swift, direct and firm action, things won't ever change.

Stuart said...

I am reporting retaliation for reporting harassment. I have been shunned from being on papers leading to me being unemployed. I formally ask the CSWA for your help so that I can take back my participation in astronomy.

Anonymous said...

Not yet mentioned in any media that I've seen is staff. Very likely there is a long history of female staffers coming and going from administrative and other positions in connection with these harassers. Staff typically lose their jobs if they complain to HR and they can be thwarted even in efforts to transfer elsewhere in the university, since they are reliant on getting a good job evaluation from their harasser. To boot, prospective staff are not in a position to benefit from informal networks that warn students away from potential abusers by word of mouth. That makes it all the more likely that people like Marcy have access to a second pool of potential victims - those who weren't in a position to be warned off. The kicker is that female staff are often those who were harassed 15-20 years ago, right out of science, now on their second or third careers, trying to use their education but finding they are still as vulnerable as they were as students - if not more so! Am I speaking from personal experience? Of course. Is Marcy the only one, an extremely prominent scientist out there being protected by a powerful university? Of course not.

Anonymous said...

This entire situation needs to be pushed to the forefront of astronomy. This behavior is unacceptable. Show me a university that doesn't have at least one department in this situation, you're showing me a lie. This happens across disciplines and to women everywhere. Even in this particular case, John, you admitted you waited until you felt that you and Geoff were "even" on use of scientific material before you supported the women involved. You should not have had to wait. The institutions need to protect all staff who step forward to stop serial harassers.

In regards to this particular list, I find 1 & 3 to be fine. The question is one of power and isolation for the student (male or female) who is being take advantage of.
There may be some serious interest in science. I think it's far more important to look at the entire situation. This may be someone who is truly interested in student's science. Maybe this prof takes males and females to coffee all of the time. Let's face it, there are still WAY more males than females in any department. Should the women not try to share their science? Do we need to be like women in running who go through a checklist of safety equipment before we run in case a male decides to rape us?

Women are aware of these things and then when the situations get out of hand, there's incredible guilt over how they could have changed things. We know the playbooks, we know when things get creepy and when people are pushing us into situations. We also know we can't always do something about it.

Astronomy is a field where there are many married couples. I am married to someone who hired me for observatory work. It was a power situation, but at no point did I feel that I was harassed. In fact, after being together for 24 years and married 18, I still don't feel we've ever had an uneven harassment. All advances were spoken ahead of time, and were met with approval. Not all work relationships are like this and the institutions need to step up and make sure that the person in power can't abuse the other.

I've also been in the more common situation where you are not comfortable in someone's office. One on one discussions make you worry about everything that could happen.Someone shows undue interest in your science and you worry. However, to imply that we can't enjoy that someone noticed our work and wanted to talk to us about it because they might be after our bodies instead of our brains is a bit, well, patronising. Woman are smarter than you imply here. That doesn't mean we don't get caught by a good manipulator, but we aren't idiots.

Anonymous said...

When I was an Assistant Professor, another Assistant Professor moved in to the apartment next door to me. For the most part we were neighborly. We were in very different fields and never encountered each other on campus, but we would commiserate over life as an Assistant Prof in the common laundry room or run into each other in the mailroom. For the most part we were friendly until . . . he started showing signs of being a creepster-in-the-making. The guy started expressing to me his conundrum over being surrounded by nubile undergrads in his classes. He truly believed that that there were female students in his class who were enthralled by him and he wanted my opinion over whether or not I thought students were fair game since they were over 18. He was actually trying to get the green light to use his classroom as a dating pool and he would talk about it as if it were a job perk like having dental insurance. I told him that it is not okay. I ended up moving to a different institution so I have no idea if he became a full-blown creepster.

Anonymous said...

I have an impression that the present scandal probably won't change the Berkeley administration's *future* behavior. It changed their *present* behavior, inasmuch they were publicly shamed into taking steps they should have already taken. But in future they probably won't take another step until something else happens and they are again forced by outside pressure to do something.

Anonymous said...

As bizarre as you say it sounds, a very distinguished physicist greeted me with a comment you quote, "My wife and I have an open marriage.", when I first met him, in the coffee area of the lab. I thought he was nuts. Needless to say, he said this to many people, and the marriage eventually ended.

Anonymous said...

Clearly they were trying to salvage the situation by making him promise not to do it again, and hope it didn't attract media attention. The time for that was after the first complaint.

Anonymous said...

This is a good description of the sequence of a harasser's behaviors.

What it leaves out is another sequence that occurs if a woman turns down a harasser:
1) Denial of what happened - "I'm hurt that you misunderstood me".
2) Omitting the target from professional opportunities that the harasser controls.
3) Pre-emptively trying to destroy the target's credibility - e.g., telling others that the target was inappropriately sexual towards him.
4) Telling other targets false and negative stories about the scientific work of the target (in one case that I know of, this went as far as trying to plant evidence of plagiarism).
5) Spreading rumors at professional meetings that damage the target's credibility ("She's the worst kind of feminist, very hard to work with, big chip on her shoulder")
5) Sending out false and damaging letters about the target to fellow powerful men.

Anonymous said...

I am a full professor in a STEM department at Berkeley and have experienced all of the retaliatory behavior just described after I refused to become a harasser's mistress. He is famous and his actions almost destroyed my career.

Anonymous said...

To the comment about how the behavior mirrors flirting, I would say that the response is not whether or not the person is INTERESTED, so much as WILLING to go along (out of feminine politeness and/or fear of those in position of power or hurting professional relationships. In any situations that I have been in, I have been caught unawares and been confused. If I could go back to those times after thinking it through, I would have taken stronger action.

Anonymous said...

I'm chipping in to the conversation to say that this has reached academic circles outside of astronomy and physics. I'm a senior graduate student at another university in a life science department.

A couple years ago, my PI was 'placed on administrative leave' following the finding of an inappropriate conflict of interest relationship and harassment toward virtually all women in our lab. He seemed to systematically go through your steps until he found an undergrad who didn't provide resistance to the "my wife and I have an open relationship" line and overuse of sexual innuendo and jokes in the lab.

When I made my distaste for this relationship known, suddenly I had a shit project to present at a conference and I 'no longer would have time' to finish my dissertation project, which was passed off to someone graduating before me.

Reporting this asshole has essentially ruined my career before it started. Yes, he was let go by the university, but they made sure to keep it hush-hush, so he was allowed to slip away quietly into the night and get a job at another university so ours could save face. And I'm left with the reputation of being a meddling feminist life-ruiner.

The collateral damage from these types of situations is very far reaching. Being a lab member with a PI who so obviously harasses students and uses them as his dating pool makes for a situation where we're very afraid to stick up for ourselves. If the PI can be so brazen in his actions, he's clearly not very afraid of the consequences (which probably comes from cultivating a reputation for this type of behavior and testing the waters previously). If he's not afraid of the consequences, why should we stick our necks out to report him? Plus, if we do report him and he gets fired, now our lab is gone. Terrible situation all the way around. These types of professors, in my experience, tend to bank on no one wanting to report them because everyone suffers for it.

Anonymous said...

A former astronomer: Worked a stint at an oil and gas company in a male dominated engineering section of the company. Something reminiscent of some of this sequence played out with a colleague. This is systemic! It's no different in the "real world" of industry, in corporations. As one professor said in a lecture that resonated with me, the next step towards real change requires a male liberation movement. Men need to go to bat against other men for what they believe in, because it's right, and it will help them too. For everything from blind hiring, pay equality, parental leave, and sexual harassment issues. So, let's get started shall we?

Sakib said...

I'm not a professional astronomer but I can't believe this kind of thing happens in astronomy departments. Shouldn't these people be concentrating on astronomy not to mention that it took them a lot of time and effort to reach the position they're in and they're willing to risk losing it?! Not to mention that they also risk ruining the reputation of an institute as a whole, why should the majority suffer as a result of the actions of a minority?

Anonymous said...

Staff are entirely vulnerable to sexual harassment. At my university, our president has come out explicitly and made plain that we're not as important as faculty are, and that he isn't particularly interested in issues of sexism and harassment. We are routinely left out of "campus environment" surveys on sexual harassment and assault. Most of the women staffers I talk with regularly in my department have been sexually harassed, by students, by faculty, or by both. We are well aware that going to the Ombudsman is worse than useless, since at their most active all they can do is facilitate a meeting -- which only tells your (perhaps tenured, probably more revenue-producing-than-you) harasser that you've reported him.

Because the culture of academia, and particularly of science, is weighted heavily against recognizing the work staff does (we routinely go uncredited on papers, and many of us are not treated as the professionals -- often PhD-holding -- professionals we are), the situation is weighted even more heavily against us: we don't look like we do important, or even useful, work in science. The idea of tossing a senior faculty member for harassing someone as lowly as an undergrad-exam-center staffer would, I think, not occur even to many of those intent on protecting the students. But we are people too, and the science doesn't happen without us. For the recognition of our status as people, rather than the help, to change -- and for anyone to take our harassment seriously -- requires change in behavior and attitude among all faculty, not just the men.

Anonymous said...

The situation with sexual harassment is no different in the Federal Government. My harasser did the same play book and I knew I was being set up. He used his power that he was going to be my supervisor soon to make me comply along with a strong friendship with the present supervisor which enabled him to do what he pleased. My endless no's, pushing him away and walking away was ignored by him. He claimed my no was not stated with enough force. I finally had the guts to report and was suspended for two weeks. Another woman that reported him was threatened with a transfer and left soon after. I pushed him away when he attempted to kiss me and this got me suspended. The judge found him guilty of harassment and did not expunge my two week suspension. I still have to work with him in my department. He was suspended for three weeks. After this the agency attempted to eliminate my position and due to other people I work with outside of this department stepping saved my job. I understand what you are going through. I almost packed my bags and walked out.

Anonymous said...

The situation with sexual harassment is no different in the Federal Government. My harasser did the same play book and I knew I was being set up. He used his power that he was going to be my supervisor soon to make me comply along with a strong friendship with the present supervisor which enabled him to do what he pleased. My endless no's, pushing him away and walking away was ignored by him. He claimed my no was not stated with enough force. I finally had the guts to report and was suspended for two weeks. Another woman that reported him was threatened with a transfer and left soon after. I pushed him away when he attempted to kiss me and this got me suspended. The judge found him guilty of harassment and did not expunge my two week suspension. I still have to work with him in my department. He was suspended for three weeks. After this the agency attempted to eliminate my position and due to other people I work with outside of this department stepping saved my job. I understand what you are going through. I almost packed my bags and walked out.

Anonymous said...

Dear moderator:

I wrote a comment last night which was a bit rambling. Here is a crisper version of it. If you will be so kind as to replace the previous one with this, before posting, I will appreciate it.

Shorter version:

I am very struck by the frequent use of the expression "ruin my career." It may be possible to reduce harassment through education and behavior codes, but there will always be those who will behave badly, they will not be few in number, and it will always be difficult to enforce such codes in a manner that is at once both effective and fair in terms of the protections of due process. I believe that this problem will never be resolved as long as the research community has both formal organizations and a culture in which it is possible for a single hostile individual to "ruin someone's career." Arguably, a culture in which personal power over others is so concentrated, and its proper use so dependent on individual ethics and institutional protections, is undesirable for many reasons, of which the potential for harassment is only one.

Anonymous said...

Has anyone tried filing a criminal complaint? If the harassment sinks to the level of grabbing and holding in the face of protest, this is unlawful restraint.

Subsequent career ruination, or even disturbance, would then be grounds for a civil suit as well.

I think the powerless, as a group, need to begin using recording technology and social media and cooperating.

AKN said...

I have seen this same familiar pattern many times in my career and my friends careers. It's not just in Astronomy- surprise. Thank you for posting and bringing awareness.

Anonymous said...

I have come to know that a person at very high position had sexually abused the wife of his junior colleague whose career was in the hands of this abuser. I even have some limited evidence. Both parties have since left the organization where the event took place, but the abuser goes un-punished. Can I do anything about it? Thanks

JoEllen McBride said...

Thank you for your comment and apologies for the delay. First, we want to acknowledge how difficult it is to carry this knowledge and that the process for reporting harassment and assault is not an easy one. But there are steps you can take. One option is to report the incident at the current or former institution (or both) but with the understanding that the institution will protect itself. If the people involved are in the field of astronomy the AAS Code of Ethics Committee ( also has a reporting system. It is not anonymous but is confidential. We suggest the Reporting Harassment Guide ( linked in the CSWA Resources to help when compiling a report. Another option, if the person who committed the abuse is funded by NSF or NASA, is to file a report with those entities as well.