Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Fed Up With Sexual Harassment: Survival of the Clueless

Picture from noworkplaceviolence.com
This is the second in a series of posts on the topic of sexual harassment in astronomy. The first can be found here (Defining the problem), with more to come later this week.

Long-term readers of the Women in Astronomy Blogspot will know that I “Came Out” as a victim of sexual harassment in 2011; you can read my story here. Helping victims navigate the confusing rules, hazardous landscapes, and blame-the-victim strategies has been part of my raison d’etre since joining CSWA. I am amazed at how much sexual harassment still goes on in the astronomy community. Unfortunately, it is not just a thing of the past. Here are a few examples of how sexual harassment manifests itself in the 21st century.

 Some sexual harassers have learned exactly how far they can push a situation before they have to pull back. They walk right up to the line and take a small step over it. The harasser can, for example, touch the victim on the shoulder when saying, “Good Morning,” or say something a bit unprofessional like, “You just look too nice today.” Depending on the reaction of the victim, the harasser can quickly retreat behind the line with profuse apologies for going too far. If, on the other hand, the victim reacts in a friendly manner, the harasser can redraw the line and repeat the tactic (more on this in tomorrow's post).

 Some departments should be labeled as hostile work environments. Showing up at the group coffee should not elicit whistles, sexist comments, and inappropriate touching. An astronomy department is a professional environment, and all members should be treated with respect. No one in the department should treat the students and postdocs as a convenient supply of potential sexual companions.

 Too many astronomical observatories have a sexual harassment problem. Perhaps this is because observatories are usually isolated and observers are away from home. An observing run is not a rendezvous. If you bring a student or a postdoc to an observatory, sex is not part of the deal. If you go alone to an observatory, the staff is not there to “service your every need.” This is a professional trip. You need to act in a professional way.

 Sexual harassment has occurred at the AAS and other astronomy conferences. Just one example: a senior professor took his undergrad students out drinking. Then he knocked on their door in the middle of the night trying to get in. This is wrong on so many levels! The AAS is a meeting of professionals, not an opportunity to troll for sex.

 One of the things that has been bothering me lately is the so-called advice given to young victims when they are courageous enough to ask senior astronomers for help. There appear to be some members of our community that are truly clueless! Here are just a few examples. In each case, I am paraphrasing. The identity of each commenter is withheld, not to protect the guilty, but to protect the victim.

Women wear such skimpy clothes here. No wonder there is sexual harassment.
--Department chair at a university in a warm climate to a young woman who complained about sexual harassment.

Stop complaining and put your nose to the grindstone. Just work hard and no one will bother you.
--Senior astronomer to young women who asked for help regarding sexual harassment by her own advisor.

Why don’t you wear a sexy dress and high heels to coffee tomorrow? That will get their attention.
--Senior astronomer to young women who asked for advice on how to stop lewd comments and inappropriate touching at department coffee.

--Graduate advisor whining to a young woman after realizing that her sexual harassment complaint was real.

Friends of Dr. Y are not happy to hear that you're complaining about him.

--Head of institution to a junior woman who had been harassed by Dr. Y.

 What should you do if a student or postdoc comes to you for advice on sexual harassment? The first thing to remember is that you should not make a clueless remark! Do your best to avoid joining the above list of clueless advisors, senior astronomers, and department chairs. Do not try to be funny or clever. Rather, let CSWA help you by combining information from two previous ADVICE posts on dealing with Student Tears and Harassment.

 Drop what you're doing and give her your full attention. Treat this situation seriously. If she is upset, say something reassuring like "take your time" or "we'll sort this out together." As she tells you the story, focus and listen. Don't interrupt, and never belittle her or the problem.

 Every university has a sexual harassment policy and procedure. Know yours. Assume that everything she tells you during this first meeting is confidential. It is not your job to fix the situation, at least not right away. Advise her to write everything down: times, places, nature of the incident, and comments made. Save emails, notes, etc. The first meeting may not be the right time to talk about the pros and cons of filing an official complaint. Be advised that this decision is never straightforward. If you feel out of your depth, find out who at your university she can talk to. Better yet, put her in touch with CSWA. We can help.

 It is a sad thing that most victims of sexual harassment are the youngest and most vulnerable members of our community. They are also the least likely to be aware not only of the existence of CSWA, but also of the help and support we can provide. You are our eyes and ears in the community. Like they say at Homeland Security, if you see something, say something. Help stop sexual harassment now.

Helpful Information:

ADVICE: Dealing with Discrimination and Harassment

CSWA's Sexual Harassment Resources Page

Sexual Harassment at Astronomical Observatories

Sexual Harassment: Update from Anon

AAS Anti-Harassment Policy


1 comment :

Unknown said...

No one is dumb who is curious. The people who don't ask questions remain clueless throughout their lives. See the link below for more info.