Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

Harassment: What to do?

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Although as women in science, we often deal with subtle bias, non-specific and irrational pre-judgement of our qualifications, and an overall lack of encouragement. Less often, yet still persistent occurrences of actual overt harassment still occur and are known. A recent post at another awesome Women in Science Blog, TenureSheWrote, brought up a very interesting question about what to do when you know there is a harass-er of women around, in your field.  Please go to see that post and comment there.

Here, I want to tell a story about what I have done about harassment, when I saw it. As always, I ask you about what you have done and to share your personal stories about how you have dealt with this when you see it. If you would have changed your reaction in hindsight. What were the consequences of your actions?

Here is my story:

When I first started as an UntenuredAssistantProfessor (within the first couple of months), there was a WhiteMaleEmeritusProfessor who was really nasty to everyone – men and women. He would bad mouth my new colleagues behind their backs to me and try to embarrass them in public. I attended a lunch with a MaleSeminarSpeaker a few weeks later, and the WMEmeritusProfessor tried to make my science look stupid in front of the visitor. I fought back with humor and made him look ignorant of the current jargon and the current knowledge of my field. He was not happy with me.

A few weeks later, when a YoungFemaleScientist came to give our departmental colloquium, I went to lunch and so did he. I sat across the table from him, and he sat next to the speaker, and he was hitting on this poor woman the entire time. At some point, I couldn’t take it, and I told him to stop – in front of everyone. I made a scene. I pointed out that he was being offensive and inappropriate. I used humor, but I didn’t let him off the hook. He tried to attack me saying that I was being politically correct (as if that was a bad thing). One of my senior colleagues was there at the lunch, and I had to talk about it with him later. I didn’t get the impression that he was on my side, but more that he was uncomfortable and wanted it to go away.

A month of so later, I was at a dinner with several AmazingWomenOfScience in my field. I was ecstatic to be invited because these were wonderful, powerful women in my field. When they realized my new university, one told a story about how, when she went to give a talk at my university, she was verbally attacked about her science by WMEmeritusProfessor. He interrupted her several times – far more than the norm for the field. He tried to get invited to dinner. Worse of all, afterwards, WMEmeritusProfessor started sending her love letters in the mail. I went from ecstatic to embarrassed. I was ashamed that people my university saw this happening and did nothing.

I went to a SeniorMaleColleague and asked what power WMEmeritusProfessor would have over my tenure case. The answer was absolutely none. So, I went to the chair and demanded that he be removed from all seminar lists. I had found out that other departments had stopped sending seminar announcements to my department for fear that WMEmeritusProfessor would show up. I also told the Chair about WMEmeritusProfessor’s behavior, and how it was embarrassing and affecting people in my field. I think WMEmertusProfessor must have been talked to, because he was not seen as frequently in seminars for many years after that.

I didn’t have to deal with him anymore, and things felt better. I certainly felt more comfortable in my department.

Several years later, I had my Nth (important milestone) birthday party and got catering for the event. The woman doing the cooking told me she had been an undergraduate in my department many years before I got there. When she had been there, WMEmeritusProfessor was a FullProfessor, and he taught her laboratory course. She said that he had harassed her directly. He asked for dates and said that she would do better if she did this of that thing with him. She said it happened to a number of female students. I was shocked! How could no one in the department have known about this? I realize there was only 1-2 women professors at any one time until a couple more of us came on board, but these women never went to them to tell about what was happening. I had no idea what to do, and I have never reported it – staying the supportive listener, but I am still shocked to this day.

Typing this post has been cathartic, and has helped me realize that I did stand up when I could, and have been on alert for this monster as he infrequently rears his head in the department. The woman who reported it to me, now many years later is confident and would not care if I brought it up, but what purpose does it serve? Should I say something now?

So, has this happened to you? In front of you? Did you say anything? Make a stand? Or try to ignore it? What should we do? Comment or post here. Remember to

Comments on: "Harassment: What to do?" (2)

  1. […] strategies to deal with this type of thing. What do people recommend? I have recently written a post about harassment. And there was a good post of TenureSheWrote, too. Should female grad students and […]

  2. […] so we are all on the same page: What is harassment? I have several posts about subtle harassment, annoying harassment, perpetual harassment. Also, many other Women Bloggers (Hope, TenureSheWrote) have discusses […]

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