Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

Posts tagged ‘Sexual harassment’

Wrong Kind of Attention

conferenceThe election is bringing out a lot of issues about sexual harassment, assault, and unwanted sexual advances. There has also been a lot of news about sexual harassment in science over the past couple years with the outing of three male scientists who appear to be serial harassers. There have been many, many excellent articles about exactly the kind of harassment women encounter and how is negatively affects the women and makes many women leave science. I am making a little list of some of my favorite and important articles here:

This one written by a cool WomanOfScience blogger, Hope Jahren: “She Wanted to do Her Science…”

This one on TenureSheWrote from a woman who is standing up for the next generation and the follow-up on collaborations with harassers.

A story on NPR: science’s dark secret

And in Nature: astronomy roiled

Last year, one of the big conferences I attend annually,  decided to make a new anti-harassment policy. Because I think this is a very important step in protecting women, I am going to link to the policy at the Biophysical Society. My conference roomie and I were talking about how this is a really good step for the society. Because the society has a lot of young women, it is important to protect them. This policy gives them the ability to stand up for themselves.

At the first session of the first day of the conference, a senior male in my field asked me about the policy. He said that he was worried that men wouldn’t be able to flirt with women anymore without getting in trouble. I joked, but said that I think, if the woman is receptive to the flirting, you are safe. I did say that I, for one, was happy for this change. I briefly relayed a terrible conversation I had the previous year at the meeting where a program officer was very rude and threatening to me at a reception (I haven’t blogged about this, but will if people are interested). It was not explicitly sexual, but it was harassment, and he was using his power over me (as a program officer at a federal agency) to try to intimidate me. I didn’t report it to the society, but I did report it to the funding agency. The guy was actually reprimanded, but not for all that long.

Thinking back on it now, I am troubled by this conversation at the conference with the senior guy. I assume my male colleague was asking about flirting for other men, and not himself, as he is much older and happily married. But, even if he were asking for some other man, what right is there to flirting? Don’t get me wrong, I love flirting. I flirt with men and women in a professional manner asking them about their science and teasing about recent publications and students. But, is there a right to sexual flirting? At a conference? I don’t flirt that way, and I don’t expect to be flirted with that way. I don’t think there is a reasonable right to sexual flirting at a scientific conference.

There is another side effect. When older men flirt with young women, even if it is harmless-seeming, and the woman doesn’t mind, you are putting the woman in an uncomfortable position, nonetheless. Let me explain. When I was in graduate school, one of my peers said that women had it easier in male-dominated fields. I was surprised that he said that, and asked him to explain. He said that when you are a woman, you get all sorts of attention from senior guys. He said he never gets as much attention as cute girls get. So, when a senior guy flirts with a young woman, you are putting her in the position to raise the ire of her male colleagues who grumble that the woman is only getting the attention because she is attractive. This is also detrimental to the woman, who is there to talk about science and isn’t trying to get *that* kind of attention. We want attention for our science – not our looks. Further, for women who don’t want attention for their looks, it can drive them to dress more man-ish – perhaps in a way they don’t want to. So, now the woman has to look like a man in order to stave off unwanted attention, and that isn’t fair either.

What do you think? Do you think conferences should have sexual harassment policies? Do you think they help or hurt? Comment or send me a post. To get an email each time I post, push the +Follow button.

The Only One: Speaking Up

TrixiefriganzaThere was an interesting NPR story about being the only X in the room, where X can be anything, but is typically some under-represented group.  The story was spurred by an interview Marc Maron (love) did on WTF? with Wyatt Cenac (love). As a WomanOfScience, this has definitely happened to me where I am the only woman in a room. As a friend of many WomenOfColorOfScience, I understand how it is so much worse for scientists of color. I have a suspicion that white men have probably never had this happen to them. Of course, I could be wrong. There could be times (not times in science, of course) when you are the the only white male in a room. I asked HusbandOfScience, and he cannot recall one time when he was the only white man in the room. He says there was a time when he was almost the only white man in the room, but he was never actually the only one.

An interesting part of the original story and the report from NPR was the pull the “only one” feels between fitting in and speaking up when some racist or sexist shit goes down. They rightly point out that your ability and willingness to speak up as the “only one” depends on your personality, your stature within the group, and your level of power. I definitely have done these calculations when deciding if I should speak up about something. Now that I have tenure, I let loose all the time: with ally-colleagues, at faculty meetings, at a grant panel, at a government funding agency workshop, etc… Oh yeah, I speak up, make a joke and point it out. But, before getting tenure, I was very hesitant to speak up if I could not judge the situation, and I would seek guidance and advice from colleagues in the form of “mentoring” to let people know about certain situations.

Now, I will regale you with a tale of a time when I spoke up. I am sorry if this story is embarrassing to my department, college, or university, especially since pretty much everyone and their mom knows who I am (pseudonym WomanOfScience didn’t last as a pseudonym for very long). But, again, this is part of speaking up. We cannot hide our past like Ben Affleck wishing he was not descendant from slave owners. It happened, and I am retelling it to inform and move forward. Here is the story:

In my first year as an assistant professor, I had several run-ins with a particular senior colleague. This person was an EmeritusProfessor (EP). My first encounter was before classes even started when he approached me about another excellent ScientistOfColorColleague of mine. He asked if he thought my excellent colleague’s new paper in some “high-profile-journal-with-a-name-that-is-a-single-word” was total crap like he did. Of course, I said “no,” because I respected my ScientistOfColorColleague’s work very much. Also, this guy, EP, really creeped me out.

While at a conference, the same semester, I was fortunate to be invited to a women-only dinner with some BigFancyWomenOfScience in my field. At some point, they started talking about times they gave seminars at each other’s schools. I was so mortified when one told a story about speaking at my university and having EmeritusProfessor grill her at her seminar about the jargon of the field. Even more creepy than that, he started stalking her long distance. Except, he is old, so he did it the old fashioned way – via snail mail. She was really grossed out by his letters because they were very fawning and discussed her appearance. Again, I was very embarrassed for my department. I asked some people about it at my university, and I realized that was the last time my department was invited to seminars from the other departments. They stopped sending us the emails for fear that EP would show up and embarrass them.

My next run-in with EmeritusProfessor was at lunch with a seminar speaker. He started being very obnoxious to the speaker and me because of our subfield and the funny language it sometimes uses. This is the same jargon he harassed my WomanOfScience colleagues about, above. I told him that it is true that jargon can be annoying, but when in an interdisciplinary sub-field, you must be able to speak both languages and translate between them. He became pretty irate that I did not agree with him.

The third run-in I had with EmeritusProfessor was at a luncheon for a colloquium speaker, who happened to be a young woman. He sat right next to her, kitty-corner from me, and was creepily all over her during lunch. Yuck! At some point, he said something I thought was too far over the line. I called him out on it at the table, in front of some of my senior colleagues. He snapped back at me that I must be part of the PC police force. I made a joke about PC standing for Port Chester (a stupid reference to the movie “PCU” – love you Jeremy Piven!). We let it drop, but there was tension at the table. I approached my senior colleagues later to tell them both about the other run-ins I had with him and the story of my colleague from the conference dinner. He said he now understood my outburst, but felt it was rude at the time. Ugh. I had been worried about that, which was why I went to smooth it over with him. I was right to worry.

After that, I decide to go have a conversation with some senior people and my chair about this. These were all one-on-one conversations where I went for advice and help. Asking for advice plays well with senior white male colleagues who will always see you as a youngen in need of help.  It is not their fault that society grooms them that way. It can be annoying to play this sometimes, when really you just know better and want to suggest to them what to do, but it is the card I play most. Also, I am often seeking their support and help, so it isn’t as difficult to act. In fact, I prefer they see me as young and in need of mentoring, because the alternative is to be their competition and get no support. OK, these are extreme views, but I have heard from many women that once they reach a certain level/age, the help mentoring into resentment and competition. Perhaps another story for another day.

With SeniorColleague, I asked if EmeritusProfessor would have any say over my tenure case? I wanted to double check that he would not be apart of the discussion. In asking, I relayed the stories from above. He was actually friendly with EmeritusProfessor, but said he understood my side. He guaranteed that EP would not have a say in my tenure case, since emeritus status means they are not on the faculty. SC also admitted to me that EP had “woman problems” his whole life. SC didn’t elaborate, but I could imagine, considering how he treated women, that it was probably EP’s fault.

With the DepartmentHead, I actually asked that EP be excluded from seminar speaker invites. I cited the three seminar related issues and the fact that our entire department paid for EP’s actions by not being informed about seminars. Since I was interdisciplinary, this exclusion affected me more than others, and was unfair. Further, his rude behavior at two lunches with seminar/colloquia speakers led me to suggest at he be excluded from those activities. I said that it was embarrassing and was making the entire department look bad. I guess he agreed because EP stopped showing up for several years.

After these conversations, I felt I had a green light to fight against EP when needed. Luckily, I didn’t need to very often, as he was not being invited to seminars anymore. But, this is not where the story ends. For my RoundNumber-ith birthday party, I decided to have some catering done. Someone recommended a person to me who happened to be an alum of my department – a young woman who graduated undergrad from my university with a major in my department. We had much in common coming from the same field of study, and she actually had jobs in the field, but did catering as a sideline. At some point, she asked about EP. I was a bit cautious. Did this student like him? Hate him? I asked her story. She said that he taught her in a lab course and he disgustingly hit on her in class. He asked her to take a romantic boat ride with him. She refused him, but worried that it would adversely affect her grade. This story was outrageous, and yet expected. I mean EP was a real creep. I never asked, but I always wonder if any of his/my colleagues knew how he acted when he was a professor. I mean, they clearly knew he had “woman problems,” but did they realize how far over the line he stepped? Did they turn a blind eye? Did they purposely ignore it? It still bothers me to this day.

So, the day finally came when EP kicked the bucket. OK, that isn’t a nice way to talk about someone dying, but I cannot be nice where EP is concerned. Despite many other emeritus faculty passing on and never doing this, for some reason, some of the senior dudes wanted to take faculty meeting time to talk about EP. Ugh. I boycotted. I could not stand listening to fond memories of someone who sexually harassed his students. I let it be known to several of my colleagues that I was purposely boycotting and why. I asked how long it would take, so I could make sure I could show up afterwards. I texted my colleagues, who didn’t boycott, to figure out when to show up, because of course it took more than the allotted 15 minutes. After that, I came in, and faculty meeting proceeded as usual.

And that was the last time I had to deal with EP-related issues. I always worry I might run into some other woman alum who might have a worse story. I’m not even sure how to report something like that. The student is long-gone. I am sure it is way past the statute of limitations and now the guy is dead. She didn’t exactly disclose it to me in a way that meant she wanted me to do something about the information. She was basically telling me in a conversation of camaraderie – two WomenOfScience regaling each other with war stories from the front line of the ScienceGenderWars. Comparing battle scars. Hers were far worse than mine.

At this point, I want to also address something that was commented on from a previous post because it is related. I had a post about Why I am a Feminist. Among that list where a couple TV shows, including the Cosby Show. Someone posted a comment later if I would change my mind about the Cosby Show now that it is clear that Bill Cosby is a huge creep – most likely way worse than the EmeritusProfessor I describe here. So, I will set my record straight. Bill Cosby is a disgusting pig of a man who raped women. There is no doubt. I wish we lived in a society that valued women enough to make rape a crime without a statute of limitations, so he could be prosecuted and go to jail. The comments I made about the show were about the premise of the show rather than Cosby himself. The premise was that an upper middle class African American family in Brooklyn existed, and the mom was a lawyer, and the dad was a doctor, and they cared for their children. I value that vision, and I despise the man who presented it to me.

So, what do you think? Post or comment here. Push the +Follow button to get an email whenever I post.

Not So Subtle Harassment

drunkonginnojuiceBeing a woman in science is way harder than being a dude. Even enlightened dudes, of whom I know many, many and I love them all, and they have work-life balance issues and are good dads while doing science, etc… Even they don’t have to worry about actual harassment. I am pretty sure, they aren’t concerned about having their behinds pinched by old gross guys. I don’t think they have their colleagues ogling their chests while trying to have a science conversation. Were you being hit on at every turn at your first scientific conference? No, OK, so we agree that it is still harder for women in this respect. Actually, these things are not just issues for women in science, but they are issues for women in ALL OF SOCIETY. The difference is that women in male-dominated fields often don’t have cover from any other women being present to help them out or just have someone to vent to about it.

Just 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 (HopeTenureSheWrote) have discusses harassment and how men can be an advocate for women.

A fellow WomanOfScience recently relayed this situation to me. Hope you read and enjoy!


The scene: Conference dinner at a workshop-style conference, people milling about with alcohol and food and more alcohol.

Dramatis personae: Prof. ImpressiveSeniorGuy (Prof. ISG) and mix of faculty, postdocs, and graduate students

The action: Once he’s good and drunk, Prof. ISG systematically chats up most/every woman at the dinner, complimenting them and making flirtatious, direct comments about their attractiveness. So much so, and in such a public way, that the other men notice what is going on. I didn’t catch whether or not any direct propositioning happened, but from gossip I know that he has done so in the past, to students/postdocs. The only “positive” aspect was that Prof. ISG was too drunk and the environment too public for him to do more than clumsily flirt.

How it affected me that night: Embarrassment that members of my lab may have witnessed Prof. ISG hitting on me, and me giving him a cold shoulder. Yuck.

The next day: Some participants, male and female, junior and senior, compared notes. Some women had made excellent comebacks to Prof. ISG (yeah!), some just moved themselves out of the way. While he was privately mocked as a tragicomic figure, not all of the women he had hit on had the benefit of that post-game analysis. But, for me at least, it got most of the weight off my chest. Except ….

The big question: But what else? Obviously, I am never going to invite Prof. ISG to any future workshop/conference I organize. Do I tell the conference organizers that they invited a big old sleaze-ball? Express my opinion they shouldn’t invite him to future workshops they might organize, or even just say that I wouldn’t? Do this over email (yikes! no way!), or talk in person at the next conference we’re both at (still quite awkward!)? Decide privately that I wouldn’t accept an invitation if he’s a speaker at a workshop I’m going to? Ditto, but also tell those future organizers the reason why? Write pseudonymously to a women in science blog? So far, only the first and last ideas are in place.


Any solutions for this WoS’s big questions? Yeah, we all see these guys are out there, but how do we stop them? You feel like you can’t do anything that won’t jeopardize your own career. How can you call him out? Can you call him out? Any opinions, thoughts, ideas can be posted as a comment here. Hope to hear from you!

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“Subtle” Harassment

DoorPinsMost harassment is not very subtle to women, but I realize that not everyone is as clued in and keyed up about it as I am. I was recently harassed, probably not on purposed or even pointed directly at me, but I inadvertently stumbled into some harassment, and I wanted to have a little talk about it. What to do, how to report, and make it clear to my male friends and advocates that this stuff is not just annoying, it affects us pretty much daily. So, I am going to post about “subtle” harassment – the pervasive kind that wears you down.

Chalk Board Harassment. In my career, I can clearly recall two instances of chalkboard harassment. In both cases, I literally walked into the harassment without warning. I reported the harassment to authorities, and nothing was done about it.

The first time, was in graduate school. I was TAing, and I had to use a photocopier to make copies for my class. The photocopier was in what I call a “party office” where many grad students have desks and work. It wasn’t really a party office in the sense that I never once saw a party or celebration occurring, but it was a “party” more like a “party line” for phone service in the olden days. You might also call it a “grad student ghetto,” which probably better captured the mood of the room. Anyway, this day, like many others, I went in to make my copies. The copier was directly in front of a 6 foot chalk board. This day, I looked up from the copier to see a 3-foot tall, very detailed drawing of a penis. I stopped my copying and went to the department office directly to the chairman, and actually got him to come to see the masterpiece. He actually took me seriously and came to see it for himself, but erased it immediately upon seeing it. He was quite harassed, as well as me. I informed him that it was this type of, well, not subtle, but pervasive harassment that scared women away from male-dominated fields.

Recently, now that I am a professor, a similar situation has occurred. On the chalkboard outside my lab and near my office, the word “penis” was written. This is certainly not as bad as the graphic drawn in gory detail when in grad school, but it is perhaps more troubling because it was drawn immediately next to some drawings my daughter (elementary-school age) had made on the same board. In fact, she wrote the word, “LOVE” and immediately next to it, was the offending word. Nice. As before, I informed the department chair and this time, I also took a picture and emailed it to the UniversityDiversityOffice who is responsible for following up such offenses.

A couple of things occurred to me about these two situations:

1. Why are dudes so obsessed with penises? Why not be obsessed with vagina? It is weird to me. Statistically speaking, some of the dudes in my department are likely to be homosexual. They don’t seem to be out. We do have an openly gay faculty-member, and there doesn’t seem to be overt homophobia in the department.  I could be wrong, but no student has come to discuss it with me.

2. I was surprised about how much more offended I was by the word in the second instance compared to the drawing in the first instance from grad school. I think it was because of the proximity in space and time to my daughter. It pissed me off that they defiled some nice drawings and lovely writings that were clearly done by a child. My child.

3. Finally, in the same note as number 2, I couldn’t help thinking that they had targeted my space in the department. In the first instance in grad school, the picture was in a closed office and was more likely not targeted at me. Yes, there were other women in that office, and they were the likely targets of the harassment, but it wasn’t targeted at me. But, this second version felt targeted because the board is right between my office and lab. That made me feel badly, too.

Everyday Stuff. Last week, there was a particularly horrific situation on the campus at UCSB, and I am sure most blogs dealing with women’s issues are mentioning something about it. The misogynistic rantings of the shooter are worrying to any woman who works in science, particularly some fields that are male dominated. Scary.

One of the topics that was described in the commentary of the “Yes, All Women” trend was women trying to explain that we often feel uncomfortable in situations, even everyday situations, because of the very real threat of men. One of my favorite comedians has a particularly clear view of this idea (See a video here).

After the women comments, there was a backlash with the tagline “Not All Men,” where dudes were trying to say, “Hey we aren’t all like that!” but as many women pointed out, WE CAN’T TELL WHO IS OR WHO ISN’T LIKE THAT. You all look the same to us.

Here’s a hypothetical: Let’s say 1% of men are like that. Now, you are a woman running a class of 400 students where only 20% are women. So, you are in a classroom with 320 men, and 1% are women-haters – that is 3-4 woman-haters are in the room with you.  Not that many, but enough to harass and demean you, if they sought to do so. I have talked to women who have been physically intimidated by male students in classes with these types of numbers. The students physically get into their personal space and demand differential treatment. I, personally, don’t let students get near me. I have a very large personal space bubble. But even so, there are other ways to cause trouble.

Outside of classroom situations, I have tried to notice my reactions to other, regular, situations in the past week. I have noticed that I make certain decisions about myself because of a fear of men. Let me give you two examples.

1. I was at the gym with HusbandOfScience. I wanted to stretch in the area near the mirrors. There were two men in the area – basically taking up all the room in the area in front of the mirror. There was just enough space between them for me to fit, but I didn’t do it at first. Why? I was afraid of them. Not deathly afraid, but wary enough to avoid. I decided that the likelihood that these two guys were both bad guys was low, statistically speaking. I was right. They were fine – just taking up more than their fair share of space, as men often do unconsciously (Not All Men).

2. I was taking my child into daycare. Normally, I park right at the front door, but there wasn’t room, so I had to park half way down. At the far end of the parking lot was a group of men. They laughed when I got my kid out of my car, and it made me sort of flinch. I noticed that I was wary of them. I went to drop my kid. After coming back to the car, I took a closer look, and I realized that they were latino, and that made me feel safer. Statistically speaking, dudes who hate women are white. (Sorry to my white men friends – I realize it isn’t all white men, but stats are stats.)

So, here is my say. The WomanOfScience addition to the #YesAllWomen movement. What do *you* think? Comment or post. Push the +Follow button to receive an email every time WomanOfScience posts.

More than Resistance

A woman combatant in the French Resistance, ne...

A woman combatant in the French Resistance, near Chartres, in August 1944. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In my last post, I described a resistive load that women and minorities face in academia. I had two very interesting and insightful comments. Thanks for that. I would love for people to comment and keep the discussion going. Both commenters brought up something far worse than resistance to forward progress. They both mentioned sexual harassment and even abusive behavior.

Robin said:

The hardest thing for me to deal with in my faculty career, to be painfully honest, is not the occasional rejection of papers or proposals, not incompetent administrators or demands of unreasonable department chairs, not getting the cold shoulder from colleagues. It is facing the ugly reality that sexual harassment occurs on my campus. Even in the 21st century, older men too often attempt to use their power and authority to gain sexual access to younger women. I have seen with my own eyes the emotional and career damage that results and –even worse– the reluctance of the victims to report.

Women are not fragile flowers who need 24/7 body guards to keep us safe as we work alongside and under the supervision of men. But we do need a better means to stop the misbehavior of university faculty who misuse their power and authority in a way that threatens the well being of female students, postdocs and staff.

Perhaps this is not the kind of “resistance” you were thinking about, but I suspect that sexual harassment in the STEM workplace has affected more women than you might think.

Social Scientist said:

Needless to say, the system is deeply gendered and raced, and not unrelated to the sexual harassment that women continue to endure (see Robin’s comment). One of the eminent (male) faculty members in the BILU grad program I attended in the 70s actually invited a female classmate to join him and a group of male grad students in a gang bang (yes, his own words). Things are subtler now, but the attitudes of entitlement (and chauvinism, racism, misogyny, etc.) inherent in the system remain–in part because they’re shared by some of the non-white males who made it, because they’d rather try to feel like members of the club (even if they really aren’t, quite) than wannabes.

I would like to discuss 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 undergraduates to go to female faculty? That puts a lot of stress on the female faculty. What if the female faculty member is still pre-tenure and feels that she cannot speak freely without risking her career?  What is the faculty member is an older woman, but she is unwilling to listen? Are their organizations on campus that can assist? It would be helpful for readers to chime in with their ideas.

Oddly, just days after posting my original post about the SexualHarassingEmeritusFaculty, he died. Some senior members of the department decided to use faculty meeting time to have a reflection time for him. My HusbandOfScience emailed the entire faculty to ask how long the reflection time would take, because he would like to actively BOYCOTT the memorial service. I told several of my senior male colleagues that I would also be boycotting because of the Sexual Harassment this man imparted. So, I outed this harasser after death. It feels a bit unsatisfying, though. I should have done more.

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