Sexual harassment in science

A stunningly familiar account, from someone who hears about a lot of cases.  (Thanks, Jender-Mum!)


The evasion of justice within academia is all the more infuriating because the course of sexual harassment is so predictable. Since I started writing about women and science, my female colleagues have been moved to share their stories with me; my inbox is an inadvertent clearinghouse for unsolicited love notes. Sexual harassment in science generally starts like this: A woman (she is a student, a technician, a professor) gets an email and notices that the subject line is a bit off: “I need to tell you,” or “my feelings.” The opening lines refer to the altered physical and mental state of the author: “It’s late and I can’t sleep” is a favorite, though “Maybe it’s the three glasses of cognac” is popular as well.

The author goes on to tell her that she is special in some way, that his passion is an unfamiliar feeling that she has awakened in him, the important suggestion being that she has brought this upon herself. He will speak of her as an object with “shiny hair” or “sparkling eyes” — testing the waters before commenting upon the more private parts of her body. Surprisingly, he often acknowledges that he is doing something inappropriate. I’ve seen “Of course you know I could get fired for this” in the closing paragraph; the subject line of the email sent to my former student was “NSFW read at your own risk!”

The story continues with all the amazingly predictable next stages.  I urge you to read it.

5 thoughts on “Sexual harassment in science

  1. I fully appreciate your point. There remains however a puzzle about these issues on campus. There are many consensual relationships on campus involving either professorial couples, or academic/administrative couples, or affairs between students and professors (though these latter types of affairs are nowadays frowned upon even when they are consensual). At some point in the development of these relationships one of the parties involved probably made advances to the other party. If the second party is offended by these advances, there is a case for sexual harassment and for sanctions against the first party. If the second party welcomes the advances all goes well and a stable couple may be formed (leading eventually, who knows? to a job deal for both parties at a reputable university). How do we deal with this dilemma without reducing our answer to the kinds of simplistic responses that are bandied about by university-mandated sexual harassment courses?

  2. It is a good and genuine question how one should deal with such situations. It’s very clear that what this story describes is terrible: repeated coercive pressure, from one with great professional power over another. I think it is very, very hard to see a way to make a non-coercive sexual advance when such a power dynamic obtains. Even if the advance is made with the very best of intentions, the power dynamics may make it difficult for the one with less power to feel comfortable giving an honest ‘no’. And this is a seriously morally troubling situation.

    However, it’s vital to remember: that’s not the kind of scenario that’s at stake in the sexual harassment cases we’re hearing about. A genuine, well-intentioned person would not continue to coercively pressure in the ways described.

    But here’s one tip. In the cases described, everything seems normal until there’s an out of the blue email saying something like “I can’t stop thinking about you”. This is a BAD idea in a situation like this. It puts the recipient in a massively uncomfortable position, and makes a decent working relationship very difficult going forward, if the recipient isn’t interested.

  3. Anonymous, I am sympathetic, but I confess that I do not see any dilemma here. Not unless you are implying a (false) dichotomy between welcome attention and sexual harassment.

    Obviously these sorts of interactions always involve uncertainty, even outside of academia (“is he/she into me…should I go for it!?”). Attach a cost (function) to the different outcomes, in which detecting attraction when there is none (“false alarm”) is very very bad (professionally, personally). Well, make the cost big enough, and better be safe than sorry it would seem. If one cannot discriminate the social cues regarding whether attraction is mutual, or whether one is being a creeper, or whether the situation is a result of a problematic power dynamic, then don’t act. If you cannot tell whether your attraction, if not reciprocated, will not be offending, don’t act.

    This is no dilemma. This is just living with uncertainty and risk. I actually don’t think the universities are too simplistic about this. Rather, they recognize the uncertainty, and the high risks. Hence, better safe than sorry.

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