Thinking about what we can do about sexual assault and harassment in the sciences


If you haven’t seen it yet, go over and read this courageous, important and stunningly written Op-Ed piece by Hope Jahren over at the New York Times.










Her story reflects the unexpressed story of many others. It was written to make us feel, and to make us want things to be different. I feel something like a mixture of fury, gratitude, fear, admiration, and hope. These feelings are amplified by the fact that so many of my colleagues see some kind of reflection of themselves in this piece. In nearly all cases, I have no idea who those colleagues are, just that they are many.

As for making things different, if you haven’t looked over the study by Clancy et al. that was mentioned by Hope Jahren, check that out too.

Here’s the take-home message from Clancy, Nelson, Rutherford, and Hinde:

Policies emphasizing safety, inclusivity, and collegiality have the potential to improve field experiences of a diversity of researchers, especially during early career stages. These include better awareness of mechanisms for direct and oblique reporting of harassment and assault and, the implementation of productive response mechanisms when such behaviors are reported. Principal investigators are particularly well positioned to influence workplace culture at their field sites.

I’d like to requote that last sentence:

Principal investigators are particularly well positioned to influence workplace culture at their field sites.

A change in culture is required. That’s not an easy thing, but it’s critical. As is explained in the paper, it is the PIs that need to take the lead.

That means, fellow PIs, it’s on us.

Our students are counting on us to create an environment that enables their success. Safety always comes first. Safety requires an aware environment and respectful attitude in the workplace. The workplace includes the field. If it’s inappropriate at the university, then it’s also inappropriate in the desert, the forest, the restaurant, the convention center, the hotel, the bar, or the lab porch.

When I read the op-ed I felt, “What can I do? What should I do? How can we fix what needs to be fix and to what degree is it fixable?” And to answer that question, I’m looking at the article by Clancy et al. I also am watching, listening, and I’m open to ideas.

The discussion of Clancy et al tells that the steps we can take include:

  • Raise awareness of the presence of hostile work behaviors, discrimination, harassment, and assault (particularly for women)
  • Create guidelines for respectful behavior; and adopting independent reporting and enforcement mechanisms.
  • Address both horizontal and vertical abuses.
  • Adopt principles of community, role-modeling, and embrace the collective action of support and respect.

That’s a great list. If we take it seriously, this can help us take very specific actions. Respectful behavior can be written into our expectations of students in our lab. We can establish and provide multiple avenues for reporting, and be overt when enforcement occurs in a fashion that works to build respect.

Ultimately, what causes a positive change in climate isn’t just a set of written policies. We need to embrace a clear set of values and priorities that guide on-the-spot decisionmaking at critical moments. Our lab members need us to not only set a personal example, but also respond to disrespectful behavior in the lab the moment it happens, and respond immediately and with full concern (and due process) when anecdotal reports come our way.

Hope Jahren’s piece makes us feel. But in my situation, my feelings don’t count for anything. It’s what happens in my lab, and the experiences of the students for whom I am responsible that matter. As PIs, responsible for the culture in our scientific community, our feelings only count if they cause us to act upon them.

I’d really love to have comments. More than anything else, I want to hear what people are doing, what they can do, what I and others might be able to change for the better, and where we go from here.

11 thoughts on “Thinking about what we can do about sexual assault and harassment in the sciences

  1. Thank you so much for this excellent piece Terry, which along with Hope’s is extremely courageous and important. I’m at a loss as to a fix because where do we start to effect change in the perpetrators? The victims always rally together and support one another, but the individual monsters are still out there “seeking who they might devour.” No doubt there are seminars and support groups that we can think of for our women graduate students to help them, to prepare them, but I can’t help thinking that as we go that route, we need to involve the men as well. To wit, an announcement this morning here in Calfornia: University of California unveils proposal for new sexual assault policies –

  2. Dawn, thanks. And I feel the same relative helplessness about not being able to make change where it really happens, with the perpetrators. From the (very little) that I have heard from people who are experts in this, a change in culture can actually make a big difference, considering that most perpetrators are coworkers or professional associates. Yes, it’s men. They (um, we) are the problem. But it’s men who are in an environment where they think they can — and almost always do — get away with it. So I guess that’s where culture change happens. (This link about the UC system is hopeful!)

    Too often, men are told, “This isn’t about you.” But really, the solution must involve in a male culture change. It’s the collective attitudes of men, not women, that are facilitating crimes that come from our gender. Any conversation that doesn’t involve men can only mitigate a the currently horrific situation. There was a great story I heard on NPR last month about rape prevention efforts in high schools and colleges, built around boys and men who were trained to act as proactive leaders:

    But it sounds very murky and unsatisfying, powerless, to just say “let’s change attitudes!” Thinking about a road for the necessary change looks to so steep. I’ve seen some respond, “I’m concerned, but…” and then complain that the op-ed wasn’t telling everybody’s story. Some are angry that it takes peer-reviewed research and a very compelling and relatable narrative to call for action for a long-standing problem. (And that the coverage did not address the intersectional aspects of ethnicity and seniority, or take the time to explain that this is not such a science problem, but a societal problem. I get that. Sometimes, it’s not about you, I’ve been told before.). If movement goes in a positive direction, it will take a joint conversation that doesn’t involve criticism of victims for telling her own story.

    Once some victims are criticizing other victims, then everybody else watching that conversation will just shut up. We can’t go forward like that.

  3. One thing I’ve noticed is that there’s a lack of education about these issues in academia. I worked in government before academia and the very first week I had to watch a hokey video about sexual harassment. It may have been hokey, but scenes were played out in that murky area for what constitutes harassment. Afterwards, I had a good idea of what counted as harassment, the specific (safe) steps I could use to report it, and what would then happen if it was reported.

    Nothing like this happens in academia. When I have experienced harassment in academia, I have confronted the individuals responsible and they are surprised, taken aback, and (understandably) defensive. They literally have no clue that their actions could be seen as hostile or intimidating. Education needed for all. And early on.

    The one time I reported harassment, I got pushback. There was a draconian “no harassment will be tolerated” policy, which meant that the only available mechanism to deal with the perpetrators was to kick them out of the program. The authority people liked the harassers (they were charismatic) and didn’t want to kick them out. So instead, they treated my complaint as a simple not-getting-along issue. There need to be written policies that allow for a range of actions based on the seriousness of the harassment and the safety of the victims — but without punishing the victims too. (In my case I was offered the “opportunity” to sit out of program activities so I didn’t have to interact with the offenders.) And again, more education. This time for authority figures about their responsibility to take harassment charges seriously and a set of explicit steps to take when approached.

    Finally, someone has to have the guts to answer the hard questions. What do I advise my friend to do when she is being harassed by her advisor, but is 3-4 years into her PhD program? Should she tell someone and risk her whole PhD? Who should she tell if she decides to go for it? And, what should the response of the department and university be? How can she have any confidence that the punishment won’t come down on her instead? (This is a real scenario, but my friend hunkered down, didn’t report, got her PhD, and is now elsewhere.)

  4. Terry and Margaret: GREAT points. Sharing one more link along the “it’s on us” theme: “Obama asks college men to stop sex predator friends: Will they listen?” This was shared on Twitter by Robert Bullard, father of environmental justice.

    And I so agree with Margaret that someone has to have the guts to answer the hard questions. Regarding her scenario I would like to think that the young woman being harassed by her adviser (makes me sick to think of it), could indeed tell a program or department chair, and that the department or university could move to dismiss that faculty member and link the student with an appropriate adviser who would get her safely and effectively to the finish line. Would I, could I be the program chair that that student could come to? In my brief time as a program chair I never had to face such an issue, but neither did or my chair bring up preventative training or measures to the grad students during orientation, something that I hope we all thinking about now. I sent this blog post, plus Hope’s original op-ed to the dean of the graduate school that I’m still affiliated with. SHE as dean is going to take some immediate action with regard to training, and will involve the campus Executive Director for Equity and Inclusion.

  5. I think you’re absolutely right that the PIs really need to get involved to put this to an end. Some of the problems are broader societal problems that can’t be solved within science, like the assault in Turkey that Hope Jahren describes.

    But as much progress as we’ve made in gender equity in the sciences, there’s still all too often a chummy good-old-boy vibe that hides and enables what most of us women know from experience or observation: that harassment (and sometimes worse) is not rare, especially in the field. I’ve worked at several field stations, and I’ve seen it happen many times: the group of middle-aged PIs at the party alternately flirting with the beautiful young field tech and swapping sexist jokes between themselves and those in earshot; the well-known and -respected PIs who inappropriately cozy up with undergraduate field assistants season after season; the PI who has cornered and made unwanted advances on multiple women and been reported, but still remains. I’ve fortunately dealt with little of it myself, but friends and colleagues of mine have not been so lucky, and I – like other female colleagues of mine – have a list of behaviors and even people that we watch out for and warn our female field assistants about.

    As early career professionals, we don’t have much power to effect change – and risk (or worry that we risk) career and collaboration opportunities if we do speak up. But PIs and station managers do have the power to change this culture – I’ve seen it happen. One time at a party an otherwise-gentlemanly PI had too much to drink and was starting to act a bit inappropriate; instead of standing by watching, his friends escorted him home to sleep it off. When one PI had been reported several times, the field station established rules that restricted his ability to be alone with young women, and those who’d been there for a while (both men and women) took it upon themselves to warn newcomers and keep an eye out for signs of trouble. If PIs, especially male PIs, were willing to say “hey, that’s not cool” – or even just give a silent side-eye – instead of watching or joking along, I think it could go a long way towards making the field environment and culture safer and more welcoming to women.

  6. I prefer the term gender-based harassment over sexual harassment, because this behavior is not about sexual desire, it is about intimidation dressed up as sexual behavior. It is territorial, strategic harassment in an effort to intimidate women. It serves to undermine women’s self-confidence, drain women’s energy and attention, and it works to drive many, many women out of STEM and out of academia. And here’s the part that most men who consider themselves supportive of women hate to hear: the behavior of even just a few men is enough to ensure that all men are advantaged. For men to become true allies in the effort to stop harassment, they must be willing to both recognize and forgo the privilege that entails from harassment. Until then, all the hand-wringing and policy-writing and workplace training in the world won’t make a bit of difference.

  7. “You must teach [your daughters] to manage their dreams,” could be the saddest sentence I have ever read. I was date raped 27 years ago. Why does it seem that nothing has changed?

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