Wednesday, October 23, 2013

A few brief words on sexual harassment in academia

 It appears to be sexual harassment revelations week here in the science blogosphere, so I figured I’d share a brief story.

In the year 2000, when I was a PhD student, I talked to the student counseling unit about making a formal complaint about sexual harassment by a senior member of staff.

They made it clear to me that taking this course of action would result in revocation of my student visa and deportation from Australia.

I chickened out and kept my mouth shut.

I was fortunate enough to be in a position where I was able to put my head down, write up, and finish my degree by making this choice.  Since that time, I have learned of other international students at other universities who did the right thing, and were deported for reporting. 

I tell myself that had I gone through with reporting, I would have been disappeared long before having the opportunity to make an official statement (way back before blogs, shipping someone halfway around the world was an effective way of shutting them up). And I thought that the incidents which I wished to report were not severe or well documented enough to bring to the police.  But while this is true, here I am, 13 years later, still awake at one in the morning second-guessing myself.

The recent round of revelations has focused heavily on the perpetrators of sexual harassment. Which is good.  But reporting wrongdoing is much more difficult than it should be, due to  the institutional coercion that universities use to protect their reputations at the expense of their students.


Anonymous said...

A cynical lesson for young players is to remember that HR Departments, especially at Universities, are not there to protect the individual despite all the rhetoric of inclusiveness and justice they may release.

Their first job is to protect the institution. The senior occupants of the institution are usually conflated as *being* the institution, so any threat to them is a threat to the institution and HR will take you down...

A sad story Dr Lemming and one all to often repeated. Here's hoping that the recent wave of revelations is another step toward getting it all sorted once and for all.

Isotopic said...

I'm sorry to hear about that, Dr. L.

My "experience" with sexual harassment comes from the other side, in a manner of speaking. For context, I'm a young(ish), Caucasian male with a cross appointment at a large american research university and a non-profit research institute - that is to say, unlikely to be harassed myself. I received some advice early on to always be aware of the potential for an appearance of impropriety or the potential to make someone feel uncomfortable. For example, always keeping the outside door to my office open when I had an undergraduate in my office, or ensuring that if I was alone with someone - particularly after hours - I try to make it as clear as possible that they can leave at any time, for any reason.

A couple of months ago I had occasion to work with a female undergraduate in a mineral separation lab after hours on a Friday. Unfortunately, there were two doors between us and the hallway and we needed to do a little bit of UV work, so the lights needed to go out. I didn't know the woman very well, so I ended up cracking one of the doors open and standing way the hell on the other side of the lab. I was actually so concerned about the situation that I think the work we were doing didn't go terribly well.

Chuck Magee said...

The prevalence of completely ineffective sexual harassment policies is a lot easier to understand if you consider the policy to be a means of protecting the institution from litigation, as opposed to a means of protecting the vulnerable people from harm.

Chuck Magee said...

Anyway, you can't give women a second-class education- for any reason. So your best approach is to combine the best aspects of every scientific mentor that you've had and give everyone who comes through your lab the best possible education. Not harassing is a emergent consequence of giving the best education you can.