Guest Post: What happens when everyday sexism is ignored?

Today’s post is by a guest author, graduate student SquirrellyRed. She shares a recent experience about what happens when small acts of (benevolent) sexism add up to create a broader culture of hostility towards women.

Given Acclimatrix’s recent post on how gender equality needs to be a collaborative venture in academia, I thought it’d be helpful to share a story about what could – and in this case, did – happen when some of those points that seem trivial or harmless (especially #2) are ignored – and how the effects are amplified the further down the academic totem pole you travel.

As a PhD student in a mid-size biology lab at a large Midwestern R1 university, my group includes a team of undergraduate research technicians that I help supervise. In my lab’s case, all of the undergrad helpers are female students in biology related majors (woohoo!). They are curious, hardworking, and hilarious – a critical combination when we sometimes spend twelve hours at a time together, driving to field sites and collecting measurements. So while I’d like to tell you the rest of this story is about how hard the lab has worked to mentor and support them, unfortunately it’s a story of how the lab failed one of them this summer.

One of the students called me late one night mid-summer. I missed the call and didn’t have a chance to catch her until after fieldwork the next day. Two terrible things happened in the meantime.  The first, the reason for the phone call, was that a postdoc (in the same lab), let’s call him Postdoc A, had approached her while she was working at the lab bench, while no one else was around, and asked her out. They had never previously spoken, and he refused to take no for an answer.  Once he had her phone number, he sent more than a dozen text or email messages that evening, some explicitly about her body.  Failure #1. So many lines were crossed there, regardless of whether or not you think it’s okay to ask out one’s colleagues (remember – they weren’t friends, he’d never spoken to her before).

The second thing that happened is that another postdoc in the lab, let’s call her Postdoc B, invalidated the student’s concerns about the incident when she shared the details.  The student was upset, humiliated, and convinced that she should quit because when push came to shove, she was a lowly undergraduate and Postdoc A was, well, a postdoc. Postdoc B told her that “nothing had happened,” mostly because she hadn’t been physically assaulted.  Failure #2.

What matters is that this student was being told, in multiple ways, that it was okay for her to be objectified and considered first as a potential romantic interest, instead of a coworker.  That she was a female and a sex object before a scientist.  And more importantly, there are subtle-seeming power dynamics, in this case postdoc and undergraduate status, that made the situation feel unsafe to her – so much so that she wanted to quit!   She feared that every time she was working in the lab that Postdoc A would be looking at, and judging, her body.

Sadly, the situation only got worse from there.  The student was dissatisfied with Postdoc B’s feedback, and after talking with me, felt comfortable with me reporting the incident to the lab PI.  When told, the PI claimed it “didn’t count” because I wasn’t in the student’s direct chain of command; he claimed it was hearsay.  The student would have to tell the PI – her employer and senior thesis research supervisor – herself.  Moreover, he claimed that he’d just met the student about her project and “she seemed fine; she didn’t mention anything.”  Well, sure. But imagine being twenty and having to tell your advisor the contents of those messages, to have to share what Postdoc A thought about her body verbatim in order for this incident to even be considered worthy of taking action.  The student wants to be a student researcher first and foremost; she did not want to have to relive the humiliating situation or imagine that her advisor might be evaluating statements about her body.  Failure #3.

In the end, the student had to talk with the PI. She told me she felt okay with it, in part because several female graduate students were willing to listen, help her articulate what made the situation feel unsafe, and support her in taking whatever action she wanted to pursue. The PI took no action, further reinforcing the (false!) idea that it was okay for a colleague to be talking about the student’s body. Failure #4. At the very least, using this as an opportunity to establish and clarify parameters for appropriate interaction as a lab group could have been a great outcome of this incident, but that did not happen either.  Failure #5.

So to those who would say ‘what’s the harm in telling a coworker I think she looks good?’ consider this situation. Because I really think that Postdoc A doesn’t consider himself a creeper. (Although turns out he’s done the same thing to other female undergrads and grad students in the building…)  To this day, it’s not even clear if he knows that there was any fallout from his interaction with the student. He probably really doesn’t understand that the multiple, tiny choices he made about how he approached her, what he said, and his refusal to listen to her ‘no’ led the student to feel unsafe and preyed upon.  I bet he definitely never imagined that she was about to quit as a result.  If asked, he would even probably say he considers females as smart as men and that he respects and likes his lab colleagues. But if that’s really true and if he (and everybody) wants to make the academy a safe space for women at all levels of scholarship, there’s no place for commenting about women’s bodies, however harmless the intent.

SquirrellyRed is a graduate student in biology at a big R1 university in the flyover states. Not (yet) a dissertator.

EDIT: The title of this post originally read “trivial” instead of “everyday” sexism. When I (Acclimatrix) wrote the title for SquirrelyRed’s post, I was aiming for the idea of casual or everyday/commonplace sexism, and my choice of “trivial” really misrepresents what happened here — as well as gave the false impression that sexism can be trivial (which I don’t think any of us here at TSW agrees with). My apologies!

48 thoughts on “Guest Post: What happens when everyday sexism is ignored?

  1. If the PI was a better mentor he would have had a discussion with the Postdoc and told him that his behavior was inappropriate. In situations where the PI chooses not to say anything, for whatever reason, (doesn’t see a problem, doesn’t want to make waves, etc), where should the problem go next? The chair? What if the PI and the chair are one and the same? This post just reminds me how vulnerable ‘young’ scientists (from undergraduate students to pre-tenure faculty) are to the chain of command.

  2. How was this trivial? A postdoc sending over a dozen obviously unwelcome text messages with sexual content to an undergrad in the lab who he approached for the first time that same day is sociopathic behavior! This is not just some example of #2, it is serious misbehavior. No one needs a talk about inappropriate behavior, because no normal person would have done this. It is way beyond just sleazy/stupid. You (the PhD student) should have confirmed the emails/texts and yes forwarded them to the PI (why would he need to be told in person?) and the postdoc should have been asked to leave immediately (at minimum). I don’t know what is wrong with the people in your lab but I would get out of there asap and avoid them all like the plague in the future.

  3. For every story like this, there is a story about lab/department relationships that work out. They usually start with someone making the awkward first move. Heck, I can thing of literally ten cases where academics I know are in relationships or marriages that started as grad-student-grad-student, postdoc-student, or even professor-student. Some of these involved some pursuit. Some people like being pursued, even after having said they aren’t interested. What do we do with those cases? It’s fine to take a hard-line stance against sexual harassment, but if the advice being given ignores the obvious complex realities of human relationship formation, that advice won’t be very effective. E.g., here, someone should have said “Dating in the same lab is debatable at best, but if your heart is aflutter and you feel you have to make a pass, the rule should be that you only get one, if you’re shot down then deal with it and don’t dig deeper. Your lab is not the proverbial bar at 4 am.”

  4. From UC Davis information on sexual harassment (http://shep.ucdavis.edu/whatissexualharassment.htm): “Sexual harassment can be defined as: unwanted sexual attention or behavior which negatively affects the work or learning environment.” The first item on the list from a brochure on how sexual harassment affects us all is “unwanted, repeated requests for dates” (at http://shep.ucdavis.edu/local_resources/docs/Ripple-Effect.pdf). This is a huge, unacceptable problem. Everything that this blog posts describes is wrong except the graduate student’s support of the undergraduate. Both postdoc A and B behaved badly (to different degrees). It is inexcusable that the PI required the undergraduate to report directly to them and even worse that the postdoc was not reprimanded for his behavior, particularly if it has been repeated with multiple students.

    If I became aware of a situation like this at UC Davis, I would take action as a faculty member by reporting the general circumstances to our appropriate administrative person (our campus “Sexual Harassment Officer”) for advice. This can be done without violating the privacy of the student involved. From there, a number of different actions can be taken depending on the desired level of privacy of the student and whether or not they wish to file a complaint. Postdoc A can receive professional advice on appropriate behavior without a complaint being filed. I would also talk informally to postdoc B about her behavior and the inappropriateness of her comments to the undergraduate.

    For the PI, the consequences of inaction could be dramatic. UC faculty are required by state law to report sexual harassment to the sexual harassment officer if someone names a person who behaved inappropriately toward them. If the circumstances described in the post happened at a UC, legal action could be taken against the PI. Thus, not only is it wrong that the PI did nothing, depending on where the university is, their lack of action could be breaking the law. It is that important to make the workplace environment free of sexual harassment.

    The legal requirement for “designated officials” (anyone who supervises other university employees) to report sexual harassment causes some concerns with privacy for the person who was harassed. Here is what the UC Davis policy suggests faculty say when someone wishes to talk to us about sexual harassment: “Thank you for coming to see me. Before you tell me specifics, you should know that in my role, I have certain reporting obligations. I want you to stay in control of the situation until you decide what you want to do. So, for now please tell me about your situation in general terms, without identifying anyone. There are also other resources you can talk with who don’t have the same reporting obligations.” (http://shep.ucdavis.edu/local_resources/docs/receivingreportsconsultingwithSHEP.pdf)

    I strongly encourage all faculty members to understand their moral and legal obligations in dealing with sexual harassment, in addition to being sensitive to impacts it has on the person being harassed and ALL other members of the university community.

  5. As far as whether or not this qualifies as ‘trivial’ sexism – I will point out that I did not write the post title. Personally, I don’t think there is such thing.

    However, remarking that folks like me should just leave is not taking into account exactly some of the dynamics mentioned in the post – that the only person with something to lose is the student (or whoever else is lower in the academy hierarchy), especially in a program/dept/school that has no funding for grad students. Should I walk away from work/research that I enjoy and my income because of this and lose my career as a result? I don’t actually think that helps me or the undergrads who work with me.

    • I just wanted to step in and apologize for a really poorly-thought-out title. I agree that no sexism is trivial, and in retrospect this is a really awful message to send. I was going for “everyday” or “commonplace,” but utterly failed. I’ve edited the title accordingly, and apologize for misrepresenting your attitude and the attitude of this blog in general.

  6. A couple of weeks ago, I had an interesting conversation with someone about sexism in science. This person asked me why I was reading all of the articles, essays and tweets about people’s experiences with sexism when they were so upsetting. Why make yourself upset about something you aren’t personally experiencing? was the rationale.

    This is why. Because I want to be prepared if someone like this undergraduate comes to me with a frightening experience like this. I want to be prepared to be supportive, responsive and responsible. I want to make sure no student (female or male) is derailed from a promising career because the people around them either never considered the possibility of such things happening or never bothered to prepare themselves how to respond.

    I think we owe it to our students and colleagues to consider how to respond to situations like this. The author of the post responded in a supportive and responsible way…postdoc B and the PI fell down on the job and failed this undergraduate student.

  7. I don’t want to be telling people what they ‘should’ or ‘should not’ have done. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but at the time of decision-making we all make the best decision we can at the time – no-one would knowingly make a bad decision.

    However, we should then use hindsight to evaluate what happened and make plans for better strategies in the future. I think that is what all these posts so far are doing. That is what we do in our science and in our teaching.

    So with that softener, i would like to reiterate something I said on Acclimatrix’ prefious post that has been helpful to me (MOST helpful to me) in the past.

    It is important….it is *very* important to document everything.

    It is not too late in the incident mentioned by the guest blogger. The texts presumably still exist. I suggest you print them out, making sure they are dated. Put them in a file with your own reports of all the conversations you have had, including this post (print it out and date it too). Add to it all the anecdotal evidence that this person has acted like this in the past. (People may not want their names used, that is OK). Personal notes, made as close to the time as possible (but on reflection if that is not possible) are accepted in law.

    It may or may not have been best to present written evidence to the PI in the first place – it is not for others to judge this – sometimes written stuff just gets totally lost and ignored, at least with a conversation you know the person has heard. However, note that ‘everyone has a boss’ so if this hit a dead end, I suggest finding the next step up the chain and make present your folio of written evidence. Even if nothing happens now, it may start a process or open up others’ eyes for the future. At the very least, this may make it easier to address next time something similar happens. If we are going to change cultures, we need to start somewhere even if it makes no difference the first time.

    If the person on ‘next step up the chain’ doesn’t make sense for some reason, I suggest you find out if there either a student association or staff association or student welfare office whom you could approach. I have found on one occasion (not a sexual harassment case, but another unfair and discriminatory decision) that the staff association suggested I talk to a member who had a law background, and he helped me to write my case in exactly the right words, and found one little rule in the fine print of some document that had been violated, and then I could take further action with confidence, knowing no-one could wear me down with words because I had the right words to argue back. I ended up winning that little battle.

    This may be another avenue to explore if you find you are at a dead end. This can be initiated, even well after the event.

    It is entirely possible in this case that the bloke doesn’t realise he is doing anything wrong … in which case his behaviour needs to be addressed – perhaps by some third party not involved in the initial incident or later dispute. (Even if he is aware it is somehow wrong, it needs to be addressed by a third party, it seems to me).

    It is very hard when we are supervisors or mentors, in either a formal or informal capacity, when our proteges confide in us and we feel powerless to do anything. Documentation really helps to put the situation in context, and is ammunition for any further action – particularly if the same individuals are involved in future similar cases.

    • Unfortunately, even if there is a positive outcome, doing all this stuff takes a huge emotional toll and in my case impacted on my science work for quite a long time. But it was worth it, for me, in the end – not only for me but it cleared up the rules and processes for many who followed me. The investment in this time, effort and anguish needs to be taken into account when deciding whether to flee or fight. Some people may prefer to just walk away, and that should be respected too.

  8. I had a similar interaction while I was a graduate student, although it was a graduate student from another group (not someone who was higher up the food chain) that behaved in a way that was unacceptable. I was slow to report his behaviour, which in hindsight I regret, but when I did, my adviser sent to the equity officer in HR. She helped me to document the bad behaviour and acted as an intermediary between the departmental chair, the student’s supervisor, and the student. This meeting was beneficial in two obvious ways: 1) it generated an official report of the issues, of which the student’s immediate adviser and the department chair were aware. They could not deny knowledge of the issue, and patterns of behaviour could be tracked. 2) It also provided a forum in which the student could be informed that this behaviour was inappropriate, so that he could not claim he was unaware that such behaviour was inappropriate in the future. It was also beneficial to me that the equity officer handled this without my needing to attend the meeting or confront my harasser directly.

    I would guess that the postdoc in the situation described is considered staff, and thus his behaviour at work falls under the regulations of HR, even if he is paid by a grant. Given the PI’s lack of support, I would suggest that the student reach out to HR on her own to find out how they can help, or to at least create a record of this with them so that patterns of behaviour (perhaps the postdoc’s and the PIs!) can be tracked and addressed accordingly.

    • yes- exactly. This comment shows the power of documentation and finding the right person to intervene; even retrospectively. (Although if the postdoc is still in the lab, it is hardly retrospective in a general sense).

  9. Most schools have people specifically in charge of dealing with sexual harassment complaints. Why are you not encouraging the undergrad to go talk to those people? If she was so upset by what the postdoc texted that she was considering leaving the lab, then I’d say this definitely rises to the level where this office should be made aware of that. In my experience, these folks are much better at handling such situations than you or your PI could be. What is her current plan? To stay in the lab and simply ignore the postdoc? I just don’t get it….

    Also, as Isabel said, this is not normal behavior. So I don’t think it’s an example of #2. A simple compliment, or even asking someone out, does not automatically qualify as sexual harassment. Unless someone is stupid enough to follow it with multiple texts after getting an initial “no.”

    Finally, I think it’s totally appropriate that the PI wanted to hear from the student herself. What he did afterwards, though … well, I’ll refrain from passing judgment since I didn’t see the texts.

  10. “It is entirely possible in this case that the bloke doesn’t realise he is doing anything wrong ”

    You can’t be serious. Why/how in 2013 in the US would a postdoc not know it is wrong to first “not take no for an answer” and coerce an undergrad to give him his phone number, and then send an undergrad all those texts? I’d love to hear a full explanation – please walk me through how this could all occur innocently.

    It truly worries me that people do not see this distinction and think the guy just needs a helping hand or something. Inappropriate fumbling and psychopathic predatory behavior are not the same thing. There was no ambiguity in the OP. If I was the PI I would not want this person in my lab. I cannot understand why the PI took no action in this very serious case.

    From the OP:

    “What matters is that this student was being told, in multiple ways, that it was okay for her to be objectified and considered first as a potential romantic interest, instead of a coworker. ”

    A romantic interest? Not taking no for an answer, sending a dozen unwanted texts with sexual comments to someone he doesn’t even know? I am very disturbed by these interpretations. some cultural shift has occurred apparently and people do not recognize truly creepy obviously predatory behavior.

    “He probably really doesn’t understand that the multiple, tiny choices he made about how he approached her, what he said, and his refusal to listen to her ‘no’ led the student to feel unsafe and preyed upon.”

    Okay what other possible emotion could it lead her to feel?

    “I bet he definitely never imagined that she was about to quit as a result.”

    He doesn’t give a shit what she thinks or feels so yeah how she would feel as a result of his actions probably never crossed his mind.

    “If asked, he would even probably say he considers females as smart as men and that he respects and likes his lab colleagues. ”

    He is an accomplished liar, being a sociopath, and will say whatever he thinks you want to hear especially if that will help him achieve his goals.

    Of course he has done this to other women. And is was not innocent or romantic in those cases either. What kind of place is this lab/department? Stop making excuses for these guys, people. I think this is part of the problem here- sorry to be so harsh. Maybe the PhD student could not have done more, but please, stop with all the sympathy and understanding for these predators! They are depending on it.

  11. Outside of academia, people in positions of authority over others (even at the lowest managerial levels) are required to take training on sexual (and other) harassment and specifically What To Do if such behavior is reported to them. These people can then be sanctioned when they don’t deal with reports properly. Why in the world this isn’t required in academia baffles me. We need to demand it.

  12. I tried to respond to some of these posts earlier, but somehow they didn’t appear.

    First and foremost, I don’t consider the matter trivial – or any sexism ever to be trivial – and didn’t actually write the post title.

    And while I appreciate the comments and the ongoing dialogue, there are some assumptions being made about the people involved that are incorrect. For example, Postdoc A is recently arrived to the US from a very different county and culture. I do NOT say that to excuse any of the behavior – just to let you all know that this was one of the reasons that several people involved brushed it off as a misunderstanding, instead of harassment. There are other details I cannot share about the specifics to protect the identity of the students involved.

    Also, it’s not as easy as telling the undergrad or I, as a grad student, to leave. That would mean giving up my job AKA my income, which supports my family, and walking away from the start of my career. Same with the undergrad. Ironically, that suggestion does not take into consideration some of the very same power dynamics about status in the academic hierarchy that this post was trying to address. The only people who have anything to lose in having confrontations challenging the status quo are the ones with less power – in this post, the undergrads and grads.

    For the record, HR was consulted after the fact, and as those records are private, I didn’t/don’t get to know what happened as a result. I agree with the previous comment that training should be required – the postdocs (and all the grads and undergrads) in this school/dept/lab definitely don’t have required HR training. I do not know if professors do.

    Do I want to work in a lab that doesn’t take these issues seriously? Absolutely not. Do I want to support the undergrad in whatever action she wanted to take (or not)? Absolutely yes. I want all of the students that I work with to consider me a safe person to go to with any information, regardless of how anyone else in the dept/lab/world. And I want to continue having dialogue about these issues and situations so that other people don’t view them or the perpetrators as harmless.

    • No one is accusing you of trivializing sexism — some of us just don’t think that, as you claimed, this incident is a good example of #2 in the referenced post. Do you see the difference? Perhaps no instance of sexism is “trivial,” but there certainly are degrees. For example, being asked out once by someone you’re not attracted to is not a big deal. Being asked multiple times after you’ve said no, when the person works with you, is worse. Being raped is even worse ….

      I maintain that the best thing that this undergrad could have done is gone to talk to someone at the campus sexual harassment office. This is not the same thing as filing a formal complaint. If this office is anything like the one on my campus, there are a number of things that they can do without even bringing her name into the picture. They are the best people to explain to her all of her options and offer advice — after all, this is what they do … all the time. A long time ago, I myself made use of this resource at another school. Perhaps you’ll run into a bad situation, like the one Erstwhile Anthropologist describes. But the undergrad has nothing to lose by giving this a shot. If you find yourself in a similar advisory capacity in the future, please keep this in mind.

      And of course leaving is a last resort. Isabel and CPP can be … overly dramatic, at times.

    • “Also, it’s not as easy as telling the undergrad or I, as a grad student, to leave. ”

      I did say “asap” which could admittedly mean “as soon as you can possibly finish your PhD”. I would definitely avoid these people in the future to the extent that you can. Most people are good people, so I just don’t want you to waste time finding a place where this is not tolerated.Good for you and the undergrad for following through as much as you have.

      However if the original story – the postdoc waiting until they are alone in the lab to approach her, pressuring her for her phone number, sending >12 unwanted texts the same evening, some sexual in content – is accurate, I cannot seriously accept “culture” as an excuse here. I know you are claiming to not say this just that others did but that is not acceptable either. It sucks that the undergrad has to continue working with the guy.

      Anyway, my main objection about the OP was in you bending over backwards giving the guy the benefit of the doubt repeatedly.

  13. From UC Davis information on sexual harassment ( see shep.ucdavis.edu/whatissexualharassment.htm): “Sexual harassment can be defined as: unwanted sexual attention or behavior which negatively affects the work or learning environment.” The first item on the list from a brochure on how sexual harassment affects us all is “unwanted, repeated requests for dates” (at shep.ucdavis.edu/local_resources/docs/Ripple-Effect.pdf). This is a huge, unacceptable problem. Everything that this blog posts describes is wrong except the graduate student’s support of the undergraduate. Both postdoc A and B behaved badly (to different degrees). It is inexcusable that the PI required the undergraduate to report directly to them and even worse that the postdoc was not reprimanded for his behavior, particularly if it has been repeated with multiple students.

    If I became aware of a situation like this at UC Davis, I would take action as a faculty member by reporting the general circumstances to our appropriate administrative person (our campus “Sexual Harassment Officer”) for advice. This can be done without violating the privacy of the student involved. From there, a number of different actions can be taken depending on the desired level of privacy of the student and whether or not they wish to file a complaint. Postdoc A can receive professional advice on appropriate behavior without a complaint being filed. I would also talk informally to postdoc B about her behavior and the inappropriateness of her comments to the undergraduate.

    For the PI, the consequences of inaction could be dramatic. UC faculty are required by state law to report sexual harassment to the sexual harassment officer if someone names a person who behaved inappropriately toward them. If the circumstances described in the post happened at a UC, legal action could be taken against the PI. Thus, not only is it wrong that the PI did nothing, depending on where the university is, their lack of action could be breaking the law. It is that important to make the workplace environment free of sexual harassment.

    The legal requirement for “designated officials” (anyone who supervises other university employees) to report sexual harassment causes some concerns with privacy for the person who was harassed. Here is what the UC Davis policy suggests faculty say when someone wishes to talk to us about sexual harassment: “Thank you for coming to see me. Before you tell me specifics, you should know that in my role, I have certain reporting obligations. I want you to stay in control of the situation until you decide what you want to do. So, for now please tell me about your situation in general terms, without identifying anyone. There are also other resources you can talk with who don’t have the same reporting obligations.” (see shep.ucdavis.edu/local_resources/docs/receivingreportsconsultingwithSHEP.pdf)

    I strongly encourage all faculty members to understand their moral and legal obligations in dealing with sexual harassment, in addition to being sensitive to impacts it has on the person being harassed and ALL other members of the university community.

  14. Young men today have not learned the lesson men twenty years ago were taught. If you have to work with women keep it very professional. Do not even look at them even when you have to talk to them. God help you if you accidentally touched one.

    I do have a hard time believing a 20 year old girl who while attending high school and college had never caught the attention of an older male. It’s possible she is unattractive and this guy sought to take advantage of her naivety and (in his mind) desperation. Boorish behavior by him for sure.

      • Way to show antiracist solidarity, TSW editors, by letting this despicably racist comment go unchallenged.

        This racist comment speaks exactly to the problem of racism and sexism I wrote about, and the easy targeting and dismissal of Black women. Love how the comment above is nothing more than an apologia for racist discrimination by those already holding exceedingly racist (and especially anti-Black) views.

        • Speaking from ignorance, again. Perhaps if you actually knew how to define racism–and no, it is not simply ‘hating’ people-you would not continue to make uninformed comments to troll and derail.

          • There are way too many examples of bad behavior and improper responses at many universities and workplaces. My comments for UC are what SHOULD be done and happen; it doesn’t always. Any dark-skinned Black woman at UCD can come to me (or several others I could recommend) for help. It doesn’t mean the outcome will be ideal given the huge challenges in our culture, but she will be respectfully heard by at least a few people who will work to help her. If enough of us who are sufficiently senior and dedicated to changing things speak up and stand up for those who need help, we can change things.

            In my mind, the key to dealing with all people, including sexist, racist, normal, adjusted, and hypersensitive ones, is to show respect for their feelings and engage in discussion when I disagree (or agree) with them and the discussion can be productive. It is important to avoid stereotyping on both sides.

          • Dawn, there are some problems with this comment. First is the assumption that any dark-skinned woman can come to you (can we start with using the term “people of color?”). They may not feel as though they can trust you, or that you will hear them– just as I, a white woman, may prefer to go to a woman to report sexual harassment.

            Secondly, your comment suggest false equivalence. “All sides” are not equal in terms if power or privilege.

            Thirdly, terms like hypersensitive are dismissive and silencing. You don’t get to decide what an appropriate reaction is.

            Fourth, words like “normal” are not appropriate. Normal defined by whom? What makes someone abnormal? Please avoid language that may be harmful, even though I suspect it was unintentional.

          • Acclimatrix, I am sorry that my intent was not clearly communicated, which is a very common problem when dealing with difficult subjects. What I wrote can be read in many ways. Extended dialog is very important. In that light, I am going to try to clarify what I intended. Some of this can also be read in multiple ways.

            I used “Black” because that was the term used in the comment I was specifically referring to. I realize that the term is charged with meaning that varies from person to person and can be perceived as negative to positive. (I have a friend who prefers to be called black over person of color or African American, whereas many others find that offensive. It is always best to avoid those sorts of labels when one can, but there are times when it is unavoidable.) I also understand that many people would not automatically trust me. I would now revise my comment to say that anyone is welcome to come to me, and I will treat them with respect.

            I also did not mean to imply that “all sides” are equal. Rather, I will listen to all people with respect, including those who I feel have misbehaved. I fully agree that there are huge power imbalances, which is the fundamental problem that allows sexism and racism to persist. As someone who is dedicated to helping shape society so that all people are treated with respect, I very much prefer to have someone who engages in harassing behavior come talk to me about it than to do nothing. Maybe I can help them understand why their behavior is wrong and change it. It does not mean that I would treat their behavior as at all acceptable. And I would take actions to help end it beyond just listening. Listening is not equivalent to condoning bad behavior.

            When I listed that I would talk with “sexist, racist, normal, adjusted, and hypersensitive”, I (unfortunately) intentionally chose words that are judgmental. I tried to span the range of what people would be accused of in these sorts of situations. All of them reflect reactions that are culturally specific, and except for “normal” and “adjusted”, were used in prior comments. I added “normal” and “adjusted” because the vast majority of those experiencing harassment don’t fit the extremes. I did not intend for these to imply that I get to judge the people involved. Rather, that if someone is labeled as any of these, I will still listen.

            I think that the term “hypersensitive” is extremely important to discuss in sexual harassment circumstances. In the circumstances where I have been the most help to a young woman who was harassed, she felt that she was being hypersensitive to the circumstances. I literally spent hours talking to her about how her feelings and resentment were entirely justified, not “hypersensitive”, and that the behavior of the harasser was wrong. It wasn’t until she saw the same behavior applied to someone else that she understood that it was in no way her fault.

            These issues are very difficult, and I have made many mistakes over the years. My understanding of people has evolved as I’ve observed, discussed, and experienced interactions that are not appropriate as well as those that are. It is very important to me that my actions help provide opportunity to those that face challenges because of their background or physical characteristics.

          • ” I very much prefer to have someone who engages in harassing behavior come talk to me about it than to do nothing. Maybe I can help them understand why their behavior is wrong and change it. ”

            Maybe what some of us are getting tired of is 1) the idea that a person who targets someone at a lower power level in the way described in this post needs “educating” about their behavior (why do we NEVER hear this about other criminals? We ASSUME they know what they are doing!) 2) the fact that this just goes on and on, year after year, decade after decade.

            It was really over the top with Bora. One minute people were going on about all the feminist women bloggers he promoted and in the same breath were worried that he just didn’t understand why his behavior might be offensive. Somehow in all the years of reading feminist blogs he missed a few basics, let’s hold his hand and guide him a bit more, poor guy.

            It is pathetic to me that we women continue to be so understanding toward these abusive assholes. So young women (mostly) keep having to put up with the situation, having these humiliating reporting procedures that often end with having to continue working with the guy.

          • Isabel, I fully agree that a significant component of sexual harassment is not eliminated by education and understanding. Some people need to resign or be fired for inappropriate behavior.

            I have also observed significant improvements in an organization’s culture after initiation of sexual harassment awareness education. In some cases, education is enough to stop someone from repeatedly asking someone inappropriate out on a date.

        • Please notice that unlike Daddio7 I did not simply give an opinion, I actually linked to three newspaper articles documenting actual discrimination, hostile climate, sexual harassment and its cover-up. And yet I was still met with disrespect and ‘Black women are hypersensitive’ dismissal. If we are going to talk about ‘everyday sexism’, please let us be honest about how race/color structures everyday sexism: especially through silencing WOC, especially via tone-policing, and dismissing their legitimate grievances as just hypersensitivity, irrationality, or ‘unfounded’ ‘anger’.

          I have actually made a point of *not* stereotyping people. Speaking about patterns of implicit bias discussed in actual implicit bias research is not stereotyping. All categories of generalization are not in fact the same.

          I am glad that dark-skinned Black women on the Davis campus can come to you. But this doesn’t negate my critique of UC or larger issues of racism and colorism as they intersect with racism. Sadly, you are not a resource to similarly situated Black women at Cal and UCLA. Moreover, if one is dealing with compliance officers and administrators who want to cover up complaints, this is what will happen, especially as most professors, tenured or not, are not going to cause a ‘big stink’ once a case has been covered up. In my case professors took this as an excuse to do nothing and say, ‘Well, the university investigated, so I am not going to help you’. It was an easy excuse that allowed for not thinking about the racial empathy gap and the ways in which hostile post-Prop 209 campuses like Berkeley and UCLA encourage seeing some people as not fully human and valuable, as disposable and not worth supporting

          Re the racial empathy gap and implicit bias, which absolutely are relevant to this discussion of ‘everyday sexism’ and who will and won’t be helped, believed, supported (including by TSW editors not staying silent on an issue of intersectionality they should be addressing);

          http://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2013/08/27/the-racial-empathy-gap/

          • TSW supports intersectionality– we do have a post scheduled in the future on this topic, which is regretfully now especially timely. We are always striving to broaden our diversity on the blog, through our regular contributors and our guests. If you or someone you know would be interested in contributing, please do let us know.

        • For the record (TSW editors), this is not ‘hypersensitivity':

          ” All things being equal, if you show a person an imagine of a dark- and a light-skinned person being harmed, they will most likely react more strongly to the latter. Studies have found evidence of this using both self-report and measures of brain activity. Notably, both Black and White people respond similarly.”

          http://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2013/08/27/the-racial-empathy-gap/

        • Sincere apologies for this. Once a commenter is approved, following comments aren’t moderated, and as this was a guest post the author (normally the point person) wasn’t getting notifications. We normally follow threads on the posts closely, but I was away from my desk for this exchange and only now am catching up. These comments are absolutely not acceptable, and have been deleted. I apologize deeply for any harm they may have done and take full responsibility.

      • Your racism and sexism is shining through, Daddio7. Clearly, from your comment, you are going to discriminate against women, and especially Black women, regardless, and are just looking for reasons to justify your discrimination/bias. Interesting how you identify hiring women–not men–as the problem, such that women are the ones you want to discriminate against and not hire. Says a lot (about you).

        Moreover it is not hypersensitivity to be aware of or to speak about discrimination and bias one is consistently on the receiving end of, especially when it is borne out by copious SCHOLARLY research on implicit bias and structural inequality statistics. You are giving an uniformed and bigoted opinion from a place of privilege, not superior objectivity or moral/ethical virtue.

        And it is precisely people with attitudes like yours who enable the abuse and predatory of (White male) sociopaths, always giving them the benefit of the doubt while assuming (Black) women must be the problem.

        • Of course you don’t include yourself in the category of ‘hypersensitive’ people, though your aversion to acknowledging implicit bias actually means that you are hypersensitive too.

    • I refer you again to our comment policy. Your commenting privileges have been revoked because they violated this policy. I haven’t figured out how to block you from commenting further, but I am asking that you please drop it. You were called out, and your reacted defensively and with personal attacks. That is unacceptable. Please stop.

  15. Sadly, there are many people who will not take your comment about sociopaths seriously, especially as most people don’t understand the difference between psychopaths and sociopaths and don’t know how to identify the characteristics of sociopathy. There are also race/class/gender biases at work in protecting predators like the aforementioned post-doc: namely that a well-educated (White) man is not going to be a sociopath, even when that is the profile most able to get away with such behavior because people give such individuals the most benefit of the doubt.

    In a comment below the UC system is mentioned as being a system that would respond appropriately to such sexual harassment. Given examples from what has happened to two non-White female Berkeley students, I would caution readers against assuming such a positive outcome. Especially when the predator is a White man targeting women of color who can be easily smeared as slutty ‘those people’ (as well as violence-prone and irrational liars), the chances that the university will sweep the abuse/harassment under the table is great: both because White professors (for reasons of racism AND sexism; as well as non-support from other non-White professors because of the strength of implicit bias) identify with the White male perpetrator as ‘one of us’ while seeing the WOC as an outsider (and perhaps also a subhuman animal if Black, though they are not consciously acknowledging this view) and because UC has serious hostile racial climate issues, including systematically covering up hostile racial (and sexual) climate complaints.

    http://articles.latimes.com/2013/oct/18/local/la-me-ucla-discrimination-20131019

    http://m.eastbayexpress.com/oakland/why-black-students-are-avoiding-uc-berkeley/Content?oid=3756649&issue=3756592

    http://archive.dailycal.org/article.php?id=112088

    Race affects who will and won’t be helped, who will and won’t be believed, and certainly who will and won’t be considered a predatory sociopath. Moreover, White male sociopaths always know they can lie to accuse WOC of stereotypical behavior so as to discredit WOC who speak out about incidents of abuse/harassment. Especially when you are a dark-skinned Black woman speaking about the predation of a White male predatory sociopath (UC member), the chances you will be helped and supported are minuscule to nonexistent.

  16. Thank you for your responses, Acclimatrix. I appreciate the solidarity, especially in pointing out the fallacy of ‘both sides’ as though there is not a power imbalance.

    One of the hardest things about being a Black woman is constantly being silenced, which means you have to speak up more just to try to be heard and taken seriously, and then you have this extra speaking up (out of necessity) framed as your being ‘hypersensitive’, “disruptive”, “loud/argumentative”, “frightening” and ‘threatening’, “inappropriate” and a “meaningless cloud” of anger. The direct quotes are all racist statements made about me by the White female former-Chair of my department (now an Associate Dean) for speaking up about racial and sexual harassment (including public cyberbullying against me by the White male predator whose behavior I reported). This woman was not an ally, and certainly not interested in intersectional critique. She actively helped the university cover up my complaint in the manner discussed in the Daily Cal article and LA Times article. To this day I am retaliated against for reporting hostile racial and sexual climate, not just because it affected me, but so as to try and change things for other women and students of color also being adversely affected by the complaints I officially made to the university.

    People end up in situations like mine because there are many, many people with the attitudes of Daddio7, including in the academy. More than anything, his comments saddened me, as a reminder that because I am a Black woman I can so rarely expect be seen and treated as fully human and with respect. Even when bringing journalistic evidence, I was written off because people like him are always to busy prejudging me through stereotype to stop and take seriously that I am a human being like them.

    Dawn’s comments also saddened me, though I knew they were not maliciously intended like Daddio7’s. But they represent the other side of the structural battle I am always up against: not realizing power asymmetries so as to hold people accountable for racist and sexist actions and impact, instead of writing off such negative effects with appeals to ‘both sides’, ‘everybody’s racist’, ‘I didn’t intend to’, etc. So often help and solidarity doesn’t come to women like me despite people’s good intentions.

    Finally, I want to point out something in Daddio7’s behavior which directly relates to this post on everyday sexism, and the behavior of the predatory male PI. We have to stop making excuses for men’s abuse and predation, especially by saying ‘he didn’t know/mean to’. This is exactly how I ended up being harassed and abused by a sociopath: especially as a Black woman on a hostile UC campus, I had become used to accommodating daily racist and sexist microagressions and attacks, while telling myself these people just needed to be educated and feeling that I had to be silent about the behavior so as not to be seen as an Angry Black Woman–especially because I am “very dark-skinned” (as I would later be described by White professors in a retaliation email). I pushed back so hard against Daddio’s comments because I knew they were intended to be abusive. He came here, as an entitled (white, I’m assuming) man, to spew vitriol because he felt he should be lowed to. It was all about power and domination and not showing respect for those he doesn’t see as equals. And as I see it, this is what was going on with the male post-doc in the post. What he did was about power and entitlement, period. We all know he would not have pursued a tenured female PI in his lab, who was superior, in this manner. So no, his insistence was not about his cluelessness or attraction. He was abusing his power, knowing the undergrad was in a subordinate position, and hoping he could use this to pressure her into getting what he wanted. If you are treating people ‘below’ you in a way you wouldn’t treat people you see as being ‘at your level’/equals or as ‘superiors’, then you are indeed being abusive (i.e. abusing a power differential). Daddio7 did not treat me with the respect he expects to be treated, for a reason. Same with the post-doc. Part of any future intersectionality discussion should address why this happens, and how often structural inequality produces a lack of empathy. Because even as I typed that the post-doc would not want to be so treated, I realized this statement is only really true to the extent that he could truly imagine himself in the female undergrad’s position. And so often this is why silencing and dismissal, especially in aggressive and abusive ways, happens: those silencing are uninterested in having their power challenged and so don’t want to hear what subalterns have to say about what they’re experiencing). No empathy.

    Thanks again for speaking up for me, much appreciated. Especially as the reality of race/gender power inequalities means that people will listen (more) when a White woman like you speaks, instead of an ‘angry’ and ‘hypersensitive’ Black woman like me.

    • I hope TSW can use this comment, misguided as it is (especially the last sentence), as a ‘teachable moment’.

      Daddio7, you need to educate yourself on what sexism and racism actually are. If you knew how to properly define either, you would not have responded as you have. I am sexist and racist? Thanks for proving my points, especially about speaking from ignorance.

    • “I never harassed or disrespected any woman.”

      How can anyone believe this when with your first comment you dismissively equated the acts described in this post (targeting and harassing a young student with 12 phone messages in one night) with paying “attention” to an attractive young woman. Then you change your mind and insult her by suggesting she is ugly and gives off a vibe of desperation. You concluded the guy’s behavior was “boorish” at worst.

      You also mocked anti-harrassment rules, relating how you were taught to not even look at a woman when you were talking to her, etc.

      Clearly you have no idea what harassment and disrespect are, or you would never have made that incredibly offensive comment.

      • “rough and bad-mannered; coarse.”

        This is how you would describe someone who waits until he is alone with a lower-echelon employee, approaches her and refuses to go away until she gives him her phone number, and then contacts her over a dozen times the same night? Bad mannered? Cloddish? Informal?

        Only the synonym thuggish above approaches what we are talking about and that is not what is usually implied (see all the other synonyms).

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  19. I direct you to our comment policy. Your sexist and racist views are not tolerated here. Your commenting privilege has been revoked.

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