When I hear a story of harassment, what do I do?

Recently I was at the periphery of a conversation in which women, in a completely different field than mine, were talking about an experience one had during an interview, during which inappropriate comments were made. While completely sympathetic, another woman said: “You were lucky you weren’t at University X, where it would have been much worse.”  That conversation and recent events in the online science community got me thinking about how often these quiet confidences are exchanged.

While I have only heard a few stories of sexual harassment or assault in my field, I’m not naïve enough to think that I’m in the one profession in the entire world that is entirely populated by people who behave appropriately at all times. So it seems like only a matter of time before I hear a story, or stories, that hit close to home professionally…before I hear a story where I have to ask myself “What do I do now? Now that I have this knowledge that I can’t unknow about the unacceptable behavior of someone in my field, what do I do?”

Let me make clear a couple of assertions that undergird my thoughts. First, the instance of “false positive” harassment accusations is vanishingly small, so there is absolutely no reasonable excuse to doubt the story I hear. Second, the number of harassers is (hopefully) reasonably small, but the number of women who have experienced is overwhelmingly large, and given that I will never hear most of the stories of harassment and assault, there is no reasonable expectation that someone who has been named as a harasser was “just having a bad day” or that it was a “one-off thing,” even if he is “a good guy.” Basically, if I hear one story, I can take it to be true and know that there are likely to be others involving the same person.

Below I’ve tried to talk myself through a range of hypothetical scenarios to prepare myself for that unfortunate day when I need to figure out what to do. I’m nowhere near sure I’ve got good answers for any of these scenarios, so I’d welcome them as jumping off points for discussion in the comments.

Very often, women quietly tell their stories without naming their harassers. They have good reasons for not wanting to name the harassers, and as a listener, my role is to offer unconditional support (see here and here for how to do this, but shorter:  don’t rationalize or make excuses, don’t minimize, don’t “solve” the problem). I can offer options, including filing a formal complaint, but I shouldn’t tell her what to do. That would be a complete violation of the unconditional support I’m trying to offer.

If I was told the name of the harasser, as a faculty member at a university, if either the victim or harasser is a student, staff, or faculty of the university, I have a legal responsibility to report the behavior to the Title IX coordinator on campus. Somehow, I’d have to try to walk the tightrope of that legal responsibility and my goal of unconditionally supportingthe woman who confided in me, recognizing that those two things might be at odds. Reporting sexual harassment or assault is often a very long, damaging process for the victim, and the investigative process can be more about protecting the university than about helping the victim. The intent though is to keep the harasser from attacking other women, which is I think the goal of the required reporting. It would be lovely if there were a way that the victim could be empowered to choose whether she wants to go through the process, and for the system to prevent other attacks even if the victim chooses not to participate in the investigation, but I don’t think we’ve come up with that system yet.

But I might hear a story involving someone who isn’t at my university, but with whom I or my students might interact at a conference or another venue. My goal of supporting the woman who told me her story would be coupled with an intense desire to keep any women in my sphere of influence away from the named harasser, in order to keep more women from being harmed. At a minimum, I would not be alone in a room/at a bar/at a cafe with him. I would not allow my female students to be alone in a room/bar/cafe with him. In the situation where I knew that a woman was about to head off alone with him, I would attempt to maneuver in such a way as to prevent that from happening, either by going with them or attempting to distract or dissuade her from going.

I feel fairly confident in the reasonableness of all I’ve written above (but you can tell me I’m wrong in the comments). What I’m struggling with is what my ethical responsibilities are to women who are outside of my sphere, but who might end up in a position to be victimized by someone I know to be a bad actor not at my university. What do I do, for instance, if I know that the harasser is in a position to chair a search committee or advise female graduate students or post-docs?

This seems really gray to me, and, for now (until you give me better ideas to ponder), here’s what I’m thinking. If I heard one story about a harasser, I would heighten my alertness for other signs of trouble. I know there are probably other stories, but I don’t know them yet, and I may never know them. But my job of supporting the person who told me the story and letting them decide whether and how to report it, greatly exceeds any responsibility I might feel to “solve the problem.”

But what if I hear more than one story about the same person? What if I’m hearing about a pattern of behavior that is unacceptable and repeated? Do my ethical responsibilities change when multiple victims go from probable to definite? I think they do, especially given that I am always going to be hearing an under-count of the true episodes of harassment.

In the case of hearing multiple stories about the same harasser, I think I would try to discretely find out if action had been or was being taken by the university where the bad actor was employed or a student. If it sounded like the university was in the dark and nothing had been reported, then I feel like I have a responsibility to report that exceeds my responsibility to be a good supporter of any individual who had experienced harassment. I don’t know what would happen if I called up another University’s Title IX coordinator and gave them second hand information about one of their faculty members or students. Maybe nothing, but at least I would have tried to protect women who I might never meet. Maybe it would turn into a long, awful process that produces no results. Maybe my intention would be good, but my impact bad. I could be really screwing this up.

In the end, this is all analysis that I hope like hell I never need to put into action. But if I do, I hope that thinking it through ahead of time, and discussing it with you wise folk, will give me a place to start when it gets real and I have to take actions that matter. I have a fervent wish that we, as an academic community and as society more broadly, can move past these conversations of “how do we respond” to how do we reduce, eliminate, and make a relict of the past any form of sexual harassment and discrimination in academia. We can talk about those things now too, but as recent conversations have reminded me, the dark is still very in need of responses.


21 thoughts on “When I hear a story of harassment, what do I do?

  1. Then there are the cases where *everyone* (male & female, faculty & admin) knows about a harasser (or two, or three), but nothing is done about them as no one will ‘officially’ lodge a complaint – especially not students – because they’re concerned about the repercussions. Admin won’t do anything because there are no official complaints, just stories (which might be false positives! thank you for addressing this idea above).

    This happened far too often at my last uni, and I wish I’d gone through the process you outlined to prepare myself for what I should do when it came up. In the end I wasn’t prepared, and I’m afraid I wasn’t helpful at all.

  2. I think the first step is to document all the evidence you can. Apparently, personal notes in a diary or on an email can count as evidence (so that if a report is made now or later, the report is not seen to be just anecdotal). So my advice to anyone who experiences bad behaviour by others is to document it and date it, as a first instance (preferably in 2 places, so maybe diary and email to a friend or self). Then, when things have calmed down you can go through a process such as sciwo has outlined and decide whether or when to make a complaint.

    And if you hear of several complaints about the same person, and each has been documented in a note, then you can ask if you can collect these notes from the individuals and they can be used as evidence.

    It is only a start, and it may not go anywhere, but it is a positive thing to do and it may make the difference later on between ‘nothing’ and ‘something’ being done about it.

  3. I’m having trouble staying in ‘calm, rational’ mode here. What if you contact the Title IX Coordinator at the other school … and he does nothing? or is later heard (by a mutual friend) to be chuckling about your call at a cocktail party, because ‘here’s another one of those reports about good old George, but you know he’s harmless.’ Because, of course, good old George is wonderfully palsy-walsy with department heads and deans and other members of the Good Ole Boys network. Meanwhile, however, every female undergrad in his classes has a story to tell … and when the freshmen take those stories to their dormmates they’re told, “oh, I know, he did the same thing to me last year. isn’t it awful?” The good old George I’m thinking of got away with it for nearly 20 years because administrators couldn’t believe it of him, didn’t want to rock the boat, and were afraid of the publicity. Do we imagine the Sandusky’s of the world only prey on little boys?

    And of course, having ranted and waxed hysterical, now I have to admit that I don’t quite know what one person can ‘do’ that would actually be effective. Short of catching his abusive behavior on camera and posting it on the institution’s website.

  4. When I first started as an UntenuredAssistantProfessor, there was a WhiteMaleEmeritusProfessor who was really nasty to everyone – men and women. He would bad mouth my new colleagues behind their backs to me and try to embarrass them in public. I attended a lunch with a MaleSeminarSpeaker a few weeks later, and the EmeritusProfessor tried to make my science look stupid in front of the visitor. I fought back with humor and made him look ignorant of the current the jargon and the current knowledge of my field. He was not happy with me.
    A few weeks later, when a YoungFemaleScientist came to give our departmental colloquium, I went to lunch and so did he. I sat across the table from him, and he sat next to the speaker, and he was hitting on this poor woman the entire time. At some point, I couldn’t take it, and I told him to stop – in front of everyone. I made a scene. I pointed out that he was being offensive and inappropriate. I used humor, but I didn’t let him off the hook. He tried to attack me saying that I was being politically correct (as if that was a bad thing). One of my senior colleagues was there at the lunch, and I had to talk about it with him later.
    A month of so later, I was at a dinner with several AmazingWomenOfScience in my field. I was ecstatic to be invited because these were wonderful, powerful women in my field. When they realized my university, one told a story about how, when she went to give a talk at my university, she was verbally attacked about her science by EmeritusProfessor. He interrupted her several times – far more than the norm for the field. He tried to get invited to dinner. Worse of all, afterwards, EmeritusProfessor started sending her love letters in the mail. I went from ecstatic to embarrassed. I was ashamed that my university saw this happening and did nothing.
    I went to a SeniorMaleColleague and asked what power EmeritusProfessor would have over my tenure case. The answer was absolutely none. So, I went to the chair and demanded that he be removed from all seminar lists. I had found out that other departments had stopped sending seminar announcements to my department for fear that EmeritusProfessor would show up. I also told the Chair about EmeritusProfessor’s behavior and how it was embarrassing and affecting people in my field. I think EmertusProfessor must have been talked to, because he was not seen as frequently in seminars for many years after that.
    I didn’t have to deal with him anymore, and things felt better.
    Several years later, I had my Nth (important milestone) birthday party and got catering for the event. The women doing the cooking told me she had been an undergraduate in my department many years before I got there. When she had been there, EmeritusProfessor was a FullProfessor, and he taught her laboratory course. She said that he had harassed her. Asking for dates and saying that she would do better if she did this of that thing with him. She said it happened to a number of female students. I was shocked! How could no one in the department have known about this? I realize there was only 1-2 women professors at any one time until a couple more of us came on board, but these women never went to them to tell about what was happening. I had no idea what to do, and I have never reported it – staying the supportive listener, but I am still shocked to this day. Typing this comment has been cathartic, and has helped me realize that I did stand up when I could, and have been on alert for this monster as he infrequently rears his head in the department. The women who reported it to me, now many years later is confident and would not care if I brought it up, but what purpose does it serve? Should I say something now?


    • I think you are amazing and inspiring for what you did when you arrived and should not hold yourself to the impossible standard of trying to right all past wrongs when both parties have moved on.

  5. “I would not allow my female students to be alone in a room/bar/cafe with him. In the situation where I knew that a woman was about to head off alone with him, I would attempt to maneuver in such a way as to prevent that from happening, either by going with them or attempting to distract or dissuade her from going.”

    I think I disagree with this. You can warn/alert your students, but I think the decision is up to them. By “distracting” them without telling them the real reason for your concern, they are left vulnerable to the situation occurring again sometime when you’re not there to do anything about it. If you do explain your concerns to them and they decide to disregard your warning, either because they don’t believe you or because they have decided they can handle the situation themselves, then that’s their choice to make.
    Other than that, I think you have made some great points here about how to be supportive.

  6. I am so glad you posted this @womanofscience. I was thinking that a public ‘outing’ of some of these behaviours would be the ONLY thing that might bring them to light, and also to inform others who may be in the audience that have been affected, that they are not alone. However, it was just a thought and I wondered if I would ever be brave enough to do this, if the situation ever occurred.

    So I want to congratulate you with all my heart on your bravery. More than once have you stood up in public and called it out. I don’t think you need to tie yourself in knots inside about other things you might have done, and whether it would do any good now, you have done more than most would dare to do at the time when it could, and did, do some good.

    It takes b…. (i mean bravery, of course). Well done. How many of us would consider such a public comment, and be able to think of humour on the spur of the moment, to bring it off? But I really think it is the only way if the person is in the habit of bad behaviour.


  7. Pingback: Harassment: What to do? | Woman Of Science

  8. Follow-up to previous request for off-blog contact to discuss ongoing cover-up of racial and sexual harassment (including public cyberbullying via department’s forgrads list).

    Thank you.

    • Hi,

      Please send us an email at tenureshewrote@gmail.com if you’re interested in writing a guest post, or if you’d like to make a request for something for us to cover. All guest posts are discussed by the TSW team, so we’d prefer if you’d send us a message (as per the FAQ).

  9. “Maybe it would turn into a long, awful process that produces no results.”
    I did my short postdoc at an R1 University and quickly realized that my PI was sexist based on his comments on women in academia, women getting pregnant in academia (and needing to drop out if they couldn’t hack it), among other inappropriate comments. A group of current and former graduate students in the lab invited me out for drinks, and they all had stories of bullying/abuse by this PI. I found out one former PhD student had even filed a formal complaint against him. As the weeks wore on, his behavior towards me became worse and worse to the point that I decided to take action, both to protect myself and to protect the FOUR students that confided in me but were afraid to come forward. I filed a formal gender-based discrimination grievance against him, and went through the different steps of the grievance process but in the end, the University did nothing (externally). It was incredibly frustrating to know that he could have TWO gender-based discrimination complaints in his HR file and nothing was done. I quickly got out of there as I accepted a tenure-track position at another school. Thank goodness I had a strong CV and was able to act quickly and get the heck out of a very bad situation.

    Was going through the whole official University process worth it? I’m not sure. I didn’t benefit in any way, other than the fact that once I went “public” with my complaint the PI stopped harassing me/talking to me at all. That was good, but it means I didn’t get a publication out of my postdoc. It was incredibly disheartening that the University grievance process accomplished nothing – even with all of my email/journaling evidence that I presented with the help of my Union Representative. But I do know I was not the first to file a complaint against him. And I might not be the last. At least there is a formal record in his HR file. I wonder how many complaints it takes for the University to take some action?

  10. Pingback: Conditionally Accepted | This Is Not A Pity Party

  11. Documentation counts for nothing at Berkeley as Denise Oldham et al. make a point of covering up harassment and other hostile climate violations, no matter how well-documented, public, repeated, or egregious the violation(s):

    There is a reason Gloria Allred is suing Berkeley (along with Dartmouth, Swarthmore, and USC for covering up campus sexual assaults and creating hostile sexual climate).

    Moreover, if you are not White, and especially if you are Black, Berkeley will make a point of viciously retaliating against you for documenting hostile climate and harassment and speaking up about it and filing an official complaint.

  12. There’s another intersection between the Bora Zivkovich and Danielle Lee incidents at SciAm: how race affects who gets to speak publicly about sexual harassment, and affects who will be supported and who will be dismissed/silenced/smeared (and how).

    What role did race/Whiteness play in Monica Byrne and others being able to speak up–and hold Zivkovich accountable? Hopefully the blog can address this.

  13. Pingback: More than Resistance | Woman Of Science

  14. Pingback: Harassment as a crossroads | Tenure, She Wrote

  15. Pingback: Not So Subtle Harassment | Woman Of Science

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