Sexual Harassment

There’s been a lot of talk lately about sexual harassment in male-dominated fields.  That’s because there’s a lot of it.

In this post, people share their experiences with harassment or the feelings that they have wondering why they haven’t been harassed.  All in tweet form.

I have to say, my first thought was also, “Why haven’t I been harassed?” And I’m going to attribute that mainly to two things (but I’m going to use more than two points).

1.  Luck

2.  Being warned off creepers and knowing not to take their classes or to have anything to do with them (also luck, also potentially hurting my career, though in my specific case, the creepers also tended to be not as good as the people who substituted for them, and that was lucky)

3. Having a big burly partner who looks like he could beat someone up (also luck)

4. Being on edge to be professional with male colleagues at all times in a way that men do not have to… this may be why I naturally gravitate towards female coauthors and mentors even though there are so few… I can talk normally around them (something men don’t have to do that could well be hurting my career)

So I thought about all of that, and then I remembered that before work, before graduate school, and before college, I actually was sexually harassed fairly frequently.  That’s probably part of the reason for #4.  The physics professor who couldn’t keep from putting his arm around girls and told us at the beginning of the first class he had been told not to frequently but he didn’t mean anything by it so he would continue to do it and we shouldn’t bother to complain because we were wrong to complain and we should just expect it.  He also copped a feel on my breast that one time.  The weird men at the grocery store who couldn’t stop leering at my 16 year old figure.  The girl who called me “queer” as an insult when I was so young and naive that I thought she meant I was weird and said I stuffed my bra before I even wore one.  The guy in middle school who I thought was jealous that I was doing better in geometry and then later realized must have had a crush on me but now I’m thinking that maybe that first belief was more right.  What an asshole.  Throughout the week more memories of incidents have been coming to my mind unbidden.

But I’ve been lucky.  What if I hadn’t had older women in my major telling me which male professors to stay away from?  Knowing what I know about them is a big reason I didn’t go back to teach at my undergrad, even though they were hiring in my field.  I didn’t even apply, even though I applied places much less fun to live and ended up at a place not as good for my partner as that city would have been.  What if I’d wanted to go in that field in graduate school with the guy who I’d been told had affairs, though I guess mostly with his students’ wives and junior professors?  I was able to avoid him entirely.

What if I didn’t have that big partner?  If I was on my own?  My single friends have to fend of creepers that see the guy standing next to me and decide to move on.

And what have I lost being unable to be “one of the guys”?  Would I have more coauthorships?  Would I have more conference invites?  Would it be easier to publish?  Of course.

I hope things get better as we get more women into my field.  Nobody should have to worry about sexual harassment.  Nobody should sexually harass people.  Work is work.  And it isn’t really about personal vs. professional anyway.  It’s about power.  And this is one way that asshats working for the patriarchy keep women down.  Absolutely we should name and shame, because if we don’t, nothing is going to change, and that’s not right.

20 Responses to “Sexual Harassment”

  1. First Gen American Says:

    I have been in the same exact workplace and college setting as a girl who had 2 sexual harassment incidents literally at the same site and major I was in. She was not better looking than me but there were some big differences. When my male coworker made an inappropriate remark, I said, “don’t pull that crap with me” and it never happened again. The harassed coworker tolerated it and worse…encouraged the attention with counter remarks..until it got out of hand.

    In college, I had a professor who started writing me love letters when I went overseas for the year. I was friendly with him because he used to eat at the restaurant I worked at. I told him I wasn’t interested, then I cut off all contact after that which was easy because I was in another country. (Maybe that’s why he did it, because it was low risk to see what would happen.) It was too bad because he was an interesting guy.

    But basically, my survival instinct helped me avoid the dirty old men. I limit contact with those types and learned at an early age (from mistakes) that wanting to connect with a guy on an personal level leads to the risk of people getting the wrong idea. Silly me. When I was 18 and 19, I naively thought a guy in his 50’s wouldn’t be interested in me in that way. I was wrong.

    I am in a male dominated field and have lots of male friends but I try when possible to know their spouses and significant others. I also and avoid the jerks that aren’t good solid family men.

    Sometimes harassment can’t be avoided, but I think a lot of opportunities for it can be avoided if you are brave and stand up for yourself the moment something inappropriate is said. Also, it’s good advice to avoid the people you know are bad through networking with peers.

    I get grossed out when people flirt in the workplace so I guess I just repel people..I may even get a disgusted look on my face when it happens. I am not very approachable when it comes to that stuff. There are probably much easier targets. Also, now that I’m 40, I don’t think most men look at me that way any more. I still see it happening a lot with the friendly new hires who are in their 20’s. The friendliness is often misconstrued as interest.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      We shouldn’t have to cut off inappropriate behavior because there shouldn’t be inappropriate behavior in the first place. We shouldn’t have to avoid anyone. It gives women an unfair disadvantage. Also my coauthor’s wife has no reason to be jealous!

    • Ellen Says:

      You probably don’t mean it to be, but this kind of attitude is very victim-blaming. I’ve also been in a situation where I or other women weren’t harassed, but another female student was, and she was then criticized by the other women in the program for “encouraging” the harasser’s behavior by not shutting him down, by continuing to wear “too-revealing, provocative” clothing, etc etc. Not only was the situation with the harasser hurtful for her, but being blamed by other women who hadn’t experienced harassment from that person made her doubt her own experiences, made her reluctant to tell anyone about what was going on, and made her feel like she was responsible for being targeted when other women around her weren’t.

      Once it gets into auditing women’s behavior with things like “she should have known better, she shouldn’t have been wearing that, she should have said something sooner,” it takes the focus off of teaching men not to harass and puts the focus on telling women not to get harassed. Women shouldn’t have to constantly police their behavior to be treated with basic respect. Not to mention that a lot of women are still raised to avoid conflict and confrontation, and from the outside deflecting behavior like laughing in discomfort can look a lot like tolerating or encouraging.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Absolutely, women should not have to constantly police their behavior to be treated with basic respect.

        Women should not have to avoid people in order to avoid being harassed. Not being harassed should be a given.

      • Ana Says:

        Thank you Ellen (and nicoleandmaggie). This is exactly it….not only are you hurt by the harasser, you are hurt even worse by the feeling that you brought it on yourself by not being assertive enough, being too nice, etc… etc…We have GOT to get past this mentality.

  2. kellen Says:

    I never felt like people were super inappropriate, but was surprised by how little friendliness on my part it took for guys to decide I was interested in them. I am thinking of one coworker who was older than me (but we were in college, and we were both students, even though he was much older, and he wasn’t my boss) and I told him once at work that I was sad because I broke up with my boyfriend. A few days later, he asked if I had told him that because I wanted him to ask me out. (Ew, no!)
    Anyway, I don’t feel like I’ve been sexually harassed, but like First Gen, I have learned not to give openings to men at work to be real friends, rather than friendly coworkers. But yeah, I see my male coworkers going out for drinks after work with their male supervisors, etc. so maybe I’m missing out on something, but in our small ecosystem at our company, I think I’m doing pretty well even without those personal relationships. Doing good work counts for quite a lot, thank goodness :)

    • delagar Says:

      The thing is, that “going out for drinks with their male supervisors” is a big deal. That’s where bonds are formed. That’s where your male co-workers are getting an edge that will be useful to them later, when it comes time for your supervisors to decide who gets the promotion, or who gets the chaired seat, or whatever. All else being equal (that is, if both you and that male colleague are both doing good work) why wouldn’t the boss give it to him? He knows him. He doesn’t know you.

      Also, while the male co-worker is out drinking with the male boss, they’re not just talking about football, you know. They’re talking about work. They’re talking about projects. They’re talking about possible assignments and classes and grants and cool new openings next fall, and what if I did this? What would you think, boss?

      All these venues are shut off to women, because we can’t go drinking with the boss, because we aren’t drinking buddies, we’re f*ck toys.

      • Comradde PhysioProffe Says:

        This is exactly why I never socialize with members of my lab except under circumstances where every member of the lab is welcome to participate.

  3. Mrs. Pop @ Planting Our Pennies Says:

    I don’t think I’ve been sexually harassed, per se, though I know I’ve had extra “attention” paid to me by various older male faculty and coworkers as I’ve been in male dominated fields since college. None crossed a line, but there were times when I know I was intentionally establishing barriers to keep the relationships professional when I allowed relationships with those who didn’t send off the “creepy vibes” to get more friendly and more personal.

  4. Debbie M Says:

    I’ve been even luckier, not even noticing there was danger about. I’ve only been sexually harassed as a pedestrian, usually by guys yelling out car windows, but once by another pedestrian who actually grabbed my butt. That was the last straw for me helping with Habitat for Humanity where I often got crap jobs. The worst was digging with my bare hands or moving dirt that other people had dug with their bare hands. (I didn’t mind the time I dug with the shovel, I liked prepping the rebar and screening to cover the crawl space, and of course I liked working with the circular saw.)

    I also heard that one faculty member I typed for was always staring at women’s breasts, but I never noticed that. Because my breasts aren’t that big? Because I’m not that tall (he was short)? Because he needed his typist in a way he didn’t need his lab students? I don’t know–terribly saddened because he did loads of work (big classes, lots of labs in multiple local colleges), and he was working on something super important (reconnecting cut nerves).

    It is sickening that so many people have to change how they interact with people just to protect themselves.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I was treated just fine by the sketchiest professor in my undergrad dept the summer I worked as the dept secretary temp replacement. My female professors also had never heard that he was sketchy. He was grandfatherly to us. But I know he was sketchy not only because of things my friends had had happen in his class, but also because one of my tasks that summer was to type up the written comments in the summer program he ran for accountants, and right there in the comments were complaints about his hitting on students with the microphone on and several really inappropriate comments (like, the girl in the front her skirt is so short you can see all the way to China).

      In sort of a reverse situation, I knew one professor from another department because my summer research professor introduced me and he was super sweet and supportive– it was shocking later on when he cursed me out on the other end of a phone line when I was an anonymous receptionist for the housing office who refused to give him restricted information over the phone.

      People show different faces when it is safer for them to try to take power through inappropriate domination.

      • Debbie M Says:

        Definitely. One of the many, many reasons I prefer jobs where people ask me to do stuff (and then I do it) over jobs where I ask people to do stuff (and some of them do it) and then I ask the other ones again and again …

  5. Cloud Says:

    Umm, guys… as someone who has a couple of really nasty harassment incidents in my past: trust me, I didn’t give them the opening by being friendly or anything like that. It really is largely down to luck, whether or not you are the type the harasser likes to harass, whether he thinks he needs to “put you in your place,” and whether he thinks he can get away with it.

    I’m sorry, I know we all wish there was some magic way we could act that would prevent this crap from happening to us, but there isn’t.

    And in one case, standing up for myself just put me in actual physical danger. In retrospect, I should have kept my mouth shut that time and just found a new job. Speaking up changed nothing and caused him to escalate his behavior in very scary ways.

    I have decided not to let all these memories out right now, so that is all I’ll say. Except, to anyone who finds themselves being harassed: document everything. Write it down, with dates and details, as it happens.

  6. hush Says:

    “Why haven’t I been harassed?”

    This question presupposes that we have good information about when we are the targets of harassment. It might be that one is being sexually harassed, but it is not happening to their face and/or in an overt manner they can immediately recognize as such. Nevertheless, because other colleagues in their workplace know about it, the harassment undermines them professionally and demeans their human dignity.

    In some cases, the person being harassed is purposely made unaware of it so that they cannot possibly fight back. In one particularly awful hostile work environment case, a group of male employees had a pattern of making obscene hand gestures when passing behind the target’s cubicle where she could not see it happening, but the rest of the office could. The harassers also used secret, derogatory nicknames for the target. Months later, it escalated into more overt patterns of harassment, and the target and her supervisor both realized she was being harassed. Management had appropriate HR policies in place and dealt with the harassers swiftly and harshly – and they probably averted a costly lawsuit. But it usually does not end that favorably. I’ve seen more women quit their jobs than deal with a harassment lawsuit, and that’s a perfectly valid choice, too.

    There is perhaps some appeal to believing in false narratives such as “I’m not going to be a potential target for sexual harassment anymore once I no longer appear nubile.” Wrong. In this rape culture we live in, there simply is no magical age at which one is ever really immune.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      That’s awful. It’s good that management stepped up. That should be the norm. Really, not having to have management step up because there’s no harassment should be the norm.

  7. scantee Says:

    The last time I suffered from workplace sexual harassment was in high school and I think that is mainly because I work in a field that is heavily dominated by women. There are some drawbacks to working with mainly women but I’ve been pleased to find that workplaces dominated by women are mostly free of sexual harassment.

    Some small part of me despairs that all men are untrustworthy and driven only by base sexual urges. Intellectually I know that’s not true and as the mother of two boys I need it to not be true but it is remarkable how often I’m let down by the actions of men who I assumed to be “better than that.”

  8. chacha1 Says:

    I have only been the target of obvious, offensive, aggressive behavior from men on the Internet and over the phone. So in neither case was it “personal” (as the misbehaving men had never seen, met, or spoken to me before), but it was still pretty upsetting. I had lived kind of a charmed life in this regard and was surprised, actually, by the adrenaline response I felt – it really was akin to a physical threat response. I have the utmost respect for women who are willing to pursue and prosecute harassers.

    Throughout my schooling I was a contrary and intransigent, non-“feminine” creature with what I suspect was a very obvious contempt for the patriarchy and for the sexist, racist, generally bigoted environment I was in (state of Georgia). I was also a high achiever being taught by people who were mostly desperate for any sign of mental engagement from their students. I behaved more like a male person (assertive) than like my female peers (compliant), and I think the reflex was to behave toward me as if I were a male person – or at least, gender-neutral.

    This was not due to any fear of being harassed or really any sense of its potential. It was just that I was 99.9% disinterested in relating to anyone around me on any basis other than intellectual. It was probably a fairly scrotally-shrivelling projection.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      That describes me pretty well in middle and high school, yet I was sexually harassed. And I wore “grunge” on top of that. But they do pay teachers more in the midwest, meaning more male teachers, at least in high school. So more chances for sexual harassers.

      • chacha1 Says:

        yes, the VAST majority of my instructors up until college were female. I could dredge up some harassy incidents from male students of my own age but those always seemed to me very trivial and the perpetrators in every way inconsequential.

  9. First Gen American Says:

    Ladies, sorry if my comment was hurtful. This stuff isn’t something that anyone should have to go through. I admit, I definitely was victim blaming in my example because the victim’s encouragement of dirty talking at work spilled over to me at one point. I shut it down, but I didn’t like that this stuff was going on at work and affecting me. In hindsight, I should have said something to both of them, not just the guy. Maybe it would have prevented the harassment case from escalating to the level it did.

    A scary amount of women get stalked without any encouragement on their part and I am hopeful things will improve with time. I definitely have seen big changes in the last decade.

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