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Subtle Sexual Harassment


Geobiology professor A. Hope Jahren recently had an article in the New York Times about sexual harassment in the world of academic research.

The problem seems all too commonplace:

> > Since I started writing about women and science, my female colleagues have been moved to share their stories with me; my inbox is an inadvertent clearinghouse for unsolicited love notes. Sexual harassment in science generally starts like this: A woman (she is a student, a technician, a professor) gets an email and notices that the subject line is a bit off: “I need to tell you,” or “my feelings.” The opening lines refer to the altered physical and mental state of the author: “It’s late and I can’t sleep” is a favorite, though “Maybe it’s the three glasses of cognac” is popular as well. > > > > The author goes on to tell her that she is special in some way, that his passion is an unfamiliar feeling that she has awakened in him, the important suggestion being that she has brought this upon herself. He will speak of her as an object with “shiny hair” or “sparkling eyes” — testing the waters before commenting upon the more private parts of her body. Surprisingly, he often acknowledges that he is doing something inappropriate. I’ve seen “Of course you know I could get fired for this” in the closing paragraph; the subject line of the email sent to my former student was “NSFW read at your own risk!” > > > > So much for the contents of the first email; now let’s picture its recipient. She’s shocked: Is this for real? She’s confused: Did she do something to make him think she wanted this? She’s worried: She has to see him tomorrow. Her thesis isn’t done, and she still needs his signature. What if he says no? She’s scared: If she rebuffs him, will he get angry? > >

It occurred to me while reading that many of the instances described would have the offending men not truly grasp that they are, in fact, sexually harassing anyone. I recall what sexual harassment I’ve received in the course of my jobs. It tends to be perfunctory and focus on more explicit behaviors: raunchy comments and emails, physical affronts, and other behaviors that are far from subtle. The truth of the matter is that sexual harassment often manifests in behaviors that the perpetrator genuinely views as harmless.

STEM fields are notorious for their misogyny. On the part of the individual male, this is usually a product of long-suffering bitterness combined with poor social aptitude. Expressing one’s feelings is a significant ego risk; rejection can be crushing. Per the examples Dr. Jahren provides, women tend to respond delicately if they respond at all, both taking into account the well-being of the man who is coming onto them, while also trying to preserve their own careers. But little real risk is borne by the male side of the transaction. The only damage done will be to his pride. Meanwhile, a woman who turns down an advance in a less-than-diplomatic fashion can see her career harmed or even destroyed, to say nothing of the resulting work environment should she opt to stick around.

More generally, I have seen that men tend to believe we are the ones taking the true risks in pursuing women. Women can say “yes” or “no.” They control access to their time, their attention, and their bodies. Some men complain bitterly about this, as if they should be entitled to any of the above by default. But men who force their emotions on women rarely face any consequences for it. As Dr. Jahren notes, it is rare for a man to be fired for harassing his peers or subordinates, even if he shows a clear pattern of doing so. To even have unwanted attention and advances labeled as “harassment” is viewed as an extraordinary step in many cases.

Sexual harassment is, then, another aspect of gender politics that has become confused by a focus on extremes. In much the same way that most rapes are committed by friends, acquaintances, and family members–rather than the archetypal stranger in the dark alley–sexual harassment tends to be subtle and originates from what may be sincere feelings of attraction and kinship, rather than outright malice, but the damage is done all the same. Some men lack a sense of workplace propriety and believe that they have the right to express their feelings to female coworkers and subordinates. There is far less ambiguity when the situation involves an authority figure pursuing someone in his employ or otherwise answerable to him, though–this is a clear abuse of power and should be handled accordingly.

Nevertheless, a persistent peer can make the workplace just as uncomfortable, and may provide fewer options than an abusive superior. Most of us in the working world need references–people who will vouch for us when we pursue future employment–and I imagine nobody wants to burn bridges they don’t have to. And for some women, this probably means tolerating a considerable amount of unwanted attention.

I say all this because I get the sense that many men don’t have a good grasp of what workplace boundaries should be. For one, making passes at a coworker while at the workplace (or at a work-related function) should be a complete non-starter. For another, confessing deep feelings–even obsession–is creepy and disturbing. This isn’t high school. If you really want to date at work, start small. Like with any other romantic pursuit, ask for a simple, uncomplicated date: a cup of coffee, something like that. If you are turned down, accept it with a smile and move on. Don’t be a jerk about it. I would say it’s probably best to wait for signs of interest from her, though, before asking for anything at all. And as for dating people who report to you or over whose position you have any significant influence: just don’t.

Sexual harassment doesn’t have to rise to the level of “hey baby, nice ass!” to create a hostile workplace or even to be legally actionable. Don’t avoid it because of legal liability; avoid it because it’s the right thing to do. The women you work with are there for the same reason you are: to do a job. Don’t make things uncomfortable just because you find someone attractive. Be a professional and stick to the job. If something does emerge, feel free to pursue it within reason, but don’t force the issue or be a pest. It’s creepy, and it could land you in hot water. Even if it doesn’t, it’s still wrong.

If you haven’t and wouldn’t do any of the things I’m talking about, then congratulations! You have met a minimum standard for decent behavior and are probably OK to work with.

Photo by UNclimatechange