When Will Sexual Harassment Be Unacceptable?
At least once each semester, I try to talk to my students about sexual harassment. I teach at a small university, where the focus is engineering, which means that a vast majority of my students (3:1) are men. I want them to understand that sexual harassment happens both in university settings and in the workplace. I hope to teach the men that sexual harassment is not acceptable and that they should not do it. I hope to teach the women that sexual harassment, as unwelcome as it is, does happen, but that they do not have to accept it.
To show that sexual harassment is ubiquitous, I start with an article which usually comes from a major newspaper, so just about anyone can access it. I started doing this exercise with my class 4 semesters ago after scientist and writer Hope Jahren penned a piece in The New York Times called “She Wanted to Do Research, He Wanted to Talk Feelings.” It is very like the article here, here, here, here and a very recent one here. In her article, Jahren, relates the experience of one of her former students, an experience that is representative of many women in academia. A woman who left Jahren’s lab, was excited about her bright future in research science. Then IT happened. She received an email from a senior colleague confessing that he’d had uncontrollable feelings for her since the day they had met, closing with a threatening “you’re gonna have to deal with me until one of us leaves.’”
The behavior gets worse, sometimes it gets more physical with touching, groping, or assault. Jahren’s student was justifiably confused and hurt, worried about her own career, and scared that she would have to see him the following day. She thought about going to her HR office, but was told by other colleagues that this sort of behavior is normal and that she should just deal with it. At the time the article was published, she was considering actually leaving science and finding a new career path. In this case and so many others, women often leave STEM fields, not as a result of poor performance, but instead as a result of institutionalized sexual harassment.
We go through this basic narrative again and again in class. Each semester it is a different Woman and Man, a different institution, but it is always the same story. After students read the story, and I do a brief outline of the narrative and try to discuss these issues. It is hard to get them to open up, especially with so few women in the room, but when they do, their first reaction is disbelief: This behavior is clearly wrong and how could HR departments not see that? Then they tell me, “I would never put up with that,” and, “I would have gone straight to HR with that email.” And sometimes, “this doesn’t really happen that often, though.” Most of the time, however, my students look at me as if I were from another planet, folding their arms in front of them as if to block the idea out, or to block out the possibility that this could happen to them or that they would perpetrate it. In classes where we have a rapport, I’ll ask them what they are feeling, why they are silent, or even say that I feel like they have closed themselves off from hearing me. Many times that gets one person, then another, raising their hand to share their thoughts. I answer their questions as frankly as I can and encourage them in their exploration of gender relationships and harassment. If they remain silent, or my rapport with the class is more difficult, I don’t pressure them to open up.
I do all of this not to scare my students, but to try to get them to understand that they can and should change the culture. Harassment can only be stopped if we talk about it. Jahren points out some of the tactics that women in positions of power can teach their students or more junior faculty. She argues that the response should be one of resolve, “draw[ing] strong professional boundaries, and then enforc[ing] them, not because she should have to, but because no one else will.” But I do try to go a step further, because I have students at the undergraduate level. I always close by telling men to change the culture and not to do this to women. I always tell women that even if they haven’t experienced this yet, statistics say they probably will. Most importantly, I tell all of them that they should know that they are not alone and should find someone to talk to.
It is important that women are not the only voices in this fight. Male colleagues, as women’s allies, you must broach this difficult topic as well. Let your actions speak loudly by ensuring that harassment is never tolerated. Let your words be even louder by not simply telling women how to deal with it, but by telling men not to do it.
Offenders find safety in the silence that surrounds their behavior. We must talk about harassment in public spaces to our students, junior staff, and colleagues so that this behavior finally becomes unacceptable. Here are some things you should know: harassment is uncomfortable to talk about; you will often be met with silence; and you will find some students do not like it and will say so in your course evaluations. But you will also find that you may reach one or several of your students. You may be the reason that he does not cross any lines, the reason she stays in her dream field, the reason that, in 20 years, we are not reading these articles on a weekly basis or experiencing harassment daily.