What can bystanders do about sexual harassment in science?

I’ve been enjoying the new podpast “Not Just Scientists by Terry McGlynn over at Small Pond Science and his colleague H.K. Episode 3 called “Under Pressure” was particularly interesting as it featured a discussion that centred around what male scientists could do if they realized a female scientist was being sexually harassed. The episode was really honest, with Terry and H.K. expressing dismay about not really knowing how to appropriately respond to these kinds of situations. As someone who has experienced sexual harassment and knows many other female scientists who have as well, I’d like to offer a list of what I personally would have found helpful before, during, and after I had been the victim of sexual harassment. I am not an expert on this topic and strongly encourage you to educate yourself by contacting your local sexual assault support centres for additional advice and resources.

Before- Prevention

1. I think that it’s really important to have explicit policies in place about acceptable behaviour in our workplaces, field sites, laboratories, teaching environments, and conferences. I realize that policy can only go so far, but it’s a solid start. There also have to be consequences with teeth. For example, if someone is sexually harassing female trainees, then that person at a minimum should no longer have access to any trainees for their research program. I believe that sexual harassment is a zero tolerance offense.

2. Take a hard look at the climate for women in your department, faculty, institutions, and scientific societies. The climate that you are experiencing may be very different from that experienced by your colleagues. Ask your female colleagues what their experiences have been and be prepared to listen. Believe what they are telling you is true even if you don’t like what you hear or if it hasn’t been your experience.

3. If policies don’t currently exist or your climate is chilly then advocate for improvements that will address the concerns of your female colleagues as effectively as possible. You may need to step up and advocate due to power differentials being at play (i.e. your female colleagues may feel unable to do this due to career stage and/or cultural and social constructs and stereotypes).

4. If you run a research group, model appropriate professional behaviour and make it clear what behaviours are unprofessional and unacceptable. Talk about these topics in your group lab meetings. The SAFE paper published last year is an excellent starting point for these discussions.

During-Witnessing an Episode of Sexual Harassment or Assault

1. If you witness one of these acts then you need to call out the perpetrator and explicitly let them know that the behaviour is unacceptable. If it is safe to intervene, then please do so. I can’t count the number of times that someone has said something inappropriate to me while others stood by awkwardly. Everyone knew that something awful had just happened, but stood there in stunned disbelief. The moment passed and things continued on as if everything was normal. Please do not make excuses for the behaviour of the harasser. It is not o.k. to say “he’s just socially awkward”, “he didn’t mean anything by it”, or “don’t be so sensitive”.

2. After the immediate threat has passed, communicate to the victim that what happened was wrong, that it was not their fault, and that you are willing to support them in however they would like to move forward. In some cases they will want to do nothing, sometimes they will want to report using a policy, and other times they may want to report to the police. You need to respect and support their choice. It is helpful to know the professional supports available on your campus or environment and appropriate to assist the victim in connecting with these resources.

3. Write down how you experienced the event. Put down as much detail as possible; date, location, time, situation, who else was present, what was said or happened, etc. You may never need these notes, but if you do you’ll be glad that you have them.

After-Someone discloses to you that they have experienced sexual harassment or assault

1. It has taken a lot of courage for this person to disclose to you. Communicate to the victim that what happened was wrong, that it was not their fault, and that you are willing to support them in however they would like to move forward. Depending on the law in your jurisdiction you may be a mandatory reporter of cases that involve your students. It is helpful to know the professional supports available on your campus or environment and appropriate to assist the victim in connecting with these resources.

2. Be proactive about removing people from potentially harmful situations, or even better take steps to ensure that harmful situations cannot arise. Terry talked in the podcast about warning female colleagues about predatory scientists and actively preventing the harasser from accessing potential victims.

Much has been said recently about the “culture of silence” with regards to this topic in science especially with the recent situation at Berkeley.

Women in Astronomy blog

The San Francisco Chronicle

BuzzFeed

Please think about active steps that you can take to remove this “culture of silence” from your academic field, societies, and institutions.

 

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