Friday, January 10, 2014

A Slight Case of Sexual Harassment

What would you do if someone made an inappropriate remark (of a sexual nature) to you—for example, during a professional meet-up to discuss something that might help advance your career? What if that someone is a very influential person in your field? What if they persist even after you express dismay and discomfort with their behavior?

This is what one woman did: She posted a description of the incident online and asked others who may have experienced something similar to contact her.

That description is not one of my hypothetical situations but a real one involving a well-known science blogger, Bora Zivkovic (A Blog Around The Clock), who resigned as blog editor for Scientific American after being accused of and admitting to sexual harassment. This event stirred up a firestorm in the blogosphere back in October (I started this post then, but got sidetracked). Anyway, in case you missed it, here's a recap: Zivkovic's victim (Monica Byrne) described what happened in a detailed blog post here (9 October 2012); initially, she did not identify her harasser by name but only that he was a "prominent science editor and blogger". Her post has since been amended to name him. Another female victim, upon hearing about the reaction of disbelief and anger from some bloggers about the incident, posted her own story about an encounter with Zivkovic. Then yet another woman detailed her interactions with Zivkovic extending over several years in a blog post, along with a series of emails (they do come back to haunt you) she received from him. Others chimed in on various blogs with reactions to both the revelation of the harassment itself as well as to how it was revealed. A more recent description by another victim, Kathleen Raven, was published in December by Nature (World View).

I first read about this event in an editorial in Nature News and Comment (22 October 2013). The gist of the editorial was that "we have not adequately addressed the problem of harassment, perhaps because it is difficult to quantify". The editorial describes such harassers in the scientific community as "Dr Inappropriate", someone who makes inappropriate sexual remarks or has wandering hands. Many of us (in science) have either observed Dr Inappropriate in action or been his victim. It may be the professor who has a reputation of making comments of a sexual nature to female students or colleagues. Or it may be a lab director who gives new meaning to the phrase "a hands-on kind of supervisor".

Those who have never been on the receiving end of sexual (or other) harassment sometimes have difficulty understanding what all the fuss is about ("The guy's a loser; just ignore him"; "He's just teasing; don't get your shorts in a twist."). If you read the encounters in the links given above, you saw that some of these incidents were subtle and downright difficult to describe in concrete terms. So it's not surprising that the reaction might be to think that the victim is being overly sensitive. The picture gets even murkier when the harasser is generally well-liked and has a lot of good qualities (as was apparently the case with Zivkovic).

What bystanders often fail to grasp, however, is the power dynamic that is at play here. If someone who has no power over you or your career makes an inappropriate remark to you, it is easy to ignore them or to challenge their behavior. This is how most people view such situations—from their bystander viewpoint, not the victim's. However, if the harasser is your superior or otherwise has the power to help or hinder your career, then you quickly find yourself between a rock and a hard place. Speaking up, even only to express discomfort with a superior's behavior, can have serious professional repercussions. If you are just starting out, the wrong move can end your career before it even gets off the ground.

The women mentioned above were vulnerable because their harasser was someone with the power to help them in their careers. Otherwise, they might never have agreed to meet him/interact with him. In hind-sight, they probably realized that they should have left/broken off the relationship as soon as things began getting weird. They did not, however, probably because of a combination of things in addition to wanting his support:  they likely did not want to be rude, hoped that the encounter would get back on a professional track, wondered if they were imagining things, etc. Some women in particular are vulnerable in such situations because they don't want to offend anyone, even someone who has put them into an uncomfortable position. Young people who are taught to respect their superiors are also reluctant to call out someone like this. Harassers (like con artists) rely on other people's reluctance to offend (and on bystanders' reluctance to intervene).

When I was in my twenties, I encountered sexual harassment much worse than what Zivkovic did, but I was afraid to confront my harasser or report it. That changed after I became more experienced and more confident that I would be taken seriously. If someone made me feel uncomfortable, and I could not redirect the conversation/encounter, I would just leave. I didn't make excuses; I just got out. If I could not avoid the person, I took steps to document their actions.

Sometimes, all it takes to stop all but the most determined harasser is to let them know that you've initiated documentation of their behavior. I've short-circuited harassment simply by sending an email saying something along the lines of, "I was very uncomfortable with our conversation this morning and the comments 'x, y, and z' you made during our meeting [date/time] or "I would like to summarize my reaction to our conversation on [date/time]....If I've misunderstood, then please explain what you meant by x, y, and z." Often, such an email will prompt an immediate apology or an attempt to explain what they "really meant".

Even if the harasser ignores such an email and does not respond in writing, the email will create a dated record, which establishes (1) a timeline, (2) what happened or was said (from the victim's viewpoint), (3) that the behavior was unwelcome, and (4) that it is negatively impacting the work environment. Establishing that the behavior is unwelcome is a critical element in making a case for sexual harassment, should that be necessary. Note: it's important to forward such email documentation to yourself at a private email address or print out copies to keep on file at home, not in your office. Such documents can be critical in any subsequent adverse actions or litigation.

Back to the Zivkovic scandal. I think everyone can learn something from this unfortunate event. It seems that these women and perhaps a lot of young women like them (and men) are not certain what constitutes sexual harassment. By not being aware of what harassment looks like (or thinking that it no longer occurs), makes people vulnerable to sexual predators. For women in science, an early negative experience or repeated experiences can lead to their departure for another line of work.

Those clueless people who engage in such unwelcome behavior risk their jobs and careers—possibly their families. Maybe they'll get away with it for a while or maybe they'll end up like Zivkovic. Employers who fail to deal with harassers risk lawsuits, loss of good employees, tarnished reputations— and so on.

I'm not sure what can be done to make things change, but being aware of the problem is a start.