When to Tell? Who to Tell?

The most awesome Hermitage asked in a recent post

Ignoring the fact that knowing who to even complain to, and to what purpose, is not always clear, how bad does something have to be before you are compelled to take a stand? Should the criteria be severity, or simply how easy something is to prove? Should you always do the right thing, or should your career come first?

I wrote a long comment that sort of turned into a mini-post.  I'll reproduce it here. My answer was written assuming that what was being complained about was harassment or discrimination.  One main point I wanted to get across is this:  DO NOT WAIT until you have been harassed or discriminated against to try to figure out what you should do when you have been harassed or discriminated against.  Read and educate yourself about your school or workplace's relevant policies and procedures, understand how things would officially be handled and what that would imply for you.  Go talk to someone at the office of diversity or the equal opportunity office (where a complaint might be likely to be handled).  If your university has a women's studies department, ask them for resources to help you understand the situation women in science face in academia and how to respond to harassment and discrimination (tell them you don't need to read high theory, you need practical stuff about dealing with douchebags).  An informed woman scientist is one who is less likely to be harassed, and more likely to be able to aid a colleague who is dealing with a problem.

Okay, here's the rest of what I wrote over at Hermitage's place.  I encourage you to go read her post and the comments there, too. 

1. Educate yourself about sexual harassment and discrimination BEFORE it happens to you. Believe it or not, this step alone will diminish the likelihood of your being harassed and/or discriminated against. Perpetrators are good at picking victims who don't know how to respond, don't know what their rights are, don't have strong self confidence, etc.

2. If/when it happens, DOCUMENT everything thoroughly. Date, time, place, who else if anyone was there, what he said/did, what you said/did, keep copies of emails or notes sent or given to you, keep any offensive drawings or other crap stuffed into your mailbox or workspace (or take pics of it there, then save). Keep all this documentation in a notebook that you DO NOT USE FOR ANYTHING ELSE.

3. After first offending incident, write a short note to the perpetrator. "Dear Douchebag: On such and such a day, you did/said x. It made me feel y. I would prefer that you not do/say x again. Thank you. Signed, Much More Fantastic Scientist Than You Will Ever Be cc: File" This will take care of 90% of Douchebags.

4. If Douchebag persists, write second letter, cc to your PI, department head, or university personnel assigned to deal with stuff like this. Give them a heads up that you are sending them a letter. Tell them you don't want to take any action at this time. You just want to send them a copy of the letter to document that the incident occurred and that you responded to it by asking Douchebag to jump off a bridge, I mean, stop behaving in this manner. In this second letter, refer to the first letter. "I wrote to you on DATE, about incident x, asking you not to do it again. On OTHER DATE, you did XityX . I am writing now to remind you of my earlier letter and to again ask you to refrain from this type of behavior blah blah, cc Important Person.

5. If Douchebag still persists then you may need to go even further and ask Important Person to intervene on your behalf. Keep in mind that if IP is your PI, PI may be (should be) required to report to an official university person that possible sexual harassment is taking place and an official investigation will likely be opened. It is not absolutely a guarantee that the perpetrator will be punished (for example, depending upon what they did/are doing, they may be asked to apologize, or make amends, and to refrain from further bad behavior, and/or to sit through some educational classes). Still, the investigation will be stressful for everyone involved. This sort of thing is NOT career-ruining if your Important Person is understanding and truly on your side. If Douchebag is himself a Big Swinging Dick it is of course a bit trickier, but here I have seen the letter writing strategy have good rates of success. They move on to someone else.

6. It is not your job to heal academia of sexism and discrimination. This job is too big for you, it is structural, and there are people highly placed above you who should be dealing with it. Remember, if you get to the point where you have to sue - and it happens, you may - even if you win you lose. What you want is for the bad behavior to stop, the Douchebag to leave you alone, and you to be able to go on quietly with your work. Someone else can fix the World and Heal Sexism.

Now, what if the thing you need or want to complain about is something else - some shady goings-on in the lab?  Maybe a little something unethical in animal treatment, or data collection or manipulation, etc.  If it's not the PI who's responsible for the shady goings on, is it relatively straightforward to go to her/him about a lab mate?  If so, I would still document - put it in writing before going to talk to the PI, give the PI the written bit, and then document the meeting with the PI afterward and send the PI a copy of your summary of your meeting with PI.  But I would be extremely gentle and not cast judgment, just raise questions.  Maybe PI is pushing Labmate to be unethical, you don't know.  There is so much pressure in research today that people can do unethical things and convince themselves that they are not really stepping over the line, or not that much, or that it doesn't really matter in this particular case...in other words, they can sin without intent, or with only half-conscious intent.  To really shed some light on this question I'd want to talk to an ethicist...Dr. Stemwedel????

11 responses so far

  • c.t.e. says:

    "1. Educate yourself about sexual harassment and discrimination BEFORE it happens to you. Believe it or not, this step alone will diminish the likelihood of your being harassed and/or discriminated against. Perpetrators are good at picking victims who don't know how to respond, don't know what their rights are, don't have strong self confidence, etc."

    Although the action that you suggest is useful, the way in which you present it sounds like victim blaming. Men don't harass because a woman didn't read as many pamphlets as she should have. They harass because they are harassers in a patriarchal society that structurally supports harassers. The way to end harassment is for men to stop harassing.

    • Zuska says:

      I'd like to be very very clear that I am not victim blaming, though I understand that it may come across that way. We do indeed live in a patriarchal society that structurally supports harassers. It also structurally keeps women ignorant about what constitutes harassment and discrimination, and how to respond effectively to it. Structurally imposed ignorance makes it difficult or impossible for women to process and understand things that are happening to them. Maybe they don't even have names for these things, don't even realize they have a right to live free of them. If they manage to gain consciousness that what's going on is CRAP and they shouldn't have to take it, that doesn't mean they will automatically know what is the best way to deal with it.

      I see women scientists talking on blogs, and for years now at ScienceOnline, about things that women in the humanities think were hashed out and dealt with decades ago. If you tell one of your sisters in English or history that you are still dealing with BSDs who grope you in the lab or at conferences, or boob oglers, or potential employers who ask you about your plans to procreate, or who openly complain when you get pregnant, or make quid pro quo offers for grades or jobs, or who tell sexist jokes, or who say they don't want to make any recommended changes for more gender equitable department materials because they already have "too many" women, etc. etc., their jaws will drop. Their colleagues have learned to be far more subtle with their sexism. They're busy trying to figure out if they didn't get tenure because so-and-so doesn't like their cutting edge work in cultural studies on queering the church.

      Somehow, the most basic pieces of knowledge produced in the feminist revolution of the sixties and seventies seem to have not been well transmitted to young women in the sciences in 2011. There are at least three main reasons for this: (1) structural patriarchy; (2) structurally imposed and enforced ignorance about how patriarchy works; and (3) structurally embedded rewards for identifying with the oppressor. One woman alone can't do much about (1), but if you aren't stuck in (3), then you can do a great deal to educate yourself about how to deal with the craptastic patriarchy you are most certainly living and working in. That is an active, positive step any woman can take, not because it is her responsibility to prevent harassment, but because it is better to be prepared than not. And because I've seen it over and over, starting with myself: the more you learn about how to deal effectively with douchebags, the less it seems to happen to you. I'm not saying never (even Zuska runs into a Spittlefester now and then). But even if someone spits on me in public, I know it's not my fault, and I know where to go to find my allies.

      • Kea says:

        Sadly, this is quite true. When I hear young women in science appeasing the oppressors, I just don't know what to say. They seriously believe they are smarter and more deserving than I was, and I'm just a bitter old crazy woman. Perhaps it's best just to leave them with their delusions, if they keep a job for a while as a result of them.

  • Kea says:

    Wow, wish I had this kind of advice in the 1980s, lol. But clearly not much has changed. In fact, I feel it is worse now, because harrassment is so much more insidious now.

  • FrauTech says:

    Great post. I think #6 is a really good point. Your best end goal situation is a probably to not have to deal with the harasser. In that respect I think those of us in industry have a bigger advantage. Probably easier to move employees around in a company so you don't have to ever see the person again. May not have the same advantages in a small research field, even if you can get yourself to another institution you may still be faced with that person's name/work on a regular basis.

    My experience in the corporate world is that formal complaints will tend to be brushed under the carpet. However it's important that your harasser not think you are afraid of telling anyone. But in general it's easier to get complaints dealt with for different reasons unfortunately. So all that cynicism being said my addition to this advice is that the records you are keeping should have copies outside of work. Especially if you are in the corporate world, it is a very good idea to have your documentation at home in case your boss tries to get rid of you, the victim.

  • [...] talks about when it’s appropriate to speak up. She gives some great advice to not wait until you have been harassed or discriminated against. [...]

  • Anonymous says:

    As much as I love reading your blog, I have to vehemently disagree with number 1. I went through a lot of harassment and discrimination at one point, and thought I knew how to handle it. The problem is, every person who does this may have a different approach. And the fact that I'm timid, despite understanding what's going on, seems to make me a good candidate for a repeat target. I think I've handle all situations as well as could be expected, making sure I got the help of allies and people who had some ability to do something about the situation. However, even as educated and exposed to these things as I have been, it doesn't change the fact that I seem to have a target on my back.

    • Zuska says:

      Educating yourself is a key step. But if you work or study in a place that promotes harassing behavior, does not sanction harassment or discrimination, and has a culture that looks at such behavior as "normal" and even rewards it, all the education in the world is not going to keep you from being harassed. At best, it is going to help you know how to respond a little better, and how to manage your feelings and reactions to what is happening a little better. It will help you know that you are not the one at fault.

      I'm really sorry for everything you went through. I don't know you, and I don't know what your experiences have been. I will share with you that at a time in my life where I felt similarly, like there was a target on my back, I sought counseling as a supplement to what I was learning in women's studies and found it extremely helpful in understanding how I might have been participating in relationships that were poisonous for me, in developing more self confidence and felt understanding of my right not to be harassed, and in finding the courage to make some changes. I would like to stress again that this is not victim blaming - it was not my fault I was being harassed and it was not my responsibility to stop my harasser from making my life miserable. But I did learn to take control of what was within my power to do so. In some ways, there was a target on my back, for awhile, and I learned to shield it until I could get rid of it altogether.

      But even if you have a target on your back - it doesn't give others the right to shoot at it.

  • Me says:

    Your advice is correct. When I waited for 3 strikes I found I was 90 days out of the complaint period for sexual harassment. Had I known the policy this would not have happened.

  • Chris says:

    Hopefully things are different in the US if you are in the unfortunate position of having no option other than to make a complaint, but here is a link to a very accurate (if lengthy) exposee on what you can expect in a public organisation in Australia... Don't think it could have been said any better. And if things are not different in the US (or where-ever you are) then I urge potential complainees to take heed...

    The complaint process can and has devastated many lives.

    There's currently a parliamentary inquiry into workplace bullying taking place in Australia (details at http://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/House_of_Representatives_Committees?url=ee/bullying/index.htm)
    Lets hope that gets some changes happening.

  • Chris says:

    oops, after all that didn't post the link: http://www.apsbullying.com/the-reality.html