Hope Jahren has an excellent op-ed on sexual harassment in academia. I’ve always wondered how guys have the gall to even start these unsavory relationships, and she shares some of the email she’s received.
The evasion of justice within academia is all the more infuriating because the course of sexual harassment is so predictable. 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!”
I still can’t quite imagine it, but at least she has now spelled out the obvious warning signs.
And then, sadly, she describes the usual course of events, which is usually denial and blame from all the institutional resources that ought to be helping the student out. Here’s what she advises the women targeted by such behavior:
I teach her to draw strong professional boundaries and then to enforce them, not because she should have to, but because nobody else will. I insist that she must document everything, because someday he will paint this as a two-way emotional exchange. I wearily advise her to stick it out in science, but only because I cannot promise that other fields aren’t worse. And I hope that this is enough to make him stop. But it never, never stops.
Now that’s depressing.