So that’s how they do it

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.


  1. Richard Smith says

    “Of course you know I could get fired for this”

    In an almost-perfect world*, I would be inclined to suggest quoting the above in a reply, adding, “Yes, you could,” underneath it, and CC-ing it to his** higher-ups, but that’s mainly because a) it might work in that world, but that world doesn’t actually exist, and b) I’m a white male, and wouldn’t face anything close to the repercussions a woman would face, particularly when*** the higher-ups dismiss the complaint, which is why it was even possible for the above suggestion to occur to me. Those, and it’s not an appropriate**** way to handle the situation, anyway.


    * In a perfect world, people wouldn’t behave like this in the first place.
    ** Yes, some female professors may make similar inappropriate advances to male students but, while a zebra may indeed trot around that corner, it’s almost always a horse accompanying those hoofbeats.
    *** Not so much “if”; zebras, again.
    **** Like sending the original email was at all appropriate? But if at least one side doesn’t act appropriately, things get so much worse, so much faster. Oh, life; such fairness!

  2. gmacs says

    Like, do people just not pay attention to their Title IX training?

    Like, I can understand a few situations where expression of feelings may be okay, but only if you are absolutely sure you can air them without anyone being adversely affected. My wife used to TA a class I took, but I asked her out after the semester was over, and in the event of rejection we could have both moved on.

  3. martha says

    I’m actually quite unhappy about this stuff right now. I have a son who will be in college somewhere next year and two daughters close behind him. They all have STEM kinds of interests. To my son I said, look, this is how I think you make a start in the fields you’re interested in, and you know, full speed ahead, straight on til morning. To my daughters I’m preparing to say yes you can, but if you want children you will have to think about how that can be managed and there is a lot of crap out there that you need to know about and be prepared to deal with. Grrrrr.

  4. =8)-DX says

    @martha #3

    To my son I said, look, this is how I think you make a start …

    Please tell your son the stuff about kids as well, plus about the shit mainly women but also men get due to gender stereotypes. Pretending I could just ignore the first part due to my maleness lead indirectly to my falling flat on my ass and dropping out of university to raise a kid and work, while confusion about the second part made me a worse partner than I otherwise could’ve been. As a man, I think that talk should be for everyone, or maybe even more forcefully for us because of our privilege blindness. So please, tell your son.

  5. martha says

    =8)-DX @ 4,
    I do tell him-maybe not so much about sharing childcare as about preventing babies-by-accident, but certainly about misogyny, racism & not being a jerk- and he makes appropriate noises and then recommends that I not read things on the Internet that make me sad.

  6. A Masked Avenger says

    It’s interesting to see how consistent these things are. I recognize some elements of my own adolescent failures to connect with someone–but I suspect some elements of these approaches are much wider than just workplace harassment.

    What really strikes me is that a woman described her experience once, to a group I was part of, and it was virtually identical, except for one thing: it started with some serious mansplaining, as if intended to put her in her place and soften her up before making his approach.

    She worked in academia (I don’t actually know where or what field), and had a colleague who disagreed with her every position. He would condescendingly correct her and then change the subject, as if his manplanation had settled the matter. She was actually wrestling with whether to call him out on it, or complain about his behavior to someone above him, when she got the email. It led off by commenting that he found discussions with her stimulating–possibly because of the added thrill of being right 100% of the time–and that he didn’t know any other women whom he could converse intelligently with. I forget the rest of the details, but something like “You’re the one for me!” was in there somewhere.

    I was horrified at the time, but I didn’t realize then that it was probably more or less identical to thousands of other inappropriate advances that were probably made that same week.

  7. says

    cervantes @ 7

    I find it hard to believe that creepy come-ons like that ever get anywhere.

    You need to remember that this sort of harassment isn’t about “coming on” to their victims — it’s about exerting control and power over their victims.

  8. pierat says

    @7: You are tragically right. That kind of condescension in public, followed by an equally condescending come-on later, is something that I honestly think that every woman in science has faced at least once (and certainly also a large proportion of women in other fields, too).

    Within three months of starting a job as a research scientist I have been propositioned by a 1st semester graduate student, mainsplained-upon by my fellow scientists, and my boss implied after a meeting that everyone thought that I was his arm candy. Sigh. The good news is that more and more people are talking about this, and as awesome people like @martha (#5) raise their boys to be aware of how inappropriate these kind of comments are, I do think that things will continue to improve.

  9. DLC says

    Hm. I always thought it was simple — keep your professional life professional and leave your personal life at home.