The Persistence of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

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There’s been a lot of talk in the media lately regarding the supposed sexual harassment of a student by her philosophy professor. The professor in question recently resigned from his tenured university post in the wake of the sexual harassment allegations made against him.  The story details are fuzzy, but it seems that he and a graduate student with whom he worked had become friendly in the course of their time working together, boundaries were crossed, and the student felt uncomfortable, which led to her eventually reporting his actions to the university.  The most severe allegations were that she was propositioned for sex by the professor on more than one occasion.  While the story itself isn’t new, professor/student sex scandal, what struck me with this case was the media’s reaction to it.  In an article published on the author suggests that the blame of this scenario might actually fall on the accuser for allowing the inappropriate discourse to persist as long as it did.  Read how the author introduces said professor:

“[He] comes from a long line of coal miners without a history of university degrees, and somehow worked his way to Oxford. After going on to win prestigious awards, write acclaimed books, form a group of philosophers called the “New Mysterians,” and garner plum academic appointments, including his latest at the University of Miami, the famous philosopher of mind has lost everything because of a 26-year-old woman.”

Sounds like a real upstanding guy doesn’t he? And how does it make the 26-year-old-woman sound? I wonder whose side of this story the author is on…

The reason the scandal has hit so close to home is because, as a woman in science hoping to break in to academia, I witness scenarios like this all the time.  Some aren’t as overt as blatantly emailing and saying “hey, let’s have sex some time,” but it’s not uncommon to hear of men in positions of power toeing the sexually inappropriate line.  Allow me to tell you a story.

I have an incredibly brilliant and talented girlfriend, we will call her Jenna.  She is a researcher in behavioral neuroscience and is currently preparing to defend her PhD.  She is also funny, clever, socially skilled, and shockingly beautiful.  The final months of her graduate school tenure have been filled with networking events and job talks as she attempts to secure a new professional position in her field.  A few weeks ago, she was given the contact information for a man who worked in her area for a prominent pharmaceutical research company.  Excited about the prospect of moving her research out of academia and into “industry,” she emailed the contact and inquired whether there were open positions in the company for which she might apply and/or if the contact would be available to “talk shop”.  A meeting was set for the following Friday.  Jenna prepared all week for her meeting.  She made sure that she was well up-to-date on the company’s future goals and previous projects.  She practiced discussing research with her peers.  Overall, she felt prepared for her pseudo-interview.

She had agreed to meet her contact in a restaurant near the company office for lunch.  Five minutes after the interview was scheduled she looked up to see a man staring at her dumb-founded.

Him: “You can’t be Jenna?”

Jenna: “Yes, I am. Thank you so much for agreeing to meet me.”

After a beat, Him: “I’m sorry, I wasn’t expecting you to be Jenna.” He grinned.

My friend is much too humble to admit that she knew exactly what he meant by that comment.  Instead she just got mildly self-conscious.  Jenna blushed but quickly recovered.

The conversation flowed for nearly 45 minutes.  Jenna felt confident about the quality of their discussion.  She later told me “I really felt like I was on my game.  I think this is exactly the field I want to break into.”

And that’s when something subtle, but striking happened.  The man my intelligent and qualified friend was interviewing with stopped mid-conversation and said “I’m sorry.  I think I would be remiss not to tell you this, but working in the sciences it is going to be really hard for someone to take you seriously.  You’re incredibly articulate and obviously know your stuff but people will assume that you were only hired because of your pretty face.  You’re gorgeous, Jenna.”

Now she became very embarrassed.  What do you even say to that?

Later that day, Jenna recounted her experience at the interview and a group of us hemmed and hawed about the appropriateness of the comment.  Was he being honest in telling her that this could realistically be a liability for her professionally? Was he just shocked to see a woman who wasn’t a complete troll working in neuroscience and perhaps he just couldn’t help himself in confessing his attraction? We are human beings after all, people do make mistakes.  Perhaps there was something even charming about it? But it still made me wonder about all that research on stereotype threat.  How could he not know that by making her gender, sexuality, and physical attractiveness salient he would be damning her professionally?  Our conclusion was that the comment was inappropriate, but collectively we brushed it off.  And then the texting began…

The messages started harmless, “Hey I saw this article you might be interested in”—that sort of thing, but occurred at wildly inappropriate times of the day/night.  Was she receiving drunk texts from a business contact? How strange.  Emails were sent from him recounting his personal predilections for things like sports and food intermixed with actual information about upcoming jobs, etc.  Jenna didn’t know how to proceed.  It was obvious this man was interested in more than a professional relationship with her but to tell him he was crossing a line (was he crossing the line?) felt uncomfortable and would perhaps breach any professional rapport she had previously built.  This man was reporting back on whether she was a suitable candidate for a job at her dream company, she didn’t want them thinking she was hypersensitive, fragile, or, heaven forbid, likely to file a sexual harassment complaint.  What to do… Jenna proceeded to exchange emails but would wait an acceptable amount of time to respond and selectively only respond to content that was professionally relevant.  His response looked something like this:




John Jackass <>                   Wed, Jan 15, 2014 at 3:14 AM

To: Jenna Professional <>

>Why are you being so formal?  I’m confused.

>I was trying to help you Jenna, but apparently from your curt response you don’t believe you need any help.


What the? She didn’t think she was being curt. Was she being curt?  She just didn’t want to talk about her favorite childhood memory or what happened in her last relationship with a complete stranger.  A stranger who by his own admission thinks she’s “gorgeous.”

His emails continued, bouncing back and forth between oddly accusatory statements suggesting that Jenna needed to be more friendly and familiar to apologies for his bluntness.  After only 4 days of being bombarded he called her.  Cringing, she didn’t answer.  He immediately called again.  This is what he said:

“Jenna, you’ve probably figured this out, but I have to tell you, I have a crush on you.”

I think you already know where this goes from here.  She politely rejects him, his pride gets hurt, he floods her inbox with a series of mildly psychotic emails accusing her of leading him on and then also not being a team player and acting overly sensitive.  “You will have to learn to communicate better if you ever want to work in this company.” My favorite email, whose subject line read “Quid Pro Quo,” described his experience with his first boss who helped him break into the job market who he stated “coincidentally” also “had a crush on [him].”

She ignored the emails.  They were not professional.  They were unwanted. And she did not know what to do.  She called her original referral source to tell him that things had gone awry with her contact and she didn’t know how to repair the relationship.  He said he would take care of it.  Meanwhile, the email abuse continued. Eventually, Jenna was able to communicate to her email stalker that she did not see any way for them to continue to work together and therefore would ask that they no longer be in contact.  And Jenna knew then that her dream of working for this company would be unrealized.

I believe my friend’s situation perfectly represents the real problems with sexual harassment we as women face in the workforce today, and in academia specifically.  What any HR rep would probably have told Jenna was that she ought to have told him to stop much earlier in the course of their email exchanges.  How does one know when they are crossing the line when someone doesn’t tell them? But Jenna wasn’t a colleague on the same playing field with this man.  He was in a position of potential power over Jenna.  She didn’t want to jeopardize her chances of a future job.

And here is the crux of why I think sexual harassment persists even in the context of mandatory harassment training in the workforce.  My friend literally felt coerced into not telling him to stop.  She had never asked to be hit on.  All she asked for was a business contact, the default expectation of their relationship given the parameters of their meeting, and he was the one who changed the game.  But when she didn’t reciprocate, it was she who lost out on a potential opportunity.  She was the one who suffered.  So how do you think my friend Jenna will respond next time? I know, heartbreaking isn’t it? She’ll probably take the abuse.