Sexual Harassment

  1. A fellow faculty member – an older, tenured professor – has been sexually harassing me. What do I do? I’m afraid if I confront him directly that he’ll retaliate. I know there are university procedures to follow but I’m afraid that following them will let him know I am the one who filed a complaint, then I’ll risk not getting tenure, or even losing my job before I get up for tenure.
  2. I am a male faculty member and am aware that there is gender and sexual discrimination going on in my department. What is the best way to address it? Should I speak with offenders individually? Have a group meeting? Should I include female faculty too, or just focus on other male faculty?

Note from Kristen. This column has two questions on sexual harassment. Given the nature of the second question in particular, I sent this out to several male colleagues as well, people who are well known scholars and top APSA officials active in APSA and the profession. I include their responses, which often were asked to be anonymous.

Comment from a senior male colleague. This man writes that during his first few months as Department chair (now 30 years ago) he had to deal with two serious cases of sexual harassment. One led (with his strong support) to the firing of a tenured professor.  “At that time this question would have been realistic, though we handled it.”  But this male comments that he would honestly be shocked now to learn that any major university lacked strong protections for complainants in this situation.  (This is different from student-student harassment, where protection is harder, he thinks.) He notes further that if the question means “discrimination,” not “harassment,” then open political action (lobbying colleagues and administrators) is the way to go.  Whom to approach, in what sequence, and in what forum (public/private) should depend on the local politics, but those questions seem pretty straightforward.  He was puzzled by the question’s phrase: “Should I speak with offenders individually?” because he found “offender” sounds more like harassment than discrimination, but if the question refers to faculty members who are defending discriminatory policies (e.g., job searches, salaries, office sizes, etc.), then beginning in private conversations would be more effective. He concludes that public conversations (and even confrontations) seem perfectly legitimate response to this kind of discrimination.

Comment. The point about the distinction between discrimination and harassment is well taken.  Discrimination calls for systematic analysis and remedies rather than ad hoc treatment as in the case of harassment.  Because departmental leadership may well be at issue here, bringing up the topic can be tricky.  In any event, both private and public airing seem justified, the particulars being heavily dependent on the immediate environment.  Sooner or later, and preferably sooner, the chair has to be involved.

A senior colleague – male – comments: Usually, my recommendation would be to start with the departmental chair (unless he/she happens to be the harasser or known non-sympathizer!).  That was the procedure used for the one clear case that I know about here.  Doing so follows a chain of command, begins a paper trail, does not at that stage involve other people, and may in the best of circumstances result in changed behavior. The chair may be able to effect changed behavior without the offended person being identified.  Of course if the behavior is egregiously bad and patently actionable, then the next or even the first step would be to contact the relevant university office. Retaliation would be unlikely under those circumstances given the rules at work today.

At the other extreme let’s say the harassment is mild, maybe even ambiguous, and the harasser does not recognize his behavior as harassment (alright, maybe denial but let’s say it’s so), and is otherwise known as a fair-minded person.  It’s possible, maybe even desirable, that the offended person in that situation confront the offender instead of going to the chair.  Overall, one way to look at what course of action to take from a tenure type perspective is to argue that ongoing harassment seriously impedes progress toward tenure, so why isn’t it just as good or even better strategy to confront the offender or file a complaint and risk possible retribution.  At least his duplicity would be revealed and the ongoing harassment (hopefully) ended.  This is a “what have I got to lose” approach, admittedly not without risks.

Kristen Monroe adds: I want to add to an aspect of the problem that the previous speaker raised, and I think which is an important one: the extent to which we all often are simply insensitive. It’s important, if possible, to not frame the situation in a way that allows for no apology, no growth on the part of the insensitive person who may have made the sexist remark, engaged in the offensive behavior. (This is not to say we should turn a blind eye, saying “Boys will be boys” and count on self-correction.) But if we can encourage changed behavior on the part of the sexual harasser or – more likely – the person whose insensitivity has led him – or her – to sexually offensive behavior or even discrimination, then we’ve made a big change. Similarly, it is extremely important to empower the person who has been harassed. I had one student who was being harassed by a male faculty. The man would sneak up behind her and kiss her neck, or make sensitive remarks. She was from a country with traditional norms, and did not want her husband to know of her situation, for fear he would make a scene and force her to withdraw from graduate school. I respected her wishes on this and asked if I could talk with my dean (a man), without revealing either the student’s name or the name of the faculty member involved. She agreed. The dean asked if she would meet with him, and eventually she did. The dean walked her through a scenario in which they acted out a different type of behavior. She was to pretend she had been touched, at which point she would whirl around, point her finger in the man’s face, and say, with great anger and force: “If you ever touch me again, I will report you so fast your head will spin. “In another scenario, she told him she would knock his block off. The student felt tremendously supported by the dean – a man – and said that she felt empowered and informed on what to do in the situation. I thought this was a good resolution, and was pleased that she had trusted me enough to tell me about the situation in the first situation. I was proud of my dean for his way of dealing with it even though I also was unhappy that the solution essentially had protected the school and the offending faculty, who remained in his place to prey on other women, without any correction or without paying for his behavior in any way. But I felt that I had to respect the student’s wishes here, and to protect her privacy. I welcome any thoughts on a better solution to a situation such as this one since, as the initial question makes clear, the fear of retaliation against one who protests is a real one, based in some reality.

Comment from Martha Ackelsberg. Many institutions now have some sort of “diversity officer,” ombudsperson, or other person in such an office. Often, those are the folks who are best equipped to help individual faculty members figure out how to intervene in, and/or otherwise handle such situations. I have often found it useful to go outside the immediate department for advice of this sort. Depending on the advice/conversation, you might then decide to bring it up with the individual faculty members, with the chair, or to have the diversity officer suggest resources for a department (or, under appropriate circumstances, come to a meeting and provide some information/workshop/guidance). (Martha Ackelsberg, Smith College)

Comment from Sara Mitchell: I think a good first step is to speak with the Department Chair about what you have observed or heard. The Chair could discuss the issues with the Department’s Executive Committee (if one exists) and the entire department at a faculty meeting. If you are more senior, you may ask to add the general topic to the agenda of a faculty meeting. If you are not comfortable paying those costs (e.g. as a more junior person), then either find a senior ally who can help you raise the issues or speak with the Chair. How private or public the response could be depends on the nature of the problem. Let’s imagine that senior male faculty are discriminating against junior female faculty in some manner. It could be difficult to address that as a collective in a faculty meeting if the offenders make up a larger percentage of the senior faculty. Another thing that the Department Chair could be encouraged to do is share articles that address particular gender discrimination issues in the profession (e.g. citations, publications, student evaluations) with all faculty members. Really serious discrimination issues should be raised with higher level administrators. (Sara Mitchell, Iowa)

From Michelle Swers. I would endorse Martha’s idea of speaking to the diversity officer. Another possibility is if the department does provide a faculty mentor to junior faculty and the person has a good relationship with that senior faculty mentor they could discuss the concern and how to proceed with them.  Otherwise I think approaching the department chair is a good suggestion.   Michele

From Anonymous (get approval before sending out): In case you haven’t seen the Science article: click here!

For what they are worth, here are a (very) few thoughts on your question.

#1 is both the easiest & hardest–easiest because it doesn’t raise the nasty question of dealing with colleagues, but it is also probably hardest to solve.  Of course the person should avail herself (yes, it could be himself, but almost never is) of all the university rights, such as time off & day care (if the person believes in day care).  In general, as much child care as the couple feels comfortable with should be out-sourced even at some expense, because this is an investment.  But there are real limits here, especially if the child is anything other than a perfect angel.  Worry & love can’t be outsourced, & they take time, attention, & energy.  Maybe universities should put more time on the tenure clock.

#2–I’d advise going to a trusted senior faculty member, although of course is he/she talks to the offender it may give away that the person has complained.  But that person (& I hope others) can at least partially protect the person when she comes up for promotion.

#3–not sure.  There often is an ombudsperson in the university, & that would be my first stop.  In addition, I’d talk to colleagues who I have reason to believe would share my views that we have to put a stop to this.

Interesting that we–or at least I–haven’t heard of harassment cases in Poli Sci recently, but does this mean that a) things have gotten better; b) I’m just out of the loop; or c) it’s been subtler & deeply hidden.

Another private comment: My only concern is that in the section on sexual harassment you strongly recommend reporting even more subtle cases, before you suggest consultation with a trusted source.  I’m a little less confident than you, perhaps, about how well these mechanisms work at every school.  Maybe others on this list can suggest an approach that recognizes the possibility of shortcomings in the system designed to address this problem while encouraging taking positive action.

Another comment: Regarding sexual harassment, maybe you could say something like, “If the sexual harassment or discrimination is not overt (as in, subtle comments that still have the effect of making you uncomfortable), see if you can consult with a trusted source.  In many cases reporting the incident officially will be good both for your sake and because it could be a part of an ongoing problem.  You should find out what arrangements your university has for doing this reporting completely privately.   Universities are now required by law to have such arrangements. [I’m pretty sure this is true for all universities but there may be exceptions], but they vary greatly from university to university. “Do others on this list have any suggestions for wording in this tricky matter?   I just wrote this out a couple of minutes ago – does it seem right?

Another reader commented on the above comment: I would add to/amend these comment by noting that, while universities are required to have reporting protocols, they can be different. I don’t know whether they are all required to have a way to report “completely privately,” or, more to the point, what, exactly, “completely privately” could mean. Ultimately, the person may have to make her/himself known… but there should be ways to encourage folks to report in whatever ways they can, given the varied institutional practices/rules.