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How to handle a sexual harasser

Excellent scientists are good at recognizing patterns within masses of phenomena. In an example that has been getting wide attention in the media—both journalistic and social—University of Hawaii, Manoa, geobiologist A. Hope Jahren, a full professor who has spent decades building a successful career in academe, warns fellow female scientists of one pattern they are pretty likely to encounter as they try to make their way in academic science: the telltale strategy of a male colleague or superior bent on an exploitative sexual relationship.

“She Wanted to Do Her Research. He Wanted to Talk ‘Feelings.’” is the title of Jahren’s New York Times essay, published 4 March, in which she explains how faculty harassers endeavor to lure unsuspecting women researchers into supposedly special relationships that somehow end up taking a pretty predictable course. The campaign often begins with an email subject line that “is a bit off,” Jahren writes. Instead of discussing professional matters, such as research or the running of the lab, it describes “unfamiliar” emotions the man is purportedly feeling, apparently aroused by the unique wonderfulness and allure of the woman. Women are, of course, uniquely wonderful, each doubtlessly endowed with traits that would legitimately endear her to colleagues and associates. But this first creepy communiqué and the emails and oral interactions that follow are not expressions of genuine affection or regard, but subtle exercises of the power held by a senior academic figure over a subordinate dependent on him for any hope of career advancement.

This isn’t to say that true love cannot blossom between a powerful academic figure and a less powerful one during those long hours at the lab bench. I recently attended the wedding of a male science professor at a prominent university and one of his female Ph.D. graduates. But this happy couple, regardless of whatever genuine feelings they may have harbored during her years as his student, waited to become romantically involved until after she finished her degree and went on to a position unrelated to the professor or his institution. This may have meant years of restraint, but it expresses the respect and care fundamental to real and lasting love.

That is not so for the advances of the predatory creeps whom Jahren describes. Through a series of increasingly entangling steps that she catalogs, they move in for the kill without regard to propriety or the intended victim’s welfare.

Fortunately, Jahren also provides sound and clear-eyed advice on what women should do. She advises the women who consult her to firmly nip advances in the bud at the first incident. “[T]he first email is important because it is the one that the powers that be will point to and say, ‘Why didn’t you do something when you first got this?’” Jahren writes. “[W]rite back immediately, telling (not asking) him to stop.” When helping a woman deal with unwanted approaches, she continues, “I teach her to draw strong professional boundaries and then to enforce them, not because she should have to, but because nobody else will.” Also, “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.”

This advice may not be wholly satisfying because, as Jahren goes on to indicate, in many cases this is not enough to make the would-be abuser desist. The stymied predator might even try to exact retribution, a possibility Jahren does not explicitly address. But knowing the pattern for what it is ought to help women persevere, protect themselves, and preserve their dignity and resolve. And the complete, accumulated record will provide not only proof of the offense but defense against accusations of collusion should the woman make a formal complaint.

More cases among prominent senior scientists will probably be necessary before the word really gets out to the most arrogant and recalcitrant miscreants that such predatory activity is reprehensible. It will also probably take the determination of principled senior scientists willing to call out colleagues on unacceptable behavior. In the meantime, however, Jahren’s advice and observations are worth the attention of every academic scientist regardless of their gender.

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