Low Dimensional Topology

March 6, 2016

Sexual harassment in academia

Filed under: Uncategorized — dmoskovich @ 11:18 am

An interesting piece has come out in the New York Times about sexual harassment in an academic setting:

A. Hope Jahren, She Wanted to Do Her Research. He Wanted to Talk ‘Feelings.’, New York Times, March 4, 2016.

What makes this piece especially interesting for me is that it’s written so that one understands the harasser, and is made to realize that “it could be me”. The pattern she describes sounds more common than one might like to admit- and the person writing the e-mail would almost certainly not be cogniscent of it being harassment. A male TA, professor, or supervisor, using the excuse of an altered state of mind (haven’t slept, drank too much) e-mails a love confession to a female student or colleague in a way that blames her, is a total power play, and is creepy and maybe a bit threatening (although of course he doesn’t see it that way). A wrong response to this first e-mail might mean that the victim gets harassed for a long time.

The author says that this first e-mail must be answered by firmly telling him (not asking him) to stop. But, Jahren laments, it never, never stops. While surely Jahren’s suggestion is sensible, a firm, “Dude, I have zero romantic interest in you. In addition you might want to read this piece by Jahren,” might, I think, be even more effective.

What do you all think? How prevalent is this type of sexual harassment in mathematics, and what can be done to effectively nip such harassment patterns in the bud?



  1. I’ve got to push back on the idea that there’s any reason the TA/professor/supervisor wouldn’t know it’s harassment. He is probably not thinking “I’m going to harass this student now” when he writes the email, but it should be obvious that someone with more power propositioning someone who is in some way dependent on him for the future of her education or career is putting the less powerful person in a position that is at the very least extremely uncomfortable. Not understanding that fact–even if the university does a crappy job at sexual harassment prevention training or writing/enforcing policies that protect people from harassment–is a level of cluelessness that is hard to fathom. Part of any job that is supervisory is an ability to treat the people you supervise appropriately, professionally, and respectfully. Even assuming there is no intent to abuse power or manipulate, hitting on students does not demonstrate competence in skills required for the job.

    I am very skeptical that people who do this would respond well to being told to read this piece. I mean, if you send it to them in response to an email propositioning you, you’re saying “hey, you’re a predator” and people get pretty defensive about that. Perhaps I am incorrect and people who think it’s OK to tell their students about their boners really just haven’t thought about what it feels like for the student. If you know people who may genuinely not understand the problem with this behavior, I sincerely hope *you* will share this article with them preemptively so students will not have to. If you’re wondering why women don’t use a firm “I’m not interested” more often, check out http://whenwomenrefuse.tumblr.com/.

    I know this comment probably comes across as harsh. I am fed up with sexual harassment and have trouble responding to it gently. I genuinely appreciate the fact that you are asking how big this problem is and how to help, and I do hope you will share Jahren’s article with people who may need it.

    Comment by Evelyn — March 8, 2016 @ 1:00 pm | Reply

    • Thanks for your reply!

      I myself, and I am sure others, have once written or have once seriously contemplated writing e-mails which basically follow this pattern not to students, but still to someone whom, if I think about it that way (and I didn’t), was in some way dependent. This was 15 years ago, but I didn’t realize it had been in any way harassment until reading this piece. I just had it framed completely differently in my mind- I wasn’t thinking in such terms. You know, we always focus on ourselves (me, anyway)? Well, I am very nervous, so I want the “confession” phrased so as to be able to back away from it (although I might not, and clearly people don’t), by blaming frames of mind, shifting it away from myself, using e-mail as a medium, and writing passively (this is something that happened) rather than actively (this is what I want).

      I think reading this piece sort of has the effect of making somebody realize where the other person is standing, and actually I think many people would react positively to it and not get defensive. In sexual harassment briefings, it always sounds like something awful we could never do ourselves, whereas this piece is powerful and can perhaps change behaviour precisely because one can see oneself in it, not exactly of course. And very different from the stuff universities usually say about such topics.

      I also think that somebody writing such an e-mail is doing so because they are nervous and want to be able to back away from it- providing them with a simple escape might be effective (answering clearly but gently). I would be curious as to whether this intuition matches reality. Indeed, I’m curious how this pattern can effectively be stopped at the first e-mail.

      Comment by dmoskovich — March 9, 2016 @ 5:49 am | Reply

      • Thinking further, what would have stopped me dead would have been a non-reaction (“the dog ate my e-mail”), with everything continuing normally as though nothing had happened. I would never have had the courage to resend the same e-mail or to say anything directly without the e-mail as the icebreaker.

        From the point of view of regulations I don’t think such a non-reaction offers the student any protection, but it does provide an easy face-saving way for the sender of the e-mail to give up. And it aways might have gotten caught in the spam-filter or accidentally deleted or whatever, as though it had never happened…

        Comment by dmoskovich — March 9, 2016 @ 8:57 am

    • Dear Professor Lamb,

      Your comment is not too harsh, but perhaps it is not cynical enough: sadly, I agree with Daniel that it is quite possible for the supervisor to consider an action like this without considering it harassment. I know this because there was a time in the past when I considered something like this myself. Just like Daniel, I never thought of it as harassment until I read Jahren’s article, even though I was definitely in a relative position of power. I wrote about it in this Facebook post, which I’ve made public: https://www.facebook.com/church.tom/posts/10102892399649715

      I know colleagues at multiple universities, including department chairs, who have taken this opportunity to share Jahren’s article with the whole department. It provides a surprisingly good opportunity to raise these issues. As Daniel says, it is much closer to reality (for most of us) than the truly egregious cases featured in harassment training.

      Addressing the original question, I would suggest replying with an e-mail saying “Dude, I have zero romantic interest in you. In addition you might want to read this piece by Jahren” and *cc it to the chair*. I know this seems drastic — but not as drastic as sending the letter in the first place!

      Thank you for writing about this, Daniel. These conversations are better had out in the open.

      Comment by Tom Church — March 9, 2016 @ 10:53 pm | Reply

      • Thanks to both of you for your replies. I must admit I am surprised to know people who have been on that side of the experience, or came close to it and who were genuinely not aware of the possible problem. Thank you for being honest about it. It’s helped me think more about how graduate students in particular might not even think about these actions as being harassment in part because they don’t think of themselves as being in positions of power. (I may be putting words in your mouth, but it’s an angle I hadn’t really thought about.)
        I’m glad people are sharing the article widely, and I kind of love the idea of cc’ing the chair on an email like that; sadly it can be so mortifying to be the object of unwanted attention that I think it would be really hard to go through with it.
        Tom, I love what you say in your facebook post about not thinking of harassment as something bad harassers do (although there are bad harassers, and they do this) but something that anyone can do if they don’t think about their actions and act professional. I think this generalizes. In a similar way, there aren’t Racists and Non-Racists, there are people who sometimes say or do things that are racist to various degrees. We would do well to stop thinking of these things with a binary, us vs them mentality.

        Comment by Evelyn — March 9, 2016 @ 11:24 pm

      • I’m surprised that there we agree about this topic, because it seems as though it would be such a controversial subject!

        Comment by dmoskovich — March 10, 2016 @ 6:50 am

  2. Another aspect to this is its relationship with Imposter Syndrome. Given that women tend to feel like imposters more often and more acutely than men, it is detrimental in the extreme to have an advisor confess, in effect, that his feedback may have been influenced by personal feelings. I had an advisor confess his love for me (admittedly after graduation, which is an improvement). My very first thought was, “Did he mean it when he said I have talent? When he said that I had made a good point?” I thought about the things he had done for me over the years, and wondered if I had deserved them more than the other people in the department. His confession was not only awkard and uncomfortable for me (three years later I still haven’t returned to his campus), it also made me question whether or not I even deserved to be there in the first place.

    (Note that I’m posting this privately at least in part because I know that he still does regular searches for me online, and I don’t want him to see this post.)

    Comment by anonymous — April 20, 2016 @ 1:06 pm | Reply

  3. I am 100% opposed to any kind of harassment, but I also think that word is used way too casually nowadays. It should not apply to one polite attempt by someone to ask someone else out on a date, nor to an “unwanted sexual advance” unless one of these things is clearly rejected but repeated anyhow. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but a very large number of marriages in the past occurred between people who met when one was a prof and the other was a grad student. It is only natural that when a hetero man and woman with common interests meet that romantic sparks might possibly result. Maybe we shouldn’t automatically assume there is one iota of implied threat (in the event the recipient of the invitation or advance reject it) unless some sort of threat or coercion be more than merely feared.

    Comment by M. Pace — June 13, 2016 @ 12:40 am | Reply

    • I don’t think that’s what is being discussed, though. Hope Jahren explains it much better than I could, but there’s an abuse of power issue here, and also a problem with reframing professional work as something else (and this is declared and imposed). In particular, no thought at all is given as to how it is going to effect the student professionally or of the position in which it places the student.

      Comment by dmoskovich — June 13, 2016 @ 2:19 am | Reply

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