How to Survive Sexual Harassment
Approximately five years ago, I decided to take a break from
graduate school and found a job as a telescope operator. I
had intended to stay for two years. I'm still here. Within
days of beginning my new job, my supervisor had informed
over 30% of the employees that my name was "Cupcake"
and I was to be referred to as such. His response to my
increasingly forceful objections was that I had come to work
in a family and was expected to behave as a member of that
family. Over the next two years, my working hours as well
as most of my leisure time on site was devoted to coping
with the unwanted "attentions" of seventeen male
employees, seven regular observers and the stand-offish
behavior of nearly everyone else with whom I came into
contact with respect to my "job". Within eight months, my
home had been invaded as well, with numerous phone calls
made with the intentions of solving "the problem",
expressing concern over "the problem" and, eventually
expressing the desire to see me dead.
The results were what I believe to be one of the best sexual
harassment policies ever adopted by an organization and the
allowance to do what I originally came here to do - my job.
Not that that's the end of the story. It took another year for
people to begin behaving toward me with decency. And just
as I was beginning to relax, six months after that, a bullet
hit the car I was driving back from the site. Not that
necessarily has anything to do with the harassment. The
FBI never did look into it that closely. But I seem to have
the distinction of being the only person in the history of the
observatory to have had this experience.
One of the common themes issuing from the supervisor
who set off the firestorm was that it didn't matter that there
were rules against carrying firearms on observatory grounds,
most people did. Such remarks made me suspect that people
were capable of doing things which I had not, until that
point, been able to imagine. I use the past tense here
because, not only has the harassment ceased, but my former
supervisor no longer resides in the same state, a circumstance which forced him to give up his job with this
My intentions in writing this article are not to condemn,
berate, or even imply the existence of evil intentions. My
purposes here are to pass along what I believe to be effective
attitudes, coping mechanisms and procedures for dealing
with sexual harassment in the workplace, even when it seeps
into one's everyday existence (which I think it always does).
I Know You're Out There
Over the last three years, I have collected anecdotal
information about the degree of harassment, discrimination
and criminal behavior directed at women in astronomy
because of the people with whom they work or the locations
in which they find themselves because of their work. These
stories were not elicited by me, but I believe that many of
them came out because my complaints were not kept
confidential and observers were frequently informed of "my
reputation" upon arrival for their runs. Others in this
somewhat sprawling organization were aware of my
complaints for similar reasons.
I have heard of six women who have had these types of
problems. Three are/were astronomers, three, including
myself, are/were technical/engineering staff. Of these, two
were stalked by fellow employees, two were harassed
because of their gender, one was a victim of discriminatory
hiring practices and one was assaulted in the building in
which she worked. One left astronomy because the situation
was affecting her health, one is pursuing research without a
position, one took a job in another country and the other
three are still working at the same places. While I hesitate
to comment on the mental states of others, it was clear in
the relating of these stories that it is nearly impossible for
three of the tellers to avoid tears and one uses alcohol to deal
with the issue. Four filed police reports and one filed a law
As the stories go, out of twenty-six people complained
against, one person was arrested and one was fired.
I stress that the information above is anecdotal. I heard of
all of it as it was occurring, however. While I am aware of
the ultimate career fates of these individuals, I am not aware
of how much worse their situations may have become.
What struck me most of all about these people is that all of
them were graduate students, postdocs, untenured or working
their first "real" job. Five were in their twenties. At the time
that these events were occurring, only two were married. It
was the unmarried women who were stalked and who
experienced group harassment. So, you see, I know you're
out there and I know you're taking it. For those of you who
feel that this is just part of life, more power to you and good
luck in your careers. For those of you who feel like you've
just been blindsided, read on.
Since I was conveniently provided with sufficient time and
opportunity to observe and analyze the individuals about
whose behavior I complained and so many were kind enough
to offer up their more unlikable sides for my scrutiny, I feel
that I have a fairly good understanding of the different types
of harassers involved, their motives (at least the
superficial ones) and general trends. These include:
1.) The Instigators
2.) The Violent Types Looking for an Excuse
3.) The Followers
4.) The Clueless
The Instigator was the most annoying. He insisted that his
behavior was not only acceptable, even though it infringed
on my personal space ("It's a free country") but that in no
way did he have an effect on either me or others. The
Instigator was my supervisor. He was simply ineducable.
For whatever reason, he had to be right and was completely
unwilling to examine any alternative. He seemed unable to
distinguish between a personal romantic relationship and a
The Violent Types Looking for an Excuse were those who
bragged about putting their ex-wives' heads through the
wall, the number of guns they owned and the number of
times they had been arrested - these are the ones who
advertise that they have adversely affected the personal
lives of others. Where I work, one in particular had
demonstrated violent behavioral tendencies against others in
the observatory in the past and, when specifically told to
leave me alone, found other targets after the official "harassment" stage was over. As comedian Brett Butler
might say, "Those boys just ain't right."
The Followers were those who either jumped on the
bandwagon (her supervisor is doing it so it must be all
right) or who chose to take personally the complaint I had
filed against other people and retaliated with harassment.
(For example, after telling another person in the room an
obscene joke, turning to me and saying, "Well, that shut her
up."). The Followers seemed to come in a never-ending
stream of low-level offenders determined to maintain a
hostile environment. They were on the gossip train for
whatever reason, tending to believe the rumors without
question. The effects of the complaint not being kept
confidential made the atmosphere so pervasive that for
extended periods of time, I did not "go to work", I "dealt
with harassment". Small groups of fellow employees would
hang out around my work area, watching my reaction as one
or another of them made offensive remarks.
I'm certain that many of the visiting astronomers who
participated were uncomfortable with being presented with
such an atmosphere in which to observe and simply did not
know how to deal with it. Others seemed to be following
some agenda of their own. It was not uncommon to walk
into the control room to relieve the previous shift and be
confronted with an astronomer whom I had never met
addressing my "reputation" without addressing me to the
point that he or she didn't even bother to introduce him
or herself. For example, "I heard you didn't like dirty
pictures so I put one on the wall for you." This particular
display turned out to be the face of Sydney Wolff. Perhaps
the astronomer simply thought he was being clever. Since
the death threat had been made anonymously, I was
particularly nervous about those who knew nothing, but
chose to get involved in this fashion.
I include both genders when making this point, because The
Followers turned out to come from both. A female
astronomer chose to parrot remarks reportedly made by a
friend of hers at the observatory. He supposedly said about
me "She's weak. She'll quit. And that's a good thing because
women don't belong up there anyway." It was a curious
analysis considering that I had only encountered him once.
She then stated that I was making her look bad and affecting
her relationship with the observatory.
The Clueless were those whose behavior and verbal expression
had been obscene or condescending for so long in environments in which this had been acceptable that they
seemed to be just "being themselves". The Clueless were
actually the most harmless of them all and tended to be
perfectly nice people who were educable. One of the most
enlightening exchanges came at a time when I was under
so much stress that any one incident made me as angry as
another. Someone called me "Dear" one too many times. I
snapped out "Don't call me that." He was genuinely
concerned and said "But I call my wife that all the time." I
responded with "And in what way do I resemble your wife?"
He thought about it. We never had a problem again and I
did not include the incident in my complaints.
"Are You Sure You're Not Imagining Things?"
What The People In Charge Say When I Suspect
They Don't Actually Want To Deal With The
I was appalled when a member of management, after making
a blunder in dealing with my complaint, became impatient
during a phone conversation about the situation and, rather
than addressing the issue, blurted out "Are you sure you're
not just imagining things?" My self-esteem and dignity took
a nose-dive that afternoon. The question effectively ended
the conversation but, after some serious thought, I realized
that all kinds of like things would probably be said and,
although I didn't know what those things would be, I should
probably be on my guard during any conversation with a "superior". Sure enough, some of the darndest things came
out. Which brings me to the first suggestion: never
be surprised by what you hear. The following is a brief list
of what was said to me.
- "There's a job opening at a different site. Would you
like to go there?" This was actually presented by someone without authority who was acting as a go-between for
management. The manager who had him make this inquiry
later acknowledged doing so.
- "I hear that you don't go to the company picnics.
Maybe they just need to get to know you better."
- "Have you talked to" the only other woman who had
worked on the site in the previous ten years and the only
other woman supervised by the same individual? "She may
have some suggestions." My supervisor was living with her
at the time.
- "You need to be a member of this family. Do you think
you can do that?"
- "You scored an 'excellent' on everything in your
review with the exception of 'Ability to work with other
employees'. I gave you a 'poor' for that."
- From a member of an "Oversight" Committee: "I had
you checked out."
- "We installed a deadbolt on the door of your dorm
and broke the key off in the lock. Do you feel safe now?"
- "No one here bought the Playboy subscription. It was a
gift to the observatory."
- "But I call my secretaries, 'Cupcake'."
- "Want to go skinny-dipping?"
I made complaints to five levels of management before a
member of the "Oversight" committee reportedly made a
comment to another member that "this has to stop" - and it
did. I wish to emphasize, however, that other levels of
management were addressing "the problem". It is likely that
they actually thought that they were doing what was best for
everyone concerned. It took a certain type of personality to
say "this stops now". I also wish to emphasize that, as a
result of actual, effective action taken (a policy written by
panel of employees, harassment training, etc.), the
harassment became, for a short time, more intense and
physically threatening than it ever had been. It was during the period of time that "the problem" was being solved that I
was faced with filing reports with outside law
There are several points that I think are valuable to make
about management, particularly in this situation.
- The people in charge were hired because they, for the
most part, hold Ph.D.'s in astronomy or physics not because
of their management ability. How this qualifies them to do
anything other than "publish or perish" is a mystery to me.
It's not that they don’t need to know how to handle
personnel problems, it's that they probably don't. If a
member of management does not handle the complaint in
a timely manner, go to the next level.
- When you go the next level, the member of management
that you just bypassed will probably be personally offended.
This will add to your problems – hopefully only
temporarily. I stand by the recommendation however because
of the next point.
- If your complaints are not handled in a timely and
effective manner (and legally kept confidential), there exists
the possibility that the person or people about whom you
have complained will feel that they have been licensed to
continue and intensify the harassment. There may be
others may who will then feel licensed to become
Followers. Depending on the type of harassment you are
experiencing, you could well find that it is no longer a
question of harassment – you and your belongings could
be in physical danger.
- Under no circumstances whatsoever is any member of
management at your place of employment or
schooling qualified to handle any incident which threatens
your person or property. These incidents are defined as
misdemeanors and felonies. They include, but are not limited
to: verbal or written threats to your person or property,
burglary, vandalism and assault (which, last I checked,
involved any physical contact without an express personal
invitation). Remember that if you dial 911, your manager,
dean or graduate advisor will not answer the call. The person
who will answer the call made a different career choice.
Document everything. Write down details of every incident
including time, date, place, who else was within hearing
distance or may have witnessed the occurrence. If possible,
write down what was said, verbatim. If you cannot
remember what was said word for word, use as many phrases
as possible in your description but do not claim that it is
verbatim. Be precise.
If possible, either tape record conversations with
management or have a third party not involved with the
incidents (preferably not involved with your institution)
present during meetings. If you and the member of
management cannot agree on who should be present, each of
you should invite the individual of your choice. Have the
manager write up a summary of what was discussed and
promised and sign it. If you agree with everything in the
summary, sign it yourself and provide him/her with a copy.
Keep the original for yourself.
While I believe that you legally must inform a caller if you
are recording the phone call, I would recommend doing that as well. If nothing else, it might cut short a harassing phone
Inform someone not involved with the institution of what
is going on. This could be the Equal Employment
Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Last I checked it had a
six month backlog, however complaints should be filed with
them, regardless. A record with this agency is very
important in the event you choose to file a lawsuit but it
probably cannot handle the situation in a timely manner. If
you have a friend or family member who is willing to keep
track of the situation, let him or her know the details so that
he or she can back you up in court. Remember that any
incident about which you are completely silent except
with "interested" parties, in effect, did not happen.
Look into all of the federal and state laws, city ordinances
and rules and restrictions specified for your institution,
depending on who funds it. Find out who the good
sexual harassment attorneys are in your area. If you have no
money, find the ones who do pro bono work.
Document as you go whether or not you actually decide to
try to get the issue resolved. If you do decide to go further,
file with the EEOC and concurrently begin the procedures
specified by your institution. If your institution does not
have a harassment policy, start with the member of
management above the highest position of your harasser(s).
Keep moving up as you feel it is necessary to do so. If the
members of management you bypass are true professionals, they will recognize that you do not intend personal offense
but are trying to get the issue resolved. If your job is
threatened or a member of management just "goes too far" in
your opinion, sue. File police reports as necessary.
There is a no more effective method of getting management
to pay attention then filing a police report and putting your
institution's phone number on it. Let management know
you have done so and give them the case number. This
should remove any lingering doubts about your level
of seriousness and that of the situation.
There are many things that may be useful to keep in mind.
You have gone to work or school with the intention of
furthering your career or learning/acquiring a degree. While
there are personal reasons for doing these things, the
environment you have entered is a professional one. When
someone harasses you, he or she is attacking you
personally. While I found it useful to try to figure out why
my fellow employees were doing these things, I did so for
the purposes of trying to get a handle on the situation.
Everything that was occurring seemed to be completely out
of my control and it was helpful for me to try to regain
some sort of coherent mental picture. At no time should
these conclusions lead you to sympathize with your
harasser(s) in such a way that it is to your own detriment.
Your "understanding" of them does not excuse their
behavior. If their behavior undermines you and is genderbased,
their behavior is not only unprofessional but illegal
as well. What you are experiencing has nothing to do with
your job or your schooling. It is not part of your job
description, or a condition of acceptance of that job, that you
take on this personal stress which the individuals
introducing that stress into your life probably have never
As with so many things in life, it is tempting to dwell on
the concept that "this can't/shouldn't be happening". Your
problems will be resolved sooner if you address the
harassment in terms of "this is happening" – reality, not
wishful thinking. Figure out what you are willing to "take",
what your limits are and monitor the situation
closely. When it goes beyond what you are willing to deal
with, address it. Be focussed. This is nearly impossible,
which brings me to my next point.
You will experience a loss of perspective, the degree of
which depends on the level of stress you are experiencing. If
you are experiencing any level of stress which is
uncomfortable, get a professional counselor. While I realize
that there is great social pressure to avoid this
coping method, I would urge you to ignore that kind of
pressure. There is also a lot of social pressure for women
not to enter science and you have decided to ignore that in
order to further your goals. This is just another one of those
things. An objective professional can tell you if you are
rationalizing or excusing others' behavior and how to deal
with the extra stress. Remember that stress will affect
your behavior and may cause physical problems. A
counselor can help you find ways to stay on an even keel
and avert physical problems.
For all their good (or otherwise) intentions, the people who
have not experienced what you are going through do not
understand. They are susceptible to rumor, to rationalization,
and to a general feeling that taking your side may affect their
careers. If someone appears to be supporting you and then
seems to suddenly turn on you, do your best not to take it
personally. They have their own concerns.
"Boys" will not just be "boys". There are many men who
have put a great deal of thought into their philosophies of
life and in how best to treat others. If you find that your
manager feels that men are meant to be "rowdy" and women "sweet", I suggest dismissing this individual altogether and
going up to the next level.
Accept the very real possibility that, no matter what
happens, no one will apologize. On the other hand, someone
may thank you.
The managers to whom you are speaking were hired to
further their institutions’ goals. Oftentimes, the concerns of
the individual are not perceived as corresponding with the
goals of that institution. You may find that it is your task
to convince them otherwise.
Stick to the facts. Do not extrapolate or speculate when
talking with management unless specifically requested to do
so. Even then, be careful. Do not sign anything that states
that you made such statements without the qualification
that the member of management requested that you do so.
Don't do anything with which you are not comfortable or
which might present an avenue for complaint from a third
party. "Fighting fire with fire" is fine as long as it does not
undermine your position. If the exhortation to do the same
sorts of thing in retaliation seems odd to you, that's because
it is. Posting a pornographic workstation background
depicting males in response to the pornographic
background depicting females may get you a complaint from
a male. Some harassers will look for an opportunity to
respond to your harassment complaint with one of their
own. Don't be surprised if an incident is fabricated in order
to do this.
Because sexual harassment addresses personal issues rather than legitimate professional ones, sabotage is likely. If you
keep personal items at work or school, keep them out of
reach. This includes files in your computer account, e-mail,
your desktop boombox and your break room coffee/tea cup.
Professional or school projects also may be at risk. Keep
backups, preferably at home. People can retaliate against
you professionally but for personal reasons.
You are a taxpayer. Occasionally you may find that the police force is less willing to take your case seriously if you
tell them that you are a victim of sexual harassment.
Invariably, this comes up when filing a report because
asking about known enemies is standard procedure. When
you say yes (and do say yes), they will ask you who and
why. Tell them. His or her attitude toward you may change.
Remain firm. You are a taxpayer.
Be prepared to lose. Don't dwell on the thought but know
that you may have to make other arrangements for your
career. If management makes it clear that you are
expendable, hope that the threat of a lawsuit turns
them around. Let your lawyer inform them. I wouldn't
recommend threatening them yourself.
Finally, never say anything you don't mean or are not
willing to follow through on. Doing so will undermine your
case and call your credibility into further question. I say "further" because I don't know of an instance in which the
complainant's credibility was not called into
question. Remember that the credibility of the accusation
should be called into question but any assumptions made on
the supposed credibility of the individual in general should
be disallowed. You are not on trial. If you find yourself in
that position, your case is not being handled in an acceptable
manner. While I don't know how to avoid this
phenomenon, it's best to acknowledge it in order to help
keep things in perspective.
I wish you good luck. May you find the person in
management who has the guts to say "this has to stop" - and
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