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How to Survive Sexual Harassment

June 1996


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 particular institution.

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 suit.

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.

The Harassers

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 professional one.

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?" Or What The People In Charge Say When I Suspect They Don't Actually Want To Deal With The Situation

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.

  1. "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.
  2. "I hear that you don't go to the company picnics. Maybe they just need to get to know you better."
  3. "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.
  4. "You need to be a member of this family. Do you think you can do that?"
  5. "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."
  6. From a member of an "Oversight" Committee: "I had you checked out."
  7. "We installed a deadbolt on the door of your dorm and broke the key off in the lock. Do you feel safe now?"
  8. "No one here bought the Playboy subscription. It was a gift to the observatory."
  9. "But I call my secretaries, 'Cupcake'."
  10. "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 enforcement agencies.

There are several points that I think are valuable to make about management, particularly in this situation.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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 call.

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 experienced themselves.

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.

Good Luck

I wish you good luck. May you find the person in management who has the guts to say "this has to stop" - and it does.

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