Wednesday, February 20, 2008

On Innuendo

Although I have a continuous supply of my own experiences involving women-in-science issues and phenomena, I also have a group of friends who feed me additional anecdotes. Today's story comes from one of my informants, who recently attended an exam-related meeting involving 4 male faculty and a female graduate student, and who was bothered by the choice of words of one of the other male professors at the meeting.

The male professor in question has a long history of inappropriate behavior with women students. As far as I know, he stopped sleeping with undergraduate students at least 20 years ago when he was reprimanded and temporarily banned from unsupervised interactions with students. In more recent years, he has confined himself to innuendo and occasional 'casual' touching of women students (hand on arm, arm around shoulders, 'friendly' hugs). It's hard to tell if his more recent behavior would seem as sinister without his prior history.

This post is not about why he wasn't fired and why he continues to lurk the halls of academe, but is instead about his current interactions with colleagues and students. People who know his history find some of his current actions and words offensive, although perhaps the same words and actions would not be offensive for someone without his record of appalling behavior.

This much is clear to me: He should not touch women students ever. More difficult is the 'free speech' issue. If this professor leans close to a female graduate student in a committee meeting and makes a remark that the other faculty present think is inappropriate innuendo, he can do that. He shouldn't, but he can and he does.

It is obvious to me that the best way to deal with this particular person is to stop inviting him to be on graduate student committees, and, for his colleagues who are so inclined, to tell him why. Students and advisors typically have a choice in the members of examining committees, within certain limits to assure objectivity and breadth. If someone cannot behave in a professional way, this person's access to graduate students can easily be reduced without any formal action or attempt to restrict what words he can use. This is something that individual advisors can do. There should be substantive reasons for making such a decision, but if that's the case, just do it.


kezdro said...

Umm..while I do find the article interesting - was there an actual _story_ that was supposed to be in there? No offense meant - just not sure, by the phrasing of the article, if something was left out.

Anonymous said...

It began with a stare. A stare at my chest and then the zipper on my pants. He was semi-famous and promoted in the department. He was seen as an advocate for women in science. I fell for him. It was stupid, I know, but he made me feel special. It was not only the stares. It was yelling at me, and then telling me, "I was not too rough on you, was I?" or "I just want you to take this..", or go ahead and walk in front of me. He threaten to fire me if I told anyone. I was dependent on him for letters of recommendation. I was scared to speak out.
Here are a few warning signs of sexual harrassement:
1.) Inappropriate staring at one's chest and/or zipper.
2.) Someone threating to fire you.
3.) Emails late at night.
4.) Someone telling you how beautiful you are.
5.) Females dressing inappropriately in the department; tight and revealing clothes.

What to do, FSP, if you depend on this person for recommendation of letters?

Wendy said...

This isn't just the job of the advisor, but in cases like this, the job of the rest of the committee. I think it's certainly not out of line for your male informant (assuming he wasn't the advisor) to have brought up that this person should not sit on the committee of a female student.

Anonymous said...

Shouldn't the option to complain be left with the students who are the target of offensive behavior? If they do not find his behavior offensive (because he has toned it down), then is there an issue here? How long should the guy have to pay for an earlier mistake that he has apparently responded to by correcting his behavior? You said that current people wouldn't find the small behaviors offensive, but they are meaningful in the context of his past actions. If that is true, grow up and focus on a real problem. Your vendetta is showing. You can't fire someone just because you don't like something he did decades ago, that didn't rise to a firing offense then. You are scary and I wouldn't want to be on a faculty with someone like you.

Female Science Professor said...

OK -- I'll be sure to tell my colleague that I have a vendetta against his colleague, that sleeping with undergraduate students (who are taking a class from you) doesn't "rise to a firing offense" as long as wise administrators don't think it does, and that he should tell the grad student that she is free to complain about the behavior of a professor on her examining committee. Give your students a hug for me! I'm sure they won't mind, though of course they will feel free to tell you if they do.

Ms.PhD said...

Yeesh. This sounds all too familiar.

I'm torn about what to say. On the one hand, I understand why you don't want to confront this person, or can't. I know the rules of engagement in academia: don't ever engage.

On the other hand, it's like my post the other day about winning the battle and losing the war.

Does this guy even understand what he's doing wrong, and why? Don't we have some obligation to educate each other, as well as students? At the very least, if he can't be fired, is he attending some kind of mandatory sexual harrassment classes? If we can't punish him, can we at least inconvenience him?

If you just maneuver around him, he's not going to learn from the experience, and neither is anyone else, except to send a message that these things won't change, we just have to work around them? Because even if you don't mean to, that is the message you're sending.

I guess my point is, there's no consequence for keeping him off of student's committees. Heck, most professors I know would be grateful never to be asked. They don't sit around and moan, "Oh why didn't she ask ME???"

Anonymous said...

I'm a grad student who has worked with many men, but only been verbally harassed by one professor. He was new to the dept., but was apparently noted for it at his previous university. Most of it was pretty subtle, but some not so much. Stuff like, "I bet that you would look really nice in a bikini." I never said anything formally, but I did tell all of the other female students who worked with him (I was also warned ahead of time). What could I do? I need ed the job and the recommendation. What, file a formal complaint saying that Prof. SoandSo said that I would look nice in a bathing suit? Inappropriate, yes, but an offense to fire someone over, no. He said/did worse things to other women and they didn't complain, and I wasn't going to complain for them. I'm not saying it's right, I'm just giving an example of my experience.

I'm at a different place now and the way we deal with the occasional perv is just to warn other women, say things like watch out he's a little "handsy" or be careful he said this to me before. That sort of thing. Maybe Anonymous #2 thinks that these issues should all be explicitly documented and formally discussed in the appropriate venues (whatever they are), but in my experience it doesn't happen like that. For the most part, female graduate students don't feel comfortable/able to complain so they just take it.

These are some really gray areas and complaining about this sort of inappropriate behavior may make the student seem prudish and overly sensitive.

Helen said...

"Here are a few warning signs of sexual harrassement:
5.) Females dressing inappropriately in the department; tight and revealing clothes."

I'm really confused by this -- how does clothing constitute sexual harassment? And if it somehow can, that must be true for both genders, not just one. How does the above quote make any sense?

lost academic said...

It's called a power relationship, and unfortunately, most department and colleges have chosen not to deal with the fallout from the inevitable abuse of them until problems arise that cannot be avoided, brushed aside, or easily hidden. When two people are by definition in their official roles unequal in status, there can simply not be equality in a relationship between them, and the wisdom lies in preventing any accidental OR intentional abuse of either position--usually the upper.

This isn't a place where we can shrug off our responsibility and say, well, if it were a problem, the targeted person or people would say something, and because she/they don't, it must not be a problem. Of course they don't. Most people never do. That's why it's your job to speak up if you are in any sort of position to do so (generic you, all of you). And thus, it's why it's so important for there to be clear rules about it, so that if the chairs and deans and committees end up waffling and ducking the issues, they are doing it in clear, recordable defiance with the regulations that have been set forth, and they, too, can be held accountable.

Sometimes it takes asking yourself: would I want everyone to stand by and watch while that happened to my son or daughter?

Anonymous said...

I appreciate lost academic's reference to the accidental abuse of power. I've found that most folks want to be perceived as doing the right thing, whether they really want to do it or not. It's often helpful to frame comments about inappropriate behavior in terms of how others might perceive them. While I'm not a fan of allowing true wrong-doers to save face, offering that option goes a long way toward the goal of stopping the offensive behavior.

usagibrian said...

Shouldn't the option to complain be left with the students who are the target of offensive behavior?

No, it is the responsibility of all employees of the institution, faculty especially, to report inappropriate behavior to the university office responsible for dealing with sexual harassment. Doubly so in the case of a tenured faculty member previously disciplined for a similar infraction. This is not a "vendetta." This is appropriate concern for a colleague, who is setting himself up for serious legal repercussions, and the institution, which can be held liable on multiple fronts for failing to take appropriate action to protect students from a known predator. All it takes is one student with a good lawyer (and there are a few "old-timers" who would do well to remember exactly how many mothers, aunts, and sisters fit the description of "good lawyer" in the contemporary world). Twenty years ago, one could avoid firing for sleeping with undergraduates. Today, jail time is not completely out of the realm of possibility.

While I find behavior like this abhorrent on its face, as an administrator, I sometimes wish I could slap a few senior faculty (and Chairs) across the face to wake them the hell up. This is a serious issue of institutional liability that may come back to bite the school on some very sensitive spots, even years after the event (anyone else want to be a fly on the wall at the next conference when this student meets someone who was in his group 10 years ago and they start comparing notes?). No one is worth that kind of risk, I don't care how much grant money he's pulling in (amortize it against increased liability premiums for the next decade or two, and it's not even a close contest).

Aroza said...

Anonymous#2, I am the one who is scared I would ever be on a faculty with someone like you! Active caring for your colegues and for your institution is not 'vendetta', it is what a responsible adult does.

Anonymous said...

I didn't hear you describe him doing anything offensive. You seem to want to punish him because of the possibility he might do something offensive. The world doesn't work that way. Grad students are ADULTS. There are existing protections for them when sexual harrassment actually occurs. It is not your job to entirely prevent any contact between a male professor and a female student -- just because you idiots have suspicions. Our mandatory sexual harrassment training clearly points out that the accused have rights too, not just the accusers. You apparently have not participated in such a training program. I am also unimpressed by a Dept Chair that would permit a group of female professors to gang up on a colleague on the basis of the innocuous acts described in your post.

Anonymous said...

Actually, at the mandatory university sexual harassment training course that I attended, the presenters drew a comparison between the practices of both academia and the private sector, which they claimed to be taking as a model.
It turns out that in the private sector a behavior (or pattern thereof) such as described by FSP and some of the posters (even restricted to comments, e.g., about someone may look good in a bikini) is regarded as inappropriate, and not tolerated. It is dealt with fairly swiftly, with reprimands, suspensions and if necessary termination.
The difference was stressed between a single instance, and a pattern of repeated actions, deemed inappropriate and triggering reports from different employees.
In particular, the following was made clear:
1) In the corporate sector, employees may report instances of inappropriate behavior that they witnessed, even if they were not the target
2) A formal complaint need not be initiated by the person who is being harassed.
I guess in industry they have the idea that some behavior negatively affects productivity, not only of the person who is the target of unwanted attention but of everyone else, as the result of the awkward, intimidating and uncomfortable environment that sets in, as a result of such behavior.

Anonymous said...

There are two main forms of sexual harassment in the workplace and most of the comments defending Prof. Innuendo focus on the direct form. But it also counts as discrimination to create a hostile work environment, at which point a constant string of innuendo, inappropriate touching, and belittling -- if it is only targeted at half the workforce -- counts in the courts. Also, without talking to the students, you don't know whether they find it uncomfortable.

Terminal Degree ( has a great posting up about a colleague putting his arm around her shoulder. It's the sort of contact that looks friendly and acceptable, but isn't: "He makes me so uncomfortable that my brain shuts down, and all I can think is KEEPYOURHANDSOFFMEKEEPAWAYGOAWAYGOAWAYGOAWAY!" So far, she's looking for a way to politely warn him off, because if she does anything too blatant, it makes her look bad, not him.

I have a friend who dropped out of graduate school after too many encounters with the same type of professor you describe (it's hard to TA effectively when the professor changes the grades for the student he's sleeping with) and too little support from the department. At one point, all of the female graduate students met with the chair to describe the working environment and propose some changes (like setting up a standard grievance process and making the next hire female since there were no female professors in this rather large science department). His response? There aren't any qualified women because they all drop out of grad school to have babies. Well, now she's gone, but her law firm loves her.

So what your informant can do is to push for a respectful grievance process for graduate students (not restricted to harassment issues), equitable hiring to change the tone (these things don't seem to happen as much when the committee is 50-50), and a change in department norms of what is acceptable in general.

As for the "free speech issue," there's a clear difference between limiting what a professor can say in a public forum, article, book, blog, petition, etc. and limiting what a professor can say in an official meeting when s/he is speaking on behalf of the department. Exams are the latter and it isn't a free speech issue. If he had made fun of the department chair, would they still be crying free speech or would they have gone straight to "inappropriate and unprofessional"? The same standards should be applied whether the target is higher or lower on the hierarchy, although, of course, they rarely are.

Unbalanced Reaction said...

My own department covers up / ignores so much of this type of behavior. What is especially insulting is that the remedy is to send department-wide emails chastising ALL of us for inappropriate behavior because, you know, this is definitely enough to address the ongoing misbehaviors among the minority rather than actually confront the individuals doing the harassing.

The Mad Chemist said...

I recently found your blog and I love it. I am glad to know my experiences in grad school/postdocs are not unique. I know that sounds odd---but it is just that for the longest time I was made to feel by certain people in academia that my experiences were either my fault or exaggerated--"stuff like this can't happen in this day and age."


Anonymous said...

I have made it a deliberate point to NEVER touch women who are current university students, and to only touch women who are colleagues in reciprocation of hugs, back pats or hand-shakes. That said, when I worked in the South ten years ago, I was regularly touched by female students who saw nothing wrong with greeting me with a hug, or getting my attention by brushing my arm or touching my hand. For the most part, that's southern culture at work. Of course, there was the young woman who would regularly try to position herself so I had to look down her overly deeply cut blouse as I answered her homework questions. I suspect that it broke her heart that I never accepted any of her not-so-subtle self-invitations to spend the night at my place because her car wasn't working or the weather was too bad to drive back to her home in another town. (No, I never called the dean about her or filed a sexual harassment grievance against her; and although I have never worn black 501's in class since, due to her comments about how they enhanced my callipygian presence at the board, I do not feel psychically scared.) On the other hand, I developed a deep and life-long friendship with an undergraduate male student, one that involved travel and outdoor sports, and which apparently led to rumors that both of us were gay. Funny, one of the things we shared besides our love of science and sports, was our attraction to women ... The pity is that we could never have bonded in such a life-altering way - he ended up going off to get a PhD in one of my fields, and subsequently, his wife has come to consider me one of _her_ academic mentors - if we had been of opposite genders.

I guess my message is first that while there are far too many males who behave badly, there are also women who behave badly; and second, in our efforts to police inappropriate behaviors, we sometimes create barriers to productive and healthy faculty-student and collegial relationships.