Back when I was a graduate student, I visited a lab where I was hoping to do a postdoc. I had thought about lots of different options and was by far the most enthusiastic about this one. I reached out to the PI and was thrilled when I was invited for an interview.
At the interview, I saw the PI harass a grad student and a postdoc (both of whom are women). Sometimes, harassment is subtle, and it’s only later that you fully realize something was wrong. This was not that kind of harassment. I mostly haven’t shared the story with others, but, when I have described what happened to a few people, their jaws dropped (literally). And it was definitely sexual harassment – this was not a case of a PI being a bully to everyone in his lab (though obviously that is unacceptable, too). He would not have done the same to men.
I left the interview feeling very confused. This was the place I wanted to be in terms of the science I wanted to do, but I really didn’t know that I wanted to be in that environment. But did it mean I wasn’t committed to science if I didn’t go somewhere that was a great fit science-wise because I was concerned about the climate? Fortunately, while I was working through this, I spoke to some people who made it clear that it is absolutely okay to consider the work environment. I was not less committed to science by not working there; rather, I was committed both to science and to my personal well-being.
Fortunately, right around this time, the person who became my postdoc advisor happened to be visiting my graduate institution. I met with him and loved our interactions. I went off to his lab for an interview, loved it, and ended up doing my postdoc there. From that perspective, I was really lucky.
Why am I telling this story now? The main reason is because I feel like the discussions of sexual harassment in science have not addressed these knock-on effects of harassment. I do not consider myself the target of harassment in this case. But my career path was affected by the harassment. There was a place where I really wanted to do a postdoc, but I felt unsafe doing so because of my gender. Women are much more likely than men to face this sort of decision. This means that women have fewer career options than men, even if they are not directly targeted.
I know people will ask me to name the person publicly. I do not plan on doing so. I’m not totally sure that’s the right decision. It is not one I have made lightly. I’m now finally at a career stage where, while I’m not immune to any negative effects of speaking out, I have enough job security that those effects will be much smaller than they would have been 10 or 20 years ago. But there are others who would be impacted who do not have the same security. Instead, I have taken other measures that I don’t plan on discussing publicly at this time.
In discussions of sexual harassment in science, we need to listen to the people who were directly targeted and do everything we can to support them. But we also need to acknowledge that sexual harassment has broader impacts. We need to make it clear that people should ask about the culture in a lab and department when they are considering job options, and that it is completely fine not to take a position if they have concerns about the climate. And, of course, we need to change the climate so that people do not face a decision between doing the science they want to do and being in an environment where they are treated with respect.