Sexual harassment changed my career path, even though I wasn’t the target of the harassment

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.


12 thoughts on “Sexual harassment changed my career path, even though I wasn’t the target of the harassment

  1. Meghan,
    I appreciate you for writing and publishing this. I sometimes make the analogy to growing up in a family where one of the siblings is the primary target of parental abuse. The abused sibling is severely traumatized by what happens to them, and the other siblings are traumatized by witnessing the abuse and the knowledge that such abuse could easily happen to them. The empathy for the target gets paired with feelings of fear (of becoming a target) and helplessness (because the one doling out the abuse is the person in charge). And like abuse in families, the more we reveal it, talk about it, and do what needs to be done to end it, the better off we’ll all be. Thank you.


  2. Harassment can take several forms and cross genders. Bullying can be harassment and just as devastating as sexual harassment. The PI in a lab adjoining mine opened my eyes that men also experience harassment, and made me aware of the lasting impact from that. In that lab, women were given rank and priveledge above merit while men were heavily and daily bullied, unduly criticized, and also experienced public sexual-innuendo embarrassment. One male post-doc was even ‘blackmailed.’ Despite a long history of complaints, the university department and HR remained selectively ‘ignorant’.

    On my advice, a victimized male post-doc documented these events and reported them to the university HR, while submitting copies to the board of directors. His former graduate mentor, who was remotely aware of this PI’s reputation, also received correspondence, documentation and reports to corroborate his experiences. Unfortunately, this bright young scientist left academia in disgust when resolution was apparently improbable.

    I continue to watch all the current issues and reports about sexual harassment in the work place. My experiences with this began in the early 1980’s when entering the male-dominated fields of forestry and biology/ecology sciences. Being the only woman at that time in the field (in a region of Maine), and dealing with it on a daily basis, I learned to handle it on their playing ground. The response to any complaint in those days was, “If you don’t like it, get out.” I learned to fight fire at the source of the fire, and avoid wildfires that can’t be put out.

    Excellent advice to visit the lab and/or group to experience the culture and personalities before jumping in blind and miss signs of smoldering wildfires. Science should not be fraught with unsettling and distracting personal issues.

  3. I have a similar story. I was an summer intern for a lab when I was an undergrad. While at a lab party, I watched one of the grad students berate a lab alumnus (not present) for having children, because “she hasn’t published anything good since then.” This was not even true, as this person had just been hired as an assistant professor and was very productive. The grad student went on to say that no self respecting female scientist should have kids. What was shocking to me was that the grad student was saying this to the PI, and the PI just shook his head quietly. He tolerated this behavior and perhaps even encouraged it. I was fortunate that this was a only a short-term commitment for me, and when I applied for PhD positions later on the lab environment was at the forefront of my mind.

  4. I had a seemingly great postdoc position absolutely disintegrate when the PI was found responsible for multiple counts of sexual harassment and assault. The fallout from those events strongly impacted the careers of everyone in the lab, including those not directly involved with the sexual misconduct.

    I ended up losing my job because of the ensuing fallout from this information going public (university news, local news, and national outlets covered it).

    It is critical to focus on the victims but also to appreciate how much collateral damage occurs. As a postdoc, I had no protections and was going to slip through the system and out of academia were it not for a few well-intentioned faculty members who happens to be able to offer me short-term support. It was abundantly clear that the Department did not care about me.

    • I find the notion that a department has no responsibility for the students/postdocs of a faculty member who departs for whatever reason (the example you give, not getting tenure) very disturbing but increasingly common. I’m glad some faculty picked up where the department failed.

  5. This post hits so close to home. I am applying to TT jobs. One particular position for which I was a great fit it’s located at a Department that was just investigated last year for harassment. There is documented and recorded evidence of the harassment, and despite the many complains after an investigation the University decided that there wasn’t sufficient evidence to fire the individuals creating the toxic environment. After careful consideration and reading the full story and University report , I decided not to apply, being an URM I think I am at risk for being a target. However, a close friend of mine (male) did apply, despite having a discussion about this particular position. This goes to show further your point Dr. Duffy. If getting a job is a numbers game, the odds are against those of us who wouldn’t feel safe in specific departments thanks to toxic environment created by specific individuals.

  6. Pingback: Tasters: 30/01/2018 – Functional Ecologists

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