What To Do About Sexual Harassment

What to Do About Sexual Harassment: A Short Course for Chairs

by Naomi Quinn
sponsored by the Committee on the Status of Women in Anthropology

The incidence of sexual harassment in anthropology departments has been a concern of the Association’s Committee on the Status of Women since at least 1995, when the Committee sent out a call to members in the Anthropology Newsletter for information on their experiences in this area. Reporting on the responses to this call in the Association’s Academic Relations Bulletin (Vol. XVIII No. 3), Jane Guyer wrote, “A theme of all contributions was how much worse the damage became when clear guidelines were not developed or not implemented. It was agonizing to read these stories and realize how inept the measures were to control the danger.” In recognition of this need for departments and their institutions to be better prepared for cases of sexual harassment, COSWA sponsored an informational workshop for department chairs on this topic at the 1998 annual meeting of the AAA, and asked me to lead it. I am hardly an expert, but I had had substantial experience helping to deal with sexual harassment cases on my campus, as a member of a faculty women’s group, during the years when no formal policy for addressing these cases existed at my home institution; and, more recently, I had been involved with developing such a policy. To supplement my own experience in preparing remarks for the workshop, I availed myself of the generous advice and seasoned perspective of my institutional sexual harassment prevention officer, Ellen Plummer, whose official title is Program Director, Harassment Prevention, in the Office for Institutional Equity at Duke University.

Only a few chairs showed up for the workshop; strikingly, they were all women; and some of these women chairs were there because they had had to deal with sexual harassment cases in the past or were currently embroiled in such cases. This pattern of selective attendance and non-attendance suggests that chairs may not be doing the most important single thing they can do about sexual harassment in their departments: preparing for it before it happens. In the wake of this unsuccessful attempt to reach department chairs, then chair of COSWA Barbara Mills asked me to write this follow-up piece for the AN. Our hope is that chairs who were not sufficiently motivated to come to a workshop about sexual harassment can be persuaded to read about it. My message about how chairs can best approach sexual harassment, based on my workshop remarks, is not long or complicated.

Besides the grief that an unaddressed or poorly addressed, protracted case of sexual harassment can bring to all the individuals involved in it, chairs should know that, under federal law supported by recent Supreme Court rulings, an institution can be found liable for employee or student sexual harassment if an official with authority to address the alleged harassment did not do so. You are that official. Your institutuion, as an employer, can be found liable for sexual harassment that has occurred in your department if you knew of it and acted with deliberate indifference, or even if you knew nothing about this harassment. The legal standard dictates that you should have known. Moreover, recent case rulings clearly indicate the importance, not merely of your acting once cases of sexual harassment have arisen, but also of your having communicated a “zero tolerance” attitude toward such harassment beforehand.

How You Can Prepare for and Prevent Sexual Harassment

What can you do in advance of sexual harassment happening in your department? (1) Read this article. (2) Make yourself knowledgeable about sexual harassment policy, the process for implementing this policy, and the individuals responsible for doing so at your institution. (3) Learn to recognize the patterns of sexual harassment you could encounter. And, (4) Take preventive action against sexual harassment in your department.

Making yourself knowledgeable about policy means tracking down a copy of the university code at your institution, if one exists, and familiarizing yourself with it. In the absence of such a policy, you should familiarize yourself with the federal regulations pertaining to sexual harassment, which can be found on-line at the website of the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, www.ed.gov/offices/OCR. (Other resources pertaining to sexual harassment can be found at the websites of the American Council on Education, www.acenet.edu, and the National Association for Women in Education, www.nawe.org.) As part of your official responsibility, you are bound by law to know what constitutes sexual harassment at your institution; what classes of people are covered by your institution’s sexual harassment code; and if given patterns of behavior or classes of people are not covered by the sexual harassment code, what policy does pertain to them. Just to suggest some complexities of coverage (I will return below to the issue of what constitutes sexual harassment): Are graduate student teaching assistants who harass or who experience harassment treated as students or employees, and if the latter, faculty or non-faculty? And what about post-doctoral fellows? What about various non-faculty employees? Are unionized faculty or other unionized employees covered by a different policy? How are contractual employees covered? Find out.

Besides knowing policy, it is an excellent idea to introduce yourself to, and initiate a working relationship with, your institutional sexual harassment prevention officer, if your institution has one. You can find out who serves in this capacity from the Human Resources department at your institution. As I discovered at the AAA workshop, however, some institutions, especially smaller ones, still do not have either formal sexual harassment policies or officers. And, as Guyer’s remark makes plain, such a lack of institutional guidelines and process represents the worst kind of unpreparedness. Chairs who find themselves in this situation will have to work harder to discover the options open to them if they should be confronted with a case of sexual harassment. Almost invariably, though, an informal process for addressing sexual harassment will have emerged. On my campus, before we had an official code, a band of women faculty members became known over the years as resources to whom women faculty and students could come with sexual harassment problems. Whenever one of us was contacted for help concerning a possible problem, we got on the phone with one another to consult and strategize about how best to resolve the case and, if it was serious enough to require administrative intervention, which current adminstrators we should beseech or badger about it. Locate such people, whoever they are, on your campus and learn from them what informal process has emerged to deal with sexual harassment, and which university officials have been helpful (and which have been unhelpful or obstructionist) to this process in the past. At the very least, you should learn whom to call for advice and support. If your campus is one of those still without a formal sexual harassment code and an officer to oversee its implementation and dissemination, you would be well advised to agitate for the creation of such a code and such an office.

Knowing the varieties that sexual harassment can take prepares you to recognize and differentiate these patterns, the better to respond and to do so appropriately. Here is a list that Ellen Plummer and I compiled. The classic type is a male faculty member who has harassed multiple women from successive cohorts of graduate students or undergraduates, for a long time. This harasser is often adroit at protecting himself from public disclosure, going only so far and no farther, discouraging complaints from those he harasses by implicit or explicit threat or reward, and relying on the silent complicity of his colleagues, who all know about his behavior but accept it. By contrast, another type of harasser is the faculty member, sometimes but not always from a foreign country, who does not realize that his behavior toward students of the opposite sex–perhaps inviting them on dates or to his apartment alone, or one I knew of who had to be advised by a senior woman in his department not to hug undergraduate women–is considered inappropriate, and who is horrified to learn that it is being labelled sexual harassment. Another type is the graduate student teaching assistant or post-doctoral fellow, or sometimes the junior faculty member, who may not have the experience or maturity to maintain the relational distance appropriate to his newly achieved authority. To compound matters, teaching assistants and junior faculty, as well as the students they teach, may find the power differential between them confounded by their closeness in age, which invites an unwise familiarity and intimacy. Apart from being aware of these common types, you should also be alert to the fact that just as sexual harassment is not always initiated by faculty members, it is not always directed against students; its targets can be other faculty members or office staff, for example. And, while my use of the masculine pronoun in this paragraph reflects the overwhelming proportion of harassment that is by males of females, you should be prepared for the possibilities of women harassers and of same-sex harassment.

Perhaps the most ambiguous type of potential harassment arises in consensual relationships between status unequals such as faculty and non-faculty or tenured and untenured faculty. Your institutional code is likely to contain a special clause applying to these, and you should know what restrictions it puts on them, because policies vary widely in this respect. Even when such consensual relationships are excluded from sexual harassment, they remain problematic, because, in them, status or even professional advancement may be traded for sex, and the lower status partner may ultimately come to feel unduly pressured into what seemed, at the outset, entirely mutual. Consensual relationships may also be problematic because of their effect on the wider dynamics of a department; they may cause awkwardness and discomfort, dampen communication and intellectual exchange, or create perceptions of favoritism among colleagues, or actually impede fulfillment of academic responsibilities. In one case I know of at my institution, a faculty member declined to write letters of recommendation for a graduate student with whom she was in a consensual relationship, on the grounds that it would not be ethical to do so; unfortunately, the faculty member was the most qualified person on the faculty to evaluate that student, given the student’s research specialty. In another case, a faculty member who was in a consensual relationship with a graduate student recused himself from all Ph.D. committees in his department. He did so because he felt he should not sit on the committee of the graduate student with whom he was having the relationship, but wanted to disguise his motive for not doing so. However, his action deprived not only that student but also other graduate students of his contribution to this aspect of their intellectual development.

Not only the parties to it but the acts that constitute sexual harassment can vary. Sexual harassment is commonly defined as a pattern of unwelcome sexual attention based on sex or gender, and pervasive or severe enough to create an atmosphere that interferes with the recipient’s ability to work or to learn or participate in the work or school setting. As this definition suggests, such behavior need not be as unsubtle as chasing a student around one’s office or explicitly propositioning a student for sex in exchange for an A. Overt leering and ogling or repeated off-color remarks, whether intended for their effect on those who are their targets or not, can make a student so targeted shrink from partipating in class or coming to see a faculty member for academic advice. Another, more and more prevalent, pattern of harassment, which can be extremely pervasive and extremely unnerving, is stalking. And you should remember that harassment can be multi-media, involving phone calls, letters, graffiti, and nowadays, e-mail stalking.

Communicating zero tolerance of sexual harrassment is not just a legal standard; it is also the best way to prevent sexual harassment in your department before it happens. How can you communicate this? Put a discussion of sexual harassment on a department meeting agenda and invite your institutional sexual harassment prevention officer or some other local expert to give a presentation at the meeting. Have a similar orientation for teaching assistants and postdoctoral fellows. Disseminate copies of your institution’s policy to everyone associated with your department–faculty, staff, students, contractual intructors and other employees, along with a memo making zero tolerance explicit. Because of a past history of incidents that raised sexual harassment issues, a department chair at my institution included, in a start-of-the-year informational memo to all members of his department, a statement warning that sexual harassment of any kind would not be tolerated, and spelling out what those unacceptable behaviors were. When, later that year, a case of such harassment did arise, the chair and the university were not only protected from liability, but the institutional sexual harassment prevention officer was in a position to deal expeditiously with the case, and did so, because the faculty member could not claim he didn’t know that what he was doing was considered wrong.

Once you have taken these advance measures, nip any climate problems that you detect in the bud. Let it be known immediately when they occur, for example, that practices such as off-color jokes or derogatory comments that are disrespectful to women (or, indeed, to any category of person) are unacceptable in the department. And don’t let people who enjoy demeaning women hide behind protestations that their own academic freedom is what is at issue, or that the consequences of their behavior are being blown out of proportion. In addition, if you find that a climate conducive to sexual harassment has arisen in your department that is flagrant and/or longstanding, you will want to arrange formal awareness training on the subject. By making this training mandatory for all, you can avoid singling out individuals in the absence of an actual complaint against anyone.

What You Should Appreciate About the Consequences of Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment is much more common than false or misguided accusations of it; and the effects of sexual harassment are real. These consequences may be very concrete, as when sex is demanded in exchange for grades, letters of recommendation, or jobs, and rejection of the faculty member’s advances can affect one’s academic standing and one’s career. Such effects are most farreaching for graduate students in small subfields characterized by tight networks of researchers, in which one’s advisor, say, is absolutely critical for one’s job prospects and advancement; in one such case at my institution, for fear of the career consequences, no woman graduate student had ever come forward to complain against a faculty member, dinstinguished in his field, who had been harassing for years. Even when such retaliation is not direct and immediate, or even when the threat of it is not made explicit, the fear of it may hang over a student’s head.

The academic consequences of sexual harassment may also be more diffuse, creating an atmosphere that truly does interfere with a student’s ability to learn or to participate in the school setting, or an employee’s ability to work. The student who skips classes or does not open her mouth in class for fear of drawing misogynist remarks from her (or, misogamist remarks from his) teacher or classmates, the student who avoids her advisor’s office hours for fear of having to beat off his advances, the student who cannot concentrate on her studies for worrying about the next encounter with a graduate student instructor who is stalking her around campus, is truly receiving a diminished learning experience.

And, as therapists and others whose work it is to help people who have experienced sexual harassment would confirm, the psychological distress and damage that can be caused by being sexually harassed should not be dismissed. It is not uncommon for men who have not themselves ever been the targets of sexual harassment or had to deal with its undermining effects, to minimize its psychological impact, assuming that women students who complain of it are “overreacting.” And men are not the only ones; some senior women, even those who have endured sexual harassment themselves, advocate “toughing it out” the way they did, and have little patience or sympathy for younger women who complain of it. But not all individuals find themselves in harassing situations of the same severity, or respond to being sexually harassed in the same way. When I was chair of my department, I received a call from a man who had left our program many years ago, and wanted to know if he could receive M.A. credit for the course work he had done. Of course, this proved impossible. It emerged that this man had dropped out abruptly, packing up and leaving town on the very same day that a paper he had written was returned to him by his faculty instructor with a sexual proposition in the margin. Male and senior female faculty members who trivialize the effects of sexual harassment should consider that one of the reasons why there are so few other women among their colleagues is that many of those other women dropped out as a result of sexually harassing experiences. The dropout rates for female graduate students continue to be higher than those for males. And, of course, dropping out out is both a response to extreme psychological distress, and the limiting case of interference with the ability to learn.

What If You Have to Deal with an Actual Case of It?

Now, then, you are prepared and convinced. We can hope that an actual case never does walk in your office door, but what if, in spite of all your best efforts at prevention, it does? Here is some advice, born of our experience. (1) Be approachable and listen respectfully (as a good chair should be and do at all times, anyway). If, for whatever reason, sexual harassment is such a troubling issue for you that you feel you truly cannot avoid being unsympathetic and dismissive, then designate someone else who can. If it becomes known in your department that you or your designee is approachable on issues of sexual harassment, you will be much more likely to learn about instances of it, so that you can act on them. (2) Respond proactively. Do not under any circumstances let the problem languish, for chances are excellent it will not go away, but will only worsen. However, (3) don’t panic, because you do not have to deal with it alone. If your institution has a sexual harassment prevention officer, overcome any distaste you may have for taking departmental problems outside the department, and bring in that officer. Indeed, doing so may be a required step at your institution, as it is at some. Alternatively, you may find assistance in one or more of the following places, depending on the pattern of response that has emerged at your institution: an informal network that has formed to address sexual harassment; the office of the dean or other administrator under whose purview the case falls; the Human Resources department; the faculty omsbudsman’s office; or the university counsel’s office. You may have to go several places before you find someone trustworthy and proactive with whom you can work to resolve the case. Whatever such resources are available, you may also wish to consult a trusted faculty or administrative colleague, someone with whom you can brainstorm about what to do (always taking care to make it understood that such conversations must be confidential). In deciding on a course