Lab Life

Confronting Sexual Harassment in Chemistry

Linda Wang

Editor's Note: This excerpt is one section of a much larger article from C&EN written by senior editors Linda Wang and Andrea Widener. It has been adapted with permission from Chemical & Engineering News, September, 2017, Volume 95, Issue 37, page 31. Copyright 2017 American Chemical Society.

The emotional trauma of being sexually harassed, especially over an extended period, can take a toll on a person’s physical health and even derail a chemist’s career, potentially causing or exacerbating depression and other mental health issues that are particularly prevalent among grad students (C&EN, Aug. 7, page 28).

Sanda Sun, who is a chemistry instructor now at Irvine Valley College, says the sexual harassment she endured as a graduate student in the late 1970s by her research adviser elicited such signifi­cant mental and physical distress that she ended up in her school’s infirmary for two weeks. She also saw a psychiatrist to cope with her stress and anxiety.

Like it often does, the harassment Sun experienced began subtly. “I was un­der his wing on a research project, and he was explaining things,” she says of her ad­viser. “He would keep touching my hand with his hand, and that’s how it started. His home was far away, and he was even willing to miss the train to explain things for me. At first, I thought, ‘Wow, he’s so devoted.’ ”

But the attention from the married professor soon became uncomfortable and unwanted. “He always said, ‘Good morning.’ Then it led to a good morn­ing hug, and then a good morning kiss.” One time, while Sun was in his office, he waited for his postdoc and another graduate student to leave so that he could be alone with her. “He started to kiss me, and I said, ‘Are you crazy?’ And I took off,” Sun says.

Sun says she reached out to other faculty members for help, but nobody was willing to get involved. She decided that she needed to leave her Ph.D. pro­gram. After she told her adviser of her plans, he showed up at her home bear­ing a gift and asking for her forgiveness. Before Sun realized what was happen­ing, the professor removed his pants and exposed himself to her. “He said, ‘I’m in love with you. I want to make love to you.’ I puked. It was really so disgusting. I said, ‘Get out. Get out. You need to leave,’ ” Sun recounts.

Sun moved across the country to get as far away from the professor as possible. For years, she blamed herself for the harassment, wondering what she did to make him think she wanted an intimate relationship with him. “I wore tennis shorts to play tennis, very in­nocently. Nothing very sexy, just tennis shorts. I was wearing tennis shorts in and out of the lab, so I blamed myself.”

Chemist Mary K. Boyd, who re­cently became provost of Berry College, says that when there’s a power differ­ential, it can be almost impossible for a student to say no. “The professor is writ­ing a letter for them or serving as their research adviser or deciding who will receive travel funding to conferences. It’s really hard,” she says.

Boyd, who herself has experienced varying degrees of sexual harassment during her career, says female gradu­ate students have told her that they are going into industry instead of academia because they believe sexual harassment will be taken more seriously in industry.

“I’m saddened to think that women may choose not to pursue a brilliant career in academia because of their ex­periences with sexual harassment,” Boyd says. “What is the potential loss in what they may have brought to the discipline if only they had felt they would be taken seriously?”

Feeling invalidated is among the reasons why a large majority of sexual harassment survivors never report the perpetrator. In one study that looked at sexual harassment of graduate students, of those who were harassed by profes­sors, “we had 6% who reported it to any university source at all. Which means 94% did not,” says Jennifer J. Freyd, a University of Oregon psychology pro­fessor who is one of the coauthors of the research.

Another reason harassment sur­vivors don’t report is embarrassment. “The shame of being involved in a ha­rassment situation is quite overwhelm­ing,” says “Nancy,” who was sexually harassed by a department administrator when she was a graduate student. “You don’t want anyone to know because you think they will wonder how a smart woman could ever get into a situation like that.”

Then there’s the fact that report­ing may not make anything better—and may in fact make things worse. “There doesn’t appear to be a huge reason for me to step up and put myself out there when I don’t feel like there’s anything that’s going to happen as a result,” says “Lisa,” who was sexually harassed by a more senior colleague when she was a new assistant professor.

Lisa says she felt alone and vulner­able as her harassment intensified. “The professor became increasingly powerful within the department as years went by, and he actively made an effort to make my life hell,” she says. “Although many of my colleagues acknowledged his bad behavior, nobody seemed inclined to stand up to a tenured faculty mem­ber. One senior faculty member finally tried to stand up on my behalf, telling both the chair and the dean what was happening, but nothing appeared to be done. Or, at least, nothing changed.”

She considered leaving academia.

Then there’s the fact that reporting may not make anything better— and may in fact make things worse.

“For about three years, that was a very serious thought in my head every day,” Lisa says. “The thing that kept me there was my students. I would walk into the lab, and I would see my stu­dents, and I would say, ‘Okay, this is the good part of my life.’ I realized I would be hurting their careers if I suddenly walked away, so that kept me going, es­pecially through the toughest periods.”

For international students or post­docs, reporting sexual harassment could mean losing even the choice to continue because they could wind up deported. More than 70% of postdocs in the U.S. are in the country on work visas, notes Kate Sleeth, chair of the National Post­doctoral Association’s board of directors and associate dean of administration and student development at City of Hope medical center. “If someone wants to behave inappropriately, then they will say ‘You can’t tell anyone because I’ll send you home or you’ll lose your job,’ ” explains Sleeth, who was harassed as an international graduate student.

Bystanders can also be affected by sexual harassment. “Elizabeth,” who now works in industry, says that when she was a graduate student, she wit­nessed one of her classmates being sexu­ally harassed by a professor during a recruitment weekend outing: “I was sit­ting in a booth with three other students and one professor. I felt something mov­ing along my right thigh. I looked down and saw that the professor was running his hand along my fellow student’s left thigh. I made eye contact with the stu­dent, and she said, ‘Help me’ into my ear. The professor was drunk. He started pulling her toward him and whispering in her ear. I pulled her out of the booth with me on the premise of dancing. She told me that the professor was promis­ing to help her get her Ph.D. if she put him on her committee.”

Elizabeth says that she and her oth­er friends pressured the student to say something. Elizabeth considered report­ing the incident herself but was torn. “You’re not sure if it’s going to be taken seriously if the person you’re reporting it for won’t back it up,” she says. “I didn’t want to say something if she was not go­ing to speak up.”

Someone else reported the inci­dent, Elizabeth recalls, and the chem­istry department chair called each student into his office to talk about what happened. “The chair down­played everything,” Elizabeth says. “He talked about the amount of money that was brought to the university by this person. I never filed a complaint or a report with anyone. It was all handled within the department, and it disgusts me to this day.

“When I saw what happened to [my colleague] and how I felt like we all just got railroaded into silence, I thought, ‘I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to be in this environment. It’s disgusting,’ ” Elizabeth says. She dropped out of the Ph.D. program and pursued a career in industry instead. “Some people think industry is where the harassment hap­pens,” Elizabeth says. “But in industry, creeps get fired. In academia, they get funding.” ■