Lab Life

Sexual Harassment: What Would You Do?

Corrie Kuniyoshi

Editor’s note: Opinions within this editorial do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Chemical Society. The opening paragraph reflects incidents that happened long ago. These in­cidents should not be in any way attributed to the departments or universities where I received my degrees. Special thanks to Dr. Blake Aronson for providing the list of resources.

He was an esteemed professor, a great lecturer, and some valued him as a mentor. Even now, if you were to look for him on Rate My Professors, you would see numerous chili peppers on his profile. Yet, there was a secret that only some students knew. “Never be in a room alone with Dr. _____.” Different ways and times, this was repeated to me by my friends in the department. Different incidents had apparently been reported, and rumors abounded about their cover-up. A number of women had reported being touched inappropri­ately or assaulted by this professor. One incident I heard about allegedly happened in a stock room. Another incident suppos­edly took place in a closed instrumentation room. I was young and naïve I didn’t see those incidents. I only saw a little of the frayed edges of the questionable behavior: the professor giv­ing his young female students unwanted shoulder massages in the computer room (“Is he just eccentric?” I asked myself), the professor touching himself during office hours (“Could he just be socially awkward?” I wondered). Although groups of students would talk about it from time to time behind closed doors, I never heard of repercussions for the observed or ru­mored behavior. 

I wasn’t a direct victim; I was more of a bystander. I did what many others did, I told my friends to be careful to “not be in the same room with Dr. _____,” and I made sure they were never alone with him. Looking back, I realize that oth­ers did the same for me, sticking around so I wouldn’t be by myself. But I otherwise did nothing; I sought rather to avoid the subject. Later on in life, I and many other people I know would have our own personal experiences of harassment that left us feeling humiliated and powerless. All or most of these incidents would go unreported because we feared we would not be believed, or perhaps we felt guilty, as if we could have avoided or deflected the situation if we’d done or said the right thing. Or maybe we just didn’t want to be the one to destroy a generally respected figure’s reputation.

My experiences and those of others I’ve known have left me with questions: “What should I have done?” “What can I do in the future to prevent this?” This dilemma is all the more pressing as now I have a young daughter and son interested in the STEM field. 

In fall of 2017, C&EN came out with a compelling cover story, “Confronting Sexual Harassment in the Chemical Sciences”, by senior editors Linda Wang and Andrea Widener. The timeliness of the article was stunning, as it came out just prior even to the #MeToo movement catching on like wildfire in the media. This article contained shock­ing personal accounts of abuse in the field of chemistry and academia as well as sobering statistics on harassment. We are reprinting a portion of the story in this issue of the Graduate Postdoctoral Chemist. It has been interesting to see the vary­ing comments that the article has invoked (see, for instance, the comments on these two Chemjobber posts). Many com­ments praised the brave people who had been interviewed, or recounted the posting individuals’ own experiences. Some comments seemed to question the character and complicity of different alleged victims in circumstances that did not involve violence (e.g., “Does any 20-year old woman get invited over to a 40+ year old man’s house while his family is away and not think something is amiss?”). Were these questions fair, or do they tacitly accept a level of abuse of power in the established structure? It is noteworthy that the focus on sexual harass­ment in STEM is not a new development. In 2016, The Atlantic published an exposé of How Women are Harassed out of Sci­ences. That same year, a Psychology of Women Quarterly study noted that at least a third of women in graduate programs report harassment (it should be noted that men are also often victims of sexual harassment). 

“What should I have done?” “What can I do in the future to prevent this?”

This is also far from the end of the dialogue about sexual harassment in STEM. On Feb 8, 2018 NSF issued a statement that they would be requiring institutions to report sexual harass­ment findings, with possible consequences of “suspending or eliminating research grants” to grantees found to have committed harassment. Will the reports NSF receives lead to meaningful and just repercussions? Only time will tell. 

Concerning the topic of sexual harassment in STEM, I see at least a few camps that have formed. Some fully sup­port and empathize with every victim’s story. Others are mostly supportive, but express skepticism of some of what they perceive to be the “borderline” cases—seeing flirtatious rather than abusive behavior. Some would focus on changing institutional culture rather than on individual cases. Still oth­ers would question whether this topic was even necessary for a science-based news outlet to cover. These differing views and perspectives surrounding this cultural phenomenon highlight the need for understanding, discussion, listening, and institutional change. The articles and resources focused on sexual harassment, as well as the NSF announcement, are a great step in this direction. Although sexual harassment is not unique to the science community, this is the community which we all belong to and support. 

My own hope is that by making the understanding of this topic a part of my professional development, I will begin to answer the questions, “What should I have done?” and, “What can I do in the future?”