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I have just started a research position (around 2.5 months ago) at a top-10 university. I am having my own funding and was initially quite excited about the opportunity, and did and do love my project.

I have some trouble with the mentorship, however, and the following things have happened so far:

  • I was sitting across my mentor during one of the first meetings I had with him. I was not aware that because of my clothing (I had a rather loose-sitting shirt on) and the way I was sitting, one could see my décolleté. Although I understand that looking at other people is quite normal, not only did my mentor stare at my chest, he then also leaned back and laughed in an arrogant kind of tone. Although he has not done that anymore, he still looks at my body in quite discomforting ways (I see him staring at my backside, my waist etc.). At this point, I am spending my time thinking about what to wear when I meet with him to avoid such situations. Then I end up being bothered that this has become a concern of mine.

  • I am the only woman in the group, and sexist jokes during weekly meetings are a thing. It seems that specifically, one of the students tries to cement his status by making jokes I would not like and that this student knows that the mentor will laugh along at these jokes (which he does loudest) which will also impact the relationship of me and the mentor in a negative way - which it does, though I see it as the mentor's responsibility to act differently. I have never been at a lab before where jokes about women's bodies were considered normal during meetings.

  • When we discuss work from a female scientist, the tone is quite different than when work from a male scientist is discussed. Again, I am well aware that we all have biases. But the discussion of a female scientist's work became aggressive quite quickly, with the mentor saying things like "This work makes me so angry that I can't control my anger anymore". I haven't experienced such bursts of aggression towards male scientists, and his behavior shapes the overall environment of the lab, and aggressive behavior I experience from the students are in my opinion at least partly a consequence of his behavior.

The student is the kind of person who knows where people's sensitivities are and uses that knowledge in his favor - but my concern is really much more the PI than the student, since, at least to a great extent, his behavior sets a blueprint for acceptable behavior and the rules of the lab.

While I have not experienced this before, there still is the possibility of leaving and ending up in a similar situation - maybe I was just lucky so far with my supervisors? It is a fear I have, it does not have to be logical. But I simply am afraid of leaving a careerwise unique opportunity without knowing what will happen next

What should I do?

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    If you think you are being harassed, file a report with your university. – Joe Strazzere May 19 at 14:40
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    That tag was not added by me, and I feel quite uncomfortable using this label at the moment - it seems to be a borderline case. It's my question and I ask for some care dealing with the topic. So how is this particular case a community decision? – TestGuest May 21 at 19:57
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    The SE system works best if questions have descriptive titles and appropriate tags. Based on what is written, this falls under the category of sexual misconducted, and it doesn't even seem borderline since I find it hard to describe sexist jokes as anything about sexual harassment. We are showing care for the topic in that you rolled back an edit that more fully described your position (and I deleted the comments regarding this) and asked for a word to be removed from the title. – StrongBad May 21 at 20:05
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    @TestGuest: perhaps it will lessen your concerns about the chosen tags if you look at their descriptions, in particular the sexual-misconduct tag says "Behavior that may be construed as sexual misconduct (without implying judgment that it is so)" which seems pretty uncontroversially appropriate as a tag for this question. (That said, I thought the initial title was better than either replacement.) – Noah Snyder May 21 at 20:12
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    @StrongBad As others, I don't understand the change of title and I couldn't understand Federico's comment either. I think it'd be better to revert to the original title but I don't want to start an edit war. – Massimo Ortolano May 21 at 21:29
22

First of all, not all research labs are like that. You can find better work environment elsewhere, perhaps even have luck in the same University.

The academic world, however, is extremely small, and people will talk behind your back. You can't fight that. One way to minimize this is to minimize amount of time you spend in the current group.

Hence, one of few options is update your resume and start looking for another job. Your current situation will not become better. One of the reasons is that you have no political capital (friends) to change it, and filing complaint will definitely make your life worse in the group forever.

While searching for new job, try to connect with local chapter of Women in Science or similar unofficial group. Major universities have those these days. Ask them for help and advice. Another contact is something like Office of Equity and Diversity. These people have seen your situation before and will give guidance.

When you get a new job offer, you might want to consider filing complaint with HR specifically naming your current group leader. Hopefully, university will pay attention and investigate.

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    Maybe, the scientist in this case should file the complaint anonymously as she has no idea about the HR department's receptiveness towards sexual harassment complaints. If the PI finds out about the complaint and if actions are not taken, she runs the risk of having her career ruined by aforementioned PI. – FoldedChromatin May 20 at 16:35
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    @FoldedChromatin Given the situation, even if she files the complaint anonymously, it would be quite obvious for the PI who is the filer. – Massimo Ortolano May 20 at 17:19
14

Let me start by noting that this is an area I know something about. I collaborated on an assessment of climate issues in a prominent STEM department of a prominent university. Some of those issues revolved around gender generally and women particularly. So I may not have all the answers, but my response below is based on extensive interviewing of people at all levels and functions within the department, as well as people outside the department who had personal knowledge.

You have multiple options and a few preliminary decisions. The first step may be to decide what types and levels of risk you are willing to assume. Are you willing to have your name out there, assuming (as one probably can) that your identity will be generally protected but probably known to a few. It sounds like you’re past your qualifying exams; if not, though, then consider whether they’re conducted anonymously or not. Among other considerations.

The second step may be to decide whether you are more interested--or whether it would be more effective--to address your situation specifically or the situation of a woman in STEM at your institution.

Then you have different paths you can choose. They are not mutually exclusive.

You could go to the press; but there are several reasons not to, at least at the stage you described. You could go to or start a Women in STEM organization or publication; probably a good idea to consider generally, but I don’t know enough about your situation to know whether or how it would help or hinder in the short term.

You could go to the administration of whatever university division your program is within—for example, and I’m making this up, the Dean of the College of Science and Technology. The message there could be the experience generally of women in STEM. You could expore/request/demand training or an assessment or whatever makes sense for you, the department, and the university.

You could file a complaint with whatever office the school calls the people who know about and investigate issues of diversity and inclusion. My experience with people who have filed complaints in situations similar to your is limited, but, among those with whose situations I am somewhat familiar, there was no reprisal while they were still in their programs. Some were enabled to transfer groups/mentors.

You could go to your department head, or have a meeting with the department head and your mentor. This can be an effective step, but you might consider whether there’s someone from the diversity/inclusion office or another university resource to accompany you.

Going to the department head could be a good first step, if you feel you can do it. Going to the next up administration could also be a good early step. I don’t know enough about the relevant circumstances to offer more specific guidance.

Good luck.

14

I'd suggest changing labs as soon as you can. It's understandable that you're afraid of the next lab having the same problems, but based on your previous experience there's a good chance it will be better, and at any rate you know for sure that the current one is a problem. Once you're at a new position you'll be in a safer situation to decide whether you want to make a report about the old lab. Hopefully in the new position you'll have a new mentor who can protect you professionally, and advise you about your decision whether to report. I don't think you need to make things harder for yourself to go through any reporting at the same time you're trying to find a new job.

  • Thank you for your response. To make a better motivated choice, may I ask what your reasons would be for your advice of changing labs (instead of e.g. waiting to see if anything changes?) – TestGuest May 20 at 20:37
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    @TestGuest If it is as systemic as you have described it, there is little to no chance of it changing in the time you are there. Moving as soon as possible limits the power this PI has over you: you won't need a recommendation from a lab you've only spent 2-3 months in, you won't be in the final stages of a project you need to publish, you won't have to spend more time in a bad situation agonizing over your next move, and it's much simpler and most people will understand "that lab wasn't a good fit for me" without needing to provide details best after a short rather than long stay. – Bryan Krause May 20 at 21:09
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    Also, unfortunately, although the most likely situation is that things will stay about as bad as they are currently, it's at least as likely that they'll get worse as that they'll get better. – Noah Snyder May 20 at 22:03
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    @TestGuest I think only you can assess that. Part-time harassment doesn't seem super fun to me. If I was someone skeptical about your complaints, I might be more suspicious if you only left "halfway" (a phrase like "It couldn't have been that bad!" comes to mind and could be an obstacle if you chose to file some sort of official complaint in the future). If you leave completely, you don't really have to justify it to your current PI, but if you stay part way, I don't see how you can avoid giving some explanation. I guess more generally I don't really see why this lab deserves to keep you. – Bryan Krause May 20 at 22:34
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    @TestGuest Your group will not get better. What will happen if you stay is that your self confidence will erode. Leave as soon as you can. Network with other women in your field, online if necessary. Read about what other women have faced (sites.nationalacademies.org/shstudy/index.htm). Ignore well-meaning naive people who say if you report it, the problem will go away and you won't be retaliated against. Go somewhere with a better environment, even if it's not in as prestigious a department. Feel free to contact me off-list if you're in Computer Science. – Ellen Spertus May 20 at 22:44
10

I would like to add an 'aspect-oriented' answer. Whichever of the fine answers that have been proposed you choose, I strongly suggest you document everything.

The sexist jokes made by students (including gory details), the comments about female scientists, comments like "this work makes me so angry that I can't control my anger anymore" (as a male, I would be having personal questioning conversations about someone making these sorts of remarks - "is this just stupid hyperbole, or is he actually likely to throw lab equipment across the room?").

Document the day, the time, whatever was being worked on at the time, who else was in the lab (as they may be witnesses), and interactions immediately before any incidents. Being able to demonstrate a pattern of obnoxious behaviour will help if anything becomes official, if the offender tries to play down incidents, and will make it more difficult to dismiss any incident reporting as being because "she is difficult to work with".

  • And, document it in a form you can take home. Paper notebook? Personal secure email? – O. Jones May 21 at 22:46
8

If this is in USA, your university has a very serious problem. Your description of your work environment definitely rises to the level of workplace harassment prohibited by law. By allowing it to continue your university opens themselves up to all kinds of liability, not to mention serious risks to their reputation.

(Not to mention the personal risks to you, and the unpleasantness of your work environment.)

You should, at a minimum, find the sexual harassment policy of your institution and read it. You can find it possibly online, and possibly by asking somebody in human resources (the folks who handle your paycheck and vacation, etc).

After you read it, you probably will know how to file a complaint. You can decide whether to do that.

Keep in mind that retaliating against a person who files a sexual harassment complaint is also very seriously illegal.

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    I'd love to believe that. Given that my university does not even expel students who have committed sexual assault, I doubt that there will be serious consequences for faculty who "only" creates a hostile/harassing environment – TestGuest May 20 at 16:06
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    I take your point. But still, read the sexual harassment policy. – O. Jones May 20 at 16:17
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    University lawyers tend to start pooping bricks at the phrase "Title IX complaint". – JeffE May 20 at 17:45
  • @TestGuest There’s a difference between student misconduct and staff misconduct. The university might not be liable for the former if it takes place off campus, but they’re definitely liable for the behaviour of their staff members during their work time. – nick012000 May 21 at 22:13
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    I am not talking off-campus assault, but on-campus and widely reported assault with barely any repercussions. And although I am aware of the theoretical liabilities, I am talking power asymmetries. If the university does care about their reputation and the money as much as to the point where harassment and assault are covered up when the student is a perpetrator, it won't do much more when it's a faculty member - let's not fool ourselves. – TestGuest May 21 at 22:32
1

I am writing this answer already feeling the down-votes coming.

There are several things I can express regarding your post:

I was sitting across my mentor during one of the first meetings I had with him. I was not aware that because of my clothing (I had a rather loose-sitting shirt on) and the way I was sitting, one could see my decoltée.

I understand that it wasn't on purpose, but my number one rule about what I wear is to not expose anything that I don't want others to be able to see.

Now let me take some time here on this phrase...

Although I understand that looking at other people is quite normal, not only did my mentor stare at my chest, he then also leaned back and laughed in an arrogant kind of tone.

From here I want to first thank you for this:

Although I understand that looking at other people is quite normal,

Thank you for understand the fact that it is reasonable for people to be attracted to each other. You understand that this in fact is not harassment (in my honest opinion), but now this:

not only did my mentor stare at my chest, he then also leaned back and laughed in an arrogant kind of tone.

This behavior is clearly unacceptable. If he had looked and even lingered that would be fine. Staring isn't.

he still looks at my body in quite discomforting ways (I see him staring at my backside, my waist etc.).

Again, attraction = normal, continuously staring (to a point that it is even obvious to you) not OK.

I wouldn't tag it as harassment to be honest, just uncomfortable. If he makes comments or ever tried to be close enough to you to touch you, that would undoubtedly be harassment.

The crude jokes at work are just simply unacceptable, no discussion about it.

When we discuss work from a female scientist, the tone is quite different than when work from a male scientist is discussed. Again, I am well aware that we all have biases

Again, amazing that you can look past yourself and admit that we all have biases, you could obviously have been bias when observing their behavior related to the female scientist. I wouldn't even go with sexism in this case (even if that is the case), there should not be violent outburst about any scientist, no matter gender, race or age!

All in all, you are amazing and well equipped to deal with life, this place needs to change. Talk to your department head, this is your opportunity to research something you like, this is your funding, do not let them ruin it for you!

  • You have my upvote - as you mention I absolutely believe that attraction & looking are normal and that we all have biases, but the way we deal with these aspects of our own psychology is the key. Don't you think that talking to the Dept. head might be too risky? --> Reputation etc., and also more tensions between me and the PI? – TestGuest May 20 at 10:57
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    @TestGuest you want me to be brutally honest? No, it won't be risky simply because Academia is so skewed to the left at the moment, that even if you were crying wolf you would be listened to. In this case you have reasons to do so, so take advantage of it. You have been tolerant to their attitudes for some time now, I for one don't swear, don't drink and do not behave your colleagues do so I (as a Man) would feel uncomfortable there as well. I would be lenient to a certain amount of swearing in some circumstances, but a lab is not the place for any of the behaviours described... – fireshark519 May 20 at 11:03
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    So you are saying that if a woman accidentally exposes herself, it's ok to "linger"? No, that's not ok. And I'm having trouble distinguishing "lingering" from "staring". Such behavior is completely unprofessional. – DaveG May 20 at 14:46
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    fireshark519, most complaints of sexual harassment against powerful people are ignored, even in left-leaning academia. I think most female academics (and male academics whom female colleagues confide in) could give you many examples of rules against sexual harassment not being enforced. – Ellen Spertus May 20 at 22:35
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    Literally the only part of this answer that makes me want to downvote is the very first sentence. 90% of the answer is complimenting the asker for their stance towards getting looks from people, which seems off-topic, but other than that the answer is not really controversial, especially since you're only reiterating what the asker said herself. – Spectrosaurus May 21 at 12:53
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Have you considered talking to these people and letting them know that the way they are acting makes you feel uncomfortable? Especially after a sexist remark, your silence can be interpreted as acceptance by your peers.

This could be something a five minute conversation could fix rather than hastily doing something that could set you back in your career.

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    Well the thing is that it is not hastily doing something - as others have mentioned and I have described it is systematic behavior - from sexist jokes, to expression of aggression (today again) mostly towards women, to transgressions towards me. How do you think a 5 min conversation could fix such behavior..? Also, it really should not depend on my silence or non silence for them not to engage in such conversations during official meetings - that is clearly unacceptable behavior by default, and shows how little any boundaries are respected. – TestGuest May 23 at 22:41
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IMO, the "lingering" will die off in time. Just remember who you are and what you're there for. If it works out with your mentor in a very short time, then stay there. I had to work with 23 women in my group at one time in life. There were 4-5 men, 23 women and a woman supervisor. Also, there was a feminist in HR who (I found out later) had it in for me. I just worked on myself, worked hard. Gained there admiration so well they would eventually give me hugs when I walked in to work and stood at the end of our work area (except the supervisor). I worked there for 30 years and 5 days until retirement, but for different groups. Moving around did me some good. It's not really sexual harassment - yet. Now, having said that, I never heard crude jokes about women at work - that's not right. I would do like someone said, read the guidelines of conduct, how one should act with fellow students will be in print. Document.

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    If you edited out the irrelevant parts of this answer, all it would say is "he'll probably stop harassing you soon." – Azor Ahai May 21 at 20:35

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