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I am a first year PhD student, and there is an older (by which I mean further ahead in his PhD) student who has been rather unperturbed by me asking him to stop flirting with me. This has been going on ~6 months now after I first met him (we don’t work at the same institute but see each other reasonably regularly due to the collaborative nature of the work).

At first it seemed like he was just being friendly and we chatted a little over social media, nothing more than two friendly work colleagues. Then he started flirting, and very obviously. I told him to stop flirting and then we could just carry on having a normal conversation instead and he did. But then after a couple of weeks he started flirting again, so I again told him to cool it. He kept flirting, and I started just responding less, and flat out ignoring any flirty messages.

He didn’t seem to take the hint (unsurprisingly given that he didn’t take me outright telling him) and started messaging me repeatedly until I responded, more than 20 messages per day from him. I kept on ignoring most of them and sending some blunt messages that did not ask any follow ups when he really would not stop messaging. I have only contacted him first when it is required from a work context.

Over the course of about 3 weeks he finally started taking the hint and only messaging me a couple of times a week, but there was still undeniable flirting and it was making me feel really uncomfortable.

I have now unfollowed him on social media, something I know I should have done much earlier but the issue is he is in a more senior position than me in the collaboration and I was afraid of making a bad working relationship by angering him.

I’m worried now what will happen when he notices I’ve cut off social media contact and I have to see him in person again soon. Additionally there is a chance that shortly I will be working more directly with him, and thinking about this possibility is making me really anxious.

I’m unsure what to do in this situation as he is not in the same institute as me. I am nervous to tell my supervisor as I don’t want this to tarnish my professional reputation, I’m at the very start of my career.

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    Tell your supervisor. It's not your career at risk. The harasser just a PhD student, he does not have power over you. – Anonymous Physicist Jul 29 '19 at 17:34
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    I don't see where the sexual harassment! Maybe he is interested in you? but if you don't accept, you have the right to remove him from social media and he has no power to do anything. – user103209 Jul 29 '19 at 18:02
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    @Monika while you might not see it, unwanted and persistent flirtation is generally considered sexual harassment. – StrongBad Jul 29 '19 at 18:29
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    @Monika I have told him to stop flirting, I would assume he is interested in me but that doesn’t give him the right to make me uncomfortable after making my disinterest clear. – StatsStumped Jul 29 '19 at 18:39
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    @Monika that is a really unhealthy approach to take to sexual harassment. The fact that he will forget her is irrelevant, the issue is the victim is unlikely to forget the harasser. – StrongBad Jul 29 '19 at 23:45
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I assume you are worried about possible future retaliation or other future actions.

I suggest that you don't try to handle this on your own. You need someone who you trust and who is superior to both of you in the profession to be made aware of the situation. There should be some sort of record of what has happened, with the record known to the "superior".

That person can be your supervisor or not, as you choose, but the supervisor would normally be a good person, other things being equal. It shouldn't in any just world reflect badly on you.

But having the record and a neutral third party protects you from most future problems. An alternative to a superior is just a fairly wide group of people who are kept informed and who will speak for you if the other person starts do do more "aggressive" or unprofessional things.

Whether you inform the "harasser" or not is up to you and would depend on personalities, but it might not be a bad thing to drop the hint that you've discussed these unwanted emails with X.

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    I agree this is best not handled alone by the poster. – Scott Seidman Jul 29 '19 at 20:19
  • I think this is the best solution here, I’ll talk to my supervisor. Thank you for the answer! – StatsStumped Jul 30 '19 at 14:24
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While you seem confident that the individual's behavior is unprofessional, other people in your situation might not be as confident. If you have any doubt about if someones behavior is unprofessional, find a trusted colleague and ask them in confidence.

Once you are confident that the behavior is unprofessional, the next time he emails you, send him an email that clearly states that his behavior is unprofessional and that you feel sexually harassed. Then tell him that while you have endured it in the past, that it must stop and if necessary you will report the behavior to your supervisor, his supervisor, and any other relevant offices at your and his institutions. Finally, close with saying that you hope the behavior will stop and that this can all just be water under the bridge and that you can continue to have a professional collaboration. If you have any doubts, show the email (you can write it now), to a trusted colleague and get feedback.

If, after sending the email, the behavior does not stop (or he argues), you tell your supervisor. You can either work with the supervisor to bring the fury that is the university HR department when faced with issues of sexual harassment or a gentler back channel process. The choice is yours and anyone that would hold that choice against you is not someone you need to form collaborations with.

You want to start documenting things. This means saving the harassing emails. You also want to email him so you have a copy of what was said. Do not tell him in person (both because he doesn't deserve that type of interaction and because it gives you a record of what was said). If/when you talk to colleagues for advice or to your supervisor, do that in person or on the phone. You don't want them to feel like they are being watched. If your supervisor does not react as you hope, then follow up in writing.

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  • I think this is way to descriptive. I'd go with "I prefer not to have communication with you that is unrelated to our professional responsibilities. Please respect this decision". No threats of action, as none is needed. If the communication continues, elevated it to the supervisor or chair, or Title IX coordinator. The alternative would be elevating it right now, without communication, which is probably the right thing to do. – Scott Seidman Jul 29 '19 at 20:18
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    @ScottSeidman that is definitely an option and my guess is it will eventually end up in whatever the UK version of Title IX is. That said, going straight to the Title IX office will result in some people claiming that the OP blew a small misunderstanding out of proportion (I disagree with that, but think the OP is better off covering her bases). – StrongBad Jul 29 '19 at 20:22
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    @StrongBad I don't think there is a formal legal process such as there might be in the US, because (a) In an employment situation it would be a matter for HR, and (b) neither person is an employee. But the universities will have procedures in place. – Flyto Jul 29 '19 at 23:25
  • @Flyto It’s possible that both the OP and her harasser are university employees in other roles (e.g. sessional academics/tutors). – nick012000 Jul 30 '19 at 1:52

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