Posting this to academia stackexchange, but if this may fit better in other place please let me know.

My girlfriend is a new PhD student in a male dominated field, and is supervised by a postdoc in a research group led by a professor. For the last few months, her postdoc supervisor was constantly giving her small presents, and trying to meet with her outside of work hours such as in a restaurant on weekends, for a reason of discussing the current work. This makes my girlfriend uncomfortable, but she is too shy to say no to those things, and the behavior of the postdoc supervisor up to this point was borderline, I even accompanied her for one such meeting on a weekend. Yesterday however her postdoc supervisor surprised her where he took off her glasses from her head without her asking or warning her (because her glasses were a bit dirty); My girlfriend was startled, and pulled the glasses from his hands, and put them back on. At this point he further unannounced tried to touch and fix her hair, as she put her glasses in a rush which messed her hair. The overall situation stressed my girlfriend considerably, and she ended up in tears in the evening when she was telling me this. There have been some other similar situations (albeit with no / less physical contact) which makes my girlfriend distracted and nervous when she communicates with her supervisor, which impacts her ability to do her work.

My view on this is that we should let her supervisor know clearly that this behavior is not acceptable asap and escalate to the professor, in order to prevent such situations from happening again. The issue right now however is that her scientific work is depending on her supervisor, so she does not want to escalate or bring up this situation for discussion until the paper deadline that she works on. I am inclined to go and talk with the professor and postdoc myself, but I also do not want to do anything that my girlfriend did not ask for. Do you have any advice for me of what I can do to help? Do you have any suggestions or comment in general what to do in this situation?

Edit 1: As pointed in the answers / comments, I will not attempt any talking with prof or with postdoc on my own or other similar actions.

Edit 2: Unfortunately some 1:1 situations cannot be avoided, as my gf needs to take measurements together with her postdoc who knows how to operate the machinery.

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    "I am inclined to go and talk with the professor and postdoc myself": DON'T. Dec 15, 2020 at 18:54
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    @MassimoOrtolano, you should probably expand on that. Inquiring minds need to know.
    – Buffy
    Dec 15, 2020 at 19:23
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    The postdoc has moved to physical (wo)manhandling - the postdoc crossed the red line big time. I have little hope that she can keep things under control (i.e. not getting worse) until the paper deadline unless that is really very near in the future. Is there any support structure against harassment at the institution? My advice in such situations: put the foot down as early, clearly, and unambiguously as possible or get out while you can. Sorry to be blunt, but "not escalating" is read by that postdoc as "I am a challenge", not as "I am not interested". Dec 15, 2020 at 19:53
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    Aside from this ugly situation: No student should (be content to) depend on some postdoc to do essential lab work. Learn to do it by yourself, and better than that postdoc, so you can do it alone, or replace him by an undergrad student if two hands are not enough. Just in case the postdoc vanishes on short notice, or turns out to be an unfriendly or a dunce. They all do, at least temporarily. ;-)
    – Karl
    Dec 15, 2020 at 20:14
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    "What can I (the partner) do?" is a different question from what your partner should do. Which would would you like answers about? Dec 15, 2020 at 22:06

5 Answers 5


This might be more of a Interpersonal Skills question, but:

  • don't take any action on your own
  • do support your GF in any way she asks, including (1) being supportive and helping her deal with the stress (2) being present as a third party at meetings or (3) in conversation as a reminder that she's unavailable or (4) as an excuse ("oh, sorry, I have plans with my boyfriend (cough) so it'll be inconvenient to meet in person this weekend, but we could communicate via Zoom/Slack/e-mail ...") — not that it's OK that any of these are necessary in the situation.
  • after the submission deadline passes, it's a judgement call (depending on personalities, relationships, etc.) whether it's best for her to try to work things out with the postdoc supervisor or go immediately to the professor

@Buffy correctly points out in a comment (I should have included this) that the highest priority is for your GF to stay safe by making sure never to be in a private/one-on-one meeting with the postdoc: if you're not available or she doesn't want you there and she can't set the meeting for a public professional space, ask her to ask a friend or colleague (especially female) to be there (mentioning this advice to your GF would be the one possible exception to "don't give her any help she doesn't want"). If your GF and the postdoc need to work together to take measurements on some equipment, do whatever you have/she has to to make sure there's a third person present.

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    Or, if the OP can't be present at these meetings, make sure that some other person always is, One of her friends or another student. Especially another female student.
    – Buffy
    Dec 15, 2020 at 19:05

I can understand your concern which is completely natural but I think it is up to your girlfriend to handle this situation by herself. The most appropriate thing you can do is to be supportive of your girlfriend and give her advice but not to take any action by yourself. From the outside, this could be probably seen as "threatening" by other people.

I do not really agree with the idea to wait for a deadline or something. If by keeping quiet and resisting somebody's harassment just for a project for a long time, your girlfriend's psychology could be affected, then you should not wait for it.

Maybe the question to be asked by your girlfriend may be: what would I feel in 3 months, 6 months, 2 years after the deadline if I do not say anything or take any action about this issue? At that point, I think there is another trade-off to be taken into account.

If I understood well, the postdoc is aware of the hierarchy and abuses of his position. The OP did not specify the location of the institution in question but note also that many universities and research institutes in Europe and in the US are very very sensitive to the issues of sexual harassment.

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    +1 for "I do not really agree with the idea to wait for a deadline" and for your username which is very apt here. Dec 16, 2020 at 0:55

Look up the university's sexual harassment complaint process.

What you're describing is sexual harassment, and it's both unacceptable and illegal in almost every developed nation, as well as most developing nations. I would strongly recommend that formal action should be taken against the post-doc in question.

You don't state location, but almost every reputable university should have a process for handling complaints of sexual harassment. In the US, this should fall under Title 9, and would likely be handled by the Title 9 office at the university, but other countries would have different names for things, and every university has its own internal policies and procedures. As a result, I would encourage you to read up on what the policies and procedures of this particular university's sexual harassment process are.

You may be able to make a complaint on your girlfriends' behalf, either as her boyfriend or anonymously, and there would likely be anti-retaliation processes that would protect her from retaliation by the post-doc for making the complaint, and which would prevent her studies from being harmed while the resolution of the complaint was in-process.

Finally, you may want to look up laws regarding conversation recording and one-party consent in your location. In some places, it's totally legal for one person to record a conversation that they're a party to; in other places, it's illegal unless everyone involved consents to the recording. If it is legal where you live, you might want to consider buying a recording device or phone app that your girlfriend could use to record her encounters with this post-doc, as evidence for any sexual harassment complaints that might be made.

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    "there would likely be anti-retaliation processes that would protect her from retaliation by the post-doc for making the complaint, and which would prevent her studies from being harmed while the resolution of the complaint was in-process." In theory, this is likely the case. In reality (and speaking from first-hand experience), anti-retaliation policies don't often successfully protect the complainant, just as sexual misconduct policies don't often hold such abusers accountable.
    – Ace
    Dec 16, 2020 at 4:57
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    One more comment: regardless of whether or not she wants to file a complaint, I would suggest looking up laws in your location regarding one party consent/recording conversations. In my own experience, it never occurred to me to record interactions with my abuser when the unwanted behavior was going on, but by the time I filed a complaint, I wish I had done so, because I would have had some evidence. Your girlfriend may never want/need to share such recordings with anyone, but I only recommend it as an extra precaution. Again, only if it's legal where you live.
    – Ace
    Dec 16, 2020 at 5:07
  • @Ace Thanks for the suggestion, I've edited the post to include a mention about looking up recording laws.
    – nick012000
    Dec 16, 2020 at 6:06
  • Note that even if one-party consent is legal in your jurisdiction, it may be against your university's policies to create a recording without two-party consent.
    – Brian
    Dec 18, 2020 at 21:58
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    One more quick point about sexual harassment (SH) complaints: at my former institution, once a potential SH complaint has been mentioned to someone in an official position (e.g. the supervising professor), it MUST be reported up the chain to appropriate authorities. This is a good policy IMO - it removes the possibility that someone in the chain will fail to transmit a complaint - but it does mean that IF you prefer to try handle things informally before making a formal complaint you should initially discuss the situation hypothetically ("I have a friend who ...")
    – Ben Bolker
    Dec 24, 2020 at 1:16

sorry your girlfriend has to go through this.

Step zero is to document everything. This includes taking screenshots, etc and storing all evidence of him asking her out in a non-university controlled environment (e.g. gmail docs). Keep it like a running diary. You never know when documentation comes in handy. She will also need documentation to prove what is happening to her.

Next, try to respond to everything he does in email / text so there is a paper trail (preferably a non-institution controlled mode of communication - if she has to email using an institutional email, she can forward emails to an external email, e.g. gmail).

Finally she needs to map out what other alternatives there are. Can another postdoc or team member teach her? Is there another project she can work on without this guy? Is there a policy which defines harassment at her institution etc? If so ,read it - even if she doesn't complain, it's good to know her rights.

Once these factors are known, she should decide her course of action, any communication should be over a non-institution controlled medium (like her gmail) as much as possible (this is so she retains control over the information).

Some ideas:

  1. If there's a trusted female friend, or woman in the field maybe they could support her in talking to her professor?
  2. Work with him only during work hours.
  3. If she feels weirded out in his presence, she should override any feelings of being polite and just leave. No explanation, no nothing. She should GTFO and always trust her gut. She can say any bullshit after the fact, like "I felt ill" etc.
  4. Are there student advocates or unions on her campus? Could she get support and advice from a student organisation?
  5. She should be mentally prepared for the academy and professor to not support her - this may not be the case, but I'm just saying this does happen to people.

Situations like these can quickly escalate. And by that I mean, that the postdoc can escalate his actions towards your girlfriend since he is not having any repercussions from continuously pushing on your girlfriends boundaries.

In a situation like this I would like to escalate it to a professor or head of institution right away, with the very least a consultation. Your university is your workplace, and the heads of institutions are responsible for creating a good work environment. If she mentions that it is difficult to communicate boundaries with her coworker now, it allows for a possible relaxed conversation where a professor can offer to mediate a boundary conversation or a way for her to be less dependent on the postdoc.

If you instead push up the date of mentioning it, it gives him more time to push her more, and leaves open the risk that he gets to be the first to bring it up to the other people, where he could make it seem as if she is making things up or are being over dramatic.

Of course, as you say, don't do anything behind her back, but do help her feel safe enough to speak up about it as soon as possible.

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