Advice for a graduate advisor on harassment in external lab
September 20, 2017 1:10 AM   Subscribe

I am an advisor to graduate students in a science-based discipline. The university at which I work has a centralized lab facility made available to all students to conduct their research. One of my graduate students needs this lab to complete their thesis. Unfortunately, the lab is currently managed by somebody who makes my student uncomfortable. I am trying to find a solution so that this lab manager's present does not impact my student's education any further. What can, and should, I do?

Some of the discomfort around the lab manager is from a general social ineptness - weirdly pushy about authorship or trying to provide too much input on methods they don't understand. But some of the lab manager's comments qualify as harassment, along the lines of saying things to female scientists like "women are so disorganized, that's why I can never keep a girlfriend." My student has met with additional higher-ups about this looking for help. The higher ups have suggested that she work in a different lab space (not feasible because some of the equipment is only available in this centralized lab). The higher ups have also suggested that she have a direct conversation with the lab manager about their interactions before she continues in there (WTF).

I have asked my student to document in writing the specific experiences she's had with this person. But I'm kind of at a loss about how to proceed after that. I'm most concerned with this situation not impacting her education on just a purely ethical level. I'm angry that it already has and that those in an administrative capacity don't seem to have the interest in helping. I'm also worried that this situation is not limited to my student, and regardless it's likely a violation of Title IX.

What do I do next?
posted by anonymous to Education (25 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I don't think this behavior is ok, but it seems relatively mild. As a female PhD, I work with a BS level male who regularly implies women are too flakey to work in science. This barely registers on my annoying work things scale. We live in a crappy world, and there are typically worse behaviors going on in labs all the time.

If this person make offhanded remarks about women, your student can come and talk to you about it. You can be like wow, that's inappropriate. You can also role play what she could say to respond. Gee, if you talk like that, people will think you're sexist. I would amp this up to management will be meeting with you about a statement like that at work, if he'd continued. In sort of a jokey way. I do this when people are way out of hand, and it sometimes works. Other people may have other come backs for the comments.

Your student can also try to learn new skills about the shared lab space from other, and then avoid this person. I know what I'm doing, thanks should be her mantra to him. Then avoid him. If she has to learn from him, should could bring a friend or you.

Honestly, I have seen so much worse. I've seen physical and sexual assults go unreported and blatant years of verbal abuse force people out of PhDs while advisors are aware or contribute. This questionably counts as herassment. I'd just say inappropriate comments. If this is the worst your studentis dealing with, it's an excellent enviornment. A person is unlikely to get removed from a position for occasional comments like this or trying to help too much, and I'm not sure it would be appropriate if they were removed.
posted by Kalmya at 2:13 AM on September 20, 2017

First, thank you for caring and wanting to do something. Kalmya is right that much worse shit happens all the time in academia ... and she's also right to caution your student to be realistic ... but I'm still very bitter about the women senior to me who've basically said "I had to deal with worse, so you need to suck it up." That's fine, and it's your choice to choose to put up with abuse for the sake of your career, but that doesn't mean that it's OK for you to tell me I'm wrong to expect more help.

What does your student want to happen? She's probably not going to get this person fired over this, so she'll still have to work with them or quit. Does she want somebody (maybe you? maybe another man?) to have an off-the-record chat with this person and say "Hey, I advise students and have been hearing that you're saying x, y, z. Save that type of talk for the bar, it's not OK in the lab." Does she want practical help changing her reaction to the situation, like Kalmya suggested? Does she want the office in charge of Title IX compliance to have a chat with them about what's workplace-appropriate, and hopefully give them a scare? Does she want somebody else present in all of her interactions with them? Does she want to feel that she has started an official record, so that the next person to complain will be taken more seriously?

Also, if you think it's a violation of Title IX, and you're in a supervisory position, you're probably in violation of your school's policies if you haven't reported the behavior to whatever the relevant office is on your campus. However, I'm not saying that it'll make her life better, or that an investigation would go anywhere.

Beyond that, the appropriate people to talk to will depend on your campus, your department, and politics within. At my school, the answer for where to go for help could include, in no particular order: Office of Inclusion & Equity, Employee Assistance Program, HR, Provost, Student & Faculty Ombuds, Dean of Students, department chair, head of Graduate Studies Committee, whoever problem-guy's boss is, etc .... yeah, there's lots of legwork, and she's probably wasting a lot of time trying to figure the system out.
posted by Metasyntactic at 3:18 AM on September 20, 2017 [13 favorites]

...along the lines of saying things to female scientists like "women are so disorganized, that's why I can never keep a girlfriend."

FWIW, with no additional context, this sounds to me like blatant sexism but maybe not harassment: the act of systematic and/or continued unwanted and annoying actions of one party or a group, including threats and demands.
posted by amtho at 3:23 AM on September 20, 2017

Unless your institution is very different from mine, you're probably required by your policies to pass this information along to your Title IX compliance officer. It doesn't matter if the harassment was on or off campus, it doesn't matter if the student wants to start a case, and it doesn't matter whether you think it's a big deal or not. If a credible report of sexual harassment (or assault, or discrimination) related to a student comes your way, there's an institutional obligation to report. I get the impression that unless the case is under the university's aegis and is either egregious or accompanied by a student intent to take action, most of these reports are duly filed and ignored as not really something we have any further responsibility to take action on, but there is a mandated process.

That having been said, carrying out this obligation is probably not the only thing you can do, if you want to take further action. But you don't have any choice whatsoever about this part.

(We had a big discussion of this in faculty assembly a few years back about our mandate for reporting of activity not related to the university at all, e.g. the instructor for a course on creative nonfiction is likely to have one or two works mandating a Title IX report come in every semester. Legal counsel said, yup, gotta report 'em, even if they're from a decade ago don't seem super-relevant t the university's sphere of influence. We disclose that we're going to do this on our syllabi now.)
posted by jackbishop at 4:22 AM on September 20, 2017 [4 favorites]

Report to head of department and university ombudsman. Mention possible Title IX violation. Thank you for caring about your student and not belittling her experience. Just because worse things happen doesn't mean it's ok for her not to be comfortable accessing a facility needed for her project.
posted by emd3737 at 4:30 AM on September 20, 2017 [14 favorites]

[One deleted. Reminder: Please just give your best, productive advice to the OP. Ask Metafilter isn't for debating or criticizing other answerers. Not all suggestions are going to be identical, and it's up to the OP to pick and choose what seems most helpful.]
posted by taz (staff) at 4:38 AM on September 20, 2017 [2 favorites]

Thanks for getting involved. This is how change happens.

Sadly complaints from students are often not given much weight. A complaint from a faculty member will be taken a bit more seriously. I would start by discussing this in person with whomever this lab manager reports to. Call it harassment or not, there's no question that making disparaging comments about women as a class creates a hostile work environment. And that's not acceptable and needs to stop.
posted by grouse at 5:46 AM on September 20, 2017 [11 favorites]

I agree that reporting this behavior is important (and following through to make sure the relevant authorities take action). Thank you for caring and finding ways to help.

On a more immediate note to your student's experience and what you could do next: is there any way you (or another friend or coworker) could be in the lab space with her when she needs to be there? Act as a buffer? Or perhaps someone else could do the work that requires that specific equipment, maybe even yourself? Sometimes we've had surrogate "hands in the lab" for chemists who can't do the work themselves for whatever reason (chemical sensitivities, pregnancy, broken limbs, etc.).

Far from ideal, and you guys shouldn't have to do more work to avoid a person who's behaving badly, but it might be a way to get through this in the interim.
posted by chemicalsyntheticist at 5:49 AM on September 20, 2017 [2 favorites]

Oh also, please ensure your student understands that retaliation is a possibility, but that if she notices she should tell you and that the consequences can be much more severe for the perpetrator than the original harassment.
posted by grouse at 5:49 AM on September 20, 2017 [2 favorites]

Another thanks for being willing to step up.

Talk to your chair first, as she/he is also likely the boss or in the chain of command of this facility tech. You and/or chair should include the university lawyers in the loop: they have a legit need to keep the university from being sued for hostile workplace and harassment.
posted by Dashy at 5:52 AM on September 20, 2017 [2 favorites]

Assuming you are at a US institution, you would be a Title IX mandatory reporter.

This should have been reported to your Title IX officer by now. Full stop.
posted by zizzle at 6:13 AM on September 20, 2017 [1 favorite]

Agreeing with the others in saying that if an incident has even a whiff of a Title IX violation about it, you as a mandated reporter (folks who supervise others are by definition mandatory reporters) are required to report to the Title IX officer. You don't have to be sure that it actually was a violation; it is that person's job to determine whether there was actually a Title IX violation. They also work closely with the people who deal with non-sexual-type harassment (here, the Office of Diversity) and can pass along the case if deemed necessary.

Because it hasn't been mentioned, the time I had to report a possible Title IX violation, a colleague in the Counseling Office called me and mentioned that I could receive counseling or support if I chose to from his office, because he recognized that the process may have been difficult for me. You may have similar resources for your own wellbeing, and your student certainly will have access to counseling if she wishes.

In the immediate, I would also enlist a fellow graduate student to work next to your student in the lab so that she is not alone with this person.
posted by Liesl at 6:19 AM on September 20, 2017

Not sure what higher-ups she has spoken to so far, but here are some people I'd talk to, in case there's a new one on the list: your chair, in case this manager is a missing stair that everyone in the department knows about; the director of the facility or whoever is over the manager; your dean (if all students need to use this core facility, this is likely to be a school-wide problem that will blow up in their face eventually); whoever the topmost person is in charge of the shared facility (dean or VP or whatever, if it's different than your dean); the Title IX office; or the campus ombudsman, if you have one. In the short term she'll probably have to figure out how to be professional with someone who is not, but as a core facility manager at a university, I would be white-hot enraged to find out that one of my colleagues was doing this. Are there any more sympathetic folks at this person's level in the facility that she could talk to about short-term options?

It's common but it still sucks and should be rooted out wherever possible.
posted by tchemgrrl at 6:25 AM on September 20, 2017 [3 favorites]

The way you show your support for your student: YOU GO TALK TO THIS MANAGER YOURSELF. Various players may want to avoid official processes, but you must outrank this schmuck by a mile, and when he's pushing around your people, he's pushing you around too. Pecking order is big, you're the big bird here, so put on that hat and play that role, that is how you earn a reputation as someone who respects/defends/supports their students.

I don't know what you mean by "pushy about authorship", but if it means this guy is attempting to force his way on to her papers (with you?), then you need to address that as well. You are the senior author and mentor, yes? Then this guy needs to know he will never be a co-author with you and yours unless he learns how to behave like a goddam professional scientist.

Yes, you can/should file title IX, yes you can/should arrange to have her work there with buddies while other official processes may be going on. The response of "let's try to handle this like grownups and talk things out" is not completely unreasonable, and it seems that has been recommended by someone? But in that situation, it falls to YOU to talk to this guy, not your student who he's already been at least somewhat of a jerk to.
posted by SaltySalticid at 6:29 AM on September 20, 2017 [14 favorites]

Another thing: you say that student had already approached higher-ups to no avail. This is another aspect of the problem that you should seek to change. Once you've gotten a better response from a different set of higher-ups, you should also direct the responsive higher-ups to re-inform the unresponsive higher-ups as to what is expected of them (mandatory reporting, protecting the productivity of the student, etc). That was a big ball to whiff, and they should do better.
posted by Dashy at 6:49 AM on September 20, 2017 [5 favorites]

I agree with alerting the Title IX office so they have a heads up, but I also think Kalmaya is correct that there needs to be some level of pragmatism here. Someone who is running a lab is presumably tenured and is simply not going to be fired or seriously disciplined for this type of comment -- I mean, maybe things should be different, but one person is not going to completely change the culture of academic science in the United States overnight, so it's practical to come up with solutions to survive in that culture if you want to stay there. I like the idea of working with your student to come up with appropriate in-the-moment responses to these comments -- both the socially uncomfortable ones and the sexist comments. Even if this guy never made another sexist comment, he would still be socially awkward, and socially awkward is certainly not a violation of any law. Anyone working in academia is going to have to learn to work with people who have limited social skills and are awkward to be around. So these are important skills to build, even if we do assume a future in which sexual harassment is being better policed.
posted by rainbowbrite at 6:51 AM on September 20, 2017 [2 favorites]

Lab manager sounds to me like staff rather than faculty, so not tenured.

And I'm with Saltysalticid that you or someone better positioned than you should be directly communicating to the lab manager that he is putting the institution at risk of lawsuit, and putting his own job at risk.

I'm not sure if you're in a position to say that to him, but if you're not you should be clearly communicating to the Title IX office that someone has to. Reining him in before something really blows up isn't just good for your student, it's doing the lab manager a favor.
posted by LizardBreath at 7:08 AM on September 20, 2017 [3 favorites]

Someone who is running a lab is presumably tenured and is simply not going to be fired or seriously disciplined for this type of comment

As LizardBreath mentions, "lab manager" is usually not a high-ranking or tenured position. But you are right, it's unlikely anyone will be seriously disciplined for a single comment like this or even a single complaint of a pattern of comments like this. They should be disciplined, though, if they are told to knock it off and the pattern continues. Without the initial complaint, however, that's never going to happen.

The threshold for a complaint should not be whether the complaint will get someone fired. The goal is not to get this person fired. It's to get them to knock off their crappy behavior.

Anyone working in academia is going to have to learn to work with people who have limited social skills and are awkward to be around.

Anyone who has limited social skills is going to have to learn to follow their employer's policy and the law. If they can't, they lose their job.
posted by grouse at 7:17 AM on September 20, 2017 [10 favorites]

Well, if you read my comment, note I said it should be reported! Maybe you guys have had much better experiences with reporting stuff like this (and certainly I hope that is the case here and more broadly in society!). Personally, I have seen women have their careers completely derailed and forced out of academia entirely for being the victim of much more serious situations.

That doesn't mean never report -- sometimes one can make the calculation and decide it is worth it to push in a particular situation (and if the lab manager is not a tenured faculty member, I think that does point more towards escalating things -- the comments on authorship were making me think it was faculty versus staff). I just don't think it's super helpful to act like these dynamics aren't real and that there is no potential for the female academic in the situation to end up being the one who suffers most of the real consequences.

Of course it would be wonderful to live in a world where university administrators deal with these things properly and promptly, and without retaliation. And legally of course, that's what they ought to be doing. Doesn't mean in the real world giving that advice without any caveats won't end up with this woman being much worse off in the end.
posted by rainbowbrite at 7:28 AM on September 20, 2017 [1 favorite]

Anyone who has limited social skills is going to have to learn to follow their employer's policy and the law. If they can't, they lose their job.

Sure, but a lot of the things mentioned here are not against any law, and probably aren't against policy either (and also have nothing to do with gender). Stuff like being an asshole about authorship or thinking oneself to be more informed about methods than one really is are clearly obnoxious but are not going to be addressed by any legal rule. It's good to come up with strategies to deal with people like this, because this won't be the last time and appealing to higher authority won't always be a good option (like if the socially awkward person is your department chair).

This is separate from the sexism issues, which I think have different solutions and also different pitfalls. But even if the sexism comments 100% disappeared, it sounds like this guy would still be difficult to work with, and that's something the student will still need to navigate.
posted by rainbowbrite at 7:33 AM on September 20, 2017

If women in the lab are being disproportionately targeted by the pushiness and obnoxiousness, it's a Title IX violation regardless of whether the guy says anything explicit about gender or sex. The violation of law isn't in the content of the harassment, it's in the target and the motivation.

And in similar stories I've heard, women are disproportionately targeted. It's not necessarily always going to be the case, but it's a pretty safe first guess.
posted by LizardBreath at 8:02 AM on September 20, 2017 [3 favorites]

I should add that Anon may instead choose to go talk to lab manager's direct SUPERVISOR rather than lab manager himself. That may be seen as more polite, because if you go direct to lab manager, his supervisor may well be annoyed, thinking, "if you have a problem with my people, you should come to me first". The way I was brought up, strong competent advisers personally go to bat for their students, independent of any formal processes or uni-level stuff. It's not just sending an email to the uni feds, it's showing up, face-to-face. This is of course easier for senior faculty, but I see it out of the (good) junior faculty too.

Borrowing a phrase from the business world, a good supervisor should "Be the bullshit umbrella and not the bullshit funnel." This is why I say you should take a personal hand, and that's also why you may want to go to the supervisor first, because if s/he's any good (and likely 100% outside your org chart), s/he will want to hear from you first, not second (or nth). If that person has already been contacted by your student, then maybe you also need to ask them why they blew off your student's complaints.
posted by SaltySalticid at 8:46 AM on September 20, 2017 [7 favorites]

I don't think it's TOO wtf to suggest she say something to him-- as a first step, not as the only solution. Does not have to be a huge uncomfortable confrontation, but the very next time he says something sexist, she can quickly say "please don't make sexist comments" and exit the situation (rather than argue.)

This empowers her (she doesn't just have to take it), informs him (so if he is a professional he will cut it out, or at least think twice), and establishes an important series of events in case this needs to be escalated. Because if he carries on, the first thing people will ask is if he's been asked to stop. She can then say "on x day he said y, I asked him to stop, and one week later he said z and my advisor took the following actions," etc.
posted by kapers at 12:12 PM on September 20, 2017

From the OP:
Thanks for all the very helpful responses - the diversity of opinions is honestly really helpful and exactly what I was hoping for. Once I have an actual statement from my student, I will report it to the Title IX compliance office on campus. It was particularly helpful for the distinction between generally awkward versus harassment stuff. I think I'll encourage her to return and learn to cope with the awkwardness but keep an eye out for anything veering into harassment. I will also plan on chatting with him informally about the concerns she raised.

If anybody else wants to comment, one clarification: guy's position is probably better described as the lab director rather than manager. He reports directly to the college dean, has a PhD, but is not tenure line."

Thank you!
posted by restless_nomad at 6:40 PM on September 20, 2017

It was particularly helpful for the distinction between generally awkward versus harassment stuff. I think I'll encourage her to return and learn to cope with the awkwardness but keep an eye out for anything veering into harassment.

but earlier:

Some of the discomfort around the lab manager is from a general social ineptness - weirdly pushy about authorship or trying to provide too much input on methods they don't understand.

I hope you don't take comments here as support for writing this off as "awkwardness" -- your student knows best and you know second-best, but this doesn't sound remotely awkward. It sounds like a horrible man trying to push a younger woman around and assume a dominant and intimate role that does not properly belong to him and that he has no intellectual authority to assume, because he can. If this behavior is charitably ascribed to social ineptitude, he will have succeeded.

Is that what it is? there isn't enough information given for anyone reading this to know. but if your student reports this to you, with or without apologetic disclaimers about how it probably isn't that bad compared to the rest of it, consider how likely she is to escalate to asking you for help simply because somebody's socially awkward. People, especially women who are sensitized to the accusation of making a big deal over nothing, don't usually bring simple ineptness to an adviser -- it's something you laugh about, not something you need help with.

If you don't have any male students in the lab you can ask, don't assume he does this to men, either equally or ever at all. maybe he does, but if you don't know, you don't know. If he only does it to women or only to this one woman, it's harassment. no question.
posted by queenofbithynia at 8:12 PM on September 20, 2017 [5 favorites]

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