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Tips on anti-harassment policies – presentation from DPS 2012

November 5, 2012

Thanks to Christina Richey for providing her slides and commentary (below).  She artfully summarized some salient points about how anti-harassment policies usually define harassment, and what steps you can take if you are in the unfortunate situation of having to deal with harassment.

About Dr. Christina Richey

Christina is a NASA Postdoctoral Program Fellow at Goddard Space Flight Center. Her current research focuses on experimentally determining the optical properties, in the near-infrared to millimeter (from 1 μm to 2000 μm), of several types of metal-silicate dust grain analogs, as a function of wavelength, temperature, and composition. Her most recent article, “Near-Infrared Band Strengths of Molecules Diluted in N2 and H2O Ice Mixtures Relevant To Interstellar and Planetary Ices,” is in the latest edition of the Astrophysical Journal (2012, 759, 74). She is the co-President of the Postdoctoral Association at Goddard as well as a member of the steering committee for the Women in Astrophysics discussion group there.

From Christina:

I recently gave a short presentation on the topic of anti-harassment at the Women in Astronomy Discussion Hour at the AAS’s Division for Planetary Sciences Conference in Reno, NV. This talk was based on knowledge I obtained from several meetings of the Women in Astrophysics discussion group, a lunchtime round-table discussion that has included the opportunity for people to not only address issues that have arisen, but also discussion ways to try to effectively address these concerns. One of the primary concerns that has been brought to our attention is harassment, both in the workplace and also at conferences.

I was extremely grateful for all those who listened and responded positively to the event at DPS. However, I was a bit dismayed at the number of women, especially younger scientists, who came to me and shared their own stories of harassment, and I hope the information I presented will guide you to ways to resolve issues you have faced. Please note that you are not alone, and I am but one women in this field who is willing to assist you and stand strong beside you, as this is an issue that should have long ago become a much, much smaller concern within our field. Here is a quick summary, with the slideshow attached, of my talk. I am writing what was stated out loud at the presentation, in case there was something of importance not on the slides, and for those who were unable to attend the meeting.  Slide numbers are referenced below, view the slides here.

Slide 2: So what exactly is harassment? I wish this was a straightforward answer. There are many types of harassment, some are more obvious than others, but what it really comes down to is how harassment is defined where you work or study. The one that I am most familiar with is NASA’s definition:

“Any unwelcome conduct, verbal or physical, based on an individuals race, color, gender, national origin, religion, age, disability, sexual orientation, status as a parent, gender identity, genetic information, or retaliation…
when: (1) the behavior can reasonably be considered to adversely affect the work environment or (2) an employment decision affecting the employee is based upon the employee’s acceptance or rejection of such conduct.”

Each institution has a unique policy, which you should be provided (a hard copy, or a web link) when you start as a student, postdoctoral fellow, contractor or employee. One of the primary elements you will see in the policy is that the behavior that is considered to be harassment creates a hostile workplace, through adversely affecting work or determining employment opportunities. These types of environments lead to a loss of productivity and potentially the loss of new recruits in the field that could bring in new grant money. This is just one of the reasons why the institution cares (beyond your safety and sanity, of course). Given a large number of the scientists at the DPS meeting are here from NASA facilities, JPL/Caltech, and PSI, I have attached links to each of those institution’s policies on slide 2. However, if you’re at another institution, please ensure to check either online or in the student affairs or human resources office to know the policy where you are.

Slide 3: NASA’s Website includes some examples of harassment, but please note that it is not meant to be a comprehensive list. I do want to point a couple of these out. Let’s start with the one that may surprise a few in the room: bullying. Bullying may lead to many cases of “ impostor syndrome,” where people who do top level research feel as though they are second rate within the field. Here’s my take on bullying (and note, this was well-received at DPS, so thank you to those who pointed this out as a positive emphasis within the talk): Contrary to what some may think, thick skin isn’t a characteristic of being a great scientist, nor should it be a pre-requisite. Doing great science and writing successful proposals and articles; that is how you become a great scientist. While rejection is part of our jobs, it’s no ones job to make someone feel miserable or to tell them they are a failure in their field.

Also, just to note, the last two listed on slide 3, (continuing prohibited behavior after a colleague has objected and laughing at, ignoring, or retaliating against an employee who complains) are considered more serious than the others, and in many institutions are strictly prohibited.

Slide 4: While harassment can occur in your direct workplace (office, lab, etc), it is also important to note that this is not the only place these rules apply. Since there are other functions that you, as a scientist, are required to attend as part of your job, those places are also considered part of the workplace. This includes observation runs, conferences, even social events organized through the department or conference. Also, colleagues from other institutions are supposed to be following their workplace policies, and many of these functions (i.e. conferences, like the AAS and & DPS) have their own guidelines to follow.

Slide 5: Okay, so how does one handle the “not so serious moments”? Maybe someone doesn’t realize they are making you uncomfortable. Maybe there’s a large cultural difference. Maybe you’re not even sure if what is happening is harassment, you just know you’d like that person to leave you alone. Here are a few tips that have come from other scientist at Goddard during our Women in Astrophysics Lunch Series. These examples are conference-heavy because this was a conference lunch, but these can be generalized for other environments as well.

Poster sessions are pretty notorious spots for issues. Remember, you’re there to present your science. Make it a joke, if possible, as one of my colleagues suggested: “Hey, you notice all these poster boards. Let’s talk posters, namely mine, right here. I’m here to talk about my science”. Also, remember, a collaborator could be nearby, and the only reason they didn’t stop at your poster is someone else was already there. Keep it about your science.

When someone invades your space, set limits. I personally do the arm length rule; I place my arm in front of me or begin talking while also gesturing, keeping my arms at a distance that would be comfortable for me. If, while you do this, the person noticeably steps around your arm to move closer, they’ve crossed the line. And if someone doesn’t take a hint, it’s time to politely tell him or her they are making you uncomfortable.

Also, make sure to talk to someone. Tell someone you trust, even if it’s as basic as, “hey, this person really bothered me”. That same person could be bothering many, many people. One thing looked for in harassment issues is a chain of behavior. Also, trust your gut and remember to determine how you feel by your feelings. It’s not your fault if someone else is making you uncomfortable; remember, other people’s “social capabilities” are not your problem. Finally, address the issue when necessary. This can either stop it from getting serious, or you could help the next person in line.

Please don’t be afraid to be “that person” (many people can come up with much more colorful titles, but I’m sticking with “that person”). Look, I’m also a scientist, and about 3 hours after the lunch I presented this information at, I presented my poster on my research on optical properties of dust grain analogs in the infrared. I don’t want to be remembered as the anti-harassment woman. I want to be remembered for my awesome scientific achievements: for the journal article I recently published in Astrophysical Journal, for my capabilities of producing great lab results, for my ability to train and mentor future successful scientists. But I also don’t want anyone to ever have to be on the wrong side of a horrific case of harassment, and I want you to know that if you do find yourself in that situation, there are ways to fix the problem. That’s why I presented this talk, and am willing to put myself in a position to be a resource for those in need of information on how to deal with harassment issues.

For our senior scientists, there’s a reason why this is an important issue for you to hear about. The first time this was brought up in our lunches, a couple of our top scientists were stunned, and did not realize this issue was still a problem in our field. Younger scientists are unfortunately more likely to experience this behavior, so please help them out and intervene if necessary. Communicate with younger scientists that harassment is not okay, and it won’t be tolerated. Check in with other scientists whose productivity may have fallen off recently; harassment is an issue that directly impacts productivity.

Again, this is for the moments that aren’t serious. But if you’re dealing with a blatant case of harassment, or when you have done the things suggested above and the person persists, they flat out ignore your statements of discomfort, they continue to invade your personal space, or they retaliate, then they are knowingly participating in hostile behavior that can be defined as harassment. So what do you do when you’ve reached a serious point?

Slide 6: First and foremost, know the policy for the place you’re at. Keep all emails, texts, etc. associated with the harassment. Document the incident/s. Also, if there are other people involved, tell them to document their issue as well. This will show a pattern of behavior, which typically leads to a faster resolution of a situation. Report the issue to whomever the anti-harassment policy tells you to. However, if you feel more comfortable, start with someone you trust. Maybe that’s your department chair, your advisor, or a senior level colleague. But report the behavior, because that’s the only way to stop it. I’m not going to go through all the next steps, as it depends upon the institution, however, know that if the person becomes intimidating or threatening in any way, report it to the proper authorities, and by that, I mean campus security or the police. You’re safety is the top priority in those cases.

Slide 7: What about while you’re at a conference, like the AAS or DPS? Well, the AAS has a policy, which applies to every one of their events, including the DPS meeting:

“Sexual Harassment: Sexual harassment refers to unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. Behavior and language that are welcome/acceptable to one person may be unwelcome/offensive to another.

Other Harassment: Harassment on the basis of any other protected characteristic is also strictly prohibited. This conduct includes, but is not limited to: epithets, slurs or negative stereotyping; threatening, intimidating or hostile acts; denigrating jokes and display or circulation of written or graphic material that denigrates or shows hostility or aversion toward an individual or group.”

Again, the emphasis is ensuring that scientists are treated with respect and not having to deal with hostile or unwelcome behavior. Also, your work policies are still considered here, so they can be reported in that manner as well, if necessary.

Slide 8: If you get into the serious phase while at a conference, remember to write everything down, save notes and emails, and to tell someone you trust. If you feel that you have been harassed, you should report the event to a Society officer. (Please note, at DPS, the photos shown were the current DPS officers and we also had the new Vice-Chair, Heidi Hammel, present to point out to everyone. These people will be different for AAS events, and all their information can be found online at the AAS website, as well as past and current officers for DPS in future years.) These are people you can turn to if this issue arises. And if these people are too intimidating or you know no one else at this conference, find someone you trust. I know this is difficult for younger scientist, but part of the reason why you’re attending the conference is to network, and part of networking is knowing who to turn to for advice.

  • If you don’t know anyone else, and I’m attending the same conference, please feel free to turn to me. I care deeply about ensuring everyone is enjoying sharing his or her science in a respectable, comfortable environment. And if it takes finding one person to give a damn, well, you found one, and I happen to know many, many others who share that sentiment with me.
11 Comments leave one →
  1. November 9, 2012 5:32 pm

    A note from further discussion – just wanted to make sure that people know that each NASA center has a dedicated Anti-Harassment Coordinator

  2. November 6, 2012 10:01 am

    CSWA is on it and it will be incorporated into my blogpost next week. Thanks!!!

  3. November 5, 2012 11:12 am

    This is fantastic post; thank you for sharing this with the community.

    Another comment that I’ve found stops unwanted jokes and commentary is, “that’s not as funny as you think it is.” It tells someone that you’re uncomfortable with their behavior without it being about you.

    Would you be willing to post this to Women in Astronomy as well?

    • November 5, 2012 4:00 pm

      It would be great to post on Women in Astronomy as well, Christina said she will be in contact :).

    • November 5, 2012 4:30 pm

      Please go ahead and post this on Women in Astronomy as well. Let me know if you need any other additional information or another copy of the slides.


  1. DPS 2015 – Discussing Harassment | Women in Planetary Science: Female Scientists on Careers, Research, Space Science, and Work/Life Balance
  2. Leading Astronomer Violated Sexual Harassment Policies, Investigation Finds | Space science
  3. 7 Tips for Women at Science Conferences | Absolutely Maybe
  4. Harassment or just clean “fun”? | Women in Planetary Science: Female Scientists on Careers, Research, Space Science, and Work/Life Balance

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