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London, United Kingdom
I am an engineering academic at University College London where I work on the sustainability of urban water systems. I am interested in the role of engineers and technology in sustainable cities.

Thursday, 25 August 2016

The ways of the sexual harassment ninja warrior

In the last 24 hours I've had two separate conversations strategising with friends about how to deal with idiot men in the workplace. The sort who don't understand 'boundaries', who call you 'young lady', who make fun of your work in meetings 'just to get a rise'. Not all, but many, men.

I then noticed a retweet of a Guardian Academics Anonymous post about how terrible it is that women in science have to strategise about how to 'cope with' sexual harrassment. The Anonymous Academic was collaborating on a grant proposal with a senior colleague who had harassed one of her students. The post described how the student, her mother and the supervisor had to figure out how to work around such bad behaviour. The 'scientific community' and 'professorial staff' should take more responsibility for making such bad behaviour unacceptable, so women don't have to 'deal with it'.

I hate having these conversations. I hate reading these blog posts. My inner nineteen year old is screaming 'THIS WAS MEANT TO BE SORTED OUT IN THE 1980s'. My outer forty-two year old is bored and annoyed.

So here are some tips.

Sexual harassment isn't acceptable. Anywhere. Not at the bus stop. Not in the lab or at a conference dinner or the tea room.

It is simply not possible for anyone who has been in the workforce anywhere in the free world in the last 30 years not to know what sexual harassment is. 'But I was trying to be nice' is never an excuse.

No-one wants to be sexually harassed. No-one deserves it. Don't even go there.

If someone sexually harasses you or anyone you know, you should not accept it. You have options. Your options depend on the stage of your career and your circumstances.

All institutions have formal procedures for dealing with harassment and bullying. This might be the right thing for you to do. Find out about it, and make your own mind up. You'll need to weigh up the personal costs of going through the system, your urge for 'justice', and the greater good that might come from properly holding the creep to account.

Most of the stuff we feel crappy about are those annoying moments of ickiness that don't add up to enough for a formal complaint. In those moments, we just want to be that badass with the perfect one liner. We want to deal with the creep then and there. But sexual harassment comes as a surprise, and we are left paralysed and tongue tied.

Badasses are made, not born. In an ideal world we wouldn't need to be badass sexual harassment ninjas. We wouldn't need to 'deal with it'. Unfortunately we work in the real world with men, some of whom are creeps, many of whom are clueless. And we are real people too. We aren't born knowing how to defend ourselves. We need to learn.

Practice the ninja arts of badassery. All those things you wish you'd said, say them out loud. Hear your own voice say 'thank-you for the compliment, but I'd prefer it if you didn't comment on my appearance.' Practice your withering stare. Imagine yourself physically taking his hand off your shoulder, or maybe just start with a really big shrug. Concentrate on not doing the girly giggle that makes everyone feel OK about stuff that's really not. Workshop all this with your friends, while you make fun of the slimeball who looked you up and down in front of your team. Don't just 'wish' you'd said something, or hate yourseful for not standing up and walking away, practice it for next time. Next time you just might say something. It might be in a small, shaky voice. You might feel like an even bigger idiot, but it will be something.

If someone is a creep, tell people you trust. You don't have to publically bad mouth the sleazoid, or assassinate their character. Don't gossip. Just quietly let people know 'so, this happened'. Reputations get around.

If someone relatively vulnerable tells you they've experienced creepy behaviour from a more powerful person, believe them. Don't try to explain it away. If you can't act on it imediately or are not sure if it is quite right, just file it away for future reference.

Be choosy who you work with. When you are early in your career this can be difficult, but after a while you'll build your own reputation and you'll have more options. Don't work with anyone who has a reputation for being a creep. This is what I found most baffling about the Anonymous Academic. To me the answer to the dilemma was clear  - you harass my student, I never work with you again. There won't be any drama, I'll just prioritise other commitments. Your sales rep sends a dirty message to my purchasing offer, you don't get our business. Make a pass at the adminstrator who checks you in for your interview, you don't get the job. This is not cutting off my nose to spite my face, and it is not kangaroo court. It's clarifying priorities. So many people complain about being overworked. 'Don't work with creeps' can be a handy workload management strategy. There are more than enough non-creeps out there to build a successful career.

Change the conversation. If you know that your workplace isn't doing enough to eliminate harassment, make a fuss. Suggest that everyone takes a really boring sexual harassment training course, again, in person, not alone on their computers. Re-write the policy. Call out the bosses on their 'pinkwash' gender diversity clap trap if it doesn't ring true.

Step up. There are creeps so creepy, and sleazeballs so slimey and institutions that are so structurally dangerous and chronically dysfunctional that sometimes the nuclear option is the only option. Sexual harrassment in the workplace is illegal. There will be times when the law is the best answer. There may come a point where it is right to go public with your experiences, particularly if others share those experiences. At some point the Anonymous Academic might need to take off his mask. Doing this on your own takes a lot of courage and can be costly, but the cost of 'putting up with' degrading and demeaning behaviour can be much higher.

'The scientific community' shouldn't accept sexual harassment. This is true for everyone who is part of that community. It is not the responsibility of women, particularly young women, to hold every creep to account. Our brighest minds should not be wasting their precious brain cells figuring out workarounds to 'deal with it'. And yet we can't wait to be rescued by enlightened professors. We need to empower ourselves and each other, because that is ultimately what sexual harassment is about. It is the abuse of power. There are formal and informal ways of taking back some of that power from the creeps. These are the ways of the sexual harassment ninja badass. Be more ninja.