Sexual Harassment Scenarios: What Would You Do?

What do these five cases have in common?

- Anita Hill/Justice Clarence Thomas
- Paula Jones/Bill Clinton
- The Tailhook Convention
- Mitsubishi Motors Manufacturing
- University of Colorado Football Program

If you said sexual harassment, you would be correct. However, do you remember the specifics of these cases? If you remembered two of the four, you have a good memory. Unfortunately, we don’t often remember these case details, as they become part of the media noise that surrounds us. They become sensationalized. They are on tabloid TV. We stop listening.

Every month or so, we at ProfHacker issue a challenge to our readers about disruptive student behavior, in a post that elicits your opinion. As faculty in higher education, we have seen our share of disruptive students. In these posts, we set up a scenario, and then ask you, “how would you handle this?”

We are doing the same thing today on the subject of sexual harassment. Sexual harassment on a university campus is not an issue that anyone really wants to discuss. Maybe it’s that we don’t want to believe that it exists, that our colleagues and friends would engage in such behavior, or that we might have to deal with sexual harassment fall out in some way. Maybe, we might think to ourselves, if we talk about it we’ll be guilty of it. Sexual harassment makes people nervous.

We live in an odd time where the mere accusation of sexual harassment can cause great harm. On the one hand, for example, lives are destroyed. The Chronicle reported in the 2009 that two professors at the University of Iowa, each committed suicide after being accused in separate sexual harassment cases because they felt their well-established careers could never recover. In this case, the accused suffers greatly. (I am making no judgement here about whether the accusations were true or not. My focus is simply on the accusation.)

On the other hand, we live in an age where examples of sexual (exploits) harassment are in the news, and it becomes difficult to take such stories seriously. Corporate CEOs who are accused of sexual misconduct (but who actually resign under a different “crime”) are given golden parachute deals that would make many want to commit such misconduct (for such reward). The female accusers in these cases are often vilified in the press or in the comment section to the online stories, about their moral character, their appearance, or even their “gold digging” ways. The harm comes to the accuser not the alleged accused.

Faculty and staff in higher education understand (broadly) the definition of sexual harassment in a “we’ll know it when we see” it kind of way. Knowing it when we see it isn’t enough, though. Most all (if not all) universities and colleges have an office or liaison that handles these cases and they can help you “see it” a little more clearly. However, the EEOC (U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) defines sexual harassment this way (and this is the definition that most universities adopt): Sexual harassment occurs, “when submission to or rejection of this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment.”

Clear enough. Given the above examples of how sexual harassment can be treated in our culture (destroyed careers and lives or a life parachuted to a lucrative retirement), given how much is at stake with just the accusation of sexual harassment, and given the definition of sexual harassment from the EEOC, what would you do in each of the following scenarios. How would you advise the accuser?

The scenarios below are real, but for obvious reasons, identifying information has been changed. Two of the three cases concern women being harassed, as the majority of sexual harassment cases go this direction. It’s important to remember, too, that sexual harassment is not always about sex. It’s about power and authority.

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Scenario #1:
A female undergrad comes to you (a female professor) to say that she’s uncomfortable with the advances and glances of her male professor. “He doesn’t ever look me in the eye,” she says. “He’s always looking at my breasts. I’m really uncomfortable, and I don’t know what to do.” [The woman is dressed as any other traditional college student might be dressed and is not displaying herself provocatively.]

Scenario #2:
A female staff member goes to her supervisor and to then human resources about another male staff member who continues to make lewd jokes and suggestive comments about her appearance. “I would sure like to see you wearing a bikini behind that desk, then I would…” type comments. Human resources tells her, “Oh, that’s just [ethnic name], you have to just realize that in his culture, he is flirting with you.”

Scenario #3:
A male undergrad comes to you (a male professor) to say that he’s uncomfortable with the advances and glances of his female professor. “Each time I go to her office hours, she has porn on her computer screen. I’m really freaked out that she’s ‘hitting’ on me or something. I’m not interested in her at all. I just want to do my work, but all I can think about are those images.”

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But what would you have done in these three scenarios? How would you have advised the accuser? Please leave comments below. After you all leave some comments and suggestions, I’ll provide the actual responses to the above scenarios (in comments).

[Image by Flickr User GregM35 and used under the Creative Commons license.]

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