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random musings of a crazy cat lady

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Prequel to my post on the Caltech astrophysics sexual harrassment situation

For those of you who aren't following the women in STEM news like I am, there has been a doozy of a report out of the Caltech astrophysics department.  You can read about it here.  I'm mulling over a post on it and have a lot to say, but as I gather my thoughts, here is a personal example of how employers SHOULD deal with situations, even minor ones.
Back in 1999 I was working at a startup which was growing rapidly.  We were running low on office space so most offices got another person.  For me, that mean my office went from three to four people, and that the new person's desk was placed in my "corner" of the L shaped office.  I was not thrilled but knew that everyone else was in pretty much the same boat.  Unfortunately, the person they put in the office, James A., was, for lack of a better word, a "creeper."  He did not do anything outwardly inappropriate but would sit sideways at his desk and stare at me, and make creepy comments occasionally.  It made me very uncomfortable.  It wasn't just me - he stared inappropriately at lots of people, including the man who took my desk after I moved offices.   He also used my desk and left his stuff on it when I was at conferences, wore way too much cologne and smoked in his car and "hotboxed" it, so he reeked of smoke and cologne.  Topping it all off, he spent a lot of time on the phone managing his rental properties and distracted me when I was trying to work.
It was not a sexual harassment situation per se,  and I was still one of the few female scientists at the company, so I tried to ignore it.  I lasted only a month or two, was completely stressed and grumpy, and my productivity suffered.  Eventually, I went to my boss and asked to move offices.  I told him the non gender-specific reasons, and he went out of his way to get me a new office ASAP.  From comments that he made, I could tell he knew that I was creeped out by James A. and did not question my reasons or make excuses.
That is how you deal with stuff like that.  Trust women.  We're not making this stuff up.  If even a minor situation like this can cause a honey badger like me to become completely stressed and unproductive, imagine how much harm is done in more serious situations.
As a postscript to the James A. situation, he was eventually let go for work-related reasons.  After he left, one of my coworkers told me that James A. was a second cousin of his wife's, and had basically been disowned from the family for propositioning people's wives and making everyone uncomfortable.  I mention this because it suggests that if people are creeped out for vague reasons like I was, it's still important to trust them.

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