and since i’m here…

I mentioned that I do sexual harassment law scholarship. Part of the work is trying account for why those who are harassed do not pursue organizational correctives (largely symbolic grievance procedures, etc.), instead quitting their jobs or just living with the harassment. Such behavior is considered “unreasonable” by the courts, and gives employers an affirmative defense against vicarious liability for the harassment of their employees by their agents.

But empirical studies show how hard it is for harassed employees to confront their harassers or report such harassing behavior. The legal scholarship in this area has benefitted from incorporating cognitive psychology studies and sociological studies that show this to be the case, and thus the limits of the legal correctives in actually resolving workplace harassment. It may not be okay, but it’s hard to say that it’s not okay for so many reasons. Now here’s for another question of the week, from a grad student who is soon to join the academy herself. So much of what I love and appreciate about Scatterplot are the professional development posts. You all are so honest and helpful.

So, to put it delicately, and “hypothetically”: how does a graduate student handle a situation in which one of her former advisors from college–now a big named law professor at a Top 5 law school (see the growing interdisciplinariness of law, that law schools will hire political scientists), who was very helpful in writing letters of recommendation that helped her get into current program and stil listed on her CV as a reference–has suddenly started hitting on her? By suddenly, I mean that nothing of the sort occurred when there existed a professor-student relationship, but post-graduation has turned uncomfortable.

How to establish boundaries firmly and yet diplomatically, to preserve the cordial relationship but keep the advances at bay? What does the graduate student say to the former advisor? How to handle the situation of the advisor’s coming to town and insisting on a “catch-up” dinner and drinks?

19 thoughts on “and since i’m here…”

  1. Ugh. Just to clarify, we are talking about a professor hitting on someone who is still a student, albeit no longer “his” student, but he remains significantly higher status in the same field? Right? We are not talking about the degree is in hand, you have a job, and older person could be understood as checking out whether a relationship is possible now that you are “equals.” If the former, I agree it is a big problem, and don’t have immediate suggestions. If the latter, I do have some ideas.


  2. My pragmatic advice would be to casually drop the existence of a boyfriend (real or invented) into the interaction, decline dinner/drinks by bringing up an unavoidable conflict, attempt to change to coffee/breakfast, and be cordial in whatever interaction. This is not to disagree with “ugh.”


  3. Olderwoman: Clarification is correct. Not equals. Same field.

    Jeremy: Repeated mention of boyfriend, real, is not making a difference. Still allusions to “I am going to be jetlagged (flying East to West?!) and “you can tuck me in.” Changing the timing from evening is difficult due to conference schedules.

    And, “Ugh.”


  4. On a more coherent note, I don’t know that it is possible to preserve a cordial relationship and keep the advances at bay. If the professor is rejecting the repeated but polite attempts at declining or making a meeting less icky, chances are that any more direct tactics–say, a polite but clear statement about not moving the relationship in this direction, or something more subtle like having Real Boyfriend show up at dinner–may be met with anger, defensiveness, and possibly exactly the career-revenge that the person fears. It’s a serious concern that may be out of the hands of even the most tactful student.


  5. Bring someone along who knows the person as well, if possible. “Guess who I ran into! Isn’t this great? We can all catch up!” Second: plan a meeting with someone else, so that you have a good reason to leave. “I’d love to keep this going, but you know how tight these meetings are… the only time I could meet X person for drinks was right now (10:45PM).” Reveal this other appointment later into the interaction so you can’t be talked out of it. And make sure it’s REAL (in case you are walked to the meeting and no one is there for you to meet). None of these are direct ways of dealing with the issue, and so less than desirable. But they are ways to protect yourself.

    Related, but not really… when I was a grad student at Wisconsin one of the groups I was a part of was a Feminist Sociologists group. Before a conference the issue of “going out for drinks” was brought up. It was something that had never occurred to me. But one of the casual forms of interactions at conferences (grabbing a drink at a place away from the conference) can result in very difficult situations for women. What if it’s more of a date than a meeting (at least to one party)? How can you say, “no” to an invitation without offending the other person (making them think you think they could be a sexual predator)? Etc. The result was that there were barriers for networking I had never considered.


  6. This may be a very inappropriate comment–but what if you became a lesbian? Would that thwart his attempted advances? While he should be told to quit it–by any of the methods mentioned above–I’m also concerned that he may feel rejected and exact revenge later, as tina suggests. Sadly, it does happen.


  7. Jamy: If one is going to lie to get out of it, which I quasi-recommend as a pragmatic strategy, changing sexual orientation seems to me to be too easily exposed as a lie in the future, and anyway in this particular case the existence of a boyfriend has already been raised.


  8. So does anyone think there is a way of dealing with this via involving another senior male to “talk to” this person? I have long felt that the most important actors who need to be mobilized to reduce sexual harassment are senior men who need to put pressure on other senior men not to do it. Long ago, a senior White male physics professor was party to a conversation of sociology women complaining about a harasser. He immediately got up — right there at the banquet — called the guy at home, told him his name, and told him he’d heard the stories. He said “I’m sure it is a misunderstanding, young women can misinterpret remarks.” I will tell you that this got the harasser’s attention. EDIT: I guess I should say that it is not clear that it stopped the behavior, as he continued to have affairs with students, but it did definitely make him feel afraid.


  9. I know that the extant boyfriend probably put the orientation change as out of bounds–and it’s not something that I think is a good idea. I was trying to think of a way to get the offender to back off without bruising his ego. It was the only approach that came to mind.

    Also, the fake/real boyfriend isn’t going to stop anyone and hasn’t worked so far. Why? Boyfriends come and go…she could become available if she chose. That’s why a direct “no” is better (in almost all situations)–it shuts the door for good.

    A complete aside: a friend of mine in grad school was mistaken for a lesbian by the faculty in her department. She spent a lot of time with another (female) student and the two of them were always invited to parties, etc., as a couple. Little did they know that both women had long-distance boyfriends.


  10. Is the only solution to cut off all contact? That’s such an unfortunate reality, that that’s the standard response to unwelcome sexual advances: quit the job, walk away, or just live with it.

    There’s no delicate, diplomatic, but firm way of confronting the unwelcomeness without coming off as psycho policing the boundaries of social interaction? No way to rebuff without sounding very awkward and ending the otherwise cordial and useful professional relationship?

    Also, let’s say hypothetically that the student has already said that she’s available for a “catch-up” dinner, mentioned the boyfriend, and THEN the skeezy remark about tucking in came. The student and the prof are not at the same school, although in the same field.

    Is the student’s only recourse to make excuses about suddenly having to go out of town? That seems to be the only option to avoid rather than mitigate the potential for skeeze.


  11. I didn’t myself say cut off all contact. I just said don’t get together with him in person, or not in a one-on-one in-person situation at least. There are all sorts of ways of avoiding getting together for dinner, even after a dinner invitation has been accepted. That said, she could go to dinner/drinks and if he pushes the matter rebuff him directly and unambiguously there, although I would think that would be way more awkward. But I don’t know anything more about the people involved than what’s in your post.


  12. Given that you are not at the same institution and IF you see some utility in keeping a collegial relationship with this person an option is to keep the dinner appointment but make sure you send very clear non-verbal signals. Wear a conservative outfit, keep the conversation professional and keep the time at dinner short. You can give the time constraint up front–no explanation needed, just state it as fact.

    Don’t call him on the past comment but if he does say something inappropriate at dinner either completely ignore it–don’t laugh, react or anything, just move on to a neutral topic (you could even have something picked out ahead of time)–OR call him on it immediately (“that kind of remark makes me uncomfortable”).

    The most charitable read of this situation is that the professor now thinks that he and the student can become friends and this is how he acts towards female friends (ugh). If that’s the case, then he’s made an error of judgment and a quick “that makes me uncomfortable” comment may be enough to get him the message that the student is still A student, if not his student.

    (Aside: I was in a similar but more ambiguous situation (nothing icky was said) as a young undergrad. Basically, I had very little contact with the mentor figure after one awkward dinner and, years later, he still wrote me an excellent letter of recommendation.)

    The less charitable reads are covered above.


  13. Another option is to be preemptive. She could email and say, “I need to clear the air. I have been getting a weird vibe from our interaction, and since I value our relationship and think it’s a strong one, I thought rather than over-analyze it I’d just be completely upfront. I’ve gotten the feeling of “more than just friends” in our recent correspondence. No doubt some of this is simply transitioning from and adviser-advisee relationship to a more collegial one. But I have had this nagging feeling that our dinner could be more than dinner and more like a date. That would make me uncomfortable. And rather than stew on this, I thought that the most reasonable thing to do was send you a note. I still look forward to seeing you at the conference.”

    Or something like that. If she does write an email like that, I would strongly suggest not using apologetic language (I’m sorry to write this but…).

    One more option.


  14. Another option may be getting a friend to do it. If she’s going to have drinks with this guy, do the whole, “I ran into my friend” and bring them along. If he hits on her, then the friend can act outraged or make a comment about how that’s inappropriate, etc. Then he can be mad at her friend, not at her. I’m not sure if that would work better with a male friend or a female friend.


  15. In addition to being a lie that could easily be exposed, pretending to be lesbian may not work as a turn off to this guy. In fact, it could very well have the exact opposite effect.


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