Sexual Harassment

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Learning Objectives

  • Learn to recognize and put an end to sexual harassment.


“But the issue of sexual harassment is not the end of it. There are other issues - political issues, gender issues - that people need to be educated about.” — Anita Hill

What is Sexual Harassment?

Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal, or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when 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.1

There are two types of sexual harassment:

1) Quid Pro Quo — “this for that”

Quid pro quo is sexual coercion. It includes any type of threat that sexual submission is necessary to advance in or prevent negative consequences to a person’s status, education, or career.

Examples of quid pro quo sexual harassment:2,3

  • A supervisor implies to you that sexual activity is a condition of your employment
  • A teacher offers to give you good grade in class in exchange for a date or sexual activity
  • A committee member threatens not to approve your research proposal if you do not comply to his sexual advances

2) Hostile environment

This occurs when unwanted touching, comments, gestures, or factors in the environment are bad enough to make you feel uncomfortable and interfere with your work or education in some way.

Examples of behaviors that can contribute to a hostile environment:3,4

  • Discussing sexual activities
  • Telling crude jokes
  • Unnecessary touching
  • Commenting on a person’s physical attributes
  • Displaying sexually suggestive pictures
  • Using demeaning or inappropriate terms, such as "babe"
  • Using indecent gestures
  • Sabotaging work
  • Engaging in threatening physical conduct
  • Using offensive language
  • Brushing up against a person’s body
  • Graffiti about a person’s sexuality
  • Staring at a person’s body
  • Blocking a person’s path


If one of your thesis committee members says he will not to approve your research proposal if you do not go out on a date with him, this is an example of which kind of sexual harassment:

Best Answer: B. Quid pro quo (this for that) is sexual coercion. It includes any type of threat that sexual submission is necessary to advance in or prevent negative consequences to a person’s status, education, or career.

Experiencing Sexual Harassment

First of all, if someone is behaving in a way that makes you uncomfortable, you have the right to ask that person to stop. He may not realize that what he has done or said is offensive to you, so you do not need to respond in an angry manner. You also do not need to apologize or explain yourself. It is best to be direct. Here are some suggestions:

  • “Those comments make me uncomfortable. I would prefer if you not say those things around me.”
  • “I don’t really see the humor in that. I think it sounds offensive, actually.”
  • “Please don’t do that.”
  • “No, thank you. And please do not ask me that again.”
  • “You might not realize it, but how you are behaving right now is making me uncomfortable and I would appreciate it if you would stop.”

Reasonable Woman Standard

When you are experiencing harassment in a male-dominated environment, it might be hard to gauge whether or not you have a problem on your hands because those around you might not react the same way you do. Studies have shown that men and women often perceive harassment differently. Women perceive a broader range of behaviors as behaviors that contribute to a hostile environment.5 In the case of Ellison v. Brady, 1991, the courts declared that a hostile environment constitutes “conduct that (a) reasonable woman would consider sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter conditions of employment and create (an) abusive working environment.”6

To be considered sexual harassment, a behavior or environment must be:

  1. Subjectively considered abusive to the person experiencing the behavior (whether or not the offender intended for the behavior to be harmful)
  2. Objectively severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable WOMAN (not man) would find abusive
  3. The bottom line here is that it is YOUR reaction to harassment that matters. When you think there is a problem, trust your gut.

When to Take Action

Some isolated events probably do not warrant action beyond asking a person to stop their behavior. For example, one crude joke or request for a date from your lab partner might make you feel uncomfortable, but it probably would not be considered sexual harassment to an outsider.

Below are some questions that can help you to determine how serious your particular experience may be:4

  1. How frequent is the unwanted behavior? For example, if offensive joking occurs daily in your lab, and persists after requests that it stop, you may be experiencing a hostile environment.
  2. How severe is the behavior? For example, if a committee member threatens not to approve your proposal if you do not sleep with him, this single case WOULD BE severe enough to take serious action.
  3. Was the behavior physically threatening or humiliating?
  4. Did it interfere with your education or work performance? For example, do you avoid working with someone because they make you feel unsafe?
  5. Is the person who is performing the behavior a superior, or someone with power over you? You may still experience sexual harassment from an equal, but people with power over you can more easily abuse this power.
  6. Is the behavior of a sexual nature? Behavior does not have to be sexual in nature to be considered harassment on the basis of sex. However, if it is sexual in nature, such as sexist joke-telling, inappropriate touching, or requests for sexual favors, it is more likely to be considered sexual harassment.
  7. Do you feel like you are expected to tolerate the behavior in order to keep your position or standing?
  8. Does the behavior make your educational or career experience unpleasant?

Fears of Retaliation

This is a common concern for women experiencing sexual harassment. However, it is ILLEGAL for someone to retaliate against you for filing a sexual harassment complaint,1and against most universities' policies. It is also against most universities' policies on sexual harassment for a supervisor or administrator to fail to investigate or report allegations of sexual harassment.

Most universities have policies in place to keep the information of both parties in a sexual harassment complaint confidential. See your university’s policies on confidentiality and privacy rights involved in reporting incidents of sexual harassment.

Resources and Reporting

  • Don’t blame yourself
  • Say “no” clearly
  • Document what occurred
  • Tell someone if the harassment continues, or if the first event is particularly severe

First, check with your particular university’s policies and procedures on sexual harassment. Below are different possible options of how to go about reporting sexual harassment:

a. One option is to disclose information to someone with supervisory status above the person who is harassing you, such as a faculty member, supervisor, human resource manager, or administrator. They are required to take action according to your school’s policy.

b. Some schools have faculty and staff who are trained to give advice on dealing with sexual harassment. For example, the University of California campuses have specially trained Sexual Harassment Advisors. Contact information can be found on the human resources page of the specific UC campus.

c. Many universities have a department or individual designated to deal with Title IX issues. For example, at any University of California campus, students can report harassment to the Title IX Compliance Coordinator, also know as the Sexual Harassment Officer.

d. You also have many different options file an external (legal) complaint.

  • Your state’s Attorney General’s Office
  • The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
  • The Office of Civil Rights of the United States Department of Education. 1-800-421-3481 (make sure to call within 180 days of the act of discrimination)

Laws and Policies Against Sexual Harassment

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964: prohibits discrimination by covered employers on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. In 1986, the Supreme Court ruled that sexual harassment constitutes sex discrimination.

Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972: The federal law prohibiting sexual harassment in schools which prohibits any person, on the basis of sex, to be subjected to discrimination in an educational program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.

State laws: Contact your state’s Office of Civil Rights to learn about your state’s laws on sexual harassment and discrimination. You can also go to to read more about your state’s discrimination laws.

University policies: All schools and universities that receive federal funding are required to have policies on sexual harassment.

Other Helpful Resources

Equal Rights Advocates
ERA is a confidential, toll-free, multilingual legal advice and counseling line.

National Women’s Law Center
11 Dupont Circle NW, Suite 800
Washington, DC 20036

American Association of University Women
1111 Sixteenth St. N.W.
Washington, DC 20036


  1. US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. (2008). Sexual harassment. Retrieved August 24, 2008, from
  2. Equal Rights Advocates. (2008). Sexual harassment at school: Know your rights. Retrieved August 24, 2008, from
  3. UC Irvine Sexual Harassment Office. (2006). What is sexual harassment? Retrieved August 24, 2008, from
  4. US Department of Transportation. (2008). Preventing sexual harassment: A fact sheet for employees. Retrieved August 24, 2008, from
  5. Rotundo, M., Nguyen, D., & Sackett, P. R. (2001). A meta-analytic review of gender differences in perceptions of sexual harassment. Journal of Applied Psychology, 86, 914-922. doi:10.1037/0021-9010.86.5.914
  6. Ellison v. Brady, 54 FEP 1346 (9th Cir. 1991). In Perry, E. L., Kulik, C. T., & Bourhis, A. C. (2004). The reasonable woman standard: Effects on sexual harassment court decisions. Law and Human Behavior, 28, 9-27. doi:10.1023/B:LAHU.0000015001.07732.8e

Words of Wisdom: Dr. Camacho
Urges female graduate students to persist in the field of mathematics because the field needs diversity.

Sexual Harassment: It's Not Just You
The importance of sharing stories of sexual harassment with others to gain support.

Lack of Women Role Models
The importance of sharing stories of sexual harassment with others and realizing that you are not alone.

How to Have Sexual Harassment Policies
How to be upfront, direct, and assertive when confronting instances of sexual harassment.

Creating an Environment for Exchanging Ideas
How the physical space in a laboratory allowed for collaboration among colleagues.

The Residual Effects of Sexual Harassment
How to survive the aftermath of a sexual harassment incident.

On Speaking Up: A Conference Experience
Confronting a male colleague with contradictory findings at a conference.

Dealing with Assumptions and Accusations
Being accused of cheating and regrets about not being more assertive.


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