Tips on how to manage your PhD stipend FIND OUT MORE
University of Hong Kong Featured PhD Programmes
University of Sussex Featured PhD Programmes
European Molecular Biology Laboratory (Heidelberg) Featured PhD Programmes

PhD Discussion Forum

The following thread is brought to you by our sister Web site PostgraduateForum.com. If you wish to reply or post your own thread, you will be redirected to this site.

This Category:   PostgraduateForum.com > PhD Advice / Support


Message

How do you tell if your PhD supervisor is sexually harassing you?


User: sciencephd - 16 February 2021 02:34

I'm a female student, and I find physical contact with my male supervisor uncomfortable.
Are there any other female PhD student here whose male supervisor touches your body from time to time? Can you let me know how you feel about it? Do you think your supervisor is just being friendly?
When I'm having meetings with him, he tapped me on my arm, thigh, back, or hand from time to time. It's not frequent, and it doesn't happen at every meeting. But it makes me uncomfortable. Am I oversensitive? Should I tell him I'm not comfortable with that? It's so embarrassing to tell him about that. Maybe he will get angry and that will jeopardize our working relationship. I'm a bit scared.
One day I even noticed that he stared at my bum. The way he looked at my bum really scared me. But I was too embarrassed to ask him about it.
I'm not really sure if it's sexual harassment. And I don't have the courage to ask my group members. They are all male, so I don't think they will understand my feelings. I feel I'm not respected by my supervisor. But if I ask my male lab mates, I'm sure they will laugh it off and tell me I'm too sensitive. And everyone in this group, including me, knows that our supervisor is a happily married man, who has a very good-looking wife (yes she looks like a super model!). Obviously he has no motives for sexually harassing a plain-looking student.

User: abababa - 16 February 2021 03:07

I'm male, so can't provide you with the female perspective (and, will probably not understand as such), but;

This sounds very not-ok to me. The fact you're uncomfortable with it is enough to make it, at the least, very inappropriate. It is not normal. There are random justifications - like cultural differences - but it is just flat inappropriate to touch someone affectionately without clear consent. There is such common knowledge of this in modern society it's increasingly hard to believe a guy would do it because he believes it's normal.

The fact he's happily married, is not a reason he wouldn't behave inappropriately. Most guys that behave like this are. It's a power/sexual thing, not a romantic relationship thing for them. Absolutely do not fall for him saying anything otherwise. It might be legal for him to hit on a student, but it's certainly not moral or ethical, and that would speak volumes about his character.

It's not ok, and you'd be perfectly entitled to go to his manager and complain. But I get we also live in the real world, where the worry is that could result in a he-said she-said and a whole lot of negative feeling and stress. It may be good advice to ignore my next suggestion, since it's what I'm the least sure of, and I'd think there's a counter argument that suggesting you need to strategise or behave differently unfairly puts the responsibility on you for his behaviour. But I'll give my 2 cents:

The next time it happens, react abruptly, e.g. immediately pulling away, to send a clear message it's not ok to him. If you're worried about upsetting/embarrassing him, act startled (like it's *really* not normal to you), rather than directly offended. In principle you need to react, negatively, somehow, to send a message it's not ok.

If it continues, do something. You're not obliged to have a face to face with him about it, but I'd think that, or raising a complaint, would be the logical next-step. Bear in mind this might not be particularly acrimonious, it could be at the level you say you felt uncomfortable; he pleads ignorance/cultural difference; you reach an amicable solution, he stops because it's just been made abundantly clear to him it's wrong. Definitely if it escalates at all, you'll need to take action or it's likely to keep escalating.

User: eng77 - 16 February 2021 08:10

I agree with abababa that being happily married has nothing to do with it. I think you are right not to talk with colleagues about it.
Quote From abababa:
The next time it happens, react abruptly, e.g. immediately pulling away, to send a clear message it's not ok to him.
This is well said. It is more likely that he would stop at this point. If he finds troubles coming from his action, he would like to avoid to jeopardise his reputation. I would not assume a bad outcome and negative thoughts. Just try this strategy and let us hope this will end.

User: Nead - 16 February 2021 08:42

What he is doing is not okay-I think you need to address that with him- I wouldn't mention it to others in the lab- that has rumours start and could have a negative impact on you.
I agree with Abababa- next time pull away but also say that you are not comfortable with that- make in very clear. If he hasn't be aware of what he's doing- he would be shocked!
My other suggestion is to arrange a meeting with other around- can he come to the lab -don't be in his office with him- try a canteen etc.
Unfortunately at the end of the day, you're a student and he is your boss- if you make a formal complaint- it might not end well for you.

User: Walter_Opera - 18 February 2021 09:10

Well, I am male, and I find your supervisor's behavior completely unacceptable. (I also once was in the reverse situation with an inappropriately behaving female student I supervised, and it was very uncomfortable for me.) It is pointless to speculate about your supervisor's motivation. It may or may not be harmless: If it makes you uncomfortable, it makes you uncomfortable. In my view, you should simply tell him - calmly and factually - that the physical contact in a supervisor-student relationship makes you uncomfortable. He has to understand. Part of the PhD process is learning to speak up for yourself. If he doesn't respond, it's time to escalate the problem.

User: glimmerbat - 22 February 2021 08:52

Yo! This is not okay. Echo what everyone else has said. It's probably irrelevant to point out that being married to someone who looks like a supermodel is no guarantee of happiness at home, but as others have said, this is usually a creepy power thing rather than a desire for an equal romantic relationship (someone who respects your mind won't show that by staring at your bum). Don't let your own low self-esteem get in the way of your understanding of what's going on. I'm also a woman and spent most of my life believing that I was so unattractive that the multiple incidents of sexual abuse I experienced couldn't have been real. I didn't think anything like that could happen to me because, I don't know, I wasn't pretty enough. Straight up: (1) abuse can happen to anyone at any time and (2) abuse isn't some weird validation of attractiveness nor an understandable response to looking a certain way. I know you're not really saying that. But sometimes I think that as women we get taught some weird things about sexual abuse that we never stop to question.

I'm worried about your situation. Do you have an equality committee, or a doctoral college, or even a postgraduate tutor you can turn to in the first instance? It will be very useful for you to have someone on your side. I agree with others saying that you should stand up for yourself, but as a woman I know that sometimes that can go badly wrong. When I tried to speak out against being assaulted by a postdoc, I did NOT get any support. In fact, what I got told was something along the lines of, "but you don't look like a supermodel, why would anyone do that to YOU?"

In my experience, inappropriate touching can be from one of two reasons. One, it's an abuse of power. Two, the person is desperate for validation and has no idea how uncomfortable they're making you. The second person might be embarrassed if you put up boundaries; the first might get angry. Neither is comfortable to deal with. But your supervisor's feelings are not as important as your safety. I have come across many men who are so afraid of being rejected by women that they never see just how much danger some women are in, and just how much we put up with to avoid hurting anyone's feelings.

His feelings aren't important here. He's breaking the law.

User: pm133 - 22 February 2021 23:37

You don't need to be a woman to understand how a sexual predator acts and this man is definitely crossing a line. He's also doing it in a way that you doubt yourself that it's actually happening. That's classic predator behaviour. Right now he's looking to see how you will react before he commits himself.

You need to establish some distance at this point. Keep things professional rather than friendly and try to avoid being in his presence alone.

I would approach the university support services for some confidential advice.

Be assured though that you are being wronged here.

User: sciencephd - 26 February 2021 00:22

Quote From glimmerbat:Yo! This is not okay. Echo what everyone else has said. It's probably irrelevant to point out that being married to someone who looks like a supermodel is no guarantee of happiness at home, but as others have said, this is usually a creepy power thing rather than a desire for an equal romantic relationship (someone who respects your mind won't show that by staring at your bum). Don't let your own low self-esteem get in the way of your understanding of what's going on. I'm also a woman and spent most of my life believing that I was so unattractive that the multiple incidents of sexual abuse I experienced couldn't have been real. I didn't think anything like that could happen to me because, I don't know, I wasn't pretty enough. Straight up:
(1) abuse can happen to anyone at any time and (2) abuse isn't some weird validation of attractiveness nor an understandable response to looking a certain way. I know you're not really saying that. But sometimes I think that as women we get taught some weird things about sexual abuse that we never stop to question.

I'm worried about your situation. Do you have an equality committee, or a doctoral college, or even a postgraduate tutor you can turn to in the first instance? It will be very useful for you to have someone on your side. I agree with others saying that you should stand up for yourself, but as a woman I know that sometimes that can go badly wrong. When I tried to speak out against being assaulted by a postdoc, I did NOT get any support. In fact, what I got told was something along the lines of, "but you don't look like a supermodel, why would anyone do that to YOU?"

I can see that you totally understand me. I'm pretty sure I'll get no support if I tell any lab mate about this. They have all seen our supervisor's wife and were impressed by her appearance (they even said she looked like Nicole Kidman). They wouldn't believe our supervisor would sexually harass me, and they may even make fun of me.

I've only told my concerns to a guy friend who's from another group in the same department. He has seen me talking with my supervisor many times in the tea room before the pandemic. This guy believed that my supervisor was just being friendly or showing his 'paternal love' towards me (my supervisor is almost twice my age), as he could tell from my supervisor's behaviour that my supervisor probably saw me 'as a daughter'. He told me not to worry and was like 'if he treats you like a daughter, then it's impossible he's sexual towards you'. I don't know if I should believe what this guy friend said. Do you have similar experiences?

User: sciencephd - 26 February 2021 00:40

Quote From pm133:
You don't need to be a woman to understand how a sexual predator acts and this man is definitely crossing a line. He's also doing it in a way that you doubt yourself that it's actually happening. That's classic predator behaviour. Right now he's looking to see how you will react before he commits himself.

What you said makes me worry. I'm not sure what a sexual predator is or what classic predator behaviour is. But indeed he makes me doubt if I'm overthinking. I'm not sure what you mean by 'he commits himself', but I'm a bit scared. If I can't avoid having one-on-one meetings with him, should I bring a hidden camera with me?





FindAPhD. Copyright 2005-2021
All rights reserved.