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Why Do Some Men Both Help and Harass Women?

We asked an expert.
Sather Gate, located on the University of California–Berkeley campus. (Photo: Ken Wolter/Shutterstock)

Sather Gate, located on the University of California–Berkeley campus. (Photo: Ken Wolter/Shutterstock)

Last week, the famed astronomy professor Geoff Marcy resigned from his tenured position at the University of California–Berkeley on the heels of a BuzzFeed News report on a school investigation revealing the researcher had violated the university's sexual harassment policies. Marcy has denied some of the allegations, but took responsibility for his conduct in an apology letter after the university found merit in the formal complaints against him. The slew of cases, which span nearly a decade, is only the latest sexual harassment scandal to rock the scientific world.

Marcy, a well-respected exoplanet researcher, has far-reaching power within the astronomy community; many researchers in the field rely on his data. Despite the fact that he outwardly supported women in astronomy—he's hired female graduate students to his lab, and, according to BuzzFeed News, once attended a rally against sexual assault—his behavior was allegedly notorious enough within the field that up-and-coming female astronomers were often warned to avoid working with him.

This latest scandal echoes that of Bora Zivkovic, a science writer who launched the careers of several (now) prominent female science journalists, while simultaneously sexually harassing many of the same women. Too often, it seems, the leaders who provide encouragement and mentorship to women also act in inappropriate ways toward those same women. How can the these men see women as both their intellectual equals and their sexual property?

Amid increasing pressure from research institutions and the White House to close the gender gap in STEM fields, women are flooding the sciences, making the answer to that question ever more pertinent. Pacific Standard spoke with the University of California–Los Angeles' Kim Elsesser, a lecturer at the Center for the Study of Women (and former equity trader on Wall Street) about why men hire and harass women.


Before you began studying gender issues in the workplace, you experienced some gender bias firsthand. How has that influenced your research?

I worked on Wall Street doing quantitative proprietary trading strategies. I was interested in why there were so few women at the higher levels—in trading at all, and certainly at the higher levels of trading. The reasons that people were giving, I couldn't really relate to. Like childcare: I didn't have children at the time. But I did notice that my male colleagues were better able to network with the male superiors so that kind of inspired my current research on what keeps men and women separated in the workplace, or barriers to friendship between men and women in the workplace.

How can men partake in such dissonant behaviors as both encouraging and mentoring women in the workplace and also harassing them? Is this something you've noticed in your research on work place gender issues?

It's an interesting idea. It's not inconsistent that they would be champions of women and also allegedly be harassers. There's something called benevolent sexism, which is this notion that women need to be taken care of by men. So somebody who is a benevolent sexist might feel like women need to be protected, so they need to sort of help women in the workplace. But really also [he] has these underlying notions that women are weaker, that women should have traditional roles, and that women are known for being sexually available to men. That's sort of the traditional role of women, according to a benevolent sexist. So guys like Marcy may think they need to "help" women in their careers, because women need men's help.

Kim Elsesser. (Photo: University of California–Los Angeles)

Kim Elsesser. (Photo: University of California–Los Angeles)

A lot of things, like holding a door open for a woman or feeling like you need to pay for a woman's dinner, could come under the umbrella of benevolent sexism because it perpetuates the notion that women need to be taken care of; this notion that women need to helped.

Benevolent sexism makes it sound almost good-natured, but can it still have the same kinds of harmful psychological consequences for victims as outright sexual harassment?

Benevolent sexism is more of an attitude toward women that keeps women at a level beneath men, a secondary level; sexual harassment is obviously more of a behavior and targeted at a specific person. But it wouldn't be unusual for them to both occur. You could be nice and helpful to women, and at the same time sexually harass them. Perhaps you hold these attitudes that women need help, you have a kind of chivalrous attitude that you have to step in and help them, and that would be not inconsistent with someone who also would sexually harass.

[Some men] they think the behavior is welcome. [The harassers] are kind of surprised that their behavior is not welcomed. So that's also not inconsistent. They help the women and then, you know, they're powerful men, and they think that these women are interested in them or somehow misinterpret signals.

So these powerful men become used to being fawned over, and they don't realize their advances are unwanted?

Men in general tend to misinterpret friendliness as sexual interest much more than women do. For example Safeway instituted this policy where the cashiers at the supermarket chain had to thank their customers and help them bag their groceries and offer to walk them to their car. After they instituted the policy, 13 people came forward and filed grievances against Safeway and the employees, because the female cashiers had to be so polite that the male customers were misinterpreting it as romantic interest. The men were waiting for them in the parking lot.

All the sexual harassment training in the world isn't going to help if you think that this is welcome behavior. Something is only sexual harassment if it's unwelcome or unwanted. And I think these guys think that their behavior is welcome. I think this is also where organizations need to get involved, and teach people that they need to get consent, they can't just assume that their behavior is welcome and go in for the grope or the kiss.

What does what you've called "the sex partition," or this barrier between the sexes in the workplace, look like in practice?

In my own experience, and a lot of the people I talked to, it's not the people you work with really closely every day. In my small trading group we were all really close friends. But it's the people a little more distance away—the senior executives. The person I started the hedge fund with was male and I definitely saw him having lunch or dinners or drinks with [the higher ups], or with other male colleagues doing things like playing poker together, and I just couldn't participate in those things. If I went and asked [the senior executives] to have a beer with me or have dinner with me, that would've just seemed really weird and awkward.

So what can be done?

I think there are a lot of solutions for that problem. I don't think we do a very good job at sexual harassment training. I think organizations are too focused on reducing their legal liability and not focused enough on actually reducing harassing behavior. In addition to teaching people what is harassing behavior, they also need to teach people what is not harassing behavior. It's not harassing to ask someone of the opposite sex to join you for lunch; its not harassment to invite someone to go have coffee with you. It is harassment if you ask them every day for several weeks and they keep saying no. [Organizations need to] draw the line and be very clear where that line is, so that people feel comfortable doing certain behaviors, like mentoring and inviting opposite sex colleagues for lunch and things like that.

Most organizations currently just discourage workplace romances, and tend to sweep them under the rug and hope they don't happen. But about half of us, about 50 percent of people have had a workplace romance—that's perhaps what Marcy saw these women as, I don't know—but it's hard to keep attraction from happening so I think organizations need to teach employees how to deal with that when it does happen, and how to get consent. Organizations never tell people about how to do that, they just tell people it's not a good idea to have workplace romances. But [a lesson in consent] might've really helped him out in his situation.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.