Discuss Sexual Harassment—But Consider This First

By Linda E. Strubbe, Electra Eleftheriadou, Sarah B. McKagan, Adrian M. Madsen, Dimitri R. Dounas-Frazer

A recent article by Aycock et al. in the APS journal Physical Review Physics Education Research [1, 2] presented survey results revealing that 3/4 of undergraduate women in physics in the US report experiencing sexual harassment. Moreover, gender minorities also experience high rates of harassment [3, 4]. Discussing these issues thoughtfully requires care.

Although the focus of sexual harassment discussions is often on the experiences of straight cis-women, physicists who are gender and sexual minorities (GSM) also experience high rates of sexual harassment. Sexual harassment is often experienced differently by gender minorities, sexual minorities, and straight cis-women. In the APS LGBT Climate Report [4], gender minorities reported the most adverse climate in physics, relative to sexual minorities. The report also found that GSM women experienced exclusionary behavior at three times the rate of GSM men.

Rates of harassment are also particularly high among women of color, for whom harassment may be sexual and racial in nature. In a recent study across racial and gender categories, Clancy et al. [5] found that women of color in astronomy and planetary science experienced the highest rates of negative workplace experiences. Understanding intersectionality (i.e., the experiences of individuals with two or more marginalized identities) is a crucial part of addressing harassment in our field.

Many physics departments and research groups will want to discuss these articles and findings, with the ultimate goal of making our field a positive and harassment-free place. However, when entering these discussions, they need to recognize that most of the women and gender minorities in the department have experienced and may currently be experiencing sexual harassment and bullying, possibly even perpetrated by other participants in those conversations.

For women and gender minorities (and potentially members of other marginalized groups), these conversations are likely to be re-traumatizing and require significant emotional labor; such discussions may well cause them a level of harm. Following a parallel with anti-racism dialogues [6], these discussions may even be unavoidably unsafe for women and gender minorities. For these reasons, discussing the findings of Aycock et al. the way one might discuss a regular paper for journal club or agenda item for a faculty meeting will not work.

Here are a few questions we would encourage organizers of discussions about these papers to reflect on and read more about. Lorimer [7] explains some of these challenges further.

  • How will you reduce potential harms women and gender minorities may experience by participating?
  • Can you envision an outcome of women and gender minorities participating that would be significant enough that they might choose to open themselves to this potential for harm?
  • What role is appropriate for women and gender minorities to play in a discussion? Are there conversations that men should have in men-only environments?
  • Is it appropriate to explicitly invite or ask women and gender minorities to participate? What possible power dynamics come into play when people are asked to participate?
  • How will the discussion include intersectional experiences of harassment?

We encourage anyone who wants to discuss these issues to start by reading about harassment, oppression, and difficult conversations and to reflect and think critically about what you learn. There are many resources accessible online and in libraries. Experts in anti-sexism and other contexts (e.g., anti-racism [8]) have thought carefully about how to have difficult, potentially re-traumatizing conversations.

Beyond educating yourself, here are a few ideas to help departments start thinking about how to facilitate discussions of sexual harassment.

  • Seek out and partner with staff at centers on your campus, such as Women's Resource Centers, Ethnic Student Centers, Gender and Sexuality Centers, or Equity & Inclusion Offices.
  • Consider hiring an external facilitator to guide a sequence of discussions over the course of multiple semesters and help with establishing new anti-sexist policies or traditions.
  • Think about how you will provide access to mental health professionals during and after a discussion. Ensure there are facilities available for participants if they need to take time out from the main discussion space.
  • In advance of a discussion, make sure participants have a good understanding of what they should expect in the discussion, so they can mentally prepare. At the beginning of the discussion, explicitly set ground rules for conversation.
  • Consider alternative formats for discussions, such as having groups where men can discuss the article and what they will do about it without asking or expecting women and gender minorities to be present. This is parallel to the idea of caucus groups in anti-racism work [8].
  • Familiarize yourself with your institution’s policy and procedures around sexual harassment, so you can share that information as part of a discussion.

We close by acknowledging that this is indeed difficult. But being difficult does not mean our community should give up on the greater work our field needs to engage in to create a harassment-free environment for all.


We are grateful to Eleanor Sayre and Lucy Buchanan-Parker for helpful suggestions on this article. We would like to acknowledge that much of the writing took place in Vancouver, British Columbia, on the unceded traditional territory of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations.

Linda E. Strubbe is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at Kansas State University, an Educational Consultant at the University of Central Asia, and Co-Director of the West African International Summer School for Young Astronomers. Electra Eleftheriadou is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of British Columbia. Sarah B. McKagan and Adrian M. Madsen are Director and Assistant Director of PhysPort at the American Association of Physics Teachers. Dimitri R. Dounas-Frazer is an Assistant Professor at Western Washington University.


  1. L. M. Aycock et al., "Sexual harassment reported by undergraduate female physicists," Physical Review Physics Education Research, 15, 010121 (2019).
  2. J. Libarkin, "Yes, Sexual Harassment Still Drives Women out of Physics," APS News (May 2019).
  3. Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (The National Academies Press, Washington, DC, 2018).
  4. T. J. Atherton et al., LGBT Climate in Physics: Building an Inclusive Community (American Physical Society, College Park, MD, 2016).
  5. K. B. H. Clancy et al., "Double jeopardy in astronomy and planetary science: Women of color face greater risks of gendered and racial harassment, J. Geophys. Res. Planets 122, 1610 (2017).
  6. Z. Leonardo and R. K. Porter, "Pedagogy of Fear: Toward a Fanonian theory of 'safety' in race dialog," Race, Ethnicity, and Education 13, 139 (2010).
  7. C. Lorimer, "On Terms: It’s Not My Job to Educate You," Medium (November 1, 2017) (accessed May 2019).
  8. Racial Equity Tools: Strategies: Caucus and Affinity Groups (accessed May 2019)

APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.

Editor: David Voss
Staff Science Writer: Leah Poffenberger
Contributing Correspondent: Alaina G. Levine
Publication Designer and Production: Nancy Bennett-Karasik

November 2019 (Volume 28, Number 10)

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