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Sexual harassment – learn to recognise the signs and take action!

The deluge of reactions and accounts of abuse since the Weinstein affair hit the headlines has led me to reflect on a sometimes hidden problem: sexual harassment.

“I had been a fellow for six months and went to a conference with my colleague. He was an engineer of around the same age as my father, universally respected by his peers and with a solid reputation in his field. The evening we arrived at the hotel he invited me to dinner and made it obvious what he wanted, despite acting in quite a paternal way towards me.”

Of course, CERN is not Hollywood, with its colossal financial stakes and its omnipotent bosses. But there is no reason to believe that CERN is free of inappropriate or sexist behaviour, or even sexual harassment, just like all sectors of society. People who are guilty of this type of behaviour often have a relationship of power over you, for example your immediate supervisor or someone on whom you are depending to achieve your objectives. Even though men can sometimes be affected, more often than not the victims are women.

How do I recognise the signs?

Of course, none of us should get completely paranoid, but if you notice certain behaviour that seems like it could degenerate into harassment, stay vigilant and you won’t be caught off guard. The following examples might seem a bit exaggerated, but they are based on the testimonies of real-life victims of harassment:

  • Sexist jokes often fill the air in the service where you work.
  • Your boss or your colleagues openly comment on your clothing.
  • Your supervisor frequently gives you little gifts for no reason or offers you unjustified benefits or privileges and you are the only person in the team who receives such treatment.
  • Your supervisor regularly invites you for lunch without your other colleagues or suggests taking a day’s leave together to show you around a nice part of Geneva.
  • You regularly receive compliments, directed only at you, without any objective reason.
  • Your supervisor starts to confide in you about personal matters and encourages you to confide in him or her.

How should you react?

Try first of all to address the problem immediately and directly with the person who is bothering you. Do this objectively and calmly, but make sure that the message is clear.

“Until now, I’ve been very happy with our working relationship. But I feel very uncomfortable when you come up behind me in my office and get close to me to look at what I’m doing over my shoulder. I would be grateful if you could stop doing that.”

If that doesn’t get the desired result, say that you are going to talk to his or her supervisor. When you do so, request a deadline for a response: your hierarchy is obliged to protect your integrity and to take action.

Make careful notes of all the events and actions that bother you. This will give you an opportunity to take a step back from the situation, but will also be very useful for supporting your version of events if you have to pursue the case further.

Talk about the situation with people you trust. You might discover that you are not the only one it’s happening to and it is much easier to take action if several people are involved.

If none of this produces the desired result, unfortunately your only option will be to take more formal steps.

I recommend Véronique Ducret’s book on this subject, Qui a peur du harcèlement sexuel ? published by Georg Editeur, which will soon be available in the CERN Library.

You can also find a previous article on sexual harassment

If you find the subject interesting, let me know and I will publish more advice on my blog.

Pierre Gildemyn