Dealing with "sexism" in the lab


Hi everyone,

I wrote some time ago about the boredom of my PhD project, this thread is about some behavior from my mentor that makes me feel uncomfortable.

The first months that I was working in the lab was fine, he was really nice to me (and my husband) and I really enjoyed being around him. Suddenly things started to get a little strange when he wrote me a text to my phone when he was in a trip with his wife...the text was really nothing, a good morning in the sand of the beach...but it was like 7.30am and it felt a little uncomfortable... when he came back things were ok but I did not feel as well as before with him, and I think that he noticed that and started to come to my desk (a lot) just to see how I was doing. Sometimes it is really weird situation that I am dealing with as better as I can, I am the only student and anyone has noticed this...and a little way ago he told me "do not dress in a feminine way" or "you are not an unattractive person"...and that makes me think about his behavior.

Maybe it is me...and there are other situations like that and it really feels very uncomfortable and sometimes I control it and sometimes do not...he usually tells me that he cares about me and I think that it is true but it is just feel weird.

If someone has an opinion about this or a similar experience...I do not know if I am exaggerating...but I think that this is not appropriate and makes go to the lab everyday more difficult.

Thanks so much for the support.


Hi MyWorld

This is totally inappropriate. Your supervisor sounds like a creepy pervert. I think it will definitely continue and probably get more and more inappropriate. I have heard of situations like this, and it usually starts with small things and then ends up bigger. To me, this looks like sexual harrassment. He is commenting on your appearance in an inappropriate way not to mention the other stuff. Have a google and you see how sexual harrassment occurs so that you can stop undermining/doubting yourself.

Are you an international student by the way? I ask this because I have heard of cases of international students being sexually harrassed by their supervisors. Perhaps they are more vulnerable simply because of the culture difference / not always being 100% sure what is normal and acceptable in a given culture, and can sometimes be a little passive because of that. Also, there is the fact that in some countries the power imbalance is very big, and, therefore, it is even more difficult to speak up about such things.

Please be careful and please come up with a plan of action. Hopefully other people will be able to give you more practical advice than I can. I just want to assure you that your feeling uncomfortable at these things ISN'T just you being weird or too sensitive / exaggerating. His behaviour is unacceptable and he needs to know that you are not OK with this.

All the best


[quote]Quote From Tudor_Queen:
Hi MyWorld

Tudor_Queen thanks so much for your reply and support...I really appreciate this...I knew that it was creepy, and yes, I am an international student...
I have talked about this with my personal counselor at the university and some friends, they agree that is creepy but I do not know, my friends are international although my personal counselor is not and she advice me to get out from here.

It was a mix of things (adding this creepy thing and my mentor criticizing all of my ideas that were related with new techniques that he does not know about, because he thought that would mean me leaving, and he treats me very bad now) and I tried to move some things to see how easy would be to get out of this lab, but my boss (not my mentor) that is the one that puts me here to develop a project, told me that he cannot do anything to put me in another lab (he does not know this creepy stuff) and if I move to another place he would not be my support anymore...

I was looking for other labs in the campus but it would mean to loose everything that I have done here and I am in my third year of my PhD...I thought to continue for two years because I came here to work... and that was the recommendation of my director track (so I talked about get out only doing references of research problems) and I did not explain these to anyone else. My director track, my boss, other professor and including my mentor, knew about me wanting to move to another place but I did not find any support, only words of being quite and continue with my work, because fighting against the system does not work for anybody.

I am being careful with this but I did not comment about it to anyone involved in the research field...I think that I would only find trouble...but changing labs was the only option (drastic) that I was thinking about. The other option that I am doing is to be very curt, sometimes rude to give him the message that I am not fine in here, but that hurts me too.

Thanks so much for your words.


Hi MyWorld

I am so sorry. It sounds a horrible situation to be in. I am hoping that somebody else on this forum will have good advice for you. My instinct in a situation like this is the same as your personal counselor's: get out of the situation.

Things are complicated, as you've explained. Is changing labs a realistic option? Even though it seems drastic at the time, it is unlikely you'd regret it. It is very sad that fighting against the system often does not work. Personally, I think maybe a plan of action to get yourself in a different lab is the best option. If you don't want to then you don't have to share the reason why you want to change labs. You can come up with another reason as to why you desperately want to go to X lab.

I am a bit confused about your situation. You have a boss, a mentor, and a supervisor? Do you have a good relationship with your boss? Would you feel comfortable explaining why you want to leave? I once had a situation where I could not work with a certain person anymore because of a subtle kind of abuse (not sexual but abuse is abuse). I knew that if I was open about it, sadly, it would probably be used against me. So I basically refused to elaborate, but just was adamant that I 100% could not work with this person any longer. My wish was granted. I had no regrets. Maybe something like this could work for you?

Hoping others can offer you advice too. In the meantime, I would suggest that you never be in the lab alone with him - and especially not in evenings or other quiet times. And I really would be trying to leave as soon as you possibly can (and filing a formal anonymous complaint to university later). All the best.


[quote]Quote From Tudor_Queen:
Hi MyWorld

Thanks so much for your support and words, it means a lot...and I am sorry about your experience...that is really unfair.
well I was dealing with that difficult decision about changing labs a couple months ago, but the advice that my director track gave me surprised me like do not move things, you are better there because you know the research and you can be independent,etc...and my boss too.
So I have a boss who pays me that is a mentor and a co-mentor, the one who I am working with, but I called him my mentor because he is present boss is not really present at all (too busy)...I do not have too much confidence with my real boss and he and my co-mentor they have a really good relationship, so I do not think that would be a good idea...I can suggest again about changing labs and see if his reaction now is different like asking more questions, but as you said, I would do that just saying maybe I feel uncomfortable..but not too much detail. I need a stipend so it is really difficult to find a lab with grants and at least a topic similar to mine...and my campus do not have a lot of opportunities...and I did not move too much because I rather to be discrete but maybe I should move more.

There is another possibility about talking with the director of graduate programs that is a woman and just tell her about me having troubles at my lab (do not specify)...
And for sure I will write a letter about this.

Thanks again, you are great.


Hi MyWorld. I am sorry to hear that. I think confronting your mentor won't make things better because dealing with him became impossible anyway. I suggest that you raise the issue with director of graduate study as you said and be firm and persist that it is for you impossible to continue in this lab.
If things went really bad and nothing has changed, you can make a formal complaint. I know it sounds crazy and you are afraid of losing everything. But sometimes if you stay afraid of something and do not deal with it, you are being tortured and eventually your worst fears come true.


I think if you go to see the director, you need to be very sure of your self, and refuse to be fobbed off/undermined. There is a chance that she will try to do this, I'm afraid. You need to be clear about your perception of what is going on, and how that you refuse to be subjected to it any longer. And there needs to be a record of what was said and agreed in the meeting. Also, I would not tell her specific examples of what he has done (unless you have a genuine rapport and trust with this person). It is so easy for someone to try and undermine you when you present isolated examples... a text in the morning... a comment about appearance... what's the big deal, right? However, if you simply explain that there have been multiple instances of sexual harrassment and you prefer not to disclose the nature of them in this context - that should be enough. That's just my view anyway. Don't risk getting undermined about what you have experienced.

I still think the easier route would be to somehow move without raising it. Then put in a complaint later. Simply because of the risk. I have a feeling that you aren't the first person who this supervisor has done this to. The best predictor of someone's current behaviour is their previous behaviour... And so you can bet that it is already "known" that he engages in sexually harrassing behaviour... yet he is still there in his role and still behaving in the same way with new victims. What you're experiencing is likely the tip of the iceberg of a culture where this goes on and is accepted/overlooked. So I am worried about how you will be treated when you raise the issue with the director, assuming that you are probably not the first.

But yes, if you are clear and adamant that you expect to be moved (if that is the goal), and refuse to be undermined, you should succeed in the end.


Ps. I could be wrong about the PGT director - they may be completely separate from the lab and impartial. Fingers crossed as that will make things so much easier. All the best with this.


Thanks a lot for your answers and support, I think that the best to try is to manage things as discrete as never know...if I talk with the graduate director and decide going to another lab I have to be very careful because my mentor is really well known at the this is a big problem, but I am dealing with it as best as I can, I just wan to finish my PhD and forget, but sometimes my frustration is so big that I will leave tomorrow...

Thanks so much, you help me a lot.


Depending on how bad things are you could consider using your husband here.
For example, you could try talking to your supervisor about your husband on a regular basis and particularly when he talks about something you feel uncomfortable about. That is a tactic I have used a few times down the years to get a very clear message across before any misunderstandings can be allowed to gain any ground.

A technique a friend of mine once used was to tell the "target" man about a situation where someone had hit on her in the past and her husband had responded violently towards that person.

I am not sure about accusations of sexual harassment here. Harassment for me is not just about unwanted attention. It requires a clear message from the targetted person that they are not interested and then continued attention despite that message. Is that the case here?


Thanks pm133, I have never told my husband all this things, I thought to told him about it but I did not want to upset him or worry him I thought that I can manage this by myself...but sometimes I think to talk to him about it...

The case is that I have never told my co-mentor that I feel uncomfortable with his comments about my physical appearance or other kind of things like coming to my desk just to see how I am doing...I do not know how he is going to react to hay , I really do not care but there were a lot of times that he was mistreating me or doing the silence time to me... that is another case of abuse here, and use my husband well it is something that I can try next time maybe, I was thinking in telling my co-mentor that he should keep those comments to himself that I do not need that now, but usually when he tells me something like that I am in shock and i cannot answer well.
I never told him that I am not interested in him or his comments but it’s something that I was thinking about, my behavior is showing him that I am not comfortable there and he feels that it he doesn’t care.
It seems to me like when I started to not follow his game” upsets him and now mistreats me a lot...

Thanks a lot for your words and support...


You really must tell your husband. This is not something you should be keeping to yourself. If this was my wife, I would be pretty annoyed at not being told especially when the situation has ground you down to this extent. Sharing problems is what a marriage is all about.


I think this is a blurry area. Often the one in a lower position of power does not feel able to verbalize their discomfort. In the fairly recent reported cases of politicians (and other people in power) sexually harassing their colleagues / other professionals (e.g., Michael Fallon placing his hand on the knee of a journalist under the table during a professional dinner, and the other member of parliament whose name I can't recall asking his secretary to go buy him sex toys), the victims spoke out later, and the individuals lost their job. I am not sure that there is an obligation technically to have to declare at the time of the event that you are not happy with the behaviour. That's why it's sexual harassment oftentimes - the person in a lesser position of power feels powerless to stand up to it.

This supervisor is behaving unprofessionally and is harassing the OP. She says her behaviour is telling him she is uncomfortable. Is it really a stipulation that she verbalize her discomfort for this to constitute sexual harassment? I don't think so (maybe it is though).

Hope you find a solution. Best one I can think of is try the things pm133 has suggested about using husband as a tool, and if that doesn't work then leave and report!


Yes, it's a blurry area and because of that, the OP has an obligation to be absolutely certain that sexual harassment is taking place before making any sort of formal complaint. A person's career is on the line here.

Men hit on women all the time even if the women is married or working for them. Although I personally wouldn't do either it's a long way from there to sexual harassment and I think we devalue the problem if we fail to distinguish between them. The examples you gove above are clearly examples of sexual harassment but I am not sure this is what MyWorld is actually having to deal with.
There are many examples of supervisors and subordinates hooking up so in my opinion, this is not the issue. Harassment for me requires the harasser to be in no doubt that what they are doing is unwanted. I am not sure whether that is the case or not with MyWorld. It's clear she is not happy but does HE know that? A strong verbal response is a cast iron guaranteed way of getting the message across. Non verbal clues really aren't enough. I don't think the point about being "powerless" to speak up is good enough for grown adults to be relying on. An accusation of sexual harassment will destroy this man's life so if he is making you uncomfortable you either need to tell him or leave.

Actually another bit of advice might be to ask HR to have a word and tell him he is making her uncomfortable without directly accusing him of harassment. Now she would have a log of that chat and an email trail. It would then be tough for him to punish her. She could also ask for all meetings to be attended by a 3rd party to ensure no foul play. I have seen that tactic used twice to good effect.


I've read into the OP's account and interpreted it for what it does sound like - but you're right - it is ambiguous. Very tricky situation.

Quote From pm133:
I don't think the point about being "powerless" to speak up is good enough for grown adults to be relying on.

This is the way it is, sadly - when so much is at stake. Sometimes a person's own reputation and career are in the hands of another (i.e., they have the power to harm in some way). It's not just a matter of not being shy or something. Otherwise harassment wouldn't even be an issue, hardly. It's a complex and difficult thing to do in some circumstances. Speaking up isn't as easy as it sounds.