Question: We are seeking advice how to systematically deal with sexual intimidation on the work floor of our department. In short, two issues came to our attention over the last months. One, in the “werkgeversmonitor” a case of sexual intimidation in our department was anonymously reported. Two, some of our female colleagues have confided in us of instances when jokes and comments were made about, for example their reproductive plans, their ability to carry out their work, their success, their physique, their sexual orientation.
Answer: Thank you for your question. This is an issue that many women have at work. It is good that you have started to collect experiences and that you have concluded that more people share the same experiences. This is how the Angels started!
In the literature on this subject, you can read how important it is to know that you are not the only person to have a certain experience, that it is probably not your fault that it happened to you, that it is not normal or acceptable, and that it is good to share this kind of experiences with each other. As a follow-up to what you have already done, you could start by getting all the women in the department together to make a complete inventory of these incidents. There is a good chance that more stories will emerge, that were never shared because people thought they were not important enough, or thought they were the only ones. But if you make an inventory, it becomes clear whether there is a systematic pattern, whether it is caused by the behavior of certain women (or men) or if shows a more general pattern, and whether it is serious enough to really make work of it. From what you tell us, the Angels think that this is definitely so!
So then, how do you deal with it? It is important to remember that you want people to change their behavior, not to feel accused, or so ashamed that they to deny what happened (or "blame" the women, of, for example, hypersensitivity). It is our experience of the Angels is that a combination of two things works best.
1. Show that it is a general problem, that more people are involved, and that it is not (just) their fault. You can, for example, refer people to the 2015 Nature article, in which sexual harassment at universities was seen as one of the ten most important academic problems of 2015. On the site of Athena's Angels under 'Athena's Wisdom' there are also other examples and links to academic publications that you can use for this purpose.
2. Make it clear that this is also a problem in your department, that it is a systematic problem, and that it is 'worse' than people might think (both in terms of what happens and in terms of the impact on motivation and the welfare of people in the department). Make it clear that this is not innocent but that it is highly undesirable. This can be done by collecting concrete stories about what happened to people and the impact it had on them, and sharing them anonymously. In our experience, the amount of experiences and the means of expressing them (with literal quotations) seem to work well to convince people that there is something structurally wrong, and not just that women can not take a joke, and that it is not an isolated incident.
Finally, the strategy to address all this in your department: it helps if you can submit this to someone in a management position - someone you can trust - and ask them to address it. If the manager is part of the problem, you can perhaps introduce it yourself, as a point on the agenda a department meeting, for instance under the heading 'work environment'. It is often uncomfortable for people to talk about this, so you have to do it in such a way that it doesn't become a discussion about the question of guilt, but so that people are convinced that they have to change.
Together you are strong!