Sexual Comments in Professional Environments

Sexual comments of any type are not appropriate in any professional environment*.

Prof. Dawn Sumner, Earth and Planetary Sciences, University of California, Davis,

October 2018

(*unless they are directly related to the science being done, e.g. studies of sexual selection, for example.)


Comments with sexual content (or those that include judgments about others’ looks) can make people uncomfortable in ways that lead to a hostile professional environment. Our society systematically perpetuates violence against women, those with non-binary gender identities, and people of specific ethnic and racial identities. Individuals with these identities are often wary of comments that imply violence based on their past experiences. Specifically, many people in our community feel threatened by comments, jokes, etc. that include sexual or racial content. Such content reduces the professionalism of a community. A genuinely professional environment respects the effects such comments have on individuals and strives to reduce them, which promotes productive, inclusive, and creative work.

Scientific societies are beginning to recognize the importance of building professional cultures that disapprove of inappropriate behaviors.  The scientists leading them are starting to work toward policies that promote equity and reduce harassment. The following points describe three of the reasons why.

1. The biggest factor that reduces harassment in a group is to not tolerate relatively “minor” inappropriate behaviors.

The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) released a report on “Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (2018)” (

The expert panel that produced the report found that the biggest single factor predicting the amount of sexual harassment in an organization is the attitude of its leadership. When leaders make it clear that inappropriate behaviors are not tolerated, members of that organization perpetrate and experience less harassment. In particular, when organization leaders and members respond negatively to inappropriate behaviors, overall harassment is significantly reduced. In addition, proactive discussions about the behaviors expected in the community tends to significantly reduce harassment.

Although intolerance for inappropriate behaviors is critical, the perpetrators of minor or “low level” inappropriate behaviors do not necessarily need significant punishment. In most cases, open discussions can show intolerance in a respectful but firm way. Such discussions allow people to adjust their behavior to fit community expectations.  When the community as a whole, and particularly the leadership, expresses displeasure at the small behaviors their occurrence decreases and they rarely escalate into more problematic harassment.

2. Sexual comments are often an early stage in patterns followed by serial sexual harassers, patterns that can end in assault.

Almost all harassment starts as relatively “low level” inappropriate behaviors. However, some harassers escalate their activities if they perceive they can “get away with it”. This escalation often has a pattern, where comments and small touches become systematically worse, leading to emotional abuse and physical assault. See “The Serial Harasser’s Playbook” (, which was written by a man who observed the patterns of harasser and ex-professor Geoffrey Marcy ( Marcy harassed women for more than a decade at UC Berkeley, and nothing was done to stop him until 2015.  That year, BuzzFeed published a story about him ( The UC Berkeley faculty and administration did not hold him accountable for his behaviors until after he caused very serious harm to many women.

Many of us have reflected deeply on this example of a catastrophic failure in leadership. We do not want to ever allow persistent, dangerous harassment in our own communities. We can reduce the likelihood that it will by responding negatively to “low level” inappropriate behaviors, as suggested by the NASEM report described above.  By asking perpetrators of “low level” problems to change, we can identify those who refuse to change and be prepared to force them to leave the community before they do significant harm.

Even though “low level” inappropriate behaviors often precede behaviors that do significant harm, most people who make”low level” sexual comments do not progress toward more serious harassment. However, we cannot tell in advance which cases will progress to more serious harassment. In addition, they create a hostile environment by triggering fear of violence for specific people in our communities. Thus, it is best to address all cases of inappropriate behavior as early as possible to prevent any harassment that interferes with any individual’s full participation in the department.

3. Sexual harassment is considered research misconduct by the AGU and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

Numerous studies (including the NASEM study cited above) have demonstrated that harassment harms both scientific progress and scientists. Professional societies are now starting to include harassment as a form of research misconduct on par with falsifying data. The AGU document on Scientific Integrity and Professional Ethics states, “Scientific integrity and ethics are fundamental to scientific advancement and science cannot flourish without the respectful and equitable treatment of all those engaged in the scientific community.” ( The GSA is working on a similar code. These policies encourage us to both behave ethically and to train our students to behave professionally.

Learning, understanding, and practicing ethical behaviors are critical to being a good scientist. Encouraging them in others promotes both a better working environment and the overall advancement of science.

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