Anti-harassment advice

On this page, the IDEA Chapter has compiled some suggestions on the problem of harassment. We have borrowed heavily from the AAS Committee on the Status of Women’s resource ( and advice ( pages as well as the Australian human rights pages ( and the IAU anti-harassment guidelines ( ) that you may also find useful.  If you think we have missed something important, please let us know.

If you have suffered harassment, you are not alone and it is not your fault. The law is on your side, so please speak up and speak out. If you feel there is no way to address the issue within your organisation, please contact the IDEA Chapter. We are here to lend an ear and help you push back against our field’s harassers.

  1. What is harassment?

In general, harassment is conduct that exerts unwelcome pressure or intimidation. This conduct includes, but is not limited to: epithets, slurs or negative stereotyping; threatening, intimidating or hostile acts; denigrating jokes and display or circulation of written or graphic material that denigrates or shows hostility or aversion toward an individual or group.

Sexual harassment is unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature which makes a person feel offended, humiliated and/or intimidated.  It is important to realise that behaviour and language that are welcome and acceptable in one particular cultural environment may be unwelcome and offensive to another. Consequently, individuals must use discretion to ensure that their words and actions communicate respect for others. This is especially important for those in positions of authority since individuals with lower status may be reluctant to express their objections or discomfort regarding unwelcome behaviour.

Sexual harassment can involve conduct such as:

  • unwelcome touching
  • staring /leering
  • suggestive comments or jokes
  • unwanted invitations to go out on dates
  • intrusive questions about personal matters
  • spreading rumours
  • insults or taunts of a sexual nature
  • sexually explicit pictures, texts, emails, or posters

Sexual harassment does not have to be repeated or continuous to be against the law. It can be a one-off incident.

Here is one example of inappropriate behaviour in a professional setting – You meet a colleague at a conference/observing run/review panel/etc. They seem interested in your work and suggest that the two of you might collaborate on a project. They arrange to be alone with you on that pretence, and then they proposition and grope you. You’re shocked. You have no interest in anything but a professional relationship. Now you can’t concentrate on what you came to do because you’re always looking out for them and trying to make sure you’re never alone with them again.

Sexual harassers often escalate their behaviour to their victim starting with actions that might pass as “normal” behaviour.  They can use a slowly escalating approach that may or may not be released with plausible deniability at any one stage. If the victim doesn’t cry foul at step N, then the harasser may then move onto step N+1.  The insidious nature of this process has been well described in John Johnson’s Serial Harasser’s Playbook (

  1. What to do if you are being harassed

Most universities (and other large organisations) have a formal procedure to address complaints of harassment. This procedure should be outlined on your workplace’s web site, but if the link is not obvious, try searching on harassment complaint. Details can vary, but the first few steps you take to make the complaint should be roughly the same.

  1. Write everything down: times, places, nature of the incident, and comments made. Save emails, notes, etc.
  2. Tell someone you trust (advisor, best friend, parent, sibling, etc.) about what has happened. Talk about the pros and cons of filing an official complaint.
  3. If your department or university is fortunate enough to have an ombudsperson, consider talking to him/her. The ombudsperson is an independent, confidential, and impartial resource available to facilitate co-operation and consensus through education and mediation. Some organisations have both informal and formal complaint procedures, so the ombudsperson can help you choose what suits you best.  Bring copies of the items gathered in Step I to your meeting. You can also bring your trusted confident from Step II, if this will help you in any way. Prepare for the meeting. Know your facts. Be organised.
  4. If you decide to file a complaint, your first official step could be a meeting with your head of department. The ombudsperson and/or your confidant from Step II can come with you to provide you with valuable support at what can be a very challenging time.
  5. You will most likely have to write and sign an official letter of complaint, documenting the nature of the harassment and/or discrimination. Be as detailed as possible. This is where the information from Step I is most useful. Take time to write this letter both clearly and thoroughly. Ask the ombudsperson and/or your confidant from II to read it over and then edit it as necessary.
  6. If you have any supporting documentation or statements from witnesses, these should be submitted to the head of department at the same time as your official letter of complaint.
  7. Once you submit this letter, the head of department is compelled to address your complaint.


  1. What to do if someone reports harassment to you

Drop what you’re doing and treat this situation seriously; give the person your full attention.

Reassure the person with supportive statements, encouraging them to “take your time” or “we’ll sort this out together;” and, if necessary, give the person time to collect themself.

Focus and listen. Don’t interrupt. Never belittle them or the problem.

Help the person look at the procedure/s for harassment at your university/workplace – if there is an ombudsperson in your department advise the person to talk to the ombudsperson as well.

Keep this confidential until the person says otherwise.  You are someone this person has trusted with very personal information.