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Taking up an engineering career requires exacting discipline on both an intellectual and emotional level. It is a profession that aims to serve public good and forward society, mostly exclusive from the enticing grip of financial gain (take Nikola Tesla for example). This philanthropy drives engineers to excel in what they do and adhere unconditionally to ethical practices. Such arguments which satisfy the top of Maslow's pyramid make such acts of transient sexual bliss inconceivable, but reality dictates otherwise.

Sexual harassment can potentially occur in many environments and must be sensibly acted upon. What is surprising is that it was brought to light by a major publication, signalling a dire need for immediate solutions or for the problem to be properly addressed. (see below)





When does Harassment become Sexual?

The term "sexual harassment" has a strong meaning, often perceived with the involvement of human genitalia. However, it can also come in verbal form, inflicting emotional and psychological damage to the woman's sensitive psyche. In the articles, the scope extends to "offensive, crude, and sexist behaviors that demean women". Unwanted attention, persistent courtship and impositions, "wolf-whistling", statements with subtle discriminating implications are a few examples. Suggestive gestures also fall under this category. A notable case would be slowly sliding the soldering iron up and down the stand, which is only acceptable when done in a jerking fashion to remove excess lead. Also worth mentioning are unnecessary comments and remarks. Telling a woman "Oh baby, I have no resistance when I'm with you." while giving her a 0-ohm resistor does count as sexual harassment.

Such behaviors may vary with class and culture too. A culture rooted on respect (ex. the Japanese, where strong emphasis is placed on virtue early on in the academe) is expected to be less prone to sexual harassment. Effects regarding class and culture may not be that significant though, as everyone is exposed to an engineering-oriented environment.

There is an added complication to this subject matter, as what women actually find offensive varies too. (see https://www.livescience.com/59171-women-intrusive-behaviors-unacceptable.html)

Gender Harassment - the Most Common Type of Sexual Harassment

You've heard of sexual harassment, but now there's gender harassment.

And it's no joke.

From the National Academies report, gender harassment is found to be the pervading offence in most settings. Described as women being out of place in engineering, it takes advantage of the current gender disparity. Back when I was a wee student in uni., situations where guys make jokes on the imbalance seems somewhat unavoidable, and usually comes from the rowdy group in our class. How to regulate such behavior will pose a challenge to educational institutions, as it discourages a healthy learning environment for women and degrades their morale.

Sexual Harassment Goes Both Ways

It sounds dubious, but females aren't the only victims of sexual harassment (the cause of which is explained and elaborated upon in the next section). I've personally witnessed a case or two where the woman is the Aggressor (with a capital "A" - let's call her "A" for now). Maybe it's because women are stereotyped to act in a more tender and effeminate manner, but "A" was coyly flirting (harassing?every guy she came in contact with. And strangely enough, no one was reporting "A" perhaps partly due to the fossilized concept in our society that the woman is mostly the victim - a stigma that has reflected on public reaction when female teachers are caught sleeping with their students - and the fear of being made fun of. 

The Consequence of Gender Gap

An important issue that entails sexual harassment is the warped view females have on success in their job/career (also mentioned in the articles cited above). This follows the previous section as well, as it may be the primary motive for sexual harassment from women.

Below is an account of Azalik on the topic:

I fully appreciate the seriousness of the problem. Blaming the victim is risky, yet I have two examples out of numerous experiences that show that both ‘sides’ have a role. Many years ago I met a young woman at my dorm, she was a rising HS senior [so about 16-18 years old] and was attending summer session at my university. Without any prompting on my part she said something like: ‘I know how and when to use my body to get what I want in life’. So by my definition she was an empowered feminist. Fast forward to a couple of years ago. I met a senior’ish female engineer, then and still at a major electronics company. Assertive woman, well spoken, and knowledgeable. Her comment echoed what the younger woman [who would now be 60+ years old] had said: ‘I dress in a way to get the attention of men.’

In both these cases the women were empowered, yet they felt they had to use their ‘charm’ to move forward. This opens up the field for males to step in. But at the risk of being ‘accused’ of the three or four level harassment.

Unfortunately there is a bias on assuming guilt. Both parties need to respect the others. Generally the imbalance in college between student and teacher is much greater than at work between employee and manager.

While it SHOULD NOT be necessary for women to dress conservatively to avoid ‘unwanted attention’, perhaps that is where they ‘must’ start. Just like with race-based ‘harassment’, one can ‘fight it’ headon, or ‘what gets desired outcomes’.

It must begin very early in life. All must learn, be taught, to respect what the other person does or knows or says ie their knowledge and approach to a problem, rather than what the other person is, ie race or gender. Cannot be achieved at the top.

To summarize, both men and women suffer from the throes of sexual harassment. Sexual harassment from one side can deform the perspective/point of view of the other, yielding to unethical practices.

Ways to Help the Struggle Against Sexual Harassment

The most important pitch of this article is how the engineering community will respond to this problem now that it has caught attention. Aside from evoking change in the academe, the best solution would be to increase awareness and alter the embedded stigma that has affected the mindset of society with regards to women and the engineering profession, lest we face a continued scarcity of female talent in the future.