CONTACT: Stanford University News Service (650) 723-2558

Awareness up after first year, says sex harassment adviser

STANFORD -- The case was not unusual: A female graduate student, in her office, was being repeatedly touched and hugged against her will by a male supervisor, who also kept inviting her to his residence.

“She kept telling him not to do these things, but he just didn't 'get it,' ” says clinical psychologist Laraine Zappert, now finishing up her first year as Stanford's first Sexual Harassment Policy Coordinating Adviser. “She was concerned about how all this would reflect in his evaluation of her performance.”

The graduate student consulted with some friends, then went to a university administrator, who called Zappert. Zappert interviewed the woman, informed her of her options and assisted in an investigation that resulted in sanctions “severe enough to cause this man to think twice before attempting those behaviors again.”

Before Stanford adopted its new policy on sexual harassment in October 1993, both the complainant and the administrator trying to handle the situation might have found themselves in uncharted waters. Other than the university ombudsperson, Leah Kaplan, few people on campus had the training to deal with such matters, and the university's original statement against harassment, while groundbreaking for the time it was written in the late 1970s, was vague in its definitions and scope.

Now, after a year of intense outreach work by Zappert, publication of a new brochure sent to all students and employees, and the deployment of a small army of newly trained sexual harassment policy advisers and panelists, the channels are becoming clearer.

“The biggest change I've seen over the year is that people are starting to see how best to get a complaint or concern raised,” says Zappert, an authority on women's mental health.

“The new system allows for multiple points of access. There are more concerns being brought forward, and that was an important objective behind the new policy.”

Since assuming her position in December 1993, Zappert has consulted on 44 cases of alleged sexual harassment from 21 different departments or offices at the university, compared to 11 harassment-related calls received by the Ombudsperson's office in 1991-92.

The number of calls has risen, she thinks, not because there is more sexual harassment on campus these days but because “there is more awareness of harassment as an issue” and the new policy makes it easier for people to come forward.

“There has also been a surge of requests for information and advice - departments calling for training and groups saying they'd like me to come and speak,” she adds. “So that's a positive surge.”

In three-quarters of the cases with which Zappert has dealt this year, it was women who said they were being harassed. The most frequently harassed group was graduate students (32 percent of the cases), followed by undergraduates and staff (21 percent each) and faculty (11 percent). (The remainder were unknown or people outside the university.) The most frequent alleged harassers were faculty (25 percent), followed by graduate students (23 percent) and staff (16 percent), with the remainder unknown or from outside the university.

“Sexual harassment isn't just male to female, and it isn't just from the top down,” Zappert said. “We've had females harassing men and we've had male to male harassment. Most of the harassment has been toward graduate students, but there are such interesting combinations and permutations, it's clear that no one is particularly safe from these kinds of advances.”

Of the 44 cases brought to Zappert in the past year, 37 involved concerns where complainants did not wish to be identified. Zappert has responded to many of these by giving general talks on sexual harassment to the affected departments.

In four more cases, both complainants and alleged harassers were named, and the problems were resolved through advising, mediation or other informal processes. The remaining three cases were resolved through one of the university's grievance or disciplinary procedures.

Complaints ranged from discomfort over offensive computer screen savers to at least one instance of alleged sexual assault.

“We've heard about everything from pornographic materials left on public computers to stalking behaviors, to unwanted requests for dates on up to unwanted touching and assault. There have been a number of situations that none of us could have anticipated,” Zappert says.

“Often, a caller will describe a situation and ask, 'Is this harassment, and what can I do about it?' I tell the person what his or her options are, and then I follow up to see if the situation was successfully resolved or not. Other times, calls will come through administrators; I work with them in a consulting capacity to help them figure out what to do.”

More extensive outreach

Stanford's current Policy on Sexual Harassment, adopted after three years of sometimes intensive debate and rewriting, offers faculty, staff and students an extensive informal means of resolving complaints, using trained harassment advisers, while retaining formal grievance procedures.

To encourage complainants to come forward, it offers stronger assurances of confidentiality than the old policy. It contains a warning about (but does not prohibit) consensual relationships between faculty/students and supervisors/employees. It also mandates a much more extensive outreach campaign, to educate the campus community about sexual harassment matters.

Working out of the Ombudsperson's office on the Quad, Zappert spent time earlier this year producing the new brochure “Understanding Stanford's Sexual Harassment Policy,” which was delivered to all employees in June and to students in October. (Copies are available by contacting Zappert's office at 723-3682.)

Zappert also has worked to train a campuswide network of policy panelists and advisers. The eight panelists, appointed by the president, help deans and department heads deal with adjudicating harassment matters, “so administrators aren't out there alone trying to figure it out,” Zappert explains.

The 19 policy advisers, meanwhile, act as resources to individuals who have concerns or charges about sexual harassment. Appointed by the provost from offices all over campus, they meet monthly with Zappert and consult with her before taking any specific action to resolve a sexual harassment matter informally.

“Under the old system, people with concerns about harassment were asked to take the matter up with their department chairs or supervisors, which was often seen as a deterrent to victims coming forward,” Zappert explains. “The idea with the advisers is that people are much more likely to come forward and confide in someone they know.”

How individual cases are handled depends on what the complainant wants, and on how egregious the conduct is. An adviser may go and talk to the alleged harasser, or set up a mediated discussion between the harasser and complainant, or the adviser may help the complainant write a letter or confront the harasser. Advisers also monitor the progress of complaints and provide access to other services complainants might need.

“We can facilitate psychological help if necessary,” Zappert says. “We also let callers know what their rights are so they can seek outside remedy by filing a grievance outside of the university. It's a multi-prong approach. We try to cover a lot of bases so people are not left out there and feeling alone.

“For most people [who are being harassed], the major goal is to get the behavior to stop. If we can do that informally and effectively, we will.”

If the complainant wants to go further - as in three cases in the past year - formal grievance procedures take place, with investigations tailored to the needs of students, faculty or staff. In cases involving faculty, for example, the department chair or dean sets up a committee to investigate the claims; the committee hears both sides, interviews witnesses and makes a recommendation on sanctions to the university president.

One continuing source of frustration for Zappert - an issue she hopes the president and provost will be reviewing soon - is the university policy of keeping those sanctions secret.

“Even under the new policy, the final outcomes of formal grievance procedures are not made public. As a consequence, people don't know what the penalties are,” she says. “In the larger community there is the sense that nothing happens to the harassers; their colleagues are unaware of the severity of the remedy. It's problematic because it doesn't give people confidence in the system.”

Clinical experience

Zappert, 49, did both her undergraduate and graduate work at Cornell University, culminating in a doctorate in social psychology and organizational behavior in 1976. After postdoctoral work, she came to Stanford in 1978 as project director and research associate at the Center for Research on Women.

Shortly afterward, Zappert joined the Counseling and Psychological Services staff at Cowell Student Health Center and eventually became director of the Women's Group Program there. In 1980, she began private practice in clinical psychology in Palo Alto, and later joined the Medical School's Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.

She feels her clinical experience, particularly with graduate students and professional women, has been invaluable in her present position.

“This is such a volatile area for both the person who has been the subject of unwanted advances and the person who is alleged to have behaved in a harassing manner,” she says. “It's incredibly explosive at times, emotionally. It can be so damaging if it's not handled properly and with a certain amount of sensitivity, and even with that, it can be very damaging to both parties.”

Another thing that has come in handy is her past research on the needs of graduate students. In the early 1980s, Zappert was principal investigator on a study that compared the experiences of graduate men with those of women in science, engineering and medicine at Stanford.

Among the 45 cases Zappert handled this year, almost one-third involved harassment of graduate students.

“The faculty-graduate student relationship is fraught with opportunities for both positive and negative things to happen,” Zappert explains. “One of the major difficulties for graduate students is that they can't just pick up and leave, it's not that easy. It could be professional suicide for them to bring forward a complaint, and so they need to be very aware of what their options are.”

One of Zappert's major efforts in the coming year will be to increase her outreach efforts to graduate students, with the help of Mary Edmonds, vice provost and dean of student affairs. She also will be continuing her efforts to educate faculty and administrators, “making sure that they are aware of what the policy is, how it affects them, how it affects this institution and how individuals can protect themselves.”

This fall, Zappert and her advisers have been meeting with teaching assistants, resident assistants and faculty resident fellows, as well as deans and department chairs across campus. Her message: Take this subject seriously.

“Every single concern has to be investigated,” Zappert stresses. “You can't do nothing, or just say, 'OK, I hear you have a concern.' That is not sufficient. If anyone on campus is in a position to hear a concern from a student or faculty or staff, it needs to be discussed, it needs to be investigated. That's what the advisory group is here for, to act as consultants in how to go about investigations, to make sure that we're stopping this kind of behavior.”

So far, Zappert says she is pleased with the reception she has received on campus.

“This is a difficult issue and it raises all sorts of hackles about infringement on academic freedom, freedom of speech. It's a very complicated issue. There are a lot of people concerned about false accusations, damaged reputations, all those kinds of things.”

Still, she says, “I have been accorded a great deal of courtesy and respect. Some of these people have had to sit through two and three of my presentations, but they've been quite cordial about it. There's a lot of support coming from the president and provost to heighten the visibility of this issue, and that has made my job so much easier.”



This is an archived release.

This release is not available in any other form. Images mentioned in this release are not available online.
Stanford News Service has an extensive library of images, some of which may be available to you online. Direct your request by EMail to newslibrary@stanford.edu.