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Not a Big Deal

Not a Big Deal highlights the impact on community members when harassing behavior is minimized, ignored or viewed as "not a big deal." The 2019 AAU Survey on Sexual Assault and Misconduct demonstrates the extent to which students, especially female and TGQN (transgender, genderqueer, and gender non-conforming) students, experience sexual harassment in campus environments. At Caltech, approximately 30% of female undergraduate and graduate students and more than 40% of TGQN students indicated that they have experienced harassing behavior that interfered with their academic performance, limited their ability to participate and/or created an intimidating, hostile or offensive environment.

The characters in Not a Big Deal inhabit an academic research environment. A recent article [Sexual Harassment in Academia] overviews the unique aspects of academia (tenure, academic freedom, power imbalance and shared governance) that contribute to harassment going unchecked. The authors argue that because of the harm done to others, campus communities should treat sexual harassment as an ethical issue; ethical constructs (such as motivated blindness, ethical fading, and the slippery slope as defined below) help to understand why harassment occurs and how to combat harassment effectively. By recognizing these behaviors and then taking action, we can work together to change the academic culture. The graphic below from The National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine depicts the harassing behaviors that are often "under the surface" or have gone unnoticed in STEM environments.

This vignette was developed with input from students, faculty, and staff and support from Caltech's Equity and Title IX Office.

Definitions: Motivated blindness describes the tendency for an individual to minimize or ignore unethical behavior of others when it is in their best interest to do so. Ethical fading occurs when one minimizes moral implications when making decisions. The slippery slope refers to indiscretions, viewed as small in isolation, that grow or compound over time creating behavior that deviates from accepted norms.

Start a Dialogue

  • Lab members Professor Sally Jones, Evan, Ronald, Jade and Heather responded to the behavior of the staff scientist, Xander, in differing ways. What factors affect their responses? Are ethical considerations, as described above, influencing their decisions? 

  • As the newest group member, Danika sees the lab environment differently. What factors motivated Danika to take action? If you were new to the lab, what steps would you have taken?

  • The lab environment has negatively affected Sam, Heather and Jade. How can we help them recover from or reconcile with these negative experiences? Are there resources or support structures that can help?

  • If you had the opportunity to counsel Sally Jones, what advice would you give her regarding the mentoring that she provides her students?

  • Allies can play a critical role when addressing harassing behaviors in a group setting. How might the others students in the lab have effectively stepped into the role of ally after hearing an inappropriate comment, like those attributed to Xander?

  • Are there features captured in the National Academy's graphic that are harder to spot but play a large role in creating a hostile environment, for women especially?

sexual coercion


Download Available: .pdf 

Not A Big Deal Team Members

Prithvi Akella, graduate student in mechanical engineering
Jackie Dowling, graduate student in chemistry
Red Lhota, graduate student in chemical engineering
Daniel Johnson, graduate student in geochemistry
Beverley McKeon, professor in aerospace
Jackyln Pezzato, graduate student in astronomy
Jannie Yu, undergraduate student in computer science