A Curious Case of Sexual Harassment

The following actually happened. Only the names have been changed.

As usual, the first chore after entering my cubicle was to read e-mail. One from Human Resources was flagged URGENT, but, skeptical of HR's definition of that term, I read it last. This time, however, HR was right: I had been accused of sexual harassment.

I was head of an engineering group that designed the control systems for robots used in manufacturing computer chips. Two months earlier, our group had taken on an intern, a graduate student in technical communication. It was the maiden voyage of the Graduate Academic Partnering Program (GAPP), the brainchild and raison d'être of the HR and Marketing departments. The selection committee (myself and three other engineers) had recommended a promising male applicant, but the HR director had wanted Shelia in the interest of promoting "gender equity." Tending to think about individuals rather than groups, I wondered how gender equity could be served by choosing anybody other than a hermaphrodite.

The selection committee's first choice was a triple-threat mechanical engineering student who was strong in math, programming, and technical writing. We needed the best the university had to offer because the assignment was a so-called critical path project too important for on-the-job training. But HR and marketing, gung-ho for the social responsibility cornerstone of the GAPP mission, had made that decision. With slim science credentials, Shelia was our third choice. The selection committee wrangled with HR for three days, during which their original suggestion escalated to encouragement, then to insistence, and finally to an order. In the chain of command, HR director trumped control systems manager. So we welcomed Shelia into our group for a one-month internship.

The project was to write online help for a cleanroom robot used in manufacturing computer chips. A cleanroom is an industrial environment more controlled and sterile than an operating room. This particular robotic system was 37 feet long and featured multiple baths of deionized water and 140-degree phosphoric acid, into which an articulated robotic arm submerged wafers (computer chips in the making) in complexly timed patterns. An operator, looking like a NASA moon walker, controlled the machine through a touchscreen interface.

The system was scheduled for delivery in about a month, every day late meant a $5,000 penalty, and online help was integral to the control system. Short-staffed and besieged with a thousand and one emergencies, I appointed an über-competent electrical engineer, Sarah, to be Shelia's mentor.

For somebody without relevant experience, the help deadline had to be daunting. But to everybody's relief, Shelia was bright and diligent. A week before the deadline, her project was on schedule.

But when an agitated Sarah asked to talk to me in the meeting room, away from my pseudo-public cubicle, about alarm response procedures, an alarm or two went off in my head.

Presumably, automatic, redundant safeguards protected the operator and the wafers being processed if something went seriously awry. Still, two things needed to happen instantly in an emergency. First, the operator had to know whether to get away from the robot. Second, if fleeing wasn't required, the operator had to know how to shut down the robot and protect the wafers. Up to eight wafers were processed at any given time, and a single wafer could be worth tens of thousands of dollars.

Shelia had written alarm procedures that at first glance -- which is the point of an alarm response -- appeared more complicated than a DNA sequence. She explained that the procedures were based on something called "branching," a repetitive "if this, do that" technique recommended by her academic advisor. He had a Ph.D. and knew his stuff. Sarah had tried for three days to convince Shelia to replace her intricate paean to the professor with straightforward commands that might prevent the death or injury of some poor soul or save $250,000 worth of wafers. So I became Shelia's mentor.

For two days, I also failed. In what became dreaded meetings for both of us, Shelia insisted that her approach was superior and that we needed to get with state-of-the-art technical communication. I explained and explained and explained, but she wouldn't budge. She didn't seem to respect her lack of knowledge or understand that pulling rank wasn't in her job description. Frustrated and impatient, I thanked Shelia -- genuinely -- for her good work and told her I would finish the procedures. It took me all night.

The next day, I was the defendant in a sexual harassment complaint. My refusal to acknowledge the superiority of Shelia's ideas had humiliated her, undermined her standing in the graduate program, and maybe jeopardized her future employment opportunities. The sexual part of the complaint? She was female, and I was a male with power over her.

The complaint seemed laughable, but there were no smiles in the vice president's office that afternoon. The HR director, the marketing VP, Shelia, and I had it out for two hours. Shelia expressed her gratitude for the opportunity, then explained how my suppression of her superior approach was a sexually based expression of power that amounted to harassment. She sincerely believed my rejection of her alarm procedures made me some kind of male predator. I observed that if there were any gender imbalances, they should do the math: one male in a room, three females. I speculated that had I been more directly involved as a mentor, the misunderstanding might have been prevented. (I resisted an impulse to use the expression "hands on" or "on top of.") When the meeting adjourned, I awarded myself round one on points. After all, they were ironclad. Later, I wondered whether by focusing on the bogus sexual aspect of the accusation, I had inadvertently conceded her point that some sort of harassment had occurred.

Fretting about strategy turned out to be unnecessary, because the next day, the episode went away. I was told that the investigation would not be continued, and there was no further need to talk about it, on or off the record. Nobody would tell me why. I was a mid-level manager, a guy in a cubicle, not an executive with an office. Maybe the university got involved and informed our company that Shelia had a history of this sort of thing. Maybe they agreed with me that the complaint was absurd. Maybe they thought the complaint had merit but wanted to bury the incident for the sake of GAPP.

Shelia never came back. She e-mailed me a few days later to ask for a letter of reference. It required writing more artful than any alarm procedure I've ever encountered.

Several years later, three observations surface from this curious case. First, it's best to hire the most qualified person for a job regardless of quotas, fairness, equality, or any other political consideration. Second, excessive consciousness-raising about "gender equity" and any other victim status can distort otherwise perfectly serviceable minds. And third, although robots do behave unexpectedly, at least their quirks can eventually be understood.