Harassment as a crossroads

As a woman in a STEM field I generally feel pretty lucky.  I was never told I couldn’t do well in math or science and I’ve never felt unsafe in an academic setting.  Sexism and harassment isn’t something I have thought that much about because I never thought of it as happening to me.  However, looking back on my life with a more jaded outlook I realize that one event that seemed relatively insignificant at the time has percolated through the years, subtly affecting many decisions throughout my life.

The summer between my sophomore and junior year in college started off great… I was off to a summer study program associated with my undergraduate university, considering it a trial run for a semester abroad I hoped to take the following winter.  It was the first time I’d been away from everyone I knew, and I was nervous but optimistic.   A set of small and large setbacks soon conspired to make the summer less-than-pleasant. I just didn’t fit in very well so I had a hard time making friends, and was very lonely.  I soon found myself being bullied by my roommate and a few other classmates.  And of course there was my stalker – nothing like coming home after a late night of studying to find a creepy love note on your pillows (our cabins didn’t lock).

One of the few highlights of the summer was the fun, raucous atmosphere in one of my classes.  We spent two 8-hour days in each of two classes at this study program, so we spent a LOT of time with each other.  The professor in one of my classes actively encouraged and participated in an atmosphere of inappropriate jokes, pranks, and comments, which 11 of the 12 of us in the class took part in – particularly gleefully by the bullies who ruled the roost. At the time this seemed like a lot of fun – wasn’t this how we all joked with each other anyway, in our dorms?  It felt like bonding, like we were a pack. The fact that it might be inappropriate to make those same jokes with a married man more than twice our age (with his family at the summer program) didn’t really cross our minds. And though it was ‘well known’ that he was sleeping with our TA /his graduate student, there wasn’t talk of him acting inappropriately with any of the undergraduates.

Towards the end of the summer the one quiet girl in our class wrote a letter to the head of the program complaining that she felt harassed in the classroom.  We were all aghast, and (to my shame) we ridiculed her for her prudish ways. It’s not like we were directing our comments at her, so why was she complaining?  Couldn’t she handle a little sex-themed vocal sport?  She quieted down, and we all finished out the semester unscathed.

It was only after I returned home that I started receiving the emails from my professor.  Offers to fly me out to visit so we could have some quality time together, offers to spend some time helping me with my graduate school applications at a hotel room, and so on.  I can’t fully describe how completely shocked and horrified I was. Had I inadvertently implied that I was interested in him? (YUCK!) It was so absurd to me that he would single me out.  I remember my mind circling and circling and circling…what did I say? What did I do?  And most of all, How could I have so misread our interactions?  It’s very disconcerting not be able to trust your own instincts.  Simply ignoring the emails made the problem go away, and I’ve never heard from him again.  But it’s hard to simply forget that you have so misjudged an authority figure.

My experience, which is so minor compared to others’ stories and experiences, felt huge at the time, and trickled down through small and large decisions even to this day.  The next year I didn’t even consider going to study abroad.  The next summer, when I was looking for jobs, I skipped over those that would require long stretches of time in the field in close quarters with other people. Instead I chose a nice, safe, 9-5 close to home, well within my comfort zone.  I’ve since subconsciously tried to avoid being in the field alone with my (older, male) mentors – particularly one that I heard rumors about.  Now that I think about it, every time I’ve been alone with a male mentor (even ones I’ve respected and had no reason to be uncomfortable with) there has been a little voice in the back of my head saying “Watch out!”  Maybe that’s normal, I don’t know.  I can’t even imagine how women who have experienced frequent or more serious harassment shake it off and soldier on.

At the time I didn’t even consider contacting someone in the program about it.  I was too embarrassed and ashamed of misreading the situation (and contributing to it by playing along with the class).  Reporting it seemed like an overreaction for such a minor thing – and I’d seen the potential for backlash firsthand.  Going through the reporting process seems like such a hassle that it’s often easier to just forget about it.  I didn’t think about it for years, and it’s only recently that I’ve thought about it again – and I see that he’s still on staff at the summer program.  Now I wonder, what, if anything, should I do or say?  I don’t have those emails, and it’s been almost fifteen years.  I’m still in a vulnerable position since I’m a first-year professor.  But how many other young students have been sexually harassed because people like me didn’t speak up?

If I could go back in time I would make the younger me tell a mentor or advisor so they could help me decide what to do.  Of course, now that I’m advising and mentoring students of my own I would be that person, which means I need to think hard about the best way to approach (and be approachable about) these types of situations.  I want my students to feel like they can talk to me and know that these experiences are common.   And I know to tell them to document everything – if I had held on to those emails I would be in a much better position now to do something about my harasser.

7 thoughts on “Harassment as a crossroads

  1. Wow does that bring back memories. I took a class in college that involved multiple field trips, one of which ended up with salsa dancing and the professor groping me. After, he pursued me, inviting me to his house (I went – I think I was a bit enamored of the attention), but then I refused to have sex with him. In class, he started dropping notes on my desk in the middle of lecture while nonchalantly walking around the room. I was horrified. When I didn’t respond to his liking, he started giving me bad grades on assignments. Yeah. I have thought many times that I should have said something to someone. Maybe I still should, but so hard to know what to say at this point. He’s on the verge of retirement, I imagine. What you say about changed behavior is definitely true for me, too. Unlike you, I did definitely flirt with the prof, but like your situation everyone was flirting with everyone. I certainly stopped doing that! And avoided similar situations.

    • Hi, I would encourage anyone, no matter how many years it’s been, to tell the sexual harassment office at whatever University/program about your experience. Worst case scenario? They do nothing. If it happened to you, it’s probably happened to other people. Even if nothing is outwardly done, such reportings should go on the person’s HR file. I reported a case of harassment by my PI to the University where I did my postdoc- and while nothing was done outwardly, I know for a fact that I’m not the first person to report gender-based discrimination (not sexual harassment) about this tenured, male professor. I hope that others will come forward with their [ongoing] stories, so eventually the University might finally take action. Again, if it happened to you, you’re probably not the only one and it might take many people reporting it (unless of course it’s a particularly well documented egregious behavior) before action is taken. Please don’t be silent.

  2. This is just the sort of encouragement I need. It happened to me during my masters in my home country and even though I took distance from him by moving to a different research group I still was working on a research project for him. Only when, I don’t know how, his wife got to know rumours things got nasty to me… of course there were rumours… he will call me to the lab to see him at his office, then walked me back to the lab and attempt a hug before entering the lab… anyone could have seen it… but I respected him and even though I confronted him particularly saying that i didn’t want my career depending on my response to his inappropriate behaviour, all I got was “how do you dare think like that about me”
    He cut me out of the group, from the other members, I was not allowed back in the lab and had to send for my things to be collected. He did continued paying me until the end of the project and I accepted that as a way of making him in a way pay for his behaviour. I had no way of protection from the university because I was not on a contract.
    This happened in a country where I am not sure there is not much talk about this… this happened at the Department of Physics of a university where 99% of staff were male… who was going to believe me? They would just watch out for each other. I live in the UK now and stories like this are on the media everyday… it enrages me that he is still on his post of professor, leading a lab and perhaps doing it all again.
    I recently contacted a senior female staff at the university about this but all I got was silence. I want to do it now because it is poisoning me.

  3. I would encourage you to report it as well, without expectation that any action immediately. I was involved in a situation of harassment of graduate students by a PI (not sexual). While no individual ever wanted to take action beyond a confidential comment, these eventually built up. Over the years, the administration tried to mentor the faculty member based on these comments but the accumulation of complaints made by students finally gave the administration enough information to take action, no doubt fearing an eventual lawsuit. This investigator is no longer allowed to take on graduate students and current students were placed with other advisors. This was all done quietly with no admission of guilt but the end result was good and everyone involved knows the reasons. Your comment may just be the final straw needed for action.

  4. I think that many female students are too forgiving and tolerant of these creeps, they’ve normalized it in their own minds. I am a male professor, and I heard from a female undergrad in a different major that one of her professors was rather busy “dating” students – and the students were essentially playing along because he’s influential with admission to a very selective Masters degree program. So it’s basically like “sex for admissions” scandal potentially occurring right under my nose. But when I asked the student for names, promising anonymity, she backed down and said she didn’t feel right about “ruining” somebody’s reputation etc. It’s all rather normal to her, even though she’s not participating.

    • I don’t necessarily think it’s as much about being forgiving as it is about the ways in which we treat women who do come forward. We don’t have a very good track record of that.

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