IT IS TIME: My personal journey from harassee to guardian

Today’s guest post is by Dr. Rebecca Rogers Ackermann, a biological anthropologist at the University of Cape Town. Dr. Ackermann’s story accompanies this article, out today in Science.

When I was 15, my high school history teacher asked me out on a date (I declined). In first year as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, I had a graduate student tutor invite me to a party at his flat, and when I (fortunately, and to the tutor’s surprise) showed up with a friend there was no one else there. When I was near graduation the Dean ‘joked’ about how he had assumed I was just there for an “MRS degree”. In second year graduate school at University of Arizona, I went to the office hours of a professor I was taking a course from. He asked me to close the door, then aggressively propositioned me. That same year, my supervisor at that institution grabbed my ass at a conference event. I moved to Washington University in St Louis for my PhD, where I was lucky to have really great, completely professional relationships with my advisors. Then I went into the field. For the very first time I had the pleasure of handling and studying hominin fossils. When photographing a famous one, the professor responsible for access starting photographing me from behind, and commenting on the “light streaming through my golden hair.” As I quickly gathered my things to leave, he blocked the doorway and gave me a juicy ‘goodbye’ kiss. Back in St Louis, a peer of mine told me that at a bar the previous night one of the evolutionary biology professors had engaged in a conversation with the other (male) graduate students about whether they would have sex with me if my husband were watching. Just a few years ago at a conference, a senior male colleague told me out of the blue that I was “too good looking for my own good.” This is just a sampling of the things that have happened to me in my post-pubescent life that might be construed as sexually inappropriate or sexual harassment. I am certain many people in my field can make a comparable list of their own.

Why didn’t I report any of these incidents? Or confront the deliverers? I have been thinking about this a lot these days in the wake of all of the revelations in science, and given that this question is frequently posed to me and others. I didn’t report them (or slap them) because every single time all I wanted to do was to flee. To remove myself from the situation and get somewhere safe… a different conversation, a different office, a different university, a different country. The last thing I wanted to do was report it and put myself back into an ‘unsafe’ place. So after a moment of shock I would generally laugh it off, or deliver some witty comment to diffuse the situation, then find the nearest exit (literal or figurative). I suppose everyone thinks they are going to react swiftly and confidently when faced with danger, pulling out your own ‘gun’ and blasting the bad guy. But in my experience I freeze first. Then I try to escape. Only later do I consider what I could have done to avoid, fight, retaliate.

But there is something else, too. I remember after the incident with the fossils, a more senior female professor encouraged me to report it, saying that the perpetrator had done this sort of thing before. I thought about reporting it. Seriously, seriously thought about it. I should have reported it. Yet still I didn’t. Why? Sure, I can come up with a number of additional reasons for this and all the other times I didn’t report. Maybe because the perpetrator controlled access to fossils that I wanted to work on again in the future. Or because I wanted to be known for my science and not as a whistle-blower. Or because I was concerned about future door keeping (limited job prospects, poor grant reviews). All valid. But I think the dominant reason is because once I had removed myself from the situation (yay – safe!) and thought back on it, I started to doubt myself. Did I misread some cultural differences? Was it really that creepy? Should I not have closed the door? Not gone to the evening office hours? Should I have stayed home from that party? Not had that drink at a conference? Not remained in the conversation with him when he flirted? Not flirted back? In other words, if I reported him would he simply blame me for bearing some or all of the responsibility? For bringing it on myself, or misunderstanding the situation? This as we know is quite common… for perpetrators to say she wanted the attention, put herself in the situation, had too much to drink, dressed too alluringly, asked for it.

It is only now, when I see these things happening to my students, that I have become really, truly, irrevocably angry. Angry because I know them, and I know they didn’t ask for it and don’t deserve it. Angry because something I thought would go away with the next generation has only continued. Angry because in one case the perpetrator was the same person who kissed me… 20 YEARS AGO. Angry because many of these men are still in control, and worse, are mentors to people who will perpetuate the cycle. Angry because in some cases it is now my peers who are doing the harassing. Angry because they are still blaming the women, denying that they did anything wrong, saying it was consensual. Angry because our institutions still preferentially protect them, and prioritise them and their needs and feelings over the victims. And I think back to the fossil incident and realise that encouraging students to report it is a good step, but I need to do more. I have more power now, and I need to speak out, and speak out loudly.

It was never about protecting the perpetrators. It was about protecting myself. Now it’s time to protect others.

One of the hardest things to come to terms with in all this is the fact that despite feeling empowered and being engaged in an ongoing fight against sexism on the part of my students, I still haven’t reported or named names for much of what happened to me in the past, and still happens to me even today. Of course, most of what has occurred from my late 30s onwards (I will soon turn 47) is verbal abuse or intimidation, not sexual per se, but it feels the same as it is still all about power dynamics and control, and I still have the same freeze and flee response in the face of it. It is still about putting me down. Putting me in my place. Devaluing my intellect and contributions. Like when my Dean was trying to strong arm me into being Head of Department and told me that my research would never be ‘high flying’ (implying that my only means to promotion was through admin – by being ‘mommy’). Or when a well-known professor strode up to the podium after I spoke at a conference and took the mike and finger-wagged at me telling me (and everyone in attendance) that the person whose ideas I had criticised was well-regarded in the field (and you, little girl, are out of line). Or when a colleague berating me by email told me I was a terrible, well, pretty much everything (mentor, supervisor, researcher, you name it), demoted me from professor to Dr as he wrote, and copied my student. Or when another senior professor turned to my student and told him he wished his PhD supervisor had looked like me. Or when a female colleague (yes, women do it, too) commented obliquely on my appearance, and made a snide comment about my student spending all her grant money on dresses (she spent it on research travel). I still don’t want to name people publically (though I do privately) because these people still have power over me. I am still protecting myself, and by extension them. And I am beyond tired of it.

I had a conversation with a high-profile, senior person in our field recently, and he mused about why my citations aren’t higher than they are given the quality of my work and where I am in my career trajectory. I don’t have a good answer to that. But I know that some part of it comes back to the fact that I am not taken as seriously as I would be (would have been) if I were a man. This is especially true because I like to look good and feel good about myself (for myself, thank you very much), and as a result men have always engaged with me primarily on that front. Being taken less seriously does not have the effect of making me want to fight (see above). Okay, it sometimes has that effect. Especially these days when it seems like I am fighting all the time, and much more angry than I want to be, or deserve to be. But it is mostly exhausting… “Yes, I have a PhD.” “Yes, I am a scientist.” “Yes, I know I don’t look like a scientist” (WTF does a scientist looks like?). Sadly, it also plays into the imposter syndrome that I and many (most?) academics have, and makes me think maybe they are right, if just a little bit. Because despite always being at the top of my class, going to the best universities in the world, and having a successful career and life, I still have times when I feel ‘less’. And sometimes, even now, it makes me want to walk away. To flee (yet again). I won’t, but sometimes I want to.

I have always been open with my students about what has happened to me, so that they might be more aware of these issues, and learn from them. Now I am ready to be open with everyone. So go ahead and ask me. Ask me who propositioned me, who grabbed my ass, who kissed me. Ask who grabbed my student’s breast or groped her thigh. Ask who slept with undergraduates, who accosted a colleague.   Who bullied me, degraded me, or put me down. I am done keeping this under wraps. Done.

36 thoughts on “IT IS TIME: My personal journey from harassee to guardian

  1. Thank you for sharing. It is so important. Although I have never been sexually harassed, the type you describe in your later stages is similar to what I get. Here is a post about a recent experience I had, and how I tried to stand up to it.
    Thank you again! You are very brave.

    One thought – would it be weird to have a list of perpetrators that someone curated where the people adding the names could remain anonymous? Is it possible?

    • yes that would be really good, let me know if it comes to light. Lots of what you say rings true to me. We must fight this.

  2. Yes, yes, and yes. I can relate to every one of your experiences and then some. The sexual harrassment has definitely turned into bullying as I’ve moved into my 40s (and look it). I learned early on to avoid the bar at professional meetings, to not “party” with colleagues, much to the detriment of a need to network. I don’t work in the field with anyone who thinks of field work as Las Vegas instead of as serious science. But as my dean told me a few years ago, I have no “gravitas”. But we all know what he really meant: I need to accept my “place”, and everyone knows that my husband does all my research for me.

    • We’d have had a bit of a problem the moment he’d have used that “no gravitas” bit, for I’d respond that “I’m about to experiencing a significant gravitas shortfall” and move into his personal space.
      Feed it right back to them when they try that.
      As for unwanted advances, cell phones are ubiquitous today and the majority of them have both audio and video recording capabilities. The options after catching in the act on video or audio are nearly limitless.

  3. Dear Dr. Ackermann,

    I read what you posted carefully and am deeply moved. I extend warm congratulations on completing your Ph.D. and launching a successful academic career. At 61, and having earned a Ph.D. in 1984, I am able to take a far longer lens on your situation.

    It is very sad that women and men are still perceived differently. I teach Constitutional Law. I wear a pinstriped suit, wingtip shoes, and matching tie, cufflinks and pocket square to work every day. At 6’5″, and “holding up well” for my age, I have received many compliments over the years to the effect that I am distinguished looking and elegant in fine attire. They have always been flattering and never demeaning. I wish I could explain why, in the 21st century, some men still feel it is acceptable to treat women as sex objects and demean them by suggesting that this is the only impression they make.

    I am glad you report these actions and hold them accountable because this behavior is against the law. It also denies you an opportunity to be taken seriously as an academic with a Ph.D., and I understand how frustrating this can be. Continue to report this behavior, but try to remember that your self-worth, at bottom, only depends on what you think of yourself. You worked very hard to get to where you are. Hold your head up and display an air of confidence when you are at work. This will have an impact on the 99.999% of people who do value you for who you are: a smart, successful and caring academic who considers it an honor to be in her profession. I hope these feelings grow over time.

    You are welcome to follow up on my response, Dr. Ackermann. I am at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and can be reached at I sincerely regret the behavior you described but am glad I got to learn about you and your accomplishments. Success is the sweetest revenge.


  4. This past summer, I was verbally assaulted at an outdoor store about my appearance (I was wearing a very modest long-sleeved dress, although it doesn’t matter). I had the “I must get out of here as quickly as possible so I can be safe” reaction. I laughed it off, purchased the hiking socks I needed, and escaped the situation. Then I got really, really angry. I called my husband. I called my best girlfriend. I decided to go back and confront the man. I spoke to their supervisor, and then directly spoke with the man who had harassed me. It felt really, really good to take action. Of course, the stakes were low in this case. The person who harassed me was not in a position of power. They were a middle aged man working at an outdoor store. But I encourage everyone to speak out when they can. Even if you flee the situation, consider returning to call the person out on their inappropriate behavior.

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  6. Thanks for sharing your experiences, Rebecca. Unlike most of you, I am not a scientist– I am a trombonist who teaches low brass and music history at a university. Regardless of our fields, the same things happen in the music world. When I was pursuing my master’s, I was sexually assaulted during my trombone lesson with a guest artist (a very big name in the orchestral world who charged me $150 to be completely traumatized). I know exactly what you mean when you say that your initial response was to flee. The whole experience affected not only my emotional well being, but also my artistic well being. Playing my horn, something that always had made me happy, made me sad and disgusted. I’ve mostly worked past this, and I want to share something with you that I learned after seeing a counselor: However you responded was your way of protecting yourself at the time. It’s easy to say that you would respond a certain way or to even judge yourself afterwards. I also tried to normalize what happened to me, but it wasn’t… normal. I ended up reporting the incident to my trombone professor, who then had to report it the DEO. The whole event went on for a long time. Even though that was 5 years ago, there is something that pops up regarding Him or what he did every single year. I think about it every day. In the end, I feel that I am a better professor and teacher because of what I went through (maybe an effort to make sense of it all). I love that you are someone that your students can go to and that you are open with them about the kind of stuff that goes on in academia. Enough is enough– I’m glad that people are speaking out.

  7. This should not ever have happened to you or anyone else, and should never happen again. I feel that I have been lucky (protected?) over the years, but I want to make sure that this doesn’t happen to my students or colleagues!

  8. Well, I am a man. I have never been sexually harassed but the situations you describe in the later part of you post could apply to me. Abuse of power is abuse of power. Women suffer from it, with the addition of sexual harassment, but men as well. As you describe, because of my background and education, I am still protecting myself and not answering. Only now have I learned to answer and I am over 40. Education is a big part of the whole game and, personally, I wasn’t trained to deal with perversion.

  9. So interesting. I am a female academic and have numerous examples of the same thing happen multiple times. I’m so glad you are protecting the younger generations.

  10. I like this idea: “One thought – would it be weird to have a list of perpetrators that someone curated where the people adding the names could remain anonymous? Is it possible?” I don’t know how to start a document online that can be added to, curated, etc., but I’m sure someone else does. So let’s start here, if Dr. Ackermann or anyone else wants to.

    Who propositioned you?
    Who grabbed your ass?
    Who kissed you?
    Who grabbed your student’s breast or groped her thigh?
    Who slept with undergraduates?
    Who accosted a colleague?
    Who bullied you?
    Who degraded you?
    Who put you down?
    And for others,
    Who sexually assaulted you?
    Who raped you?
    Who did ______ to you?

  11. Dr. Ackermann,

    Thank you for your honest and articulate account. I am thrilled to see the explosion of the bulging doors of this closet that we have all inhabited so long. Just imagine how much more we could all accomplish were we not so frequently dealing with harrassment of us and our students.

    I’m always amazed and impressed by the courage of women who dress like women at work. My way of fleeing has always been to wear dowdy, concealing clothing. I probably pay for this with poorer teaching evaluations from my students, but it has always felt safer this way.

    Now that I’m well past menopause, though, I have encountered the double whammy of having people, mainly males, perceive me as male until I open my mouth and they gasp in horror, absolute horror, when my female voice tells them they’ve made a grievous mistake. I could care less whether strangers perceive me as male or female, but their horror is exhausting. So, my new way of fleeing is to wear pink concealing clothing.

    It is my most sincere hope that future generations of women will need not deal with these exhausting and debilitating experiences.

  12. Dr. Ackermann:

    So, I would indeed like to ask:

    who propositioned you? and when?

    who grabbed your ass? and when?

    who kissed you inappropriately? and when?

    who groped your student’s breast? and when?

    who groped your student’s thigh? and when?

    who slept with undergraduates? and when?

    who accosted a colleague? and when?

    who did this: “strode up to the podium after I spoke at a conference and took the mike and finger-wagged at me telling me (and everyone in attendance) that the person whose ideas I had criticized was well-regarded in the field (and you, little girl, are out of line).”?

    Also, who do you think is blogging and trolling the public online under pseudonyms on various blogs about genetics and human evolution? Why hasn’t this been investigated by the paleoanthropology society or the AAPA?

    Why is there nothing, nothing at all, in the Smithsonian, California Academy of Sciences, Monterey Bay Aquarium, Exploratorium, or other science museums, that mentions unconscious bias or the effect of harassment and discrimination on the career paths of women scientists and engineers?

    Do you think it is ethical to constantly promote science and engineering careers to girls without professional and business leaders proactively doing something about harassment and discrimination that limits the career progression of girls and women?

    Do you think that famous and influential paleoanthropologist should be asked not to publish soft porn on their blog, especially when some of their high school age followers do not know who they are?

    Why are so many human evolution and paleoanthropologist conferences still dominated by the same ten or twenty mostly male paleontologists, where even the mere suggestion of a challenge to the status quo is cause for a temper tantrum?

    I look forward to reading more about your research. Thanks for putting yourself out there. I can definitely relate!


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  14. My chair sent link to this post, I shrugged and thought “doesn’t really apply to me, but what the heck I’ll read it. ” I conceive of myself as a non-sexist, reasonably politically correct, tenured white male professor. But after reading your powerfully articulate post, I wonder if all my female students and colleagues see me as benignly? Nothing ever egregious mind you, but have I conveyed inappropriate attention to some, however subtly? Probably so … l’m forced to admit. And have I done all I could to promote a non-sexist atmosphere in my domains? No I have not. Perhaps it is high time I do.

    Thanks for provoking thought.

    • @Steve B.

      In my opinion, the problem is not the occasional compliment about someone’s dress or a flirtation here or there. Clearly, sleeping with or physically touching (beyond formal greetings) your student is a disaster. But so is not taking a female researcher seriously, down notching them a half letter grade because they didn’t speak to you the right way, not hiring or recommending them because they’re not the “right fit” (read: too good looking, not good looking enough, too old, too forthright, too pregnant, too ambitious, too whatever it is that doesn’t fit your comfy idea of what you think a researcher should look like.). The problem is also turning the other way or “protecting” oneself when harassment, intimidation, and discrimination do occur. An the problem is also just a lack of enthusiasm and outright ignorance about the potential and ambition of women researchers, and a lack of willingness to fully invest in them.

      • Dear Marie—I’m the author of the comment below yours, and I would like to respectfully disagree with this part of your comment, which I find to be too dogmatic: “Clearly, sleeping with or physically touching (beyond formal greetings) your student is a disaster.”

        I completely agree that dating or having sex with students has its risks. However, sentimental or sexual interaction always comes with some amount of risk, even the nature of those risks might differ dramatically from one situation to another.

        In my experience, teacher/students relationships often end quickly. However, they do not always end in disasters, and I believe that one should be be categorical about them. It is important, in my opinion, to acknowledge that these relationships can also go smoothly, without any difficulties. I have a few examples in mind, some personal, some not.

        To me, anything is possible, as long as the people involved are mature enough.

        • Dear “French PhD Candidate”:

          You mean, as in the case of Ségolène Royal? Valerie Trierweiler? Even Marie Curie was marched to the gallows for her relationship with Paul Langevin. Those relationships were veritable great career moves, for sure!

          In my direct experience in observing students who have sex with their supervisors, there are almost always severe adverse effects for the students. If the relationship does not last, few supervisors take the “live and let live” attitude toward their students. I’ve seen a professor fail an entire class, just so he could damage the otherwise perfect grade point average of his former lover. I’ve seen the adverse affect to the other students in the research groups and classes where the affair between professor and student is occurring: the other students often do not know about the preferential relationship and the fact that their supervisor has bypassed their responsibility to uphold an objective, meritocratic environment in the group. It’s extremely destructive for the research environment. Retaliation against students is common when a student chooses to leave a professor-student relationship. Almost always, the student is tarred and feathered for the relationship, while the professor gets off without any ill repercussions, and is even secretly more highly regarded for adding another victim to his tally of female conquests.

          In the US, under the law (Title 7), having a sexual relationship with someone for whom you directly supervise, and for whom you have direct hire and fire authority over, even if consensual, is considered to be a violation of the law.

          By the way, the next time you say good-bye or hello to me, the formal French greeting includes a kiss on the left side of the face, then the right side of the face. It does not include an intermediate kiss on the lips. Please respect the formal French greeting, without modification.

  15. Your paragraph on why you did not report the incidents resonates very strongly with something that I recently experienced firsthand: I’m a 30-y/o male who recently forced his ex-girlfriend to follow him at the police station, in order for her to report harassment from one of her other ex-boyfriends.

    My ex-girlfriend was extremely reluctant to report that she was being harassed 24/7, and I ended up reporting most of the facts to the policeman myself: she wouldn’t, as if she were feeling guilty or shameful of being harassed. The whole thing—both the harassment AND that she were so reluctant to report it—made me incredibly mad inside.

    Let me say this to every woman who has experienced harassment: Although we might not be very vocal about it, you have very, VERY strong partisans within the male population. I’m not the only one to find the kind of behaviour reported above to be absolutely revolting. Perhaps we are the minority—I really don’t know about that. Regardless, you have my full support, and those of countless anonymous males everywhere.

    I also want to add something else. I am a PhD student who has taught many undergrad females, and also briefly dated a few of them, always outside the workplace, without showing or telling it to other students, and without ever bending any rule or grade in the process. My short flings with students never created any problematic situation. What I wanted to add is: This can happen between normal people.

    • Dear “French PhD Candidate”:

      What is preventing you from having your “short flings” with people of equivalent in power to you, such as a co-worker, or someone outside work, rather than someone you are teaching or supervising? What is it that is particularly so enticing to you about “short-flinging” people you are supposed to be teaching?

      • @ A French PhD candidate: Apart from what Marnie Dunsmore wrote, there’s also another issue, which is that making someone go to a police station to report harassment may not always be the best course of action. I don’t know the specifics of the situation you described, but I think you might benefit from asking yourself what the actual needs and wishes of your ex-girlfriend are. Maybe reporting the harassment was in her best interest, but in many cases of harassment, reporting to the police is not the ideal solution, sometimes it is even a very bad option (for example because the process can be re-traumatizing). Maybe she was reluctant because she really didn’t want to talk to the police? If that was the case, do you think it was okay for you to step in and report things in her name? I can’t answer all these questions but I would suggest you think about that. I definitely object to your use of language: You should never “force” someone to “follow” you to report harassment that has been committed against them. That is not my idea of support.

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  18. “Or when a colleague berating me by email told me I was a terrible, well, pretty much everything (mentor, supervisor, researcher, you name it), demoted me from professor to Dr as he wrote, and copied my student. ”

    OMG this EXACT thing happened to me! Exactly this!!!

    I’m still trying to come to terms with the bullying I endured over many years at the hands of a supervisor who was with me from PhD level to 7 years later. I recently escaped their clutches but only after they re-submitted grant apps that I had co-written (not with them BTW) with my name removed as well as removed my name from papers by going behind my back to the editors. It has affected me very badly. I have struggled with my confidence, I have lost sleep and I have considered completely leaving the profession. Meanwhile this person got promoted, partly as a result of work I did when I was in the lab.

    It’s despicable, but as you say reporting it has such great risks. Thank you for speaking out

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