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.