When I was a graduate student I met a professor at a conference overseas who attended my panel and showed interest in my research. He offered to read my work and provide constructive feedback. Several weeks later he told me he was coming to the country I lived in for a conference and asked if we could meet for coffee to talk about my writing.
We went to a coffee shop. He moved his chair to the side of the table until he was close enough to put his hands on my knees, he leaned forward, stared into my eyes and offered me a post-doc in exchange for sex.
There are a thousand versions of this story in the corridors of academia, the place that I know well. Such as the faculty member who becomes obsessed with his undergraduate student and harasses her until she either submits or drops the course. The department head who dates graduate students. The journal editor who offers a smooth ride to publication for the willing author.
Academia is not alone in allowing this behavior to go unchecked and these experiences are familiar to women in most industries and professions. Since Alyssa Milano called for women to highlight the magnitude of the problem by posting ‘Me too’ on social media if they had experienced sexual harassment, sexual abuse, or rape women have been speaking out. They are giving a voice to those who have experienced unwanted and uninvited attentions. They are giving women a sense of community, and reminding women they are not alone.
The stories often include anecdotes about the recriminations and repercussions for those who report what happened to them. The jobs they didn’t get, the pay raise they missed, the courses they were forced to drop, the spaces in which they were no longer physically safe. I’ve been lucky to be mentored by amazing senior faculty, male and female, but I’ve also watched those faculty dismiss accusations of their colleagues’ predatory behavior as exaggerated or unfounded. Though occasionally faculty are dismissed, more often the best a complainant can hope for is the faculty member is suddenly put on extended leave.
“Me too” is showing those in positions of authority why they need to speak up when they see these actions taking place, and to believe women when they say, yes, and me too.
When it happened to me I was stunned. I’m not classically attractive; I’m overweight. I wasn’t wearing a short skirt, and I certainly wasn’t flirting, the triggers I had always been taught would encourage attention. Like women everywhere I had been taught to police my own behavior because if something happened to me, then it was probably my fault. But I understood then that if it could happen to me then it could happen to anyone. It was a display of a man’s power. I mustered up an excuse that evening to explain my immediate unavailability.
I wondered if I had been naïve and failed to understand what it would take to succeed. Curious, I researched the man’s department — which was filled with female post-docs, but only male lecturers. My first response was to question the women’s academic credentials. Had they too received indecent proposals? That shouldn’t have been my response. I should have felt anger, outrage and frustration. I should have been disappointed that these other women were being undermined by their association with predatory behavior over which they had no control, and perhaps no knowledge. But who could I report this to? Who would believe me? And if this is how the system worked as I student I was hardly in a position to upend it.
This senior faculty member was in my field but he wasn’t in my discipline. He could have helped my career but he certainly couldn’t have damaged it. I was lucky. For many of the women who experience these kinds of advances, the Weinsteins of academia control their grades, their lab assignments and even their funding. They can prevent them from getting jobs and publications. Saying no can lead to severe professional consequences.
Gender divides in academic ranks can enable this kind of harassment. For many a lack of grievance process hinders reporting. Conferences facilitate these kinds of opportunities for predatory sexual behavior when they allow interviews to take place in bedrooms. All male panels particularly in fields dominated by men, uphold inequity when they are scheduled at the best times in the best rooms thereby establishing who is important and has power. When male chairs respond to audience questions addressed to female panelists they undermine women’s research and position. When men speak over women at meetings, fail to take questions from female audience members, or corner junior female faculty with unwanted attention, men uphold the power imbalance and further weaken women’s effectiveness in speaking out.
We may not be able to stop sexual harassment, but we can impede those who engage in it by changing professional cultures. We can become observant and step in. We can encourage women’s voices.
When my sexual predator called me again the next time he was back in my country, I invited him to stay — at my parents’ house — with my parents, and explained we’d have to have separate bedrooms. I never heard from him again. I never held a post doc. But now I can speak up — and I can shout!