Some very brave men and women have come forward this week to share their sexual harassment stories (see some of these stories here). I would like to share mine as well.
About a decade ago I worked for a professor whom I will refer to as “Dr. A.” Dr. A was a big name in a field I wanted to work in, though I later moved in a different scientific direction (perhaps because of interactions with Dr. A).
I was 21 when I began working with Dr. A. Although I was young, I felt that he was not making good use of my talents. My time was often filled with cleaning tanks and windows or filing things. But, I convinced myself that these were simply the tasks that needed to be done at the time and it had nothing to do with the fact that I was a woman. Eventually I was given a more intellectual, computer-based task that would be part of a product that we would share with the general public. I was told my name would be featured on this product as I had done a significant amount of the work, but when the day came my name was no where to be found. Dr. A told me that sometimes we all have to “take one for the team,” and I convinced myself that this treatment was reasonable since I had, after all, been paid for the work I had done. So at the time, I brushed this off.
The real trouble started on the day Dr. A came into my office and told me I needed to drive to a field site and help a fellow student with their field work for a week or so. I was told that I would not be working alone, which suited me fine as I was not comfortable being alone in the woods at the time. I ran home to pack and came back to the office wearing slightly less professional clothing than usual: I wore a tank top and a knee-length skirt. It was nothing too dramatic, but it was the first time Dr. A had seen me in anything sleeveless. When I entered his office to get directions to the field site, he shut the door behind us, told me that I looked nice, and then began to rub my shoulders. Dr. A told me he was a “touchy guy” (which now sounds so much like Bora’s explanation the he is ” a very sexual person”), and that he would miss having me around for a week. I informed him that I was not a touchy gal, grabbed the directions, and got out of the office as soon as I could.
When I arrived at the field site I was informed that my job would be identifying and mapping out different habitat types. I would be doing this job alone. I had absolutely no experience using GIS (Geographic Information System), or identifying the plant species present at the field site (or any plant species for that matter). I was absolutely set up to fail at this task.
Something you should know about me is that I often throw myself into projects with which I am completely unfamiliar. However, the “throwing” usually comes at the end of meticulous preparation, so that when I land on my ass there’s a cushion. My father hammered the 6 P’s in to my head (“prior planning prevents piss poor performance”), and I pretty much live by this motto. Had I been told ahead of time that I would need to identify plants, I would have picked up the appropriate field guides and learned how to ID the plants before heading to the field site. The woman I was working with informed me that the plan had always been for me to work independently to identify and map out habitat types, so I had clearly been misled. Eventually the student for whom I was working decided it would be faster for her to do the job than to train me to do it, so I was sent home. When I explained to Dr. A that I would have prepared for the task if he had told me ahead of time that I would be doing it, he informed me that, “Well, not everyone is cut out for field work.”
This was crushing. I was very interested in doing field work, and being told by a leader in the field that I wasn’t cut out for it because I couldn’t pick it up on the fly was a huge disappointment. Fortunately for me, I shared this story with a colleague (male, as it happens) who subsequently took me out and taught me what I needed to learn about navigating in the woods and conducting field work. I have since completed a number of studies involving field work and have led a number of field crews, and I think I run a pretty damn tight ship.
That wasn’t the last time I was set up to fail by Dr. A.
We next decided to work together on a technical project, which involved rebuilding a device that had since been broken down into many small pieces. I was told to put the machine back together without having any idea about how the machine once worked or confirmation that all of the necessary pieces were still in the box. At about this time I heard complaints from other students about working with Dr. A. These complaints included other stories of sexual harassment, and mentoring promises made that hadn’t been kept. I won’t go into detail as these stories belong to those who experienced them, and it is not my place to share. I decided to jump ship.
After some mental effort (remember, I’m 21 at the time) I got up the guts to tell Dr. A I was leaving. While explaining why I was leaving I mentioned that I had been unable to put together the device, to which he exclaimed (to the best of my recollection), “You shouldn’t leave because of that! The plan was to rush in and save you like a knight in shining armor after you discovered that you couldn’t put the device back together!”
This was infuriating. He was supposed to be my mentor, NOT my knight in shining armor. I don’t know for sure, but I suspect the male students weren’t positioned to receive knightly rescue. “Sink or swim,” I can do. “Sink and be saved,” is not something I’m interested in from a mentor.
By his inappropriate attention towards me on the day I wore a tank top in his office, Dr. A made me wonder if I had made it into the lab based on something other than my professional qualifications. This feeling was made worse by his repeatedly setting me up to fail, and then upon failure being told that there was something wrong with me. I entered the situation feeling like I could do anything, and left feeling like maybe I wasn’t cut out for a career in science.
On my way out it did occur to me that I should share my story with another faculty member, to ensure that a pattern would be forming should other women come forward in the future with a similar story. I scheduled an appointment with a male faculty member holding high rank in the department, but when I began to explain how Dr. A made me feel uncomfortable I was told, “If you have a problem with Dr. A, you should take it up with him.” To be fair, this professor bent over backwards to help me get out of some department obligations so I could leave for a new position, but this certainly increased my feeling of helplessness and my belief that, as a woman, you are largely on your own if you experience sexual harassment.
Fortunately for me I have a gigantic ego and a lot of encouraging friends and family, so I didn’t let Dr. A deter me from staying in science. Also fortunate is the experience I have had with my other male mentors. I have engaged with many male mentors who treated me the way women in science ought to be treated (i.e., like people), and who told me I could accomplish anything to which I put my mind. I am incredibly indebted to them for their support.
To this day my biggest regret is that I did not do more to expose Dr. A for his actions. Looking back, I believe I did not speak out because, 1) I tried to do so and hit a brick wall, 2) I wanted to stay in the same field of study and didn’t want to make enemies with a big name in the field, and 3) I just wanted to escape and put the situation behind me. The third reason now seems incredibly selfish, as other women have almost certainly experienced harassment and degradation, and perhaps I could have spared these women from this experience.
Ten years after the fact seems too far removed, and I don’t know that I can trust myself to accurately recall all of the details after all this time. This is part of why I’ve taken care not to name names and to keep the setting vague. But, I do know that the environment was made uncomfortably sexual in a way I had neither explicitly nor implicitly consented to. And I know my professional performance was tested and judged in a way that appeared to be different from that of my male coworkers.
I hope that sharing my story will lend solidarity to those who are afraid to speak or who feel alone in their struggles, and to those of you who remain skeptical in the face of a few of these stories. When I was 21, there wasn’t a rich online community available to share stories and uncover bad behavior like there is now. If you come forward, I and many others are here to have your back.
P.S. You will not find Dr. A’s real name on my CV, so please do not speculate on his real identity.