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*Update 4.30.14: Folks have been speculating at the identity of Dr. A in the comments and in e-mails. To be clear, I encountered Dr. A in a grad program that I attended briefly, and I left this program to begin a different program because of the experience described below. Dr. A’s home institution does NOT appear on my CV, and I did NOT co-author any manuscripts with Dr. A (so his name does not appear on my CV either). I have had great experiences working at the institutions and with the professors listed on my CV. 

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.

Kelly Weinersmith

P.S. You will not find Dr. A’s real name on my CV, so please do not speculate on his real identity.

63 Responses to “My sexual harassment story”

  1. Gina

    You’re a badass Kelly!

  2. Jason Dick

    Thanks for sharing this. It’s tremendously upsetting that this kind of shit ever happens, and even more upsetting when nobody wants to do anything to stop the behavior.

  3. Simone

    This is one of the most powerful and appalling stories I ‘ve read in a while. Thank you for sharing, I hope young women in similar situations will be inspired by it!

  4. Matthew Burdick

    Thank you for sharing this, professionals should expose this sort of discriminatory practice in any (and all) fields in which it appears.

  5. Hal

    I can’t comment on the sexual harassment, but setting up students for failure is way too common in academia. Had it happen to me on more than one occasion, and it’s probably going to stay that way. “That’s just the way things work” and so forth.

  6. Joao

    Hi Kelly – I was led here by your husband’s post (Whose comic strip brings me great joy) and this makes me incredibly sad. It is a type of behaviour that is still prevalent on both male (admittedly more) and female group leaders in academia – I have seen this happen all around me. And the fact that it didn’t happen to me does not make me blind to it. This behaviour needs to be stopped – and honestly, the person you went to talk to deserved to be smacked around some. You DO NOT bring the issue to your advisor/boss/whatever. You bring it to HIS boss – be that a committee or individual. And they take care of it. Regardless of where you are, or what you do – everyone deserves a safe, harassment and discrimination -free environment to work. And it just doesn’t happen in most academic institutions.

    Thank you for sharing this. I will bring it to the attention of everyone I work with.

    • Satherian

      Same here. I angers me when I see discrimination because Science is supposed to foster the idea that anyone can discover anything. Preventing this from happening, in any form, is awful.

      I, too, will share this with others.

    • mist

      It’s common in many areas not just academia. Anywhere where there is authority there are those who are more interested in their own objectives than those of the others. This selfishness and self-interest tends to lead them to the top, and not playing nice is how some of them stay in the middle zone.
      An attempt to expose A would have resulted in your alienation of his collegues *especially* any who had experienced or had similar tendenacies. People in social authority groups do not like dirt and do not like troublemakers. Whistleblowers are something they like to see happening in newspapers not their own offices.

      To take action requires outside action and solid proof, and more importantly someone with power and an interest in seeing the miscreant fail. Otherwise it is the groups interest to protect their social investment in A, and throw out troublemakers. This only fails when A’s princess factor finally makes him too socially expensive to keep around. At 21 you’re unlikely to have the skills or contacts to embark on such a project, if indeed it would be worth your effort.

      Get out fast in such circumstances and warn other students of “the trap” is the only real option you had. help others to know and how to act. Keep in mind it can happen in any area of social authority (and in my experience worst in “non-heirarchial” or not-for-profit arrangements where social capital is more important than testable management objectives)
      Thanks for sharing your experience.

  7. oisin

    Your personal strength and honesty are an inspiration, hopefully people like you bringing these stories to light will be a step toward preventing such things happening in future.

  8. Violet

    Thanks for sharing Kelly. Your courage and commitment to science, equality, and justice are an inspiration to all of us, men and women alike.

  9. Keil Hubert

    Thank you for sharing your story, ma’am.

    There can be no argument over the fact that Dr A was utterly and unforgivably wrong for how he chose to treat you. His actions, as you’ve described them, were a violation of trust, both between him and you, and between him and the agency that employed him. He compromised whatever standard of professional ethics the agency employed. His exploitative behaviour could very well have constituted grounds for termination.

    Further, I submit that Dr A’s pattern of misconduct towards you (specifically) and towards your fellows in the outfit represent an all-too-common human failing. This fellow allowed his power over you to corrode his professional judgment. It’s well understood that power corrupts; it’s not as well accepted how quickly and how easily the rot set un. When the people subject to your power cannot (for whatever reason) resist you, the temptation to grow emboldened becomes overwhelming for many people. They abuse their power over others simply because they can. It’s not driven by pedestrian lust or greed; it’s fired by the chase instinct hardwired into the predator. When your prey runs, you chase. You don’t have to be hungry.

    I agree that Dr A — and all others like him — must be held accountable for their actions. Unfortunately, making that come to pass requires a tremendous amount of physical and moral courage on the part of the victim. It’s especially difficult to resist a predator when you’re young, inexperienced, and/or especially vulnerable. Hopefully, the sharing of your story (and others’) will inspire someone who is going through now what you went through then the courage to stand fast before this kind of predation and fight back.

    As for the rest of us, I believe strongly that we have a moral obligation to look out for the early symptoms of this ‘ethical rust’ and to swiftly purge it from our organizations once discovered. We have a duty to those entrusted to our care to provide them with a professional environment free of unwanted sexual advances. All of our people (regardless of sex, gender, or identity) must be confident that their dignity and safety will be safeguarded by all us in positions of power.

    Best of luck.

  10. Matt Z

    Kelly, you are a scientific and intellectual bad*ss (which is obvious to anyone who meets you) and an awesome person to boot. F*ck Dr. A.

  11. Ellen Spertus

    Thanks for sharing this. I don’t think you should feel guilty about not doing more to expose him. That’s blaming the victim. (I mean the word in a narrow sense; that’s not how I think of you.) You get to choose your battles.

    That said, if you want to follow up on this, it’s not too late to do so now. If your school has an ombudsperson, that’s who I’d contact first.

    You don’t know me. I’m a fan of your husband and something of a professional feminist, as well as a computer scientist. Google me if you want TMI.

  12. MaskMan

    Clasic grooming behavior. “Dr. A” was setting you to become insecure and to distrust yourself and your instincts, thus to become a victim. Whilst he did victimize you, he didn’t break you – So call yourself a winner.

    Would not be surprised to learn that “Dr. A” was a rapist, besides – His described behavior fits that profile very well.

    Carry on with your bad self, and continue to be confident and proud of yourself. Achievement and success are very suitable forms of vengeance on the A-holes of the world.

  13. Brahman

    The guy sounds just sad. How he strove for attention, how he needed to affirm that you need him. The “I’ll come and save you” quote was even worse than the time he touched you.

  14. Holly

    Thank you for having the courage to share your story Kelly.

  15. KellyIsAwesome

    *misled

  16. Sarah

    I had many similar experiences with my graduate school adviser…..by far, the most miserable 4 years of my life.

  17. Kath

    This was interesting to read. I’m 21 and just finished a year working in a lab. I had problems when a friend in the lab was being bothered by one of the oldest and most published phd students. I took her to see our PI before she left the lab and the PI (who I had a lot of respect for) said he would talk to the student. After talking to the student, I was confronted by him and two other guys in the lab (one of which was sort of concerned) after ensuring that the PI was out for lunch. They were attempting to make me see that I was in the wrong for the accusation. They accused me of being unprofessional and then, indirectly, of making it all up and finally of being a racist. It was pretty intimidating. He then proceeded to tell the rest of the group and the next his own version, which involved a very successful senior female of the lab. According to him she had made us accuse him because she was jealous and in love with him. Soon her and me and another female member of the lab had lost respect in the lab and were being talked about. Nobody was listening. Our PI told off the male student again, but still didn’t even consider firing him. I don’t think he fully understood or had the guts to. Towards the end of my time there I frequently heard the PI say that the male student ‘had had a tough year’. One of the affected women is not being funded by the PI anymore and is considering quitting, another is also about to leave and I am not prepared to start a phd anytime soon and am hoping to get out of science for a bit.

    • weinersmith

      I’m very sorry to hear about this. I think stuff like this is one of the main reasons that women tend to not speak up. So often it makes life more difficult, and the problem is not resolved. Making everyone more aware of the problem and more aware of how deeply it can influence women scientists will hopefully help to change things.

      I’m sorry to hear you’re thinking of getting out of science. I have had a lot of very positive experiences with male and female PI’s, and would be happy to talk to you about staying in science if you would like. I am certainly not going to try to talk you in to staying in science if you are not happy, but there are lots of good labs out there and I would hate to see science lose another good women if you have any interest in staying in the field. Anyway, I’m here to listen if you want to talk.

  18. Matthew Hutchins

    Setting up students to fail is quite common in science for some reason, I’ve experienced it myself. The boss of my lab hated me so she’d never talk to me, or assign any tasks to me, man was that boring. Real shame about the sexual harassment, it couldn’t really happen in my lab, we’re all too busy.

  19. Nat

    Thanks for sharing this, I think you’re very brave to do so. And I’m sorry you had to go through it. “Ride in like a knight in shining armor” WTF?

  20. anonymous

    He shouldn’t have put his hands on you, but he didn’t attempt to blackmail you for sexual favors. He made a mistake, and just like women get emotional urges at work, because emotion is in their nature (a layer of their being), men get physical urges at work, because it is in their nature. Whether women like it or not, employment guidelines and laws do not govern all aspects of behavior. Your mentor should have shown more professionalism in that instance, but it sounds like it was not a reoccurring theme. He made one mistake by putting his hands on your shoulders. He didn’t threaten you, he didn’t grab your breasts. Did he mess up? Yes. Is it a scandal? No. It’s unfortunate that it has impacted you in such a detrimental way all these years later. I hope you can put it behind you and move on. P.S. Not to compare, but I’ve faced more extreme sexual harassment one more than one occasion, so I speak as someone who has dealt with the very same thing.

    • The Engineer

      “He shouldn’t have put his hands on you, but he didn’t attempt to blackmail you for sexual favors.”

      Neither did he establish a system of systematic eradication of people based on their race and creed, which is neither here nor there. I don’t quite understand the argument that since he didn’t do something even worse then what he did doesn’t matter.

    • Kenrae

      As a man, I feel insulted by your comments. I have emotions and I can control my “physical urges” whenever they happen, you’re saying we’re all rapists at heart and can’t be made accountable for our actions, it’s disgusting.

    • Lagerbaer

      So much BS.

      First, you perpetuate this “women are emotional, men are physical” stereotypical BS. (By the way, what the hell is an emotional urge?). I’m a male PhD student and when I teach a lab or hold a 1-on-1 office hour I feel that I have my “physical urges” pretty well under control.

      Second, if you are someone’s boss, any unwelcome physical contact is immediately threatening, and implicitly you ARE blackmailing them because there is the unspoken agreement that you can’t just tell your boss to f*ck off.

      Third, you brush the incident off as no big deal because it doesn’t cross some arbitrary line set by you. All that matters is that he touched her without consent and made some remarks about being a “touchy guy” and that this made her feel uncomfortable. You say that more extreme harassment happened to you, which is unfortunate. Sadly enough, I’m sure there are poeple out there who’d tell you that YOUR experience “wasn’t THAT bad”.

    • swimmingwren

      I’m sorry to hear that you’ve faced harassment; that is awful. However your going out of your way to excuse the harassment of someone else is not okay. The “men are just physical beings, they can’t help it” is BS. Men have emotions and women have sexual desires too. Even if we were to take your women=emotion, men=physical fallacy at face value, well, when I have to cry at work, do I do it right in the face of my young subordinate? No, I go into the bathroom until I can be professional. In a professional setting I behave professionally. If someone is having overwhelming physical urges toward someone at work, then he too should leave until he can behave professionally. Anyone who literally cannot resist his urge to touch someone does not have the self-control skills necessary for employment and needs to seek help. It’s not a consequence of a Y chromosome. (And while I am female, I can’t imagine that men wouldn’t also be incredibly offended at your implication that they basically can’t help being sexually inappropriate.)

      Also, you kind of missed the recurring sabotage and victim grooming that was happening in this story…

    • Sam Juno

      After readings stories like this it makes me want to scream at the top of my lungs everytime a woman wants to give me a hug. Reading the blogs and tweets of the individual BoraZ told was “a very sexual person” she has a very sexual public persona. I blame mirror neurons for both these reaction. Empathy is the price we pay for being human. Wanted to say something extraordinarily nice about you killifish egg video but am afraid you’d take it the wrong way. My rippleofdoubts.

  21. Steve

    I’m sorry to hear about this. This professor certainly qualifies as an immense asshole, and it is disgusting how dismissive the department was to this situation; however, having been fucked over by my advisor and my department myself, I think it likely that the higher up didn’t dismiss you because you were a woman; they dismissed you because a disturbing number department heads only give a shit about who brings in the money and not at all about the students. They will protect him because he brings them money and probably even more vigorously than your average professor if he’s a big name in his field like you say. So they write him a free pass to fuck over whoever he feels like, man or woman. The real slur as far as the department is concerned is ‘student.’

  22. Lynn

    It may have been 10+ years ago, but it’s still important that you tell your story. Thank you for sharing it. I hope your story will encourage others to come forward. Too often women are shutdown from speaking out because we’re told we’re “over sensitive” or dismissed because the Dr. As of the world are “too important” to have done such a thing. Well, I call BS on both. Standing up for yourself is not being overly sensitive, and just because someone is a so-called big shot in his profession does not give him the right to treat people as he pleases. I’m happy to hear it didn’t deter you from following your dream. Thank you.

  23. Ritchie Annand

    Anonymous, shove it up your forsaken rump.

    That there is somebody worse off than you is not an excuse.

    Minimum expected behavior for men is no unwanted touching and no abuse of power to manipulate women into being compromised. Minimum. Millions upon millions of men manage it.

    Coworkers and subordinates at work are not there to satisfy anyone’s “physical urges at work”.

    Thanks for creeping up the place.

    • EK

      I read Anon’s comment and immediately thought “this is why we can’t have nice things”

  24. Joshua

    To all those women who have experienced sexual harassment, my deepest sympathies. I am glad that you all had the courage to tell your stories. Nicely written article, Kelly.

    I hope Dr. A’s friends and family discover what a monster he is that the he is shunned by everyone he ever meets. That he will never be treated or viewed with respect ever again by anyone.

  25. John

    Hello Kelly Weinersmith,

    1). Its so easy to find that maniac! Everybody who was studying with you and knows you to some level, can check your CV and see who is missing on the mentor list :)
    2). or since you ‘re smart academic you might have not miss Dr. A from the CV just to avoid this logic :p – well sorry for putting all of the supervisors on the suspect list :)

    I’m a witness of a similar story.. the guy (he was my teacher as well but i have no respect for him)promised a PhD to one good-looking girl who was an average student… and guess what: The girl didnt get the PhD of-course and just in this case the girl fall on it and now she is a secret lover.

    Make Dr. A to be know to the public. That maniac should not be in the academia no mater how many book he has written …. today we have so many scientist and the “stuff” he is researching or writing about can and will be done by somebody else, sooner or later. MAKE THE MANIAC TO BE KNOW TO THE PUBLIC and to the readers of his books and make everybody who has ever referenced him to erase him from their papers – that is what he deserves.
    If everybody keeps quiet and shuts their eyes on sexual harassment these maniacs will always get away with their sick crimes. After all nobody is that “big” this world will keep on spinning even whiteout Dr.A /I’m sure it will spin a lot smoother :)

    You are brave and strong be like that to the end! Don’t let the sick bastard get away and this fight is impossible to loose! You will always have our support, also this will help to raise awareness about sexual harassment in the academia.

    All the best
    John

  26. Terri

    Astonishing. Thank you for sharing your story. The situations of field work and the machine assembly struck me especially. It’s so strange to think that people can be so blatantly manipulative and seemingly expect it to be acceptable (considering he told you later on), especially a mentor. I’m very glad your career worked out well for you, and that you now feel comfortable enough to share this.

  27. Yap Kim hong

    When I was around 20 years old I got molest by a NUS master guy call Zhouzhi 7 times. He live in blk 144 toa payoh Lorong 2 #07-194 at that time. Here is what happened. At that time I was feeling depressed and need a listening ear. Instead He bring me to the carpark and molest me touching my breast nipples and put his hands onto my vagina. I feel funny and scared don’t know how to react because nobody taught me how to handle molesters. After that he bring me to his rent room, a few days later , and take off my shirt and kiss my breast again. I cry badly. He comment my bra is too old and want to buy a new bra for me. I was scared stiff so I blindly obeyed. After that he bring me to beach and kiss my breast again late at night. I scream for molest but nobody hear it(it was late at night) The reason why I allow him to touch my body is because he look very decent and he promised to bring me to see france , italty and see waterfall instead he turn out to be nothing but a molester. Eventually I tell my friend I got molest and she bring me to lodge a police report . However the policewoman was very rude me her name was esther goh from tanglin police station instead she comment, “is this your hullcination or not?” I was rather hurt by her nasty comments. Anyway that it. This Zhouzhi remain scot free up till this day I still hope he can be arrested and put to jail-to my horror, he a pervert later then I find out

  28. Adrienne

    As a female college freshman majoring in psych, I’m glad I read this. I knew about these kind of things before, but I’d forgotten. Though I haven’t participated in any major labs or research projects yet, it’s a good reminder that this kind of thing DOES happen with some professors. If it happens to me, I hope I wouldn’t be the type to sit around and do nothing; I’d want to do EVERYTHING I could to expose the bastard. I’ve already gotten a couple ideas just writing this reply…

    By the way, I’m curious: is Dr. A still active in his field?

  29. David

    Putting the sexual/gender issues aside, this kind of behavior means that the guy is a leech on his employer who pays him so that more and better science has a chance to getting done. That means that his students’ scientific progress (which is quite different from grade inflation) is his job, not securing his superiority.

    A teacher without the ambition to beat his own teachers by making his pupils surpass himself is not a teacher. A teacher who is as disconnected from his job to play games with his students, sabotaging their progress, has no job as a professor.

    A racist or sexist professor can do a better job than this failure, merely by not letting his preconceptions interfere with giving his students his best pitch at success. That’s what he’s getting paid for. If he wilfully withholds his performance, that’s ground for dismissal. Because he is a failure at the core of his job. Whatever else he may be.

  30. Bensweatervest

    Long time reader, first time caller…. Err… Commenter…

    Thank you. Your bravery, and the bravery of the others who speak out against these atrocities will make the world a better place to live, and to do science in.

  31. Lagerbaer

    Thank you for sharing this. As a male PhD student there is only a very miniscule chance that I’ll ever be on the receiving end of sexual harassment, but a very real chance that I become a witness to situations and events such as the ones you describe. I hope that I’ll be able to recognize what’s going on and realize what I should do should I ever witness inappropriate behaviour in my own circles.

  32. Julie

    He sounds like an incredibly arrogant person. Unfortunately, that personality type seems to thrive in Academia, and the system often promotes the kind of completely unacceptable treatment you received. At the very least, my experience is that NOTHING is done to prevent it.

    It’s horrible and yet totally expected that a lot of commenters here (myself included) aren’t surprised that you hit a brick wall when you tried to speak out. One wonders how many OTHER people complained about this man … and hit a brick wall.

    I’m glad this story has a happy ending. Don’t carry guilt — you did the most you could. More than many, because it’s such a fearful place at the time. I was sexually harassed once, and I also spoke out, and though there was no immediate consequence, the guy’s behavior WAS eventually revealed and handled appropriately.

  33. robin

    Hey, I miss you on the weekly weinersmith. i’m sorry on behalf of masculinity, and thank you for sharing your story.

  34. b

    All this and you’re still protecting him. Grow a spine you slut.

    • Tori

      Victim blaming? Slut-shaming? Real piece of work you are.

    • EK

      How did this comment get out of moderation?

      Shove it b

  35. Sarah

    I am a high school student looking to enter the field of microbiology, and maybe stay there. From a young age my father, with his passion for science and altruistic roots in Buddhism, had inspired in me a love for biology. Later, I joined the local Science Olympiad team (of which I am still an active participant) and found my passions in everything from organic chemistry to ecology. I am lucky. I’ve grown up in a place where I have been told I can do anything and the fact that I am a woman pursuing a career in science means I am all the more respectable.
    But I also know not everywhere is like where I am. Not everyone has been as lucky as me. My luck in this regard may even take a turn for the worse in and out of college. But I hope that I can be forward and honest with my feelings and experiences and not let people’s assumptions about my genitals determine how my life pans out.
    Thank you for sharing. I hope to one day join you in the ranks of proud scientists.
    –Sarah

  36. Justin G

    It’s good to see so much support in these comments (with a few exceptions!); I would like to add my own. Having issues like yours out in the public realm help increase awareness and hopefully let people know they’re not alone. I know a few women in the aerospace engineering field (my peeps!) who exploit male mentors to get an easy ride, but thankfully they are in the minority. The majority simply wish to be judged on their merits, treated like human beings, and not given special treatment or funding due to their gender. Keep talking, and keep kicking ass.

    ~SMBC fan Justin

  37. Jeff

    Wow b.
    Give your full name when you are defaming someone why don’t you?

  38. AR

    Typical academia. Bum advisors are shockingly common and expert at exploiting the occupational and institutional inexperience of their students. The system practically selects for it.

    Grad students need actual legal protections, since as you noted, you could have easily torched your career for rightly standing up for yourself. If this were to happen at a private institution (and obviously, it does happen), it’s not even sexual harassment in terms of employment law because you would be classified as a student, not an employee. Yeah, science!

  39. Joshua E Dallal

    b, you don’t get it. You are a jerk. The penalty for opping power especially years after the event happened is to invite retribution again you and those around you. She just wants to tell what happened, no go around blaming an individual who could sue her if she made accusations without proof (which i bet he was careful too there was none). She is trying to awaken people of the pervasive culture surround sexual herassment in academia that made this possible for Mr. A to get away with it.

    ALSO

    If only this kind of behavior was limited to males alone. Now that females are entering the positions of power in the work-field, Women are beginning to have similar rates of abuse of power towards younger and attractive males. I have seen it myself. Unfortunately people are just as likely to ignore the problem when men speak out, if not less so. People need to realize power is not an excuse to try to extort sex from a person.

  40. Ellen Spertus

    FYI, there’s now a link from Geek Feminism.

    You rock!

  41. andreas

    Thank you for sharing your story.

    There is a lot of this stuff going on openly, “knight in shining armor” indeed… all the way to rape jokes, what fun…

    Then again, there is straight coercion up to physical assault…

    What really gets me is that I feel that we are fighting yesteryear’s battle. Sexism can actually be a very subtle thing, permeating everything really, including of course academia. Sometimes it becomes apparent, i.e. when I notice myself assuming the authors of a paper to be men, that sort of thing.

    Now, raising awareness and working through gender roles, expectations, etc. isn’t straightforward, but can be an immensely rewarding experience even if embarrassing at first. There has actually been so much progress, in large measure thanks to the actual feminist movement which somehow never seems to get even a mention in mainstream culture. But all this fluffy soul searching and character development keeps getting pushed to the back-burner, we are too busy figuring out how to deal with the straight up assault, molestation, coercion… on the one hand, and this open debasement on the other.

    Can we please just not do any of the open stuff? Like, seriously? Don’t assault a person and don’t treat them openly differently than others based on gender, etc. Let’s just decide to not do that. There.

    These things will not just spontaneously happen, unlike the more subtle, insidious stuff. Honestly. Like a previous poster said, It is really not all that hard not to molest. We’re not talking catching yourself looking at a particular part of a person’s anatomy for a split second. We’re talking no unwanted physical contact for starters. You’ll know when it’s unwanted before contact and you’ll *definitely* know afterwards – let’s just actually consider the possibility that it might be unwanted and that it is simply not ok in that case. This will not require unreasonable strength of character, which is good news, it means we all do our part and this will stop.

    And let us consider taking responsibility should this stuff actually happens… it’s not like anybody would have gone to prison over being sorry for a decidedly unwelcome back-rub or making a clear mistake when assigning a student or not informing her about a project. Maybe we could like, apologize, we clearly were out of line, are confused about how it could have come to that, be careful to not let it happen again, that sort of thing.

    Anyone will understand that there are going to be some problems when setting up mostly middle-age men as these guru authority figures and assign young students to them whose careers depend on their good-will. We would expect all kinds of subtle problems and potentially awkward moments to arise occasionally for everyone involved, given the kind of system that we have right now. But that’s all there is to it. Let’s just wake up in the morning and consider simply not doing any of the open stuff, full stop, and we’re good. Maybe we can even start working on the more subtle things in the afternoon.

    take care & thanks again

  42. aromatherapy@gmail.com

    I haven’t experienced something as extreme as you have and I think you’re very brave, ‘coz I might not have been able to pull myself through if something like this happened to me. But I have a problem with guys I work with who treat me very normally when sober but after a glass or two of alcohol start looking not at my face while talking but downwards. It’s uncomfortable. I’m a Ph.D student at a big lab and I see this happening way too often. I feel disrespected and I hate it. I like socializing and yes that can involve alcohol sometimes but I don’t see why I should be treated differently after some alcohol when really I’m not in any way asking for it. I’m still having a normal conversation.
    I also find it appalling that some senior PhD students think it is ok to take a sexual interest in the young summer students who intern at their labs specially in the case where they’re sort of their guides on the project. I don’t understand this, may be I’m just too backward in my thinking but it just seems like they wait for their prey every summer and as a woman I feel protective of these young girls, who join these labs and don’t know what hit them when these older PhDs start becoming obsessive and attracted to them. I’ve seen and heard stories of this time and again. I’m not saying you can’t fall in love with someone younger but it has to be done the right way. not when the two people involved are drunk out of their minds and then obviously the younger girls suffer. and it’s the fault of these older PhDs who need to act like gentlemen.

  43. GeekGirl

    I’m posting anonymously because I want to share the story of a friend, and I don’t want to risk identifying her. She was a close friend in undergrad, who (unlike me) came from a family where she was the first to go to university. She had been dyslexic as a school-child and always thought she was a bit stupid. She did well in undergraduate studies (because she is actually highly intelligent and works very hard), and got into Honours and then PhD. Her supervisor was a charismatic guy who pretty much boasted that all the undergraduate girls had crushes on him.

    Anyway, long story short, although things started out well, I always had some doubts about his supervisory style. Not long into her PhD it became clear that he was having an affair with another student in his lab. Now this guy was married with two young girls, one of whom was autistic. Anyway, he and the other student did not make a great deal of effort to keep the relationship secret (they would share rooms at conferences, etc), and soon people were gossiping. My friend was quite distressed by this and would do her best to persuade people that they were “just friends”, but it was clear what was going on.

    Not long after that, someone made an official complaint about this relationship, and the supervisor was censured and demoted (though NOT sacked).

    Although it was not my friend who made the complaint, the supervisor assumed that it was, and (we think) as a revenge attack, he accused her of data fraud. The accusations were quite wild, and were not made through the official channels that the university had for this kind of problem, but were broadcast far and wide to everyone she worked with.

    The university (although very slowly) eventually investigated the allegations with an independent panel and my friend was cleared of all wrongdoing. Meanwhile she had to move to another university and forego her scholarship, but she completed her PhD and published several papers. She has since gone on to have a successful early career, while the supervisor eventually lost his position at that university and now works elsewhere (he is married to his former student). However, my friend feels she can never return to work in her country because her reputation in the field is too tarnished.

    This guy has not given up his allegations and continues to bandy them about to anyone who will listen – and he is quite well liked, in spite of his rampant sexism. (For instance, he is well known for rating the girls in his lab on a scale of 1-10. His excuse for this is that he’s an evolutionary psychologist – which he’s not.)

    I hate that I live in a world where this can happen. It seems to be worse in academia than in some other places (though not as bad as television). Fortunately I have experienced little of the problem myself, although I have had to slap a very senior person in my field who groped me while drunk. Most of the men I work with are fantastic. But I do fear for my young female grad students, and probably I should warn them and equip them as much as possible with the tools to deal with this kind of problem.

  44. Tibor Mach

    I wonder what the distribution of such idiots as Dr. A is through fields. I have never met anyone who would set up students to failure in my field (i.e. mathematics). I don’t know about “touchy guys” as I am not a woman, maybe some I met are like that, but I doubt it, knowing the people a bit (although, sometimes people surprise you).

    There was only one professor in the first year of my bachelor studies who was trying to put people down…he would first encourage students to ask questions, because even stupid questions are good since they can clear things up even for people who also don’t understand, but are hestitant to ask…but then he would answer with things like “only an idiot could ask a question like this!” or “perhaps you should consider switching to a business school” if someone misunderstood something. And he sort of preyed on the embarrasment of the people he said these things to. Girls were more prone to that, since fewer of them have huge egos that can shake such idiotic rants off, but if I guy showed a nervous reaction, he would keep pushing it too. When I took the exam in his class I was there with another guy. His knowledge was about the same as mine, but he was really nervous. Then he made one mistake which resulted in the examiner trying to put him down (“wait wait, think about it properly before you say something as stupid as that”)…which he did, as what at first seemed to be a B grade at worst, turned out to be a failure…but in my opinion, only because he made him so nervous that he was unable to think clearly anymore. It is also a bit ironic, since he is not very successful himself as he is not even a Ph.D. (and he really only teaches this basic course…which is programming for mathematicians that is mandatory for the first two semesters in the Bc. programme).

    I find that this is a common pattern. People who are actually good in the field don’t have to need to put other people down. They have other people’s respect as it is and also they usually know how much they still don’t know. Whenever there is someone who does things like this, it is a person who seems to have some issues with himself or herself, someone who is not quite satisfied with his/her own accomplishments. And the most brilliant people I’ve met in the field have also been often the most pleasant and nice people. However, your example seems to indicate an exception in that pattern.

    On the more general issue of women in academia, I am reminded of the following article. It was available on his university website but it is no more (probably because it is also sold at various places now), but with a little bit of googling I found it reposted here:
    http://denisdutton.com/baumeister.htm

    It is called “Is there anything good about men?” and the author provides a few hypotheses (and backs them up with some theoretical arguments) about why there is a difference between the number of men and women in academia. Basically, he tries to find reasons other than discrimination, which, imho, is not the case anymore, at least not institutionally (there will be idiots like Dr.A always, but it is good when people like you take back at them). In a nutshell, the author uses evolutionary arguments to suggest that, in a sense, men are both better and worse than women. The idea is that although average skills seem to be equal, the distribution in men seems to be more flat. Therefore you observe more complete losers and more geniuses among men than among women. There are many more criminals and homeless men than there are women and the same is true about Nobel prize winners. He suggests multiple reasons for why he assumes it makes sense to expect the male distribution to be flatter. Essentially though, it is the biological fact that being a male (in our species anyway) is a high risk/high gain strategy from the evolutionary viewpoint as eggs (and wombs especially) are a much more scarce resource than sperm is. Throughout most history, most males did not reproduce at all, but most females did. Therefore it is better for genes in a woman to “play it safer” on average, because an average woman’s chances to reproduce are still very good, whereas average men often did not get their chances (it turns out that the current population seems to be descendands of about 80% of women that have ever lived, but only 40% men…that is only 40% men that have ever lived have also reproduced). Then he also shows some other possible explanations for the differences in ratios, but this one seemed to be the most interesting to me (also this post is already very long, so if anyone is interested, read the linked article), since it starts with an obvious fact (wombs are a scarce resource, so being a woman is a great bargaining advantage on the reproduction market) and through plausible (albeit not necessarily true) arguments arrives at something explaining the current real world differences with things other than conspiracy theories. I also tend to take it more seriously than other arguments of other people because the results are not entirely “in favour” of either sex. And a heuristic tells me that when results in a complex issue are entirely one way, it often suggests that there is a mistake (intentional or not) in the process.

    • Tibor Mach

      Oh, I see my mistake. The reason the article is not online on his website anymore is probably because he expanded it into a book. It could be a good read if it is as full of ideas as the article.

      Anyway, this is the author (the link above is to a reposted version on a blog which I don’t know, I just googled it up):
      http://www.psy.fsu.edu/faculty/baumeister.dp.html

  45. Gina

    I’m sorry you had to make this experience. Unfortunately, it is still all too common in academia, not just in science, but also even in disciplines supposedly dedicated to women and minority rights. Despite clearly sexually harassing behaviors, male faculty members usually get away with it. Full story here: csminnesota.wordpress.com

  46. Zeb

    Thanks for sharing – that took guts. I think your response was the most reasonable, self-preserving one. Those calling for you to out Dr. A sure are brave! Armchair quarterbacks. What a depressing topic, though, on so many levels.

  47. Gretgor

    You should reveal that bastard’s name, so we know who to avoid in the university you study, and so that freaking bastard gets punished for what he did.

  48. Pinkie B

    Hi WS,

    Thank you for sharing. I was also a victim of sexual harassment. It was so bad that it almost cost me my degree. I decided to share my story here: http://aferretcalledwilson.wordpress.com/2014/03/05/my-sexual-harassment-story/

    I think it’s important that we share. Maybe the people who hurt us won’t ever know or care, but by sharing the story we make it real for others who might be where we were. Thanks.

  49. NZ

    The way I try to think about the conflicts I’ve had with people in my past who abused their authority over me is that these conflicts made me stronger and made me who I am today, and I like that person. I hope you are able to think about this the same way.

    There is a point in your story where, after the second faculty member told you to take up your problems with Dr. A directly, you said “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.”

    Are men who experience sexual harassment (and I’m thinking in terms of harassment from other men) largely not on their own?

    Men are encouraged to be direct and not rely on others for help. As a man who acknowledges and embraces separate masculine and feminine gender roles, I don’t have a problem with that, but it means that we are actually the ones who are largely on our own when experiencing problems.

    My point in saying this is not to be oppositional or diminish what you experienced, but that if someone says “This abuse of authority wouldn’t have been as bad if I wasn’t a woman” then the whole thing is framed as a men vs. women issue, rather than as an abuse of authority.

    Faculty members need some degree of authority to be effective, so this important system of authority is compromised when they abuse it–and that’s a serious problem. Misidentifying the problem as one of gender conflict, however, is a diversion and allows abuses of power to continue more easily.

  50. Matt Grobis

    Major props for sharing this

  51. Derick Jones

    I’ve read this a few times by now, and each time I read it I get more and more angry. I’m in a different field, male, and at the lower end of the spectrum as to what I can and can’t do at this point. But even I understand that you just don’t treat people like that. Especially when you’re in a position of power. You nurture knowledge so that it can grow. If you’re really lucky and not too egotistical then you create a mind smarter even than your own. Setting people up for failure, or to be rescued is counter-productive to helping someone learn how to get the job done on their own.

    I just don’t understand how a person can abuse their power in such a way as to make a person feel like this.
    I just don’t get it.

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