Thursday, March 3, 2011

Update on Coming Out as a Survivor of Sexual Harassment

A special thanks to everyone who commented on my “Coming Out” article from the 18 Feb 2011 issue of AASWOMEN. I’m in the process of getting back to all of you. Some of you posted public remarks on Facebook or on the blog, but most of you e-mailed me directly. It is indeed true that sexual harassment remains a very private thing. Many of you thanked me for sharing my story, and some of you even called me “brave” and “courageous.” Thank you SO MUCH for the support and encouragement. A few of you forwarded the story to women you know who are victims of sexual harassment. A couple of you even admitted that you were victims or survivors.

I feel that one of the reasons our community is still dealing with sexual harassment is because so much of what happens is surrounded in secrecy. We are afraid to come forward because of the long tradition of blaming the victim, which goes back at least as far as Anita Hill. In addition, many of the victims are in the most vulnerable positions, i.e., students and post docs. They _should_ be anonymous (or at least as anonymous as possible) when they are courageous enough to either ask for help or come forward with a complaint.

As a full professor and a senior astronomer, I no longer feel the need to be anonymous. So now that I’m out (of a Different Type of Closet), I can tell you that it is a relief. Some of the old frustrations about this period of my life seem to have dissipated as a result of telling my story. So, let me issue this invitation to survivors of sexual harassment: join me! Tell your story to friends, colleagues, and the people you love. You can even share with AASWOMEN (anonymously, if that is your choice).

There appears to be a lot of us, survivors and supporters, but perhaps geographically isolated (like me) who have never had the opportunity to come together in force and stamp out this plague on our community. I feel that we are the nodes of an as-yet unformed network. For those of you that already have an active Women-in-Science group in your department/institution/research group, I’m envious!

I have a suggestion for the rest of us – a way to start small. Recently, I asked two other women in my department to coffee. I did it reluctantly, feeling somewhat bad that we would all be taking time away from our research, but even I was surprised at how much we had to talk about! We continued meeting every month or so and have now expanded our get-togethers to include female students. I invite all of you who want to insure that sexual harassment fades from the collective memory of the astronomical community to try this bottom-up approach.

Joan Schmelz [jschmelz_at_memphis.edu]