Thursday, May 15, 2014

Fed Up With Sexual Harassment: Power to Speak Up

To continue this week's series on sexual harassment, we have a guest post from Caitlin Casey, a McCue Fellow at UC Irvine who studies dusty galaxies at high-redshift.  Caitlin co-wrote, with Kartik Sheth, a Nature careers column entitled The Ethical Grey Zone, based on a workshop they developed and later implemented online through Astrobetter which focused on ethically ambiguous hypotheticals affecting academics' careers. Previous posts can be found here, here and here.

"Can we stop talking about this feminist
stuff and get back to work?"- Old Me
I haven’t always been an advocate for “women’s issues” in academia.  I have distinct [not-so-distant] memories of rolling my eyes when hearing about ‘diversity workshops’ or scholarship/fellowship opportunities only available to women or men of color or white women.  I thought we were beyond this. I thought the playing field was leveled.  I even thought such `nonsense’ did a disservice to underrepresented groups in science by unnecessarily reminding them of their uphill battle and struggles of the past.  And then I had a major wake up call.

“Wake up call” isn’t really the right term. I didn’t suddenly wake up one day and see that I lived in a world different to the one I knew growing up. “Waking up” took years of thought, questioning, self-doubt, and help from colleagues and friends, but it eventually happened.  I woke up to a world where I had been a reluctant recipient of sexual harassment and hated my job as a result.  It was a job I had once loved and invested so much in.  I was depressed, isolated and ready to quit. I blamed myself and my incompetence for a whole lot of strange, uncomfortable interactions with colleagues. 

What type of strange interactions? I was once told, to my face, that I disappointed a senior male colleague because I wasn’t as cooperative and rule-abiding as he expected “for a woman.”  Another man periodically invaded my personal space whenever I saw him, one time backing me into a wall when no one else was around, pretending to be intensely interested in my science while throwing a seductive glare [creeeeepy].

Another male colleague felt comfortable enough to joke about how sexy I was in front of dozens of colleagues at departmental social events.  His overt stares at my breasts (and at ALL women’s bodies in the department) combined with lewd comments were a common topic of coffee break chatter for years. “Oh, he’s always been that way,” folks would tell me, “so-and-so lodged a complaint about him with HR ten years ago and nothing was ever done.”  So I accepted it, until he ratcheted it up a notch to unwelcome hugs and cat calling in the hallway.  He’s the reason I stopped wearing dresses and heals to work, because the experience of wearing them transformed my 10am workplace into a dark, threatening alley I knew better than to walk down. [If you don’t know what this feels like, try to imagine setting up your office in a grim subway station where there’s an omnipresent threat of being mugged, beaten up, maybe left for dead, all the while having to publish interesting papers.]
So where do I set up my desk? This rat-infested corner looks rather inviting!
And though these were disturbing encounters, I thought of them mostly as minor annoyances: reasons to avoid some social functions at work, take more time to work from home, or visit colleagues at other institutions.

But there was one more senior male colleague who I just couldn’t ignore.  He was a bit different than the other guys in that he showed real interest in me as an individual scientist.  One day he invited me to lunch.  What I thought was going to be a science discussion quickly turned into a discussion of my personal life, and though uncomfortable, I was too na├»ve and friendly to recognize the warning signs. Next came the occasional mention of his availability, his love of fancy cars, and of attractive young women. Red flags, you say? Well, these tidbits were diluted with plenty of reasonable conversation, interspersed only occasionally to test the limits of our dialogue and make me doubt whether I had heard them at all.  I did my best to avoid awkward personal conversation, and after a while things seemed alright between us.  Then, one night leaving work, he asked if I wanted to grab a quick bite.

Umm, can I go home now??
At the time, I actually felt bad for avoiding him, so I said yes. It was a disaster: he drove me across town, he started drinking lots of wine during the meal, asking me personal questions, he insisted that we share a dessert, and — here’s the kicker — he insisted I test drive his expensive sports car back across town, which he "never let anyone else drive."  Yep, I was literally coerced into the strangest of dates with a senior male professor over twice my age. Before you shout, “hey, what are you, stupid?” let me say that it’s really hard to say no to a skilled sexual harasser when he has power over your career. 

How’d I get myself in this bind? Suffice to say, I was afraid of telling him to back-off since, even though I didn’t work with him or for him, he had direct power over the success of my research program at the time through his administrative role.  Direct. Power.  He ended up testing the waters one last time, asking me on a real date after cornering me during a department social function, and I finally worked up the guts to get the message across: NO.

Then came the avalanche of hate.  His opinion of me took a 180, he started bad-mouthing me and questioning my competence and ability around the department, and before long I began to feel real impact on my research program.  Things were going downhill fast, all the while I had to keep playing a game of ‘Whac-a-Mole’ with the other creeps.  My workplace became a toxic cesspool, but in a way that was invisible to most.  When it rains, it pours, I guess: at the same time, I was in the midst of an unrelated, outrageous email battle with some distant collaborators — worthy of its own blog piece on bullying — and ended up hitting rock bottom, ready to quit. 

When you hit rock bottom, you’re in the fortunate position of only looking up.  Liberated from my fear of being stigmatized, I got organized. I spoke to friends about what happened.  Only *then* did I appreciate that I had been sexually harassed.  Standard, textbook cases, at that.  I realized my experiences weren’t unique, but I was perhaps in a unique position to speak up (e.g. I wasn’t reliant on any of the harassers for letters of recommendation and was ready to quit).  The benefits outweighed the risks.  I wrote everything down.  And, a year and a half after all of this began, I mustered up the energy to speak to HR and my department chair.

Resolution didn’t come cleanly, nor did it come immediately.

Here it is! My "ughh, sorry 'bout that" deflated balloon.
When it came, it was less like the delivery of a fresh bouquet of “get well/apology” flowers and more like a deflated “ughh, sorry ‘bout that” balloon that had been run over in the street and left for weeks, waiting for me to stumble upon it, eventually.

That might be surprising to those of you who think the system is built to deal with sexual harassment complaints properly and efficiently.  It’s not.  Don’t get me wrong — the people who I approached with my complaints were genuinely trying to be helpful.  But I was outright baffled by the utter ignorance of proper protocol, ignorance of the law, and the lack of resolve to mediate the conflicts.  No official complaint was ever filed, and none of the perpetrators were reprimanded, except the fellow who liked to stare at breasts. He was asked kindly to stay away from some social events and write a two-sentence email apology to the department’s women (of which I think I was the only recipient).  When some people ‘in-the-know’ began avoiding science conversations with me, I realized I had become the department leper, ostracized with a bad case of sexual-harassment-victim-itis.  On a positive note, the department did go through a one-off harassment and violence training workshop.  Unfortunately, it was held nearly a year later, covering material that was tangentially related to what happened at best (guns, rape, and university liability), and was “mandatory” in name only.

Ok, so before you say “man, that’s depressing, why’d she bother?” I’m going to tell you IT WAS ALL WORTH IT.  Speaking out was the best decision I ever made.

What do we want? Equity! When
do we want it? Now please!
(it IS the 21st century afterall...)
For each failure of official procedure, there were ten other awesome things that happened to make up for it.  First, all of the folks with whom I had worked closely over the years carried on working with me as if, well, the harassment had no bearing on my intellectual ability.  And amazingly, people started to come out of the woodwork to (a) voice their unconditional support, and (b) share their harassment stories (which they had hidden for years in some instances), and in doing so, we built an awareness network.  Through the network of friends and colleagues, we were able to discuss healthy, productive ways to broaden the discussion and work towards effective harassment prevention.  And I learned that feminists just want equality, not favoritism. And I learned about CSWA.  And stereotype threat, and impostor syndrome, and unconscious bias, and privilege: topics which are critically important that I would have ignored without my experience and new network of mindful colleagues.  Suddenly I didn’t feel alone.  A lot of people cared and made it possible - if not easy - for me to bounce back, and carry on being a happy, fulfilled scientist with a successful career.

I know some folks might feel sorry for me after reading this post, or worse, feel sorry for me and still claim that discussions of “women’s issues” have no place in science.  Please don’t.  This story isn’t unique; I’m not the only one who drew the short end of the stick.  I was just privileged enough, that under these circumstances, speaking up was the obvious right choice.  Think of those who feel so threatened they'd rather leave their jobs silently than speak up.  Could you do something to prevent that? As members of our community, it is our duty to be actively aware, actively mindful, and actively helpful.  A little bit of empathy goes a long way, so keep an eye out. If you hear or see something inappropriate, step in.    Doing nothing makes you an enabler.

My advice to anyone feeling harassed?  Speak out.  Talk to someone; try CSWA! They’re here to help and advise discretely, and you DON’T need to be an active AAS member, American, or a woman to talk to them.  For all the people trying to shut you down, there’s an army of advocates here waiting to support you.

Our harassment experiences don't define us.  If you feel like you should be angry, be angry.  If you want someone to listen, be loud.  You deserve better.  We all do.