Monday, June 9, 2014

Sexual Harassment: Understanding the Impact of Advisors who Prey on Students

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Today's guest blogger is Anonymous. Anonymous contacted CSWA in the wake of the Fed Up with Sexual Harassment posts: 

We are trying to help her through the terrible ordeal she describes here. Since the situation is ongoing, her identity is protected.

Let me start with four words that no manager should ever say to a sexual harassment victim who comes to him or her for help: “Just get over it.”  These are the words that my most senior manager said to me after every step in the process for dealing with sexual harassment failed. 

I work at a non-academic research institute where I conducted my PhD research with my advisor, a senior scientist in our organization, and have remained to work on other projects independent of him.  At the time that I was working for my advisor, he had absolute control over my academic and professional life.  During this time he tried to get me to sleep with him, after which I spent almost four years in a state of terror because of his change in behavior towards me when I indicated that I was not interested in such an inappropriate relationship.  When I went to managers and human resources for help, every effort was made to silence me and to protect my advisor.  This is an ongoing situation and my only choice may eventually be to leave the field. Now, I’m not explaining all of this to draw attention to my situation, but rather to provide context for what I would really like to discuss: the psychological impact of sexual harassment in the student-advisor relationship. 

      The student-advisor relationship is unique among all other professional relationships.  The advisor is a “gatekeeper” who determines whether or not a student is allowed to join the community.  He or she is also in many ways like a parent.  Sexual harassment in this relationship is both a violation of trust and a terrorizing threat.  When an advisor sexually harasses a student, he (or she) causes psychological trauma similar to the experience of both rape and incest.  Furthermore, managers and human resource personnel who mishandle complaints of sexual harassment intensify the trauma experienced by the student.

Before my experience, I had no real appreciation for the psychological impact of sexual harassment.  I started a PhD program later in life, and had been through plenty of sexual harassment prevention training in my previous career field.  I remember sitting through those sessions asking myself “What is the big deal?  Just say no, get help from human resources, and move on.”  I learned through my experience that reality is much more complicated, and that ignorance among managers can cause far more damage than harassment alone.

The student-advisor relationship in a PhD program is one that lasts many years.  Abuse in this relationship can be ongoing and long-term.  The psychological impact of abuse in a long-term relationship is described as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) from complex trauma.  The psychological impact of my experience has been classic textbook PTSD.  First, I’ve come to question my perception of relationships.  At one time I trusted my advisor and looked at him as a father figure.  I worked for him for two years before he tried to initiate an inappropriate relationship, and this 180-degree turn was devastating because I never saw it coming.  For months after it started, I refused to accept or believe that he wasn’t the person I first thought him to be.  Now I enter every relationship with a male colleague with fear that he too will turn into a predator. 

For the past five years anger, fear and depression have been my constant companion.  I’ve isolated myself emotionally from relationships with family and friends, have stopped attending church and have stopped using social media such as Facebook.  I have tried to channel my anger into constructive activities like advocating for fellow junior colleagues and developing training programs, but I worry constantly about the impact of my emotional state on my children. They are old enough to understand what is happening, and are learning that the world is not a safe place.  My daughter will never be a scientist after watching what has happened to me.

I am recovering slowly as time has passed, having gained independence from my advisor, but I have setbacks now and then because he is still trying to initiate contact with me.  Panic attacks are an ongoing problem.  For more than a year I woke up every night in the middle of the night in a state of complete panic.  When I hear his voice in the hallway at work, my heart starts racing with terror and I struggle to breathe.  Many times I close my door in case he gets the idea to stop by and try to talk to me.  I relocated into a different building because he would frequently come by my office to brag about some proposal from which he was excluding me or to tell me inappropriate things about his health problems.  Sometimes I hear his voice in the hall even when I know he’s on travel out of the country.  This “hypervigilance” is a common PTSD symptom.  At a recent workshop I spent three days trying desperately to avoid his repeated attempts to engage me in conversation.  I had hoped that removing myself from his projects, relocating my office to a new building and filing a formal sexual harassment complaint would send the message that I want to be left alone.  Unfortunately, my formal complaint was swept under the rug and he seems to take have taken this message as encouragement to continue to seek me out.  After this workshop I spent three days in a highly stressed hypervigilant state where I was seeing him around every corner even though I knew that he was on different continent.

            My relationship with the broader community has been heavily impacted by this experience.  When my advisor began to retaliate against me I faced not only abusive behavior from him, but also from colleagues who followed his lead. At one point a post-doc working for him cornered me in my office and lectured me on how much I deserved to be paid as a graduate student, explaining that my advisor was perfectly justified in cutting my salary because students don’t deserve to be paid more than 50% what a regular researcher is paid.  Other colleagues who work closely with him to this day treat me with subtle hostility.  On the bright side, there have been several colleagues who chose not to blindly follow his example, but to question his behavior.  At times it has been humiliating to talk with them because they ask why my advisor is being so hostile when they feel that I have done exemplary work.  I’ve told only a few of these colleagues the truth, because it’s frankly humiliating to admit that my PhD advisor confused me for a whore.  The ones I have told have been supportive and have made efforts to prevent my advisor’s gatekeeper role from destroying my career.

            The experience of sexual harassment is extremely traumatic for students, and this trauma is a heavy burden to carry.  Most students carry this burden alone, and never fully recover.  I can’t begin to express how important it is for managers and leaders in all organizations where students are employed to understand the nature of this trauma and to not show the ignorance of the statement at the beginning of this article.  Whatever happens with my career, I will eventually recover and move on with my life.  However, I will never forget what I experienced and the memory of it will forever be a part of who I am.