Thursday, February 17, 2011

Coming Out of the Shadows: A Sexual Harassment Story

At the recent AAS meeting in Seattle, I was forced to confront an issue that I had hoped (unrealistically) would just fade away: sexual harassment. Although incidents occur much less frequently than in years past and every university has a policy against harassment, new victims continue to seek me out and tell me their stories. They know I'm chair of CSWA, may have attended our town hall, and might even read AASWOMEN. As much as I hate to admit it, our community appears to contain a (small) group of sexual harassers that have somehow managed to remain below the radar.

One of these young victims, who I have been mentoring for a number of months, pleaded with me to "come out" as a survivor of sexual harassment to AASWOMEN. I argued that my experience was years ago; what relevance could it have in this day and age? She insisted that knowing my story had helped her to deal with her own situation, and she argued persuasively that it would mean a lot to other victims too.

It is true that I have had at least one foot out of the shadows for a while now. Even the most superficial reading between the lines of my recent AASWOMEN posting entitled, "The Legacy of Anita Hill," will reveal that I was a victim of sexual harassment. If sharing my story could help even one young victim realize that she was not alone, would I do it? Should I?

[Note: The AAS lawyers have advised me that I might be liable if I were to reveal too many details of this experience, so I will simply refer to the individual as “the harasser” and the organization where I worked at the time as “ABC” institute/university/observatory.]

I have often felt that the term "sexual harassment" was somewhat misleading. Although there was certainly a sexual component to my relationship with the harasser, it was much more about his abuse of power. That being said, the harassment would never have occurred if I were not a woman. In fact, none of the other young astronomers (all men) at ABC faced what I faced.

At the time, I was a young astronomer in a vulnerable position and the harasser was my supervisor. Writing this summary forced me to recall several unpleasant examples of his abuse of power. One rather poignant quote that I remember vividly goes like this, "I wish I could keep you in my pocket and take you out when it's convenient."

I should have run for the hills! That reaction, however, would have meant giving up not only my job, but maybe on astronomy itself. I stayed on at ABC and tried to tough it out.

Another example of the power dynamic involved specific instructions that I was never allowed to ask questions. The implication was that my ignorance would reflect badly on the harasser. "You have to be perfect," he said to me.

No pressure there! My job was hard enough without these added complications, but things soon went from bad to worse. After the first six months, my significant other moved to ABC. In retrospect, it now seems obvious that this move triggered a major change in the precarious power dynamic that existed between the harasser and me. After all, I would no longer be spending any time in the harasser’s proverbial pocket. The harasser’s response to this new dynamic was to start putting me down at every opportunity, destroying what little confidence I had. He soon stopped talking to me and started talking about me. His gossip spread to the senior researchers/faculty/staff at ABC and eventually diffused through a segment of the astronomy community.

My time at ABC was not easy, especially after the harasser began poisoning the environment against me. I continued to show up for work, however, struggling alone with the analysis. I confess that I also battled depression. My significant other didn’t understand why I wasn’t working 24-7, why I wasn’t listening to my supervisor, in short, why I wasn’t behaving like a typical young scientist. To be honest, I didn’t understand it myself, but I’ve come to realize that I was spending a lot of my energy fighting off depression and insulating myself from the toxic environment the harasser had created at ABC. I needed a lot of sleep and a lot of downtime. I worked at ABC during normal business hours, read novels in the evening, and took weekends off.

I stumbled through the next year or so, doing analysis on my own and struggling to write up components of my work for publication. I found I could be highly focused, concentrating only on the next paper and ignoring just about everything else. I had a self imposed, very strict work schedule. If I stuck to it, I could make progress. If I tried to push it, to put in more hours or work weekends, my progress would grind to a halt. I realized that I had a choice. I could either write up my work a paragraph at a time or I could give up entirely; there seemed to be no middle ground. I chose the paragraph option, and celebrated every minor milestone. If I could finish another paragraph, then it was a good day.

One thing that eventually tipped the balance in my favor was that my research papers - the ones that I wrote a paragraph at a time - were being published. The senior researchers/faculty/staff at ABC could not think that I was as bad as the harasser said I was if my work was appearing in a prominent publication. My position at ABC ended, but unfortunately the power the harasser had over me did not. It was time to find another position. Can you imagine the job application process with a vindictive sexual harasser as one of your references?

After a round of job applications, a rumor started by my harasser got back to me. Apparently, he was bad mouthing me to potential employers. He was careful to put nothing in writing and I don't know exactly what he said to them, but I got no job offers. For the next round of applications, I did not include the harasser as a reference. I attended a winter AAS meeting with the hope of making job connections but got no interviews. I do remember running into a certain astronomer that I had known before I went to ABC. We exchanged a few words about a job I had applied for at her institute/university/observatory, but she couldn't get away from me fast enough - as if she might catch whatever I had. As I watched her walk away, I realized that I would never get another job in the branch of astronomy where I had all my training.

Fortunately, there are other objects in the universe and other bands of the spectrum. A couple of broad-minded, creative-thinking scientists at another institute/university/observatory decided that a young astronomer with my background would make a fine addition to their team. The bad news was that I had no expertise in this new astronomical sub-field and would essentially be starting over. The normal scientific momentum that any young scientist would carry from one position to the next would be completely lost. As a result, I worked for years on other people's science and co-authored many articles that my significant other refers to as my "et al and Schmelz" papers. Eventually, I worked my way back up to a position of astronomical seniority.

In a very real sense, I still live with the repercussions of the harassment experience. How much better would those original papers have been if they had been written by the team of knowledgeable coauthors rather than a lone stressed out young scientist? How much further could I have progressed as a scientist if I had not had to start over in another band of the spectrum in a completely different corner of the cosmos? It was clear that no one was going to nominate me for the Pierce Prize or the Warner Prize.

Because my harassment experience was so long ago, my only choice was to tough it out or give it up. Neither ABC nor any other institute/university/observatory had a sexual harassment policy at the time. In fact, I do not blame ABC for what happened to me; there was really nothing they could have done. The good news is that things have changed. If you are the victim of sexual harassment, please read the article on CSWA’s Advice column on sexual harassment.
One important step is to talk to someone you trust: advisor, best friend, parent, sibling, etc. You can talk to me. In fact, the argument that convinced me to come out (of this different type of closet) was that it would put me in a better position to reach out to young victims. The harassment experience can be very isolating, but you don’t have to tough it out alone. CSWA can help.

by Joan Schmelz []


Phoebe A. Cohen said...

Thank you for your brave post. I have never experienced anything quite as horrible as you have, but I definitely related to much of what you said. I think you've done a huge service to women in science (I'm not actually an astronomer!) by speaking out about your past.

kris said...

Thank you so much for sharing your story. You have made our entire community stronger with your courage and honesty.

Unknown said...

Thanks for telling your story, Joan! In addition to being a resource to harassment victims, you are also proving, by example, that the traditional career path is not the only way. That's an important message to people who may feel like giving up and getting out.

Nancy Brickhouse

Unknown said...

It's sometimes a tough world which lacks understanding and even worse. Well done for speaking out, Joan. It's painful to recall such times and treatment. I have certainly had many difficult and painful experiences as a woman trying to make a career in science, especially in the highly competitive and male chauvenistic environment at Cambridge University. One of the worst incidents which I recall is when I suggested at a staff meeting that we might have a female speaker for an Open Day - to which the response was 'We only want GOOD speakers'. I have erased many other similar incidents from my memory. Like you, I have tried to help, support and mentor younger females in my field. Fortunately I've also had a tremendous amount of support and encouragement myself, from my family and my colleagues - both females and males. Helen Mason, University of Cambridge, UK

Unknown said...

Thank you for speaking up. Thank you for being an activist. Thank you for being a mentor and my dear friend. I can only imagine that it was very difficult to come out of this closet, but we all benefit from an open and honest dialogue about the harassment that has occurred and is still occurring. Well done.

CH said...

What a powerful piece, supportive to anyone in any field who has ever experienced this kind of harassment and discrimination. Thank you for speaking out!

Anonymous said...

As a woman who did not pursue a research career in astronomy for reasons other than harassment (thankfully), I am not unaware of stories of marginalization, at best, and brutal intimidation, at worst, that female astronomy students have experienced, even at my own undergrad institution. To hear that these sorts of things are still occurring is quite distressing and I think now I'm glad I never did follow through on a research path. But for those who do, and for Joan, who endured such blatant, persistent, ruthless bullying, and in the face of depression as well (something which I too battled every single day as an undergrad with no help and no understanding from *anyone*), I have one thing to say:

You are an inspiration!

Despite this man's best efforts, HE FAILED! Despite his power trip, he wasn't powerful enough to break you. IN SPITE OF IT ALL, you SUCCEEDED! I applaud your courage to keep moving forward, staying true to yourself, following your passion and never EVER giving up. The mental fortitude and stamina it took for you (and others in similar situations) to succeed in the face of such deliberate and unethical obstruction should be celebrated to the same degree that that person who attempted but failed to smear your name and destroy your life should be rebuked.

Bravo, and *thank you* for sharing your story.