Friday, February 11, 2011

Sexual Harassment: Update from Anon

[The March 26, 2010 issue of AASWOMEN contained a request for advice from an anonymous female Astronomy PhD student who was being sexually harassed by her thesis advisor. This young woman, whom we refer to as “Anon,” has come a long way since she sent that message. She has graciously provided this update of her situation. - Eds.]

To all those who gave me advice through that difficult time, I want to thank you. As is usually the case in matters like this, it got worse before it got better, but I did want to report that it is getting better. After my first message to AASWOMEN, things were put in motion that moved me out of the situation, and has meant my harasser is no longer directly supervising me. Thanks to the gargantuan efforts of some of the people I shared the dilemma with, it looks like I not only have salvaged my thesis, but that I have a very good chance of falling back in love with astronomy and am far more likely to pursue a postdoc than I was 6 months ago.

That being said, this experience has changed me, both for the better, and possibly also for the worse. I am still angry. I still find myself resenting the success and happiness that my more fortunate peers have found, wondering what might have been had my harasser not been in my life. I still feel my heart race when I see him in the hallway, or find his name appearing in my email box. I am also a lot more leery about everyone else - wondering if that new colleague or collaborator, so seemingly inert will start acting differently to me. My threshold for trusting someone is much higher than before. Just like with a flesh wound, after the damage has been mended, scars still remain, and I will forever be a different person because my advisor harassed me. At the same time, I am stronger too. My reactiveness and fear has melted away into unflappability and a complete lack of fear of rejection. I can deal with any and all in a reasoned and calm way, because I know my own personal strength, and I know that I have a safety net much larger than I ever thought possible.

One of the most special outcomes of asking for help was that before I knew it people around me were knitting a safety net for me. Every time I walked out on another ledge, by asking for the situation to be resolved, or having to parry the attacks coming my way by those who were not ready to acknowledge that a wrong had been done to me, when I looked behind me, there were always people who had my back. Sometimes it was just supportive words, sometimes anecdotes that helped me quell the frustration from the most recent harassing behavior, and sometimes it was more. People built me a safety net of mentors and advisors to ease the transition, people made phone calls and gracefully, calmly vouched for me when key players doubted my credibility, but mostly, people shared their stories. I got to witness the breadth of experiences that others had, and could gain strength from their strength. I have a mentoring blanket to protect me that was knit before my eyes. I thought I was wasting these people's times with my concerns, only to learn that even the busiest person gladly created time for me out of thin air, because they cared about me and my success. I might not be out of the woods just yet, but I now have a strong network of people who are helping me navigate away from the Big Bad Wolf and come out the other side without becoming another casualty of science. Finally I learned that harassment is one of the well kept secrets of academia, and a request for help can be met with kindness and support, as the AASWOMEN responses were for me.

So to everyone who reads AASWOMEN, I want to say thank you. You gave me a voice that I was robbed of. You confirmed something that the harasser and his enablers told me was just me being crazy. The day that things finally seemed to be working out, I made a promise. That if I am so blessed as to get to stay doing what I am doing, being an astronomer, that I would provide the same amount of support that I found from the people who supported me. Just as I learned, harassment is still going on, and the victims are scared to come forward, either because they did not think they had anyone to turn to, or because they couldn’t put their fingers on what was going on, just that they had that uncomfortable feeling when they dealt with their advisor, or a collaborator, or an instructor. The only reason I am still here is because people finally gave agency to my experience, and I thank them (and you) for that every day.