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 naïve 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.


Anonymous said...

sexual harrassment is an important and difficult topic but I am afraid this one left me scratching my head.

if you had made a complaint about the guy leering at you at work, or the guy hugging you inappropriately, I'd be completely supportive, but the guy you went on two dates with and drove his car? you talk about red flags? he sees mixed signals.

any grown adult knows that getting involved in any way with someone they work with, but that is seriously compounded when you lead someone on like you did

I appreciate that things got ugly after you rejected him but up until that point I do think you have to reflect on your own agency in this situation

Andrew said...

Aaaaaauuuugh. What is wrong with people??

Of course this is the umpteenth story I've heard like this but my dumbfoundedness doesn't abate at all. And your story really struck a nerve, thank you.

You've inspired me, as a boy in science, to do something more about this. Not harassing people myself, and being supportive when these issues come to me explicitly, isn't enough.

Anonymous said...

You described my situation quite clearly. I did speak up about the harassement that I experienced after I learned that my harasser (PhD advisor) had also behaved inappropriately toward another female student and was interviewing his potential next victim. Unfortunately, the other victim was unwilling to speak up and our HR was more interested in making my complaint go away than conducting a legitimate investigation. They ended up concluding that there was no wrongdoing. I still work at this place and my harasser is still trying to interact with me in spite of the fact that I've removed myself from all of his projects, relocated my office to another building and outright ignore or respond rudely to all of his attempts at interaction. He's even complaining about me not speaking to him so much that other people are coming to pressure me to interact with him. My management has told me to "just get over it" which is very callous and has warned me that "no one will want to work with me" if I try to appeal HR's handling. I'm lost about what I can do next as I seem to have exhausted all resources.

Anonymous said...

First comment (as is so often true) perfectly illustrates exactly why women don't report sexual harassment, why they don't immediately "get" what's going on, and why other people don't see what's going on.

Dear "anonymous" commenter: You sound like a dude (who else thinks first about "mixed messages"?) so let me put this to you in terms you can understand. Picture yourself - a dude - and a senior dude in your workplace asks you to go to lunch or spend time in some other way. Bonus, he let's you drive his car because he thinks you're cool! Do you immediately think he's hitting on you? No? Gee, do you think women might like to think the same thing? Do you think that maybe women would like to be treated as just PEOPLE and think that maybe someone is actually doing that?

I think you need to reflect on your own privilege and how you can just go to lunch with some guy and never have to worry about being treated like a piece of meat. Any grown adult should know the difference between dude privilege and how women are treated. Grow up.

berkeleyjess said...

Dear Anonymous #1,
I think you are neglecting to take into account the power dynamics of this situation.

I suggest you read this article about the difference between flirting and sexual harassment:

Two things that someone should consider when trying to "flirt" with a coworker are the following:

* Are you in a position of power or authority relative to the person you’re talking to? Are you a conference speaker or organizer, a well-known person in the community, a manager or supervisor at work?

* Do you have the ability to create consequences for this person if they don’t return your interest? The question isn’t whether or not you will, because they can’t read your mind. The question is whether or not you can.

When someone has power over your career (like a professor when you are a graduate student), and they are framing their interest in you as a PROFESSIONAL, it is incredibly difficult to know how to respond when they later try and switch the interaction to be more sexualized / romantic (which is the situation described in this post).

Let's assume you are a straight man Anonymous #1. Imagine if the (male) chair of your department took a "special interest" in you. He said he thought you were a very talented scientist and wanted to help you in your career. He asked you out for dinner to discuss your research and future prospects.

Then during dinner, he orders wine, and proceeds to get intoxicated. He starts touching your leg under the table, or rubbing your shoulders, and talking about how (even though he is married) he is bisexual and he and his wife have an open relationship. Then he starts talking about how nice your body is, and how attractive you are. He starts asking questions about your sex life.

How would that make you feel? Here is a person who is very powerful, and has a lot of control over your career. They asked to spend time with you under the premise of wanting to help your career, but then that interaction shifts to something else. Do you think you were leading him on by going to dinner with him? Do you think you were giving mixed signals? How do you get out of this without offending the person or hurting your status in the department? It's tricky right!?!

By blaming the victim you are contributing to the problem. Yes, we should always take responsibility for our part in a miscommunication. And yes, there are things that both Caitlin and this professor could have done differently in retrospect. However, by writing this post, Caitlin did something incredibly difficult and brave. For every Caitlin that is willing to share her story there are a 1000 people who suffer in silence. She is making those other victims feel less alone and giving people the inspiration to not stay in a situation that is harmful for them.

By criticizing and blaming victims we contribute to the silencing of them and the continuation of departments and workplaces sweeping these problems under the rug--allowing the serial harassers to continue their illegal and destructive behavior toward women.

Anonymous #1, please share Caitlin's story with women in your department/workplace. Talk to them about how they would feel if they were put in a similar situation. Try to understand why this is not actually the victim sending mixed signals, leading someone on, or going on dates, but a sick man using their position of power to control and manipulate another person.

You seem to really not understand these dynamics and this makes me worry about that you might be (unintentionally) doing similar things to those around you. I suggest you start a dialog about sexual harassment with those around you to try and learn and grow. Instead of being part of the problem, become part of the solution.

berkeleyjess said...

Dear Anonymous #2. Your story is heartbreaking. The CSWA might be able to help. Please consider contacting myself or Joan to talk about your situation:

Vicky said...

Anonymous #1:
Part of the problem is that you assume that both parties assumed these were 'dates'. Working in a male dominated field such as astronomy, if I assumed that if every time a work male work college asked me if I wanted to get something to eat and discuss work they were really asking me on a date, I would never talk to my collaborators.

Let me make this perfectly clear -- whether you ask someone on a date explicitly or not, you have NO RIGHT WHATSOEVER to expect a relationship out of it if the other person does not want one, and you have NO RIGHT to ruin that person's reputation afterwards if things don't go how you wanted them to.

This is not "mixed signals". He is a senior member of the department. She was a graduate student. He should have known better.

Will Best said...

Anonymous #1:

The dangerous thing I read in your comment is the suggestion that because Caitlin didn't do everything she should have done (which is easy to identify in hindsight), she is somehow responsible for the harassment. I cannot agree with that. It places the responsibility for avoiding harassment on the victim, and absolves the harasser when his victim doesn't do everything perfectly. That is grossly unfair.

I think it's valid for you to say that Caitlin should take a look at her own actions. She is responsible for what she says and does. In her post I see some pretty clear signs that she is taking a critical look at herself -- "I was too naïve and friendly", for example.

However, the same standard applies to the professor who was harassing Caitlin. He is responsible for his own actions. No one else is. He should be taking a critical look at his behavior. If he's done something that violates workplace rules or the law -- and it sure sounds like he has -- he should be held accountable.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous #1: Going out to a meal with a colleague under the pretense of it being work related is not a 'date.' He turned it into a date after the fact - a classic technique used by harassers. As Vicky points out, you should be able to have a meal with a colleague without the sexual overtones and the power dynamic in this situation is really messed up.

Kartik Sheth said...

Anonymous #1 - your comments assume Caitlin went on two dates - how did you possibly infer this from what she wrote? Is every meeting you have with your advisor at dinner, or a conference a date? Even more offensive is your use of word "grown adult". I think your thoughtless post requires some "grown up" attention. I hope you will re-read Caitlin's post carefully and put yourself in similar situations - imagine this happening for your partner at his/her workplace or to your children/nephews/nieces at college with their professor - and consider posting your thoughts - hopefully a heartfelt apology to Caitlin's brave words and post.


Vanessa said...

I have immense respect from you being able to speak up for yourself. I think experiences like the one you have described are much more prevalent than we'd like to think and it's incredibly hard to speak up when you think your career is at risk, and when you know there is no punishment associated with the action. I wish that HR departments were more responsive to legitimate complaints so that women who were brave enough to speak up would have some positive reinforcement.

Did you have any backlash as a result of reporting the action?

Caitlin Casey said...

Hi Pocket Protector and Heels,

Thanks for the kind words. To answer your question, the worst type of backlash I felt was avoidance and not being taken seriously as a scientist after the fact. That feeling didn't go away until I moved to another institution.

Perhaps there was other backlash too, the kind that I'm not aware of. That kind of omnipresent, unknown threat is frightening, and I imagine, it's what keeps many from ever reporting misconduct in the workplace. Sometimes the backlash isn't worth it. Everyone has to balance the pros and cons of speaking up for themselves. But by writing this piece, I hope to convince those who suffer quietly that there are 1-2 extra 'pros' they might not have thought of, and there's a community here to support them.


Vanessa said...


It's sad to hear that speaking up for yourself resulted in you being so poorly treated, but not surprising. In my opinion giving people the "cold shoulder" is just a different type of harassment, although perhaps harder to prove. I hope the environment you are in now is better!


Unknown said...

I just wanted to say that this site has helped me tremendously with such issues of being "professionally cornered". After reading the material here I don't feel so alone anymore, especially:

"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."

Oh, my god! And then how you add the bad-mouthing.
I had an identical experience with someone that I thought was a friend (they where also super influential in the industry that I was working in). After I turned them down they did the very same thing. It was the most painful experience in my life. I literally thought I was going to die, and my future was coming apart by the seams. I ended up having to leave the company because the environment was unsalvageable (and I tried everything to fix it -- work extra hard, show extra enthusiasm). It was so difficult seeing that I could do nothing about the rumors or the effect they had on my standing there. It wasn't the first time it happened, but it was the hardest because it was something I really wanted to be part of, and the person knew that (from being a "friend")... Sorry, I realize that I'm going on a rant here, but this has been an amazing resource for me in helping me realize that I'm 1) not alone (the most important) and 2) I can do something about it in the future.

So thank you so much for sharing these experiences. It's been very healing. :)