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Retrograde Reactions: “Lady in the Field” on the Aftermath of Sexual Misconduct

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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The comments on the guest post by “Hazed” demonstrate that she is not the only person to experience sexual harassment in the field. And so I must share with you the next post in this series on harassment while doing fieldwork by “Lady in the Field.” Like “Hazed,” “Lady” is brave to share her story with us. My hope is that some of what happened in this field experience, particularly the aftermath among the various faculty involved, will teach those of us in positions of power what not to do.

It is unambiguous to me that supporting junior scientists and protecting them from mental, physical and emotional harm, not to mention providing them the resources to flourish, should be the main goal of every academic department. There is never, ever an instance in which our science, or a collaboration, should be privileged over this. And yet, that is what happened here.

Let us think together on what administrative, bureaucratic and cultural practices need to shift to put attention and effort towards the most valuable, yet often most vulnerable, resources in science: junior scientists, which includes undergrads, grad students, postdocs and junior faculty.

* * *

It was happening again.

I looked around the seminar table to see if anyone else had noticed. The other graduate students and the professor remained engrossed in debate over an article—no one, it seemed, had registered the panic mounting in my corner of the room. Quietly, I slipped notebook and papers into my backpack and made for the door, offering the apologetic “I have an embarrassing doctor’s appointment—trust me, you don’t want to know” smile.

I walked home, head cloudy, eyes fixed to the ground. When the crossing-guard teased me for returning early—he usually saw me in the morning, as students arrived at the local school, but never in the middle of the afternoon—I nearly burst into tears. Why could I not shake the feeling that everything I did—in fact, everything I thought—was fundamentally bad, that it invited the wrong sort of attention, that I shouldn’t, by all rights, be taking up space in the universe at all? And why did this terrifying train of thought become more persistent with each passing day?

Several miles of pavement under running shoes, a hot shower, dinner, and a frantic journal entry later, the demons receded. I looked at my watch: eight hours had passed since the onset of the episode, and this had been a short one. In its grip, I could not focus; now, released, I was wrung out and hollowed, the way you feel when a fever breaks. No more work would get done tonight.

***

This sort of episode—beginning with the feeling of being “triggered” by some one’s unknowing remark or gesture, progressing into full-blown anxiety and self-loathing, and resolving, finally, in a feeling of mysterious reprieve and exhaustion—had begun to occur after a senior colleague at the remote field site where I did dissertation research spoke to and touched me in an inappropriate and nonconsensual way.

For several weeks following The Incident—like a 1950s TV police detective, I soon began calling it The Incident—I scrutinized my behavior in the days leading up to it, sifting furiously for the thing I had done wrong. Had I been too open with information about myself, made too many off-color jokes? I was wearing a pink shirt at the time of The Incident—did that mean that I was unconsciously soliciting sexual attention? The colleague, Z., had a history of crossing boundaries with graduate students, a history that the administration ignored because of his professional importance. Knowing this, I had tried to be careful around him, but would anyone believe me? The best thing to do, I resolved, would be to deal with The Incident when I returned to the safety of my home community. Several weeks later, though, I learned that I would be required to interact with Z. again at the field site. The prospect of seeing him left me shaking with nerves. I realized that I needed to let the authorities know what had happened.

My graduate advisor, the field station manager, and Z.’s ultimate supervisor, F., all took my concern seriously. I appreciated their acknowledgment that the issue could not be ignored, and I was grateful that F. asked my permission to speak to Z. When F. did speak to Z., however, the process broke down: Z. denied that anything had happened, claiming that any untoward interaction had to be the product of my fantasy or of my instigation. F. and the other supervisors withdrew, refusing to adjudicate. I was left with the fear that my personal and professional credibility had been damaged, without allies at the field station, and, to my distress, in the company of Z., while the other supervisors attended to obligations outside the country.

The Incident was not repeated—with me, at any rate—either then or in subsequent field seasons. The role of Z. on our joint project, however, had to be settled, and F. was determined to reconcile us to one another. The way to do this, F. decided, was to impel me to back down from my position: namely, that something inappropriate had happened, an apology was in order, and ombud-style mechanisms of arbitration needed to be created to handle future concerns. F. explained to me why these requests were wrong-headed: Z. had suffered enough without apologizing, he said. I had willfully and unjustifiably damaged his reputation. My American feminist radicalism (by the way, was I a lesbian? or had I already been sleeping with Z.?) disqualified me from making rational statements about protections for students, and saucy male behavior was the norm at the field station—no other young woman needed help rebuffing unwanted attention, so why should I? The sort of disturbed emotional state I was manifesting, not to mention my insistence on being overly analytical, were sure to cause me intimacy problems of the kind that plagued his relationship with his wife. Finally, while my professional persona was too subservient—this was obvious from the way I acknowledged the contributions of peers to my work—my recalcitrance radiated “threat,” and that was not to be tolerated.

My graduate advisor agreed with me that F.’s reactions were retrograde. He valued the collaboration with F., however, and pointed out that my taking formal action would effectively terminate that collaboration. As a student dependent on my advisor for research funds, supervision, and credentialing, I chose not to pursue formal action.

The internal contradictions in testimony from Z. and from F. suggest that they were guarding not so much a perception of the facts—what did or did not happen—but a set of limitations on their responsibility in the world. I believe that reluctance or refusal on the part of supervisors to take recuperative or preventive action came from a place of fear: What would it mean for their careers if they were to upset the system? They did not know how to operate differently, and they did not and do not understand why making academic science safe for people with limited power is important. I believe, too, that they are ignorant of the costs imposed by the current system on students and on others with limited leverage.

***

Many months later, as I stalked around my house, wracked by intractable irritation and jumpiness, a sardonic voice in my head remarked, “Dude, you’re not in ‘Nam anymore.” Political incorrectness aside—and appropriation of the experience of a veteran, an experience I certainly cannot claim, aside, too—it was then that I realized that my body and the deepest parts of my mind had, in effect, not come home from the field. These parts of me were on the lookout for Z.—and, more to the point, for F.—everywhere: in mentors, colleagues, and friends; in well-meaning compliments and casual generalizations; in the social tics of status-seeking that characterize our sapient primate species. A trusted therapist helped identify that the symptoms, which included fury, nightmares, vigilance, and paralyzing self-doubt, were similar to those of post-traumatic stress disorder. With her help and the financial support of the university, I was able to get effective treatment.

For several months, I marveled at every day that dawned and closed trauma-free. That I no longer need to marvel suggests that freedom from trauma has become normal for me, and I’m profoundly grateful. That I needed trauma treatment to complete my PhD is a sign not of a flaw in my character but of a problem in the system that produces scholars. So, to recap:

  • It is in everyone’s interest to maximize safety in working and learning environments. Coping with abuses of power drains time, energy, and other resources from productive activities, like scholarship.
  • It is particularly important for people in positions of power to understand themselves as stakeholders in the welfare of students. We need to be able to distinguish between our intent and the effects of our actions. Intent is insufficient. Listening and collaborative action are required.
  • Students need contracts and institutional protective mechanisms to ensure that their concerns can be safely expressed and addressed without conflicts of interest or unwarranted repercussions. These are necessary, even if challenging to design and implement, when the student is working with multiple institutions and in multiple locations.
Kate Clancy About the Author: Dr. Kate Clancy is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Illinois. She studies the evolutionary medicine of women’s reproductive physiology, and blogs about her field, the evolution of human behavior and issues for women in science. Find her comment policy here. Follow on Twitter @KateClancy.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Mammals Suck... Milk! 10:40 am 03/9/2012

    I applaud and thank “Lady in the Field” for sharing her story, which takes bravery and an amazing commitment to junior colleagues throughout the academe. Writing this testimonial, much as “Hazed’s” earlier this year, must have been supremely difficult and doing so, while hopefully cathartic, reveals an amazing depth of prosociality. They share their stories so that these problems can be addressed and solved for future scientists. Moreover their capacity for prosociality in the aftermath of their experiences, is especially incredible. And kudos to Kate Clancy for providing a venue for this dialogue!

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  2. 2. DNLee 11:21 am 03/9/2012

    This is SO upsetting to read. It’s when administrators handle matters like this, that cause more (emotional and psychological) harm by telling people to get over it, or accept part of the blame for the breakdown and all the while letting the real villain off of the hook. Why? Because of power? familiarity? comfort? or because you suddenly realize you are negligible to them? It’s that last one that makes me most upset/afraid. It is in this space that you realize that you may not be safe at all.

    Which is why when she wrote “understand why making academic science safe for people with limited power is important” really resonated with me.

    In my senior year, I had a college professor harass me which resulted in him chasing and screaming at me across campus from the academic building to the steps of my dorm. How NO administrators saw this as I from him screaming & crying across the quad or why no one called the university police still shocks my mind. (At my southern university, it was not at all uncommon for the university police to arrive and disperse students, particularly Black males, because a coed, usually white, had called because she was afraid and felt threatened. But somehow this reverse scene garnered no police support.)

    Thankfully, I had the immediate access to a higher level university administrator, who happened to be Black. Black students were less than 3% of the student body of this ~11K university. My mother came to town the next day and rained down terror, and I am not exaggerating. After demonstrating the to department chair, a few vice-presidents, and the college president that she took her 2nd Amendment rights seriously, she was assured that I would be safe. They promised to reprimand the professor. Whatever they did, it didn’t result in him losing his job or being suspended.

    After sometime, I decided to go back to class and complete the semester. It was hard and no doubt tense. But it’s when crazy, scary threatening things like this happen that makes me see the value in going ape-shit crazy on people to let them know that ‘f-ing with me’ will not be worth the trouble.

    Afterall, the powerful people in these scenarios survive on taking advantage of less powerful people’s fear and silence. Because they advantages with the administration or have networks with certain ‘class’ of folks that they are able to get away with this stuff.
    I’d wager that Z wouldn’t have tried to pull anything off with say, the daughter of F or another high-ranking colleague’s star student. No, because that student would have had the ‘protection’, so to speak of F’s power.

    It’s a shame that we can’t all just have good sense and character to be ourselves and SAFE in our work environment. And it also shouldn’t take someone going postal just to get basic human respect.

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  3. 3. rebeccainthewoods 1:02 pm 03/9/2012

    This post and the earlier one by “Hazed” have both struck such a cord with me. My own most significant experience with sexism so far came at a similar isolated field station (though thankfully in my case it never advanced beyond the condescending, “benevolent” kind of sexism – cutesy pet names from the macho male PIs, flip suggestions that we “girls” should do our field work in formal gowns, that sort of thing). These women are so brave for speaking out, and I applaud them.

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  4. 4. rebeccainthewoods 7:06 pm 03/9/2012

    (Aaaand clearly in my comment above I meant “chord,” not cord. Oh well.)

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  5. 5. CrystalVoodoo 7:40 pm 03/9/2012

    I cannot say that this in any way is equivalent to the stories of “Hazed” and “Lady in the Field” but it may emphasize the point you are trying to make about informing students of their options.

    In grad school our department had a semesterly student-run seminar. Students invited the speakers, picked them up from the airport, drove them around, and spent the day with them with no faculty involvement. The student body had selected a fancy big-wig speaker who accepted our invitation. Within a few minutes with him something seemed off. As the day went on those of us taking him around started noticing inappropriate comments and uncomfortable amounts of physical contact with female students that became distressingly more frequent. By the time dinner rolled around the girl sitting next to him literally fell out of the booth trying to scoot away as he had spent the entire meal shifting towards her and trying to put his arms around her shoulder. It had gotten so bad that my friend who was supposed to have breakfast with him and drive him back to the airport was afraid to be alone with him. I bit the bullet and joined them thinking safety in numbers. We finally got him to the airport thinking that it was over. I went to shake his hand goodbye and he tried to pull me in for a kiss on the mouth. I managed to divert it to a kiss on the cheek. I’m pretty sure we broke a federal law speeding out of the airport.

    The tale of Dr. Handsy eventually made it’s way around the department and our grad student chair (a woman) was super upset that none of the students had thought to tell someone that this was happening. I received a very stern lecture on sexual harassment and how we shouldn’t have tolerated it on even a short time scale. Looking back I see how right she was. We may have missed an opportunity to call him out on his behavior and maybe even propagated his mental justification for his actions. I seriously pity any girl who might have had the misfortune to join his lab.

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  6. 6. MuseMiu 8:26 pm 03/11/2012

    I don’t know if sharing this story serves any purpose beyond personal catharsis, but here goes nothing:

    In retrospect, my college boyfriend had been emotionally abusive for a very long time before I realized what was going on, like a pitcher plant of self-loathing. Problem was, we were in the same year of the same biology program so I didn’t have a safe place where I could be without him to get perspective or ask for help. My few attempts at reaching out prior to my “Incident” were mostly fruitless. Even though my advisor was extremely supportive, many professors thought I just needed to suck it up, that by being a “drama queen” I was letting silly girl things get in the way of science & schoolwork; we can’t have that, can we?

    Eventually, when I tried to leave the relationship, I was beaten and left bleeding in an alley in campustown. When I came back that summer to take the finals I missed while recovering, it felt like I was toxic. The boyfriend had been a 4.0 student with an enviable lab position. He was going places, people liked him and rooted for him. I was flighty and directionless, and now I was supposedly dragging down this brilliant super student (who was up for felony domestic violence charges). The consensus among fellow students was that I must have been horrible and provoked the attack; even the fact that I had fought back was seen as evidence that I was crazy.

    Institutionally, I was trying to navigate a bureaucratic labyrinth alone, having to explain the story over and over, subjected to countless questions about why I didn’t get out earlier; how could I have been so stupid? I remember particularly trying to explain to a dean why I was petitioning for retroactive course withdrawals. The boyfriend had been in those classes and would harass me during and after almost every lecture, so I stopped going. (No, it wasn’t the best solution, but neither the professors nor the department had dealt with a situation where one student had a restraining order against a classmate before, so it fell to me to keep myself safe.) The dean told me that even with the W’s, my CV wouldn’t be as competitive and there was little chance I would get into grad school, at least not at this school. I was told that real adults, real scientists don’t let life get in the way, so I had demonstrated that I wasn’t good enough.

    While the boyfriend didn’t have any scholastic power beyond reputation, the people in power seriously dropped the ball on providing support and protection for a charge who needed it. On the whole, it was easier them to say I had brought the Incident upon myself and thus didn’t require their help. It was more convenient to support that boy with the good MCAT score than the the broken girl. I got so sick of having to justify everything, of having to tell people that I’m not a crazy female hellbent on ruining an ex’s future, of showing my scars to verify what had happened, that I dropped out.

    Perhaps my almost-alma mater is just particularly bad at dealing with this sort of thing. On the other hand, the number of people who gave me some variation of “Hysterical women can’t handle life and academia at the same time,” as their interpretation of how/why my life had been derailed leads me to believe it’s an entrenched prejudice that goes beyond this particular institution. If a student can’t feel physically or emotionally safe in class or labs, if s/he feels they can’t speak out or get help, if the shame and stereotypes put the burden of proof on the victim, and of course if s/he is friggin’ assaulted on your watch, you need to rethink the entire system.

    Sorry if this is only tangential. It felt good to get it off my chest.

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  7. 7. Kate Clancy in reply to Kate Clancy 11:05 pm 03/11/2012

    I just want to say how much I appreciate all of your comments, your input, and that you have shared your own stories. These issues are not isolated, they are not small, they are not the fault of the many, many women to whom they happen. Off the blog I’ve had several email conversations through the weekend with others who are interested in figuring out how to use the momentum from these guest posts to move forward. I want people to be able to continue to vent and share, and I want to figure out what more we can do. Any other additional thoughts any of you have in either of these directions is very much appreciated.

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  8. 8. archmeg 12:03 am 03/12/2012

    CrystalVoodoo, I had a similar incident to yours. I was at a graduate conference with a few of the old guard around. We all went out the the pub afterwards, having a grand time. The prof. from my school headed off with some of his pals, and an old prof with stinky breath, that I didn’t know, stuck around with the youngsters. What the other grad students didn’t realize was how much he was grabbing and pawing at me – putting his hands in my coat pocket as we walk down the street, whispering gross stuff in my ear…all sorts of inappropriate stuff. And because he was a big-wig, I had to try and politely get his drunk-self to stop, because I didn’t have another faculty member to back me up and he was the guy with status. What made me livid was that I knew I would have had the support of my faculty member had he still been there – he absolutely recognizes that faculty are in power positions and would have called his peer out on inappropriate behavior. Unfortunately he wasn’t with us. The other students only noticed how egregious this guy was being when he started talking about how I was going to walk him back to his room and I clearly and loudly stated that I most certainly was not. Then we got one of the fellows to separate him from my, and one of the girls said his breath smelled like kitty litter, and I began to recover. But I have never forgiven that man’s behavior. Faculty are in a position of trust and responsibility and it infuriates me when they take advantage of that situation.

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  9. 9. archmeg 12:08 am 03/12/2012

    Also, Lady in the Field, I am so sorry to hear you could not get support from your faculty. That is deplorable. I wonder if colleges actually do any sort of faculty training about power and authority and faculty roles towards students in these situations?

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  10. 10. CrystalVoodoo 10:19 pm 03/12/2012

    @MuseMiu

    I managed to get into and complete my PhD at a R1 school with a semester of boyfriend-related W’s on my transcript. It’s a fairly long, ugly story that I’m not really up to going into. What was worse was when I was applying to grad school one of my profs had felt the need to explain the withdrawals in great and freakishly lengthy detail on my letters of recommendation (which was a hell of a blindside when I got to my interviews).

    The take away message that I’m trying to meander towards is that even knowing about my “hysterical women can’t handle life and academia at the same time” episode the grad school still gave me a chance to prove myself and shine. Just because the people at your almost-alma mater were too stupid to understand doesn’t mean the rest of academia will penalize you for it. Just something to consider in case you are thinking about trying again at a more supportive institution.

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  11. 11. kprosper 11:04 pm 03/13/2012

    This does not surprise me in the least. My now-girlfriend (and dear friend at the time) a few years back pursued a higher degree in Math at a prestigious university.

    Basically, all the women were discouraged, hazed. Unless they were somehow “connected”, i.e. family of faculty. It was made clear that sleeping with a professor would result in being thusly protected.

    Her grades were eventually falsified to get her to drop out of the PHD program and settle for a masters degree (something she barely managed, actually). Her main professor in her area of specialty was Incredibly surprised at this, as this was what she’d been teaching since it was her proficiency.

    She’d witnessed similar treatment of other women in the program, as well.

    In any case, I will not name names of professors, or my SO. But I’ll gladly name the school: UMich.

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  12. 12. BioAnth 4:32 pm 03/23/2012

    Thanks to everyone for sharing! To continue the thread, as an undergraduate and graduate student I also faced the unwanted advances of faculty in the field (and in an international context) and, like Kate, have also experienced the wrath that followed. In fact, when I rationally approached one person (sans tears or yelling!) about their behavior in the field their response was “You’re lucky that I took you into the field. None of my colleagues take women into the field because you are irrational and highly emotional.” Ironically he was incredibly worked up and highly irrational in his arguments… go figure.

    I think Kate’s discussion of this in the SA community is incredibly important and would like to add that we also need to begin to address the more subtle sexism that pervades the academy. There really is a substantial power differential among senior and junior faculty, graduate students and faculty, undergrads and graduate students, and males and females. I like archmeg’s recommendation regarding training though I often wonder if many of my colleagues or faculty reps would even take something like that seriously.

    The problem with such issues is that those in power (chairs, senior faculty, etc.) really need to be intolerant of such displays of power… but, of course, these displays are NEVER directed at those in power. And in my experience women in those powerful positions (tenured, full profs, etc.) are too tired from fighting their way to the top to really do much for those still struggling. So kudos to Kate!

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  13. 13. BioAnth 4:53 pm 03/23/2012

    Apparently I need to put on my critical reading cap as I seem to have mixed up the author from the poster (is that even a term, yikes?!). Apologies to “Lady in the Field” for not acknowledging her as the author of this story. To “Lady” thank you for sharing and to “Kate” thank you for posting!

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  14. 14. MuseMiu 2:06 am 04/3/2012

    @CrystalVoodoo

    After a couple years, I went back to the original institution, but having to explain everything that happened over and over again to advisors, department heads, the financial aid dept., etc., I realized finishing my degree there would mean having to undo much of the healing I had done. I could never escape retelling that awful story, and it would always color people’s perceptions of me, especially when they saw the semester of W’s.

    Instead, I transferred to a smaller school nearby. I’m doubling in bio and teaching with a minor in chem. My degree might not have the same cachet as the original institution, but at least I can show my abilities without the DV stigma constantly buzzing around my head. The first thing I did when looking for a new school was research their sexual harassment and conduct policies… I wish I had known to do that when I was 17.

    Silver lining: My wandering path gave me the opportunity to realize I love teaching and dealing with equity in education, so now I’ll get to help create new generations of empowered scientists!

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