Today I’m going to share something different with you all. Because of this blog, I get a lot of email and contact with women who have stories to tell about their experiences in science. I have heard enough of these by now, stories of harassment and assault, of belittling and being passed over, of subtle and overt sexism, that I feel it’s time to share some of them. What I’ve noticed from these stories is that some individuals, when doing field research in foreign countries, behave in ways that would be considered morally repugnant at home. My hope is that if more people see the reality of these stories, we can work towards solutions around better community monitoring, speaking up, and institutional change.
Deciding to share one’s story is a brave, and in some cases dangerous act. Therefore, in the story you are about to read, the author and I decided to change a few details to protect her anonymity.
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When I began to experience sexual harassment as a graduate student, I felt I was being hazed. As one of few female students in a male-dominated field, I assumed my professor wanted to see how tough I was. I must say, I rose to the challenge. I laughed off his and other male students’ sexualized banter and came back with insults of my own in an attempt to fit in. I was a young, enthusiastic researcher and I wanted to be accepted. I interacted with my professor and male colleagues informally, not realizing how badly it could backfire. As time passed I became a target, rather than a participant in the joking.
In moments of discomfort, I kept my feelings to myself. At our research site in a foreign country, my professor and the male students often made lewd comments about the local women. One day early in my training, my professor took us on a tour of a rural town. We came across a friendly young pregnant woman and her husband. My professor chatted with the couple in their language then turned to me. In English, he commented approvingly upon the woman’s breasts. Her husband realized what he was saying and ordered his wife to cover up. The young woman quickly drew her shawl across her chest, eyes cast to the ground. My professor seemed unconcerned about the humiliation he caused them. I was put off by his lack of respect, but I said nothing. The incident has nagged at me for years.
My professor often joked that only pretty women were allowed to work for him, which led me to wonder if my intellect and skills had ever mattered. He asked very personal questions about my romantic life, often in the presence of the male students. His inappropriate behavior was a model for them, making it not only acceptable, but the norm. My body and my sexuality were openly discussed by my professor and the male students. Comments ensued about the large size of my breasts and there was speculation about my sexual history. There were jokes about selling me as a prostitute on the local market. Once I mentioned that I admired a senior female scientist and they began describing scenarios in which she and I would have sex. Pornographic photos appeared daily in my private workspace. What started out as seemingly harmless joking spiraled out of control. I felt marginalized and under attack, and my work performance suffered as a result.
Often, I was left with a pile of work at night while my professor and his male students went out to bars. They enjoyed the attention of local women, who were attracted to their wealth and prestige as foreigners. Many of my co-workers engaged in affairs with local women. On the other hand, I received unwanted attention if I went out unaccompanied. Local men would follow me down the street, making catcalls, sometimes groping me. Foreign women were often treated that way. Because of this, I became increasingly reliant on the men I worked with, though I felt nearly as unsafe at work as I did in the streets.
By the time the harassment got out of control, it was too late for me to back out. I had spent too many years immersed in the research to walk away and start over. So I modified my own behavior, hoping things might change. I dressed as modestly as possible to avoid drawing attention to my body, but the sexual comments continued. I tried dating one of the male students, thinking that if I had a boyfriend I would be protected. But the romance fizzled, leaving me more vulnerable to humiliation than before. I also tried working twice as hard as everyone else, but my professor never noticed.
I finally confronted my professor, out of desperation rather than courage. It didn’t go very well. He told me that I was oversensitive and that I kept talking like that he’d fire me. And for many reasons, mainly shattered self-esteem, I stayed. The most blatant sexual jokes and comments stopped. My professor curbed his comments out of fear of the consequences. But our relationship deteriorated so much after that conversation that he eventually revoked his promise to fund me through graduate school.
In the early days of my research I knew nothing of academic life. I didn’t realize that many research projects are run like pyramid schemes, with rigid status hierarchies, ruthless competition, the exploitation of students and objectification of women. I realized too late the extent of the strings attached to the funding my professor had promised. My education was compromised for no reason other than my femaleness.
When a professor makes the commitment to mentor a student, the student’s professional future is in their hands. This should never be taken lightly, and in the case of male professors and female students, it is crucial to maintain ethical boundaries. Women students at foreign research sites are particularly disempowered, being far from family and other support networks. This is the kind of setting in which the power imbalance between student and professor can be exploited.
I have read about sexual harassment lawsuits underway at Yale University. Some of the stories are eerily similar to mine. We start with a young, enthusiastic, intelligent woman. A male professor takes an intellectual interest in her, takes her under his wing, gives her a job and training. When the inappropriate comments start, she feels uncomfortable, but says nothing. She feels indebted to the professor, and he has promised to guide her to a successful career. She becomes deeply engaged in and committed to the research, but the professor continues to pester and demean her. She feels increasingly insecure, and she must decide whether to confront her harasser or leave the research she loves. She has to pay a price, simply for being a woman.
Someone always asks, “Why didn’t she just leave?” Well, she might not leave because she is funded, and there aren’t many other opportunities. She may be too committed to the research. She could be years into a graduate program, and changing professors would slow her progress to graduation substantially. Potential new professors will want to know why she left, and it will be difficult to answer. Others in her field will think she is an unreliable scholar for switching horses midstream. Her professor may refuse to give her a recommendation, limiting her options. She knows her life and her choices will become subject to public scrutiny. She knows that some would say that she was “asking for it.” Finally, she knows that there is a lot to be lost from standing up to an abusive professor.
What can we do about this? Individual responsibility is fundamental, and many women do set boundaries and investigate potential graduate programs for any history of sexual harassment. I wish I had thought of that. But it is not enough to place all responsibility on the would-be victims. Women students deserve to have the same learning options that male students do. In this day and age women should not have to forego certain educational opportunities out of fear of being demoralized, harassed or abused. Universities must hold their professors accountable for their actions. There must be a safe place for women to present their concerns about harassment without having to risk their futures. I also believe that professors with a record of harassment should be ineligible for research funding until they demonstrate a commitment to professional conduct.
I managed to graduate and have a great job doing research I love, but I bet a lot of women in these situations don’t. Fortunately I have discovered a community of brilliant, outspoken and supportive female scientists. If I’d had role models like them as a graduate student, things would have been very different.
To the women who have had experiences similar to mine, I hope you are healing, and I hope you consider sharing your story. And to any women who are currently in such a situation, you are not alone. Don’t be afraid to reach out for support. As I’ve learned the hard way, women in academia really need to look out for each other.