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“He shouldn’t just be able to get away with that.”


At what point do you take action against someone who has offended or harassed you?

Most of us probably give a more liberal answer than we would actually act upon in real life – a classic “easier said than done,” in my opinion.  Some people perhaps have no problem pointing out “that was offensive” to anyone at anytime.  If you’re that person, kudos to you!  But many of us, in real life, find it a little more difficult.  I can think of plenty of moments where I “should have said something” in retrospect, but at the time, I did not, for a variety of reasons.  It wasn’t the appropriate place to have that conversation, I didn’t think that the person’s behavior would be affected, I didn’t say something right at that time so I felt wrong reporting them later.  Or more typically, when something surprisingly offensive comes out of someone’s mouth, my jaw drops to the floor and my brain goes blank and it’s not until ten minutes later that I’m like “what just happened?”

I had an incident with a collaborator while on an observing run months ago.  He took it upon himself to give me all his advice on why women shouldn’t do science (because we must be taking care of children, of course, and by the way I should probably get on that soon because the younger, the better) and other extremely inappropriate and ridiculous things.  In addition to his words, just the way he treated me made me feel completely devalued, like less than a real human being worthy of respect (as though woman /= person).  When I wasn’t around him, I was a sobbing mess because of how terrible the things that he said made me feel.  I say that risking the fact that people might interpret that as me being a “wimp,” but if you have ever truly been attacked in this way you would understand.

After luckily only a few days of this (I spent most of the observing run with a different collaborator), it was over and I was back home.  I’m very happy that I have a great advisor with whom I felt comfortable to talk to about this, so I let him know.  He was floored, and upset, and what I really appreciated was that he asked me what I wanted him to do about it.  At the time, I said that I just want to make sure that I don’t ever observe with him again, but I did not want my advisor to confront this person about it or talk to the research group about it (with the exception of telling those responsible for scheduling about it).  And that was pretty much that (although due to a scheduling snafu I did have one night of overlap with this person again, but luckily without incident).

However, this all came back today, and because it’s been swirling through my brain I felt compelled to write this post.  A female faculty member heard about this and wanted to talk to me about it, specifically to point out that any incident of harassment should be reported to the university (or not just should be, but HAS to be).

At the time when I first told it to my advisor, this was my thinking: this is over.  I never have to see this person again.  He’s not an employee of my university.  He’s interacted with other female grad students before and apparently this was never an issue, so I don’t know what’s wrong with me.  He’s from another culture and I don’t want to seem as though I am insensitive to cultural issues.  I didn’t properly stand up for myself and say “this is offensive” early enough.  I’m just too “radically” feminist and this guy is saying things that aren’t that extreme and I should just calm down.

All excuses.

But what this faculty member made me realize is that all that stuff doesn’t matter.  First of all, I had never thought to call this “harassment,” but she’s right to use that term.  But more importantly, I let him just get away with this. And if I let him get away with it now, who will he do it do later?  How long have people been “getting away” with harassing and discrimination against other people just because no one wants to speak up?  Some of the stories you hear are ludicrous, things that people should lose their job over (not necessarily this incident), and people let it fly by.

I’m in a mood that I just can’t shake not only because the anger and indignation of this incident were all brought back up to the surface, but because I feel guilty.  I should have put up a fight.  Maybe not on that observing run… I’m normally quite good at speaking my mind, but when someone treats another human being like that, even I was shut down.  But afterwords, when I had the opportunity, and when I had people with stronger voices backing me up.

Now this professor is, with my permission, going to talk to my advisor about the fact that this needs to be reported through official channels.  I just asked her to make sure that it’s clear that I am not mad about how he handled the situation.

I’m just upset about how I handled it.

One Comment leave one →
  1. 09/26/2010 9:10 pm

    This is a great piece of writing – best of luck to you with the reporting. I hate how in these situations the responsibility for starting the process rolling is on the victim.

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