Sexual harassment is a shitty thing. It is not just because people get hurt by it, but because it is an abuse of the social structure performed so subtly that the victim of sexual harassment may never have even a single concrete moment that she can look back on and say, “this was clearly sexual harassment.” Moreover, without those concrete experiences, people who would be inconvenienced by the news of sexual harassment in their workplace, people like the managers responsible for preventing said harassment, are more inclined to doubt the conclusions of the victim than they are to take action against the predator. A fellow academic shared her story of sexual harassment, and it inspired me to share my own. Sexual harassment is often a collection of actions that together unequivocally harm a woman’s self image, career, and work place relationships. In order to make it easier for the victims of sexual harassment to overcome their harassers, I think those of us who are able are obliged to share our stories. I hope that by sharing my story here that other women might recognize what is happening and take actions sooner and with more resolve in order to protect themselves.
The situation started when a young assistant professor joined my university. I was married at the time and he approached my husband, thinking he was another member of the university, and inquired about the attractive woman organizing the happy hour. That woman was me. It was my third year in graduate school and I was on the committee for planning the economics department’s social events. My husband, being the sort of man who likes to brag about his accomplishments, explained that I was his wife. At the time I was looking for an advisor and the young assistant specialized in my field, so I took the opportunity to start a conversation. Looking back I’m sure it was their shared moment of objectifying me that paved the way for the difficulty ahead.
I began working with the professor several months later on a project he had started in graduate school. We were working to extend a simple two dimensional model of choice under uncertainty to a three dimensional case to gain insight on the existence of a counter example. I devoted many precious hours each week to this project in the hopes that it would lead to a co-authorship, or at least a reciprocal research relationship in which I could develop my own work. I enjoyed the work, but the professor remained guarded. He took my ideas and used them, but would not share his insights beyond what was necessary for the current task. There was no suggestion that a co authorship would occur.
Playing with one of the functions we had discussed, trying to get a better feel for what it meant, I discovered that I had completely characterized it with a single axiom of choice. I shared this information with my professor and we agreed I would pursue this direction in my third year paper, a requirement for the PhD in my department. After formalizing our relationship, my professor began spending more time in my office and he began initiating interactions with me that had nothing to do with my work. After my duties on the social committee ended, he started making special trips to my office to ensure I would continue attending the happy hours. He insisted I stay with him for several drinks and a game of pool after the rest of the department left. He wanted me to play on his team in a game of flip cup at the annual party. I had few friends and a failing long distance marriage at the time, so I thought I would go along with the invitations, telling myself that I was using my femininity to gain an advantage. If my advisor was interested in me socially or sexually, then perhaps he would be more inclined to take a personal interest in my work as well.
My marriage began to deteriorate as I began to progress on my own research project. It seems to me that my husband was becoming increasingly uncomfortable with my growing marketability and he began sabotaging my research activities. A professor of economics himself, it was not difficult for him to initiate contact with my faculty under the guise of academic inquiry. My health deteriorated rapidly and between the sudden drop in weight and the horrendous acne, it was impossible for me to hide that something awful was going on outside of my work. To make matters worse, my husband had invited himself to my university as a one semester guest professor working with my advisor and the second chair on my graduation committee. I decided it was best to fill my advisor in on the situation in the hopes that he would be my ally and my support. However, if things had turned out the way I had hoped, I would not be writing this blog.
After telling my advisor that my husband and I had separated, his involvement in my life intensified. He hired me as a teacher’s assistant for his game theory class and when I came to deliver the graded homework assignments we would make excuses to keep me in his office. He wanted me to help him understand his gas bill. He was curious how I was holding up with the impending divorce. He wanted to explain to me about how Israeli chocolate was so much better than American chocolate. He wanted me to style edit his current paper for publication. I actually was known for my good grammar and style editing and charged $35/hr to faculty for my services. I spent three hours on this job and when I came to him he said, “wow, this is great work! You definitely deserve a chocolate!” A chocolate?! “Professor, I don’t work for chocolate. I work for $35 per hour payable in cash or with your research fund.” He never paid me for the work.
Things got noticeably worse after this. I told him that the divorce was so stressful that I was taking a semester off from research. I also began avoiding him in the hallways and guarding information about my personal life more actively. He responded by petitioning the Director of Graduate Studies (DGS) to have me TA his course again. My funding had expired so if he hadn’t done this I would have had no income. I shared the job responsibilities this time with another student, a married woman who was five months pregnant at the beginning of the semester. I received only a half fellowship and the three of us met to discuss the workload. I agreed to grade exactly half of the assignments for half the pay and everyone found this acceptable. I had never been late on an assignment in the past and had always done high quality work, but this semester my professor would not stop riding me. Three days after the midterm exam he wanted the grades done. I told him that I never finished grading sooner than one week after the assignment. I promised him I would finish the grading the next day. It wasn’t even lunch time and he tracked me down in the building to demand the work. I told him that he hadn’t given me a specific hour and he was being unreasonable. He responded by secretly shifting one of the assignments from my co-TA’s schedule onto my schedule and rewriting the final exam to be multiple choice. The end result was that I did two thirds of the work for only half the pay. When I found out that he had done this I finally knew that I was being punished. I flew into a rage, which I carefully contained inside my head, and resolved to take action. He had stolen money from me on two separate occasions and there was going to be hell to pay…
Or so I thought. My professor had actually submitted a dissatisfactory performance claim to my department chair. Before I could think I was being reprimanded for my neglect of duty. I explained what had happened and that Professor D. had taken advantage of me and my chair said that since I had finished the work already that I should just let it go. I was even more furious then than I had been before. I was being reprimanded because my advisor was using his position to assuage his damaged ego? And I, a poor graduate student living on less than $15,000/yr, who was being stolen from by my professor because I had rejected his sexual advances, was being advised to just walk away?
I went to the university ombudsman on the recommendation of one of my classmates. She was an older woman who accused me of being depressed. I certainly was depressed, but I say accused because she seemed to imply that I was allowing my depression to cloud my judgment. I told her I wanted something done about the situation and she said if I pushed the issue it would cost me my career in economics. The only thing to do, she said, was to file a sexual harassment complaint against the department but it was sure to fail because all I had to go on was my word versus the professor’s. Essentially, what I heard from her, was that unless he had raped me on camera that he had every right to use and abuse me in any way he felt fit and if it was inconvenient for the university to interfere then it wouldn’t. I felt alone and helpless and for six months I didn’t work.
What finally got me out of my situation was, of all things, an annual progress report to the graduate group. We had to fill these out every year to prove that we were making acceptable progress towards completing our dissertations. I felt that no one in my department would listen to me, that no one in the university cared that I was being abused, that nothing mattered at all. At this lowest point I had nothing to lose, so in my progress report I was honest. I explained how ending my marriage had produced a marked change in my relationship with my advisor. I explained how my committee and my department head refused to interfere on my behalf. I explained how the social situation had made it impossible for me to seek advice on my research or make progress and that for a full year I had written no chapters and had no expectation of being able to finish my degree. Apparently this was the right thing to do because less than three days later I was invited — not summoned, but invited — to come in a speak with the DGS again.
My department head must have gotten in trouble from my report because everything turned around that day. I showed up on November 11, 2011 at 11:00 in the morning. At exactly 11:11 and 11 seconds I made a wish that I would overcome these obstacles and be successful in my career and at 11:12 my department head was listening intently to my story. There were moments when he attempted to steer me away from outright accusing Professor D of harassment, but I was determined. By the end of our meeting I had stated my claim that my advisor had contributed to my current inability to function by using his position to attempt to force sexual favors from me. I had stated my claim that the other faculty turned a blind eye and that this had sealed my fate. The department head did not offer to take any action against Professor D, but this time he did not attempt to deny my claim either. We agreed that I would switch faculty and he would make sure that Professor D did not interact with me until I graduated. He also promised me no further interference from the university in my degree.
In the end I feel like I won the fight. I also feel like I have battle scars that may never heal. The difficulty with the sexual harassment was not any one single aspect. My husband had encouraged it both when he spoke with my advisor and when he spoke to me, insisting that my professor’s personal interest in me was not only not inappropriate, but even beneficial to my career. When it became obvious to me that the personal attention was not good for me, I was already deep in the process of what would become a three year divorce battle and I lacked the emotional strength to end two poisonous relationships at the same time, particularly when one of them was so intensely related to my success as an economist. And then there was the difficulty in seeing the harassment for what it was. No single interaction by itself would be cause for alarm, but taken together I can see the pattern of a man trying to manipulate a woman, stealing her time and her attention, without openly acknowledging that that is what he was doing. And finally, there is the shame of admitting that I was taken advantage of, that I even thought that I was the player at one point, not the one being played. Even when I was able to admit to myself what was going on, I had no allies. Even the women were uncomfortable acknowledging my experience and preferred to just sweep it all under the rug.
At this point I doubt anything more will come of the situation. I do worry, on occasion, that Professor D will not credit me for the work I contributed to his research. I need that credit as a young professor myself, but I doubt that even if he were to withhold it that there would be any repercussion. Sometimes I dream of the day we meet again, sometime off in the future where I am well established and respected in my field. I imagine him stunted and meddling, an older, fatter, balder version of himself. We will meet eyes and he will know that in the end I was the stronger one. Then, he will turn and hobble off into his dark ivy covered cave to perpetuate his delusion of greatness.
I share my story here for any women who might be now in the place I was years ago. To you who are wondering if his criticism, or even his praise, is really because of work you did or if it’s because he wants something from you; to you who feel as if you are the only one who sees it; to you who doubt that your own intuition is trustworthy; to you who have no allies, I give you my story. I hope when you read it you will find some insight into your own situation and some strength to fight for your own dignity. Also to you who share a workplace with women. I hope that my story gives you some insight into our plight. I hope that in reading my story you are able to recognize when your own coworkers are suffering a similar situation. I hope that maybe when you see the damage that sexual harassment causes that when it is your turn to choose if you will sweep it under the rug or not that you will choose to validate her experience instead.