Recently I read the article describing sexual harassment in academia. Explaining how prevalent it is. So I decided to add my story.
Yes, there is loads of sexual harassment in academia, so much that female students often warn each other about the different professors.
In my undergrad years, I got the tips: ‘Do not dye your hair blonde, this one likes blondes.’ ‘Do not wear red in his classes, he will force you to have sex.’ ‘Avoid a situation where you will end up alone with that one, it will not end up nice.’
Once I was complaining to my friend that I just cannot pass an exam with one professor, no matter how hard I try. She grinned and said he probably wish to f..k. Then she shared a similar experience, where she actually did it.
I did not. Instead, I changed majors, because with a different major I got different professor for the same subject. And guess what, at that exam, I got the highest possible grade.
Yes, changing majors impacted my career. But I did not wish to give in blackmailing. My knowledge and talents should be judged, not my genitals.
Then I got in grad school, thinking I’m in a reputable old organization, nothing bad will happen to me now. After all, Germans always boosted to be way more progressive than my country of origin. And at that point in time, I believed them.
Well, sexual harassment did happen. My thesis advisor had a postdoc he considered a friend. And for some mysterious reason, I had to work with that particular postdoc. It did not take long before postdoc insisted on a sexual relationship. He explained it saying his girlfriend was out of the town and he was bored. I guess I was supposed to feel sorry for him.
This time I complained. He was just one notch above me in a hierarchy, and theoretically should not be involved in my theses at all. First I asked my advisor to work with someone else, and he refused to accommodate me, dismissing my complaints. So I went to a head of the school and said what happened. It did not help. Oh, head of the school did all he could to help, but his idea of help was to talk with my advisor. Instead of help, I got punished.
My advisor forbade the whole group to work with me or help me. No one on the team who was supposed to work with me on the research was allowed to even talk with me. But I did not give up. In the end, I got my Ph.D. I did it without any help of my advisor’s group.
And problems did not stop there. My advisor forbade publishing of my research. It took time for me to learn that he has no right to do so and that basically by saying he does not wish me to publish, just means I have to remove him from the author list. I still have that email of his saved. In essence, my advisor did whatever he could to destroy any chance I could have a scientific career.
I fought back, had a stroke of luck and got a wonderful job with a fine research group in Belfast, Northern Ireland. And my career took off. Late, and with large handicap but it took off. In this group, I did not have any bad experiences. A weird one yes, with one male grad student, who thought that I’m hitting on him when I complimented his work. When I realized his confusion I backed off, and that solved that issue.
Anyway, for the rest of my career, I did not experience any more harassment. I listened to the advice I was getting from other females in the academia. Made sure to look as much as male as possible. Many of my female colleagues described how their problems with bosses and advisors grew together with their hair.
Maybe that was it. I liked to dress up as a grad student. After coming from the war-torn country, a cute dress seemed like a breath of spring. But it brought me experiences that I often put on par with my war experiences (Yes, I survived a war as a civilian. I would not recommend it to anyone).
Dressing and behaving butch did work. I went as butch as I could. I pretended to like sports, watching it just to be able to follow the ‘water-cooler’ conversations.
I hope that for you, a young girl, a situation will change and you will be able to go through your academic experience without harassment. But if this current movement falls flat, then do what I did, be as butch as possible.
In the end, that kind of ‘style’ yields harassment-free interactions, it is more comfortable and requires way less maintenance. Also, it prevents that annoying situation where you are trying to talk about Hilbert’s space and tensors, while your male colleague is smirking staring at your boobs.
Incidents like those were a reason why I was looking into t-shirts with Iron Maiden logo. Those did wonders on helping male colleagues concentrate on science instead boobs. I warmly recommend such T-shirt. There is nothing like half rotten corpse screaming on the T-shirt to put males mind away from the sex. (I guess I never bumped into necrophiliac).
If you wonder, what would be my preferred way to dress, well, cosplay. I would love to be able to go around dressed as Vulcan all the time (Star Trek). I would not mind having Rey’s garb (Star Wars), or Tauriel’s (Hobbit). I personally think that outfit of the Wraith Queen is a perfect choice around Halloween (Stargate). I even thought about perfecting my sewing skills so that I can make such custom clothing for myself. But life usually gets in a way, and I never get there.
So this is my #metoo story. Just to add, I never met an adult female that did not have a story like this.