Sending out the Bat-signal

This blog is part of a series addressing issues further explored in GSA’s Pardee Session Women Rising: Removing Barriers and Achieving Parity in the Geosciences.  Attend the Women Rising session, 1:30 – 5:30 p.m., Monday, November 5, Sagamore Ballroom 5, Indianapolis Convention Center (ICC), Indianapolis, followed by a networking social, 5:30 – 7:00 p.m.​

by Jane Willenbring, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California San Diego

People seem to love superhero movies. The superhero origin story is often the same–their superpowers and unique dedication to doing good and righting injustice was borne out of hardship and tragedy. Interestingly, the evil-doers in these stories are also scarred by some horribly tragic event or circumstance. This depiction of villains (and heroes) gives the audience a feel-good experience without the unpleasant thought that some people are born bad (or good), or worse, that people are not born evil (or good), but just make certain choices over and over. It also makes people feel good that superheroes are different from us. Someone else, who is special, will save the day.

My previous GSA blog post was about why people shouldn’t be judged negatively or showered with accolades simply because of how they happen to survive harassment and bullying at the time. This blog post is about how one person (me) moves on after harassment in a positive way, but really it is a blog post for all of you scientists about all of us scientists at a watershed moment and I think it has a happy ending.

Spoiler alert: I believe I am a better scientist and person now compared to before I was harassed. I hate to write that because I think I’ll be misunderstood/misquoted; unequivocally, I’d rather not have been harassed. And I dislike thinking that any aspect of my prior #MeToo experiences have made me better because that would be like saying that I’m grateful for the mistreatment. For the record, I’m not happy that I was pushed down, spit on, had rocks thrown at me or called “slut” and “whore” almost 20 years ago. But, somehow, given that it happened, I had to do something with it. I had to move on. But in which direction?

My first, visceral reaction to harassment and bullying was anger. Later, there was fear of not reporting and potentially having the behavior get worse. Then, fear of reporting. Fear is a rational reaction given that one study found that 75% of those who spoke out against workplace mistreatment faced some form of retaliation. Then, there was anger again. Anger: because I felt-and was right to feel-powerless with just two terrible options. Then after a time, when I didn’t speak up, guilt set in. Are others suffering like I did? Then, defensive anger: I shouldn’t feel guilty; I’m not the harasser!

After a year (or ten) of feeling anger-fear-anger-guilt-anger, my brain found a way out of the cycle. I kept my head down, did my work, and tried not to think about it. I think a lot of us use this strategy. I locked the whole experience away in a box in my mental attic to maybe be opened later and maybe never opened again.

I (maybe, we)–moved forward and ignored the past–the box in the attic–until someone unlocks the box for us. We read articles, tweets or Facebook posts that say “#MeToo” or “I believe her” or “why I didn’t report” and there is the box! It’s down from the attic and all opened up.

For me, before the #MeToo movement opened up the conversation about sexual harassment and assault, my daughter opened up the box. She came to my lab with me one weekend afternoon, and looked up at me in my lab coat, safety glasses, and nitrile gloves with her innocent 3-year-old eyes and a proud smile below them and said, “I want to be a scientist just like you, Mommy.”

I told her that my instant-reaction tears were happy-tears, and they were. I’ve had an amazing science-life so far: filled with the excitement of discovery, the joy of shaping young minds and the kind of fulfilling happiness that only comes from working hard for something. I want that for her. But they weren’t only happy tears. The box was down from the attic and opened, and instead of the usual anger-fear-anger-guilt-anger, there was sadness.

I wasn’t sad because I didn’t report my harasser when I was a student; I made the right decision then by surviving as best I could, at a time and in a place where harassment and discrimination complaints weren’t taken seriously. I was and still am a pragmatist. Case in point, just last year, I discovered that a woman had reported my former advisor’s behavior years before I’d even arrived on campus. She did just what you’re supposed to do when you’re harassed as a student. She was then forced out of science, stifling a dream she’d single-mindedly pursued since she was seven years old.

No, my sadness was simpler than that. I was just sad that some advisor could treat my sweet, important, little girl like trash in 20 years. I was sad that that time when sexual harassment wasn’t taken seriously is now, and it might not be taken seriously 20 years from now either. I was sad that I didn’t do anything to prevent my past from becoming my daughter’s future or the future of so many others.

This summer, a landmark report came out from the National Academy of Sciences on sexual harassment of women in STEM fields. It’s a sobering reckoning of the barriers women face because of harassment and the pervasive impacts on women’s careers. The NAS report authors wrote, “Over thirty years the incidence of sexual harassment in different industries has held steady.” And “There is no evidence to suggest that current policies, procedures, and approaches have resulted in a significant reduction in sexual harassment.” I believe that’s true.

Things haven’t gotten much better despite words and policies. After investigations, my former masters degree advisor was found to have sexually harassed me and the brave woman who reported him before I began as a student. He is still a professor (though without NSF funding now). This is almost two years after I filed my sexual harassment complaint with corroborating witness testimony and documentation of other women’s similar experiences, and almost a year after a Science magazine exposé, and a congressional inquiry into this particular harassment case.

If this case doesn’t result in a faculty member being terminated, what chance does a woman have if the sexual harassment happens when she’s alone with her supervisor in a lab or, especially with changed Title IX harassment rules that don’t cover off-campus activity, alone with her supervisor in a remote field site or a conference? If it weren’t for the publicity, my former advisor would probably already be hired at a new university with a raise. Or he might still be teaching and advising women at his current institution and the next student he harassed and new university Title IX investigators might not even know that there was a previous complaint because of confidentiality rules and because complaints are most-often filed under the name of the complainant–not the harasser.

How did I live without saying anything for so long? It is both easier and harder with time and distance. I did some other things to try and help women-in-science: I worked with girls to encourage them to enter STEM fields in ways I wish I’d been encouraged. I thought that girls–like my daughter–just needed to see that science is fun and would run toward it full speed. The NAS report authors noted real effects of the encouragement that I, and others, gave girls, “…now more women are in the workforce and in academia, and in the fields of science, engineering, and medicine (as students and faculty) and so more women are experiencing sexual harassment as they work and learn.

Before that day with my daughter in the lab, I survived, I encouraged, and I didn’t look back. Flood the pipeline; ignore the leaks! But did I really want women to take that same path, to have to jump the same hurdles and fight the same fights? I did not. Did I tell students what it was like for me so they could make an informed decision given that half of women in science will experience harassment? Not really. Did I let them know they weren’t alone if something happened to them? Not enough. Did I tell men about the harassment? Definitely not.

I wrote the Title IX complaint against my former advisor that night after thinking about my daughter’s future in science, and I’ve been telling people about what I experienced ever since.

Talking about positive and negative experiences in becoming and being a scientist was a theme of the monthly discussion series we adopted at Scripps called Growing Up in Science. Last spring it was my turn. I sat with a packed room of students and talked about the work, struggle and joy that is science and also about harassment and discrimination that shouldn’t have happened, but did. I remember at one point I said I thought I now have a superpower as a result of being harassed, bullied and discriminated against and that that superpower is empathy. Maybe I can help junior scientists more now because I’m reminded again and again of how bad these things make me feel?

I was told that a gratitude-mindset can be helpful in handling difficult situations.

It is surprising and heartbreaking when women or members of other marginalized groups, who have probably experienced harassment themselves, harass and bully others as Kelly Kryc wrote about in her GSA blog post. We assume that women would have empathy for other women given they were in a similar situation once, but one study showed that two-thirds of women are harassed by other women in the workplace.

When I was being charitable, thinking about the struggles of the harassed women made them more sympathetic when they harassed others. Their awful behavior was a little more understandable compared to similar behavior from a non-harassed bully. After all, something made them into villains.  I also gave some men a pass; especially those who weren’t bad necessarily, but clearly didn’t think about harassment in science or what they could do to help. How would they know? I didn’t tell them about harassment. I also was sympathetic toward people who meant well, but used the wrong words sometimes. I imagined that they must not understand how it feels to be discouraged by words day after day. How could they know? They didn’t have my empathy-superpower!

I was told that an empathy-mindset can be helpful in handling difficult people.

I suppose that empathy and gratitude are healthy, productive feelings, but prescribing these as a way forward for anyone or a solution for anything seems like just awful advice. Imagine telling an abused kid that they should feel grateful that they will now do a better job helping other abused kids or that they should feel empathy for what their abuser went through. Similarly, when we hear that someone has abused a child, there’s no comfort in hearing many people didn’t know about it, or that someone suspected it, but wasn’t sure and didn’t have time to get involved, or that someone meant well but did the wrong thing anyway. When we hear “policies were followed” and serial abusers were just moved to another new place, and (surprise!) they abuse kids there too, we have to wonder how an institution could not make policy changes immediately to prevent it from happening in the future.

Surprisingly to me, people abused as children are not more likely to abuse other kids. I’m unaware of a study of how often harassed-scientists harass others compared to other non-harassed scientists. But I do know that people make choices and that institutions can change their policies and that there have been signs that harassment and discrimination were happening all around us for years.

It would be convenient to think about harassed scientists going on to be either superheroes or villains. It would be great if non-harassed scientists didn’t have to concern themselves with such things; they aren’t superheroes with super-empathy-powers, after all. It would be nice to think that I have a superpower now, borne out of my experiences.

But I don’t have a special superpower.

Superhero stories are fiction and the truth is uncomfortable. No one needs to experience harassment to believe that it would be detrimental and damaging. I know how it feels for me to be harassed, but I don’t know what it felt like for you or someone else to be harassed. I can only imagine. We all can imagine. Maybe we really didn’t realize the magnitude of the problem before or know that most professors don’t get fired for it and why not. We do now.

It is true. I’m a better person than I was before I was harassed as a graduate student. I now want to help others, to create opportunities to listen to people who may have been harassed and bullied, to learn all the perverse academic structures that protect abusers in academia and how to change them. I’m working hard to become a responsible, effective bystander. I’ve found that mentoring students constructively can take training and effort. But these goals and skills are not necessarily made or learned by being harassed or bullied. They can be encouraged, taught, and rewarded. Others, who were not harassed, have them–I’ve seen it.

Would it have been better if a scientist, who made it through the pipeline, then harassed her students and belittled every woman around her, had been replaced by another scientist who was a non-abusive mentor and colleague? We don’t get to know the counterfactual. It isn’t about the papers, grants, or number of students who graduated with a PhD. The thought experiment is: what would a constructive mentor and scientist have done with those same trainees and opportunities? We’ll never know. I don’t know if I would be the person I am today without the harassment I experienced. I would have liked to have been able to find out.

We do have choices to make now. Will we listen to what women go through and learn how to help (at a Pardee session at GSA, for example)? What kind of mentors and bystanders do we choose to be? Do we want our institution or department chairs to just issue a “we don’t tolerate harassment and bullying” memo, or do we want real actions to back up that statement? Which scientists do we hire, promote or fire? Which scientists should be nominated for an award and which should have honors and society memberships revoked? Should we use words and images to inspire and encourage or do we make demeaning jokes that exclude? Do we want institutions to simply move harassers from place to place in secrecy or do we want institutions to protect junior scientists everywhere by releasing harassers’ Title IX or Title VI investigation decisions?

There’s no special, other superhero to make these choices and institution changes to rescue academia from the harassers. It isn’t up to just women, minorities, or those who were harassed to save the day–they may be busy getting through the barriers put in front of them. It is up to all of us through the choices we make.

We are all seeing the bat-signal now. Stop whatever you were doing before, look up, then save the day.

Author dancing with her young daughterJane Willenbring is an Associate Professor at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California San Diego and an Op-Ed Project alum.

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