Every #MeToo story over the last several months has made me pause. My heart races and my concentration fails. The fact that the stories have largely focused on the workplace adds to my difficulty.
Do I speak out too?
I have shared a few stories with colleagues about things that have happened to me in school and at work. But these stories have been somewhat lighthearted events that have been easy to share without outing the perpetrators.
For example, I have told a story about a university employee telling me, in so many words, that I should be barefoot and pregnant and not in the office. What I didn’t share is that the same employee, later that year – despite the fact that our common boss knew about this story because I did indeed report it – was awarded a best employee award. How do you think that made me feel? Like my experience didn’t matter and that such comments are condoned by our department. Why didn’t I share that information widely? Because I was worried that folks would then be able to figure out who the culprit was. And isn’t that even worse? Shouldn’t it be the sexist who is worried and not the woman who, yet again, is made to feel like she doesn’t belong?
Let me tangent a bit. For years I have not flown. Ostensibly I stopped flying because of the contribution to the climate crisis. When I travel, I go by train. It takes longer, but has been surprisingly pleasant. And when travel takes 3-4 times as long, you don’t do it as often, further reducing your carbon footprint. Of course, that means that I don’t go to conferences unless they are nearby.
But when I really think about it, is this really the reason I stopped going to conferences? A conference I would normally go to was held nearby a few years ago and I didn’t go. Sure, I suffered a grievous injury two weeks before, but I hadn’t even registered. I had planned to not go long before that injury.
So, really, why do I no longer attend conferences? Partly I don’t feel that I need to anymore, now that I have tenure. When I stopped attending conferences, I was able to “coast into” tenure. Letter writers would remember me. I essentially stopped going to conferences and workshops as soon as I possibly could.
Back to the beginning, or close to.
I was nervous at the first conference I attended as a graduate student. One of the reasons I was nervous was that I was athletic at the time and planned on daily runs while I was attending – I was worried that it might be viewed as a waste of time. My advisor, who also went to the conference, found out about my athleticism and suggested we run together. This was a relief to me. That is, until we were running and he started talking about his lackluster sex life with his wife. I responded by picking up the pace and feigning an illness on the remaining days. On the last day of the conference we were out for dinner with a large group of people and dinner went late into the night. I excused myself, as I had a 4AM bus to catch. My advisor walked me out of the restaurant and awkwardly said something about wanting me to stay and that we should talk. I stuck to leaving, knowing that I needed some sleep before the long trip home the next day. He said we should talk when we were back in the office. Honestly, at the time I thought he was going to complain about my talk or my professional performance in some way. I worried about it all through the weekend until we met next. I brought it up at the end of our meeting, asking what he wanted to talk about, naively expecting professional criticism. When he said I must surely know, in a certain voice, I knew he wasn’t talking about work. I feigned ignorance, and he eventually brushed it off and said not to worry. In the coming months, he would cancel meetings and otherwise make himself unavailable. After a half year I realized I wouldn’t be able to be successful without having a supportive advisor and, despite first planning to quit grad school, found a new advisor and moved on. That former advisor barely made eye contact with me for the remainder of my time in graduate school.
Fast forward many years. I was at a small workshop as a postdoc. A senior and highly respected researcher invited me to dinner. I was excited at the opportunity to make a stronger connection that would hopefully lead to a collaboration. However, at dinner he made it very clear that this was not professional by reaching across the table and stroking my hands repeatedly. I don’t even recall how I handled it. Perhaps I should have expected it – a grad school friend of mine had a similar, and probably worse, interaction with this same researcher. Shortly after I got to my room at the hotel, my hotel room phone rang. It was him. He wanted to continue our conversation. I did not.
Perhaps a year later, still as a postdoc, I was at a party and a colleague from another university was there too. At the end of the party, we were alone. We flirted, mutually. Flirting led to kissing, kissing led to him picking me up in a way that asserted how much stronger he is than me, which led to my utter discomfort, which led to me saying no, stop, repeatedly. Which he didn’t listen to. Which led to a calculation in my head. I could either resist and risk physical injury or I could submit. I chose to submit, without consent.
For the record, that is called rape.
For a long while, I suppressed it. I pretended in my own head that it didn’t happen that way, that it was consensual. I even tried to continue working with him – always in public places, mind you. The wall in my mind gradually broke down over the years until several years later, we were at the same workshop where the doors of the rooms didn’t have locks. You could lock them from the inside, but not the outside. I remember worrying that he would be lurking in my room and took to making sure I knew where he was before I ventured back to sleep.
So why would I continue to go to workshops and conferences when that is the environment I know I will face? Even if I felt safe, if 95% of the attendees are men, how many look at me as a colleague and how many look at me as a potential score? When I was going up for tenure, I thought long and hard about listing the senior-and-highly-respected researcher on a do-not-ask-for-a-letter list. But where would it stop? Do I include all the people who hit on me? All the people who stared at my breasts or commented on my body? All the people who I had been given clear signals that they didn’t see me as a colleague and equal member of the research community, but as a woman meant to be looked at, hit on, touched inappropriately.
Should I have quit grad school when I had the chance? We all know it isn’t any better in industry. Should I have pursued another discipline? No discipline, it seems, is immune to sexualization of women. But I think the situation is uniquely horrible in fields where there are so few women. At conferences in theoretical computer science, 5-10% of the attendees are women, as a generous estimate. The numbers aren’t in women’s favor. The chances that you will get hit on, harassed, assaulted are much higher. There is a greater probability that you will be on your own in a group of men. You can’t escape working with men. It is next to impossible to build a career when you start striking men off your list of collaborators in such a field. That is not to say there aren’t wonderful men to work with. There are many men in our field that I have worked with and turned to for advice and spent long hours with and never once had detected so much as a creepy vibe. But you can’t escape having to deal with the many others who aren’t good. When you meet someone at a conference, and they invite you for a drink or dinner to continue the conversation, how do you know that they actually want to talk about work, or at least treat you as they would any colleague? How do you make that decision?
I hung on until I no longer needed to go to conferences and workshops to advance my career to the stability of tenure. But surely my career going forward will suffer. My decision is also hard on my students, who go to conferences on their own without someone to introduce them around. It is hard on my students who can’t, for visa difficulties, go to the international conferences that I am also unwilling to go to, so we roll the dice on the few domestic conferences they can go to.
And now I am switching fields. Completely. I went to two conferences last summer. The first, I brought the protective shield of my child and partner. The second, I basically showed up for my talk and nothing else. I wasn’t interested in schmoozing. It’ll be difficult, for sure, to establish myself in a new field without fully participating in the expected ways.
Is all this why I am switching fields? Not entirely, I’m sure, but it must have played a big role. If I enjoyed conferences as much as everyone else seems to, and didn’t feel shy about starting new collaborations, I might be too engrossed to consider reasons to leave. And certainly, the directions I am pursuing are lending themselves to a much greater chance of working with women.
Why am I speaking out now? The #MeToo moment is forcing me to think about it, of course. But I have been thinking about this for years. I hope it will be a relief to get it off my chest. I have been “getting on with it” for long enough. 1 in 5 women will deal with rape in their lifetime. 1 in 5! You would think that I would hear about this from friends. But I hadn’t told anyone about my rape. And almost no one has told me about theirs. I think it would help, in the very least therapeutically, to talk about it.
I thought about publishing this somewhere, anonymously, as a “woman in STEM”. I considered publishing it non-anonymously, but was shy to deal with the trolls. I didn’t want to deal with what many women who speak out about their experiences face: have their life be scrutinized, hear excuses being made on behalf of the predators, generally have their experiences denied. But I think by posting it here, many people in theoretical computer science will read it, rather than a few from the choir. I am hoping that you will talk to each other about it. That you will start thinking of ways to make our community better for others. In all my years of going to conferences and workshops, of all the inappropriate comments and behaviors that others have stood around and witnessed, never once did any of the good ones call that behavior out or intervene. Maybe they did so in private, but I think it needs to be made public. Even the good ones can do better.
What can you do?
While you couldn’t have protected me from being raped, you can think about the situations we are expected to be in for our careers – at workshops in remote locations, where we’re expected to drink and be merry after hours. I hope not many of us have been raped by a colleague, but even if you haven’t, it doesn’t take many instances of being hit on or touched inappropriately to begin to feel unsafe.
I remember being at a conference and, standing in a small group, an attendee interrupted a conversation I was having to tell me that my haircut wasn’t good, that I shouldn’t have cut my hair short. I tried to ignore it, and continue my conversation, but he kept going on about it. Saying how I would never attract a man with that haircut. No one said anything. Speak up. Just say – shut up! – that’s not appropriate. Don’t leave it up to the people who have to deal with this day in day out to deal with it on their own. Create a culture where we treat each other with respect and don’t silently tolerate objectification and worse.
I regret never reporting my first graduate advisor’s behavior, but is it my fault? I had no idea who to report it to. I had no idea either in undergrad who I would report such behavior to. Where I am now is the first place I’ve been that has had clear channels for reporting sexual harassment and other damaging situations. The channels are not without problems, but I think the university is continuing to improve them. Perhaps we should have a way of reporting incidents in our field. I have a hard time believing, given that myself and a grad school friend had similar experiences with the same senior-and-highly-respected researcher, that others in the field don’t know that he is a creep. It is up to you to protect the vulnerable of our community from creeps and predators. Keep an eye on them. Talk to them. Don’t enable them. As a last resort, shame and isolate them.