Sunday, April 06, 2008

Harassments, Part 1

“I’m the one being harassed,” he said. “I’m the one who is the victim. All I ever did was try to help people.”

He honestly believes this.

This is not the first time that I have heard a story like this. This is not the first time that I have been involved.

The first time, my first advisor was the perpetrator. To list his breaches of etiquette, his violation of ethics, his just plain out-and-out wrong advice, would take too long. The sum of it was that he harassed me, and continued to target me for retaliation when I was no longer his student. So much so that I had to file a complaint several years after the direct harassment had taken place. In filing that complaint, I learned that I was merely one in a long line of other women whom he had harassed and that the Office of Affirmative action on our campus existed solely to protect the university from any future lawsuits.* I also learned that the professor in question believed that he was the one being harassed, and that he was the one who was being victimized when I complained. All he ever did was try to help me, he said.

The second case took place in a grayer area. The person in question worked as an adjunct at my university and chaired the department of a nearby community college. I quickly learned that this adjunct saw teaching as a great way to pick up women, preferably women half his age.** I informed him that his attitude toward the female students bothered me, and, while I couldn’t dictate his behavior or that of the students in question, I’d prefer to be left out of the whole sordid mess. The second semester, when he started the semester by asking me, “do you see any good prospects for me,” I reminded him of my request. “Oh,” he said, “haven’t you gotten over that?”

About half-way through the first semester, he decided to ask me out. “We wouldn’t start dating until the end of the semester,” he said. “But after that, it would be o.k.” He then tried to point out all of the benefits of dating him. He could keep me employed at his college as an adjunct and make sure that I was up for any full-time openings. I wouldn’t have to deal with the nasty rumors about my sex life that apparently were common knowledge in my own department,*** because I would be safely tied to a man in a legitimate relationship. He was friends with the advisor mentioned above, so he could mitigate the damage that that professor was doing to me. Plus, he could show me what dating a good guy was like.

I was assigned to him for a second semester, and he had cooked up a plan to keep me as his t.a. by telling the chair of the department that no one else wanted to work with me for fear that I could cry the sexual harassment wolf on them (thereby victimizing them), but that he wasn’t afraid.

I didn’t file a complaint against him. Too many “it was your own fault,” “how stupid are you to have gotten into that situation,” “why don’t you just get away from him,” “fool me twice, shame on me,” messages had been internalized. Besides, in this case, my refusal to date him did not result in any negative consequences for me.

He never saw what he did as causing any problems or creating a climate of fear or intimidation for me. Had I complained, he would have cast himself as the victim, as a person who was selflessly trying to help people. I know this because when the university finally did get rid of him – for ethical violations that did not involve the female students or teaching assistants – he described himself in just such terms.

In the third case, several years later, the harassment wasn’t precisely sexual. My supervisor at one of my first jobs out of graduate school seemed to think that I should be his “work wife.” Aside from being incompetent to the point of threatening the existence of the project on which I worked, he required me to be his friend – on pain of termination. He left creepy messages for me on the office voice mail while he was out of town , saying he had dreamed about me, or was thinking about me (for just such a reason, I never let him know my home phone number). He told me that he would not write me a recommendation for another job because a friend of his was applying for the same job and he believed that the friend deserved the job more because the friend’s wife worked at the same university. “Besides,” he said, “if I wrote you a good recommendation, then you might get the job, and then you would leave, and I don’t want that.” He did this and much, much more. I had the e-mails (and therapist bills, and insomnia, and rapidly thinning hair) to prove it.

I finally did talk with a human resources representative about his behavior, bringing with me copies of his e-mails to me as evidence. She spoke with the chair of the department, who agreed that his behavior was out of control. When they spoke with him, they did not discipline him nor in any way suggest that he was behaving improperly. They just told him that he might want to take into account my feelings in the way that he behaved toward me. In fact, they seemed more worried that, if they did say anything to him, then he would take the research project and go elsewhere.**** Still, he came back to me and said, “I feel like I am the one being harassed now. I’m being victimized. I was just trying to be your friend.” In fact, he accused me of creating a hostile work environment because I did not like him. (One tends to not like a person who endangers one’s job.)

Which brings me to this latest case. At another job, after I had left, the remaining employees collectively filed a complaint against the supervisor. I never felt sexually harassed by this supervisor, but I did feel threatened. Maybe “threatened” is not the exact word. What I felt was foreboding, as if, at any minute, I could become the pariah that my co-worker and my predecessor had become.

In fact, in all of these cases, I lived with this sense of foreboding, of fear that something dreadful would happen at any minute. These were very real fears, not just paranoia. Yet, as far as making any changes in the work environment, whether through grievances or through mediation, fear does not count. The only thing that counts is actual damage. Once the damage has happened -- be it a lost job, or an offer of quid pro quo, or a bad recommendation or evaluation that was undeserved, or grab-ass, or whatever – the actual victim must then prove their own innocence and enter into a grievance process that ultimately makes them look like a problem employee and, because of the imbalance of power, puts them in a position for retaliation (which itself must be proved).

The thing that bothered me in this fourth case was not so much the way in which my supervisor sidled up to the point of harassment, lifted his foot and held it over the line – like a 12 year-old testing the boundaries, like an 8 year-old playing “I’m not touching you” – as the way in which he used my body, my physical appearance and presence, as a bludgeon to beat my co-worker. The supervisor would always compliment me excessively in front of that co-worker (despite my protestations that these compliments made me uncomfortable), ask me to go out with him for his cigarette break (despite the fact that I don’t smoke and despite my protestations that I was working), ask me to dinner with his family, while specifically excluding my co-worker and criticizing my co-worker. I had been through worse harassment, but this use of me as a tool both to harass my co-worker and also to rob my predecessor of credit for his own work enraged me in a way that I could not comprehend, as did his implication of both me and my co-worker in a host of seriously unethical behavior.

Well, I got the hell out of there. As usual, I chose flight; the remaining staff chose to fight. An investigation began and both sides named me as a witness in their favor. The investigative team called me, and I gave a statement describing what I expereienced. This statement did not reflect well upon the supervior, nor did many others. Things look very bad for this supervisor -- shockingly bad, I might add, given his seniority and tenure. I no longer work there and have nothing invested in the outcome of the case, not even schadenfreude. All should be over, correct?

I constantly amaze myself with my own naiveté.

*In fact, the very week that I filed my own complaint, several attorneys working in the General Counsel’s office, which oversaw the Office of Affirmative Action, had filed a complaint against the General Counsel himself. Their case went into the federal system, which found the GC guilty. The university’s president had the gall to ignore the federal court opinion, saying something to the effect that the courts had no business telling a university – a public, state-funded university – how to do its business.
**“Women my age,” he insisted, “have been screwed over so many times by men that they don’t trust any men. I don’t want to deal with their baggage.” A woman his age said, “yeah, he wants them young and dumb. Women his age know his games.” I soon learned that her assessment was probably the more accurate.

***According to the rumor mill (the source being this particular advisor), I was simultaneously a heterosexual whore, frigid virgin, and man-hating lesbian. All of this was based not only on stories told by that advisor, but also on whatever I happened to be wearing on any given day. I learned many a lesson in those couple of years that had nothing to do with U.S. history.
****This was not going to happen. In fact, by the time these events took place, he had already screwed up an almost done deal to move the project to a much much much more prestigious university.


Feminist Avatar said...

I had a very similar experience to number three. I never needed to use him as a reference, but I got lots of creepy and increasingly sexual emails while I worked for him- despite my very explicit protests to stop. I never complained; just got the hell out of there. I sometimes wonder whether I should have complained-not for my sake but in case it happened to someone else. At the time, I felt sorry for him because he had a bad situation at home.

Clio Bluestocking said...

Feminist Avatar, that is exactly what happened in that particular case. His home life was hell (and isn't it women who get all of the flak for letting home life interfere with work?), for which I had extreme amounts of pity. Because of him, I ended up leaving work that I found very rewarding and important.

In all of these cases, I was overwhelmed with guilt when I didn't just jump up like some feminist superhero (cape and all) to rail at injustice in order to save others from going through the same thing after me. As I learned when I did complain against the first person, you don't feel like a superhero. You feel more like a sacrificial lamb.

Belle said...

I think the world would be shocked if we all banded together and listed out such experiences. And then they'd scream at us and ignore us as ball-busting women.

I just (naively) continue to document them, and pass that evidence on when it becomes useful. Case in point: a senior colleague recently resigned, and wanted the dept to recommend him for Emeritus status. It would have been a no-brainer, except that for the past X years he's been known outside the dept (which includes two very active feminists) as Dr Boobs. I asked the dept chair what was the status of the Emeritus gig, and she noted that there was some delay. I said it might be related to the Dr Boobs problem, and she was stunned... then admitted that his touchy-feely actions with attractive women students had made her uncomfortable, but never to the point of doing anything about it.

After all, he was a campus icon...

Ann said...

Clio B., I think you're heroic for persisting in academe in spite of being repeatedly subjected to the same disturbing and wrong behaviors by supervisors (people otherwise in a position to hurt or help your career, as they saw fit.) The fact is that institutions, once they've promoted (and yes, tenured) people, they're much more invested in justifying that decision than they are in addressing complaints of harassment and abuse by students or untenured/unpromoted people. This is related very closely to the conversations on my blog and others about bullying and tenure (and how they're interrelated).

Sadly, I don't think there's much you could have done unless you were 1) willing to give up your career, and 2) independently wealthy or had some other means of generous financial and emotional support during a protracted lawsuit. The fact is that abusers choose their victims carefully--they choose women who are single, not wealthy (and often in fact barely scraping by as grad students and temporary faculty), and not well-connected in the power structures of their universities. I've noticed anecdotally through my own observations and experience that women who are targets of academic bullying and/or harassment are usually single, and only rarely do have high-income husbands or partners (who would be able to support them financially and emotionally through a lawsuit or a long period of unemployment.) Sometimes keeping it together and moving along is all one can do.

Bon courage, mon amie!

Susan said...

Thank you for documenting this. . . like Belle, I think it would be amazing if we put together all the stories we know. And when these things happen it's often hard to sort it out, so it takes lots of energy (that then goes into finding another job, therapy, etc.). And like Historiann, I'm glad you persisted.

Maude Lebowski said...

i have a medium sized box of letters, cards, printed e-mails, and disks of saved e-mails from my thesis advisor that i saved in case i ever needed them to prove that i was being harassed by him. it was a horrible situation, one that i didn't realize i had no control over until many years later after years of beating myself up for "putting myself" or allowing myself to be in that situation.

and it was years later, too, that i learned the whole time he was busy "seducing" me, he was telling the department that i was trying to break up his marriage and his home. the department was planning on letting me take the fall, as it were, if the story ever went public.

every once in a while he e-mails me still to tell me that he misses me and loves me.

there is no love lost for my thesis granting institution.

Rent Party said...

Extremely interesting and it is so true about the single women as targets.

In one of my departments the most famous bully was an assistant professor. His first target was a tenured lesbian, herself a known bully of all graduate students and assistant professors. Therefore when he said he was the victim, people believed it, and the administration supported it. That started us down a slippery slope (of course).

Next he went after more lesbians and we decided he was sexist and homophobic. Of course, now that the administration saw him as a poor untenured victim, this was hard to fight. Most of the victims were tenured, but the administration will support a man every time.

Then he went after women in general, with certain exceptions - the married ones - and I realized it wasn't homophobia per se, or as a first cause of his behavior: he was just choosing what he thought would be the weakest targets.

In my other department there was once one who asked the female students on the first day of class to reveal their marital status. Then he proceeded to insist that all the unmarried ones set up individual conferences with him. This was in his first term as an assistant professor. People complained, but the university covered it up until one T.A. called the city, not the university police and refused to back down.

profacero said...

“I’m the one being harassed,” he said. “I’m the one who is the victim. All I ever did was try to help people.”

This is really common and I'm not sure how deep their actual belief in it is. They may just be really good at faking it. I have pressed a couple of bullies on it and in the end they both gave up, saying, "All right. You've seen through my manipulation. Not many people do."

I have a colleague who comments on abuse sites and it is amusingly ironic since one knows full well what the IRL situation is. There are a couple of others in my building, too, who make similar comments about themselves IRL. I think some of them really do believe it, but at least one knows it is a manipulation.

I inadvertently taught my X how to do this manipulation even better. Initially I did not realize his behavior qualified as abuse and I tried to negotiate with him. "I know you do not intend it, but what you are doing has the look and feel of abuse," I'd explain. "Since we do not want to enter into that dynamic, let us [change our M.O.]...". From this he learned some vocabulary and so on, so as to better accuse his various victims of being abusive.

Now I need to negotiate with an administrator and I am in danger of using, and thus teaching him this tactic. I do not know whether he is really abusive or what, if not that, is the source of what appears to be his behavior. I learned from dealing with my X, though, not to assume people don't want to relate to the world in that way.


Unless noted otherwise, copyright for all written content held by Clio Bluestocking.