Walk A Mile In Her Shoes

“…in a discussion with a group of women about sexual harassment in our scientific community, I realised that I’d experienced exactly that.”

The Xylom™
Aug 15 · 7 min read

I’ve been involved in seismology for my entire working life. In recent years I’ve been fortunate enough to have the opportunity, autonomy, and confidence to branch out into the wider earthquake research community, something I hadn’t really done before. I decided to attend one or two well-respected conferences each year, despite knowing almost none of the hundreds of delegates from my area of science that attend these events.

At the latest conference, while in an after-hours social discussion with a group of women about sexual harassment in our scientific community, I realised that I’d experienced exactly that, at a different conference a year earlier. It happened at an evening dinner for delegates, when I was talking to one of the few people who had been consistently friendly towards me in the few years that I’d been attending these conferences. During the conversation, they took my hand and placed it on an inappropriate part of their body, but we were some distance from the other guests at the time so I don’t think anyone noticed. I thought it was strange at the time, but I wrote it off as part of their quirky personality, or perhaps they’d had a drink and were feeling more relaxed. Nothing more happened, so I didn’t think about it again other than to mention it to my partner at some stage after I returned home, which again didn’t raise any red flags. Maybe it’s the way I relayed the story because my partner is vehemently intolerant of this sort of behaviour.

During the conversation they took my hand and placed it on an inappropriate part of their body, but we were some distance from the other guests at the time so I don’t think anyone noticed.

There was no power dynamic at play during this incident, something that many women who suffer harassment in our scientific community have to contend with. This person did not, and probably will not, have any direct impact on my career. It seems so obvious now, but why didn’t I consider it a problem back then? The #MeToo movement had already started, and I was aware of sexual harassment in our industry as some female colleagues had previously confided in me with their experiences. One was frustrated that the perpetrator was not reprimanded due to their perceived value to the organisation, despite them being reported through the appropriate channels by different women on different occasions. Another asks me to help shield her from interactions with several individuals whenever we are at professional events together because she doesn’t feel safe. I had just never thought about my incident in those terms until the recent group discussion.

Photo by Everton Villa

Why did it happen at all? I’d never been a target before. Thinking back, I started wondering if my improved self-confidence was a factor. When I was young I was rather shy with new people, but when starting university I made a concerted effort to develop a more outgoing personality. In the time leading up to this strange event, my partner had recently gone through treatment for cancer and was working hard to counter the physical effects of the post-treatment medication. I joined in and was soon in the best shape I’d been in over 15 years, since after my son was born, so I was feeling very comfortable and confident. Had I given the person signals that I was interested in their sexuality? I don’t think so, as I remember feeling that it was completely unexpected and quite surreal, but the questions and doubt started creeping in.

Does the perception of this situation change by clarifying that I am a straight white man?

Does the perception of me or of the perpetrator change? How does the impact of the event change depending on the gender of the offender? Does it change the perceived severity of the incident if the other party had been a woman? A guy being made to grope a woman? The other person was, in fact, a woman. My take on it was that it was no big deal, but I think I’ve been wrong.

Does the perception of this situation change by clarifying that I am a straight white man?

The discussion that sparked this whole train of thought was between a group of women who had earlier been to a conference session about sexual harassment in our community. They were rightly appalled that the advice from the (female) senior presenter was to not report the little things. What are the little things? Little things like what I experienced? Just let them slide. It’s not worth fussing about. I’m ashamed to say that’s exactly what I did.

I then started thinking about why I don’t report it now. It’s not about how it’d affect me mentally — I’m fine. A year has passed, and my interpretation of the situation is a fading perspective. For something that might have been a one-off inappropriate act, the potential effect on the career of this woman may be significant. We don’t need fewer women in science. She is a very senior and respected person, and I’m a relative newcomer to this corner of our community, so their reputation is at stake where I have little to lose, which gives me pause. I also consider the potential effects it would have on other innocent parties — on their family, on their employer, on their colleagues. It hasn’t adversely affected my life (other than to reveal my own obliviousness) so why would I damage or even destroy theirs? If I knew that there were others who had been subjected to the same sort of thing and that it had made them feel unsafe, would I feel differently? Yes: I’d report it without hesitation to ensure it doesn’t continue. I’ve not heard any related rumours about this person, probably due to my limited exposure to others in this community, but even then, there is no male equivalent to the “whisper network” that exists as a safe way for women to share their stories.

Photo by Nik Shuliahin on Unsplash

I’ve always “understood” all of the reasons why victims don’t act. The difference is that I’ve now got a personal perspective — just like the dozens of women I’ve directly heard about who have been subjected to sexual harassment in our community, and the hundreds more that undoubtedly have. For me this is not traumatic to talk about, but for most victims it is. Yet like many of them, I don’t have the confidence to take action.

…we need to combat micro-offences with micro-responses before the behaviour gets out of control.

The potential negative effects of any action I would take far outweigh the minimal effect the incident had on me. I am fortunate in this regard, but so many women are not. I am also reluctant to move the focus to a potentially isolated female offender and away from where the real issue lies — with the sexual harassment perpetrated by some of the powerful male figures that dominate our scientific community.

Sexual harassment offenders in our scientific community are predominantly the senior white men, and they are not going to change unless they are told to do so by people that they respect, or are forced to respect by law. Nothing that I’ve written is going to change any of this. I have no influence at any level that can make a difference, so sharing this story is all that I can think to do at this point to offer my support. I think it’s important to call out this type of behavior for what it is, regardless of its magnitude. The person involved should have been told so that perhaps they’d realise what they were doing and think twice about it. I couldn’t do it at the time, and to bring it up with them now when it hasn’t bothered me for over a year feels hypocritical. In my ignorance, I missed my chance, but I don’t think discouraging women from taking action is helpful. Quite the opposite: we need to combat micro-offences with micro-responses before the behaviour gets out of control.

There are many strong, intelligent women in our community who are actively fighting this issue, and for them, I have the greatest respect. I am so grateful that by simply listening to six awesome women discuss the issue for less than an hour helped me understand the challenges more deeply. That’s just what is needed to get more support for victims: more people listening and learning. As scientists, it’s what we do every day, so there is no excuse.

Adam Pascale is the Chief Technology Officer at the Seismology Research Centre in RIchmond, Victoria, Australia. Originally published at www.thexylom.com.

The Xylom™

All scientists are humans. Humans tell stories. The Xylom is the place for scientists to tell their stories.

The Xylom™

Written by

All scientists are humans. Humans tell stories. The Xylom is the place for scientists to tell their stories.

The Xylom™

All scientists are humans. Humans tell stories. The Xylom is the place for scientists to tell their stories.

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