Bullying in academia and the #MeToo movement

We’ve all heard of the #MeToo movement for sexual harassment and assault, where brave people, particularly women, come forward to share their experience. Well, recently I saw that this same movement has been picked up by academics, sharing their experiences as students or professionals. Sadly but perhaps fortunately, many women have come forward to share their stories of how male tenured professors have abused of their power. Here I am thinking about this, not because I’ve experienced sexual harassment and not because I’ve experienced any wrongdoings on the part of any of my male professors, but because this together with an even more recent newstory has hit home with me: that of the abuse of power in higher-education settings.

A couple of years ago, a student at UW Madison committed suicide after being incessantly bullied and intimidated by his professor/boss. According to the internal review by the dean of that department, that professor “regularly hurled the F-word at students, threatened to “fire” them and called them “monkeys,” “babies who do not use the brain to think,” “dumb asses,” “liars” and more.” Having shared a similar experience, where the person in power laughed at me in front of my peers, would say I “clearly didn’t understand something”, would physically overpower me by standing in front of me while I was talking, and said I was lying when I quoted what he had said on an earlier occasion, and so on, I felt I needed to write about this and shed some light on the fact that this type of abuse of power is quite prevalent in all domains.

In my case, I’m really not sure what instigated this disrespectful and demeaning behavior… perhaps I didn’t fit the mold that this individual had in mind of a young woman of my ethnic background.  Perhaps he found my academic background, skills and professional confidence intimidating or threatening, or I just made a nice and easy target. Who knows, but whatever it was, he made a point to make my day-to-day life very unpleasant. It reached the point where he made me feel that I could no longer do anything right – so, I sought advice from a group of supportive academic women, who encouraged me to bring my complaint to HR. I very hesitantly first approached an HR staff member to try and get their professional advice on how to maneuver this complicated situation. I didn’t want HR to get involved directly, because I was worried it would add fuel to the fire. Unfortunately, following the well-intentioned HR staff member’s advice backfired and the individual retaliated and made things even more unpleasant for me. Sadly, like the students in UW-Madison’s professor Sayeed’s lab who quit to avoid further exposure to the toxic workplace, I did too. The frustrating and seemingly all-too-common outcome is that the male bully will carry on as though this never happened. This doesn’t seem right. Unfortunately, I’ve learned through this process that there isn’t a zero tolerance policy for bullying in academic institutions whether as employees or as students, and that unfortunately some things are more easily taken care of by being brushed under the rug.

My hope while wading through all this was that I could help prevent this situation from happening to another person in the future. I’m not sure that that will indeed be the outcome. Hopefully the bully is under a more watchful eye, but so far nothing has been presented to me to suggest this…In any case, I sincerely hope that if (more likely, when) another person comes forward with a similar complaint, that this individual will eventually be appropriately disciplined and/or removed from this position of power.

So, what have I learned from all this?

  • If you’re part of a union, speak with your union to see what options exist to protect yourself.
  • If you’re not unionized, speak with your ombudsperson. They can provide you with unbiased advice and ensure that you are completely aware of the regulations at your institution. They can let you know if you’re putting your job in jeopardy, if you have any power, and if not, what options exist to protect yourself.
  • HR is there to help – I was worried they were there to protect the institution and the employer, but I was pleasantly surprised to find very kind and caring human beings that shared valuable information with me. It also helped to talk about my situation to someone else.
  • Your university probably has resources available for you, like mental health support. In my case, my institution had funds for 3 free therapy sessions for faculty/staff, but they also had free mental health available for students.
  • Don’t isolate yourself – you’re not alone. Speak with your friends/mentors/colleagues. Don’t suffer in silence. Never should you be made to feel ‘less than’. You’ll find out that others may be in a similar situation or may have passed through something similar. It helps to talk about it and they can also provide you with advice from their past experiences.
  • Keep records – if something doesn’t seem right in your workplace, start taking note of it. Thankfully, a dear friend told me to start doing this early on, so I had a ton of examples of what I believed were professional misconduct. If you have a verbal conversation with someone, follow-up via email to have it in writing and ask them to confirm the information. That way, if, at a later time, they say they never said that, you have written evidence to prove they did.
  • Find groups at your institution that can help empower and uplift you. I found a wonderful group of women in a science group that held weekly meetings, and it really helped to be surrounded by strong, educated women. They can also share advice or their experiences that can help you work through yours.
  • One-on-ones with the abuser might not work – it takes a lot to muster up the courage to share your gripes with the person in question, but they can also take this as a challenge and if they are in a position of power, they can use their power to push you down. It’s exhausting, and I tried to have several one-on-one conversations with the abuser, but it just worsened the situation every time.
  • It’s probably not worth losing your health over it – In my case, the stress I experienced caused significant declines in my breast milk production, sleep loss, stomach aches, etc. As I said, I stayed in the hopes that things would either get better or that I could prevent this from happening to someone else. I sacrificed a lot in the process.  Evaluate the pros and cons of blowing the whistle.  This process takes a major toll on the whistle-blower an, especially if  justice isn’t the immediate outcome, like in my case.

About saraguitiprado

I'm a Tropical Ecologist, Researcher, and Mother
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