Victims and Support Systems

In my recent post on dealing with (or failing to do so) inappropriate remarks, the importance of mentoring was raised by Jenny Koenig. She said

This is where mentoring is really important: to have someone else to listen and to reassure you that it’s not your fault.

I agree that mentors may be able to help here, but I think this touches on a wider issue of blame, victimisation and internalising situations which are, as she says, not your fault. So I’d like to expand on these ideas, using a very specific example of something that happened to me a number of years ago. At the time it made me realise how easy it is to get trapped into believing that someone else’s actions were legitimate – when they palpably weren’t – and why it is that some battered wives take upon themselves blame for the way they are treated, something that up till that point I had never really understood.

The situation occurred at a conference at which I had given an invited talk about my work on starch – from which you will deduce it wasn’t that early in my career – and took place after the conference dinner in the bar. I was relaxed, my talk had (I thought) gone well; at least people had been quite complimentary about it. A senior male attendee came up and started talking to me about it, someone definitely ahead of me in the scientific hierarchy, and very quickly he started getting obnoxious. He clearly thought it was witty to associate the work I did on the physics of starch with ‘domestic science’; he felt it was legitimate to make fun of my work, and me as a scientist, by demeaning serious physics as mere cookery, implying that that was the only sort of work I would be capable of doing as a woman. Mercifully, at this distance in time I forget the full details of his diatribe. Any attempt by me to counter what he was saying, by stressing the excitement and relevance of what I was doing as a serious physicist, was simply talked down. I then did something I can’t ever remember doing at any other time – I simply walked out of the bar, feeling most upset by the occurrence.

Luckily for me I was not alone in this conversation. My friend and former Cambridge colleague Richard Jones was also present and stayed behind with this bloke in the bar after I had left. Next morning I asked him about what had happened thereafter. It turned out the diatribe had continued, including comments such as

‘it must be awful to work with a woman like that’,

leading to Richard also eventually walking out.  But what was really helpful for me was the way Richard was able to put the conversation in context for me.

Already, within about 12 hours, I was starting to question what had happened. Had it been my fault? Had I done something that provoked the vitriol? Was I to blame? Maybe I was ‘guilty’ of something intangible so that there was a rational explanation for the vicious remarks. At that point I began to realise how easy it is to blame yourself for someone else’s shortcomings, to assume responsibility and so exonerate the genuinely guilty party – exactly how battered wives respond to much more serious abuse, physical and mental. Putting this to my friend was immensely reassuring. He had seen the way the whole conversation developed from the outset to my departure; had then himself been at the receiving end of continuing unpleasantness. He could tell me in no uncertain terms I was not to blame, and I mustn’t start seeing myself as at fault; the other person was indubitably the guilty party. Had I not had a witness, the damage done to my sense of self would have been much greater.

In this case, I don’t think a mentor would have been anything like as useful. Someone saying ‘I’m sure it wasn’t your fault’ when they hadn’t  heard the dialogue could not have carried so much weight as someone physically present during the whole affair.  Because, of course, this was all about context and verbal connotations not actions. A mentor can help when it comes to something more concrete, can provide advice for how to go forward with career planning, decisions about whether to attend one conference or another and how to present one’s CV. They cannot say with authority when they weren’t there, that one was not blameworthy when an unpleasant situation develops.
The bar at night is not always a good place to be, true for men as well as women when dealing with people who have drunk more than is good for them. Masks slip and the poison can leach out. It is of course – away from academic situations – where fights break out, though I don’t think I ever recall seeing people coming to blows at conferences! But it can be an uncomfortable place for the nervous and junior and, as I have discovered, for the not so junior. Drunks can be obnoxious the world over. I was lucky to have support to hand on this particular occasion.

Support comes in many forms and I feel rather strongly we should not assume that finding the right mentor is the overarching solution. Firstly, mentors often don’t come labelled as such. They may come in many forms ranging from peers just that little bit ahead of you on the career ladder – perhaps a grad student just a year ahead has the necessary pearls of wisdom you need at that particular juncture – to senior professors who are willing to spend time handing advice out to those at earlier stages (or indeed their contemporaries; one never ceases to need advice) in some particular situation. It doesn’t have to be in an ongoing role.  Secondly, if mentors are seen as the solution, then frustration may set in if your particular institution does not run a formal programme, rather than each person seeking out advice in disparate corners as appropriate. Finally, as in the situation I describe here, a mentor may not always provide the optimum support structure. This may be for all kinds of reasons including the fact that you may simply not click with a formally assigned mentor. What matters is that each individual can find appropriate networks of support in whatever shape or form works for them and their place of work.

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9 Responses to Victims and Support Systems

  1. cromercrox says:

    My first reaction on reading this was that the bloke was obviously the worse for drink (something to which you allude later) – though I agree that such incidents can have a disproportionate effect on one’s self-confidence.

    When I was a graduate student in Cambridge, one of my housemates – an Arabist, and (less relevantly) a woman, remarked, seemingly out of nowhere, that the fact that my grandparents had been gassed in Auschwitz had been a Good Thing. I was so shaken that I did not respond – the remark knocked all the stuffing out of me, and I have never forgotten it. I never reported the remark (perhaps I should have done) as it could be that I misheard (i.e. blaming myself, giving the other person the benefit of the doubt): the person concerned seems to have forgotten all about it, or thought it was a joke, as she has on occasion tried to befriend me on social networks (I have turned how down flat).

  2. Steve Caplan says:

    I have no doubt that you, Athene, and Henry are both correct about bars and drink.

    “The bar at night is not always a good place to be, true for men as well as women when dealing with people who have drunk more than is good for them. Masks slip and the poison can leach out.”

    After all, the news is rife with examples of celebrities whose true convictions escape on their tongues after enough alcohol gets into their blood. Just as an example, take the case of actor Mel Gibson, whose diatribe against Jews when he was arrested for driving while inebriated has been well documented (

    My grandmother, who immigrated for the Kiev region to Canada before WW1 (and although she never had formal schooling, learned to read from the newspapers that she packed fish in the little family store), was terrified of drunken behavior, which reminded her of the pogroms her community endured in Europe.

    But back to the more “subtle” (although it’s hardly subtle, is it?) persecution in the bar. People, such as yourself, who have a conscience and a developed sense of justice will always be examining every situation and analyzing it–and looking to see if there was something you did wrong. This is a good thing–it is what elevates you above your pitiful colleague. At the same time, I agree that a friend, mentor or–better yet–a witness, can help to prevent the self-analysis from perpetuating. That is the issue–that nagging feeling that despite dispelling any guilt that keeps creeping back. That is something that victims need to learn to put behind them and a little support can certainly help.

    • stephenemoss says:

      Nothing to do with Athene’s blog (and apologies for the digression), but I discover we have more in common than a passion for cell biology. My grandmother, then a small girl, also left (fled) the Kiev region shortly before WW1, though to nearby Germany. However, with the rise in anti-semitism in 1920s Germany she then moved on to Cambridge, where she became Wittgenstein’s English teacher and lived happily for many years.

      • steve caplan says:

        On my father’s side, my grandfather left the “Pale of Settlement” and moved to Manchester, UK, before moving to Canada.

        And there’s also the chess connection…

  3. Jenny Koenig says:

    Hi Athene, I wonder whether the fact that you had a sympathetic friend there was a function of you being that bit more senior therefore likely to know more people. I can think of situations I’ve been in where I didn’t really know the other people around me well enough and felt that I shouldn’t let anyone see that I had been affected by unpleasant conversation. You’re right to say that mentoring is just one form of support and establishing a good network is also important. One thing I’ve noticed is that many successful women academics are married to other academics or have parents or siblings who are academics and that must function as a very useful support network for exactly this sort of situation.

  4. @cromercrox: Your colleague’s remark was presumably not drink-fuelled, and sounds appalling. I am not surprised you aren’t willing to allow her to befriend you on facebook etc. The trouble is – as discussed on my previous post about inappropriate remarks – that one is so taken aback by a remark like this it is really difficult to deal with in real time, as clearly you found. I guess the situation I describe in the current post is slightly different in that it was sustained and needed responses; that both makes it easier and harder to deal with.

    Jenny, your remark prompts all kinds of thoughts about seniority that perhaps need a separate post to discuss. But suffice it to say that being senior does not necessarily make life any easier in this or any other (social) context. Yes, I was lucky I had a friend present on this occasion, but frequently I go to conferences – as an invited speaker, for instance – where I am from a different community and know no one. The students always look much happier then than I feel, as it is easier for them to strike up new acquaintances at a meeting, than it is for me. After all, I may seem both intimidating and/or patronising if I try to join in. Or, to give another example, I can recall a dreadful conference dinner where I was stuck on ‘high table’ with a seating plan which meant I had no choice where I sat. The two people on either side of me (it was a one-sided table) knew each other really well and talked across me as if I was invisible the entire meal. Most unpleasant. So, it is a myth to think seniority always confers a social benefit. Perhaps what is relevant is whether one is within a community one has mixed with much before or not.

    • cromercrox says:

      Another thing about being perceived as fairly senior is that you are expected to behave with a degree of detachment. For students to storm out of a room, say, is fine – but if senior people do this it makes headlines. I have had many sticky moments and presumably have behaved badly on occasion but when I have sufficient presence of mind I remember several things told me by my late boss and mentor, John Maddox. “In this job, you will make enemies,” he told me on my first day at Your Favourite Weekly Etcetera. Maddox’s response to tirades of criticism was to weather the storm (“Henry, you are Easily Bruised” he observed after one encounter I’d had with some critic or another). He’d smile, nod sympathetically, murmur inconsequentialities as if in assent – and then go away and do exactly what he was going to do anyway. It helped that he had a poker face – completely inscrutable.

      • Possession of a poker face is undoubtedly one of those life-skills it’s good to learn early on; one I failed to do. But you are absolutely right, throwing tantrums is forgiveable in the junior ranks much more than in the senior. To be accused of throwing toys out of the pram (a phrase I have heard used about several eminent professors) is not likely to lead to a successful outcome. But that is much more likely to be used in the context of committee meetings than in the bar.

  5. LornaD says:

    As a PhD student, postdoc and now early career PI I have been on the receiving end of comments like those already mentioned and witness to them on the conference ‘scene’.

    These kinds of interactions are one of the ugliest parts of the job we do as academics and can be so damaging if the ‘victim’ doesn’t have the opportunity to talk through the event with someone supportive.

    A mentor could be a good go-to person, but really it’s useful to talk the event through with a number of colleagues and friends to gain some perspective and to get it out of your system!  

    On a more practical side I find that the best way to ‘recover’ from this kind of ‘abuse’ is to go for a run/walk to clear my head. Perhaps in future, conference schedules should include both a social ‘drinking’ time and a time to unwind, relax and reflect! 

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