On harassment, the power differential and a modicum of hope

Anita Hill 1991 Testimony Senate

In 1991, I came down with a sudden stomach bug. As is common when I am too ill to think, all I could manage was planting myself in front of the television in an effort to keep myself mildly distracted from reality. Rarely do I have such precision in remembering my various illnesses, but I remember this day so particularly because I spent it watching Anita Hill testify about being sexually harassed by Clarence Thomas. What I remember most about her testimony was precisely how calm Ms Hill was, she had nothing to gain by this and everything to loose. Absolutely everything. At least where I was from, people didn’t talk very much about sexual harassment and they certainly didn’t speak up about it very often in public. I watched it thinking Anita Hill was the bravest damn woman I had ever seen. I also watched it firmly believing that there was absolutely no way that man would get appointed; then he did. It was a close vote along party lines but one that was ultimately won by with the support of Southern Democrats.

Why I thought he wouldn’t get appointed then is beyond me now. I should have known he’d get appointed. Even though I was only 23 at the time and no ‘grown-up’ talked about it in public, it is not like I hadn’t seen and heard things of Weinsteinian proportions before. It is just that 30 years ago, most people knew better than to report it, officially anyway, because what would be the point? Usually all reporting would mean is that the victim’s suffering would be enhanced and the perpetrator would walk about with no consequence to speak of. I guess I naively thought but this is a Supreme Court appointment, surely they must believe Anita Hill – she has nothing to gain from this, the “adults in charge” must take this seriously. I was really wrong, and the Senate vote seemed to follow the logic of one Senate Judiciary committee member who didn’t think whatever Thomas had done was all that bad – or as he said ‘Is that it?’ They appointed Clarence Thomas and there, as a Justice on the Supreme Court, he still sits.

Two weeks ago the New York Times broke a story about Harvey Weinstein, which opened a watershed and the stories just kept on coming. Reading these stories is appalling and simultaneously depressing to me. It is an age old story, person in powerful position is an serial abuser, person in powerless position is frightened, horrified, trapped, guilty and feels (or more accurately knows) that the power differential is so great there is nothing they can do. They just have to suck it up.

And then to my inordinate surprise, Weinstein has been fired! This is different. People are still speaking out. This is new, I agree SE Cupp this feels different somehow.

At almost the same time as the Wienstein news broke, Science magazine released an article about David Marchant a BU professor – who bullied and harassed his staff in the antartic and has been doing so for years. He appears to have a particular focus on bullying women and there have now been several complaints. Notably, one woman didn’t report his behaviour until she had tenure for fear of the repercussions. Why? I have seen some folks on Twitter openly wonder; because, like the victims of Weinstein’s advances, there is a power differential. Big famous professor has power over your future, student/post-doc/technician in a position of weakness.

After hearing and indeed witnessing so many similar stories in my life, this made for depressing reading but I then I realised, this article is actually IN Science. It is being covered as a real news story after a build up of allegations against someone who has abused their power. This is different. This is not my fellow graduate students warning me not to be alone with Professor X in a room as in days of yore, this is in Science, for everyone to read.

Maybe, just maybe, we are beginning to shift towards a better, more safe future for everyone – where it is safe to speak out and the odds won’t always be against you.

About Sylvia McLain

Girl, Interrupting aka Dr. Sylvia McLain is a bio-physicist in the Department of Biochemistry, University of Oxford (UK), but she blogs in a personal capacity. She is also a proto-science writer, armchair philosopher, amateur plumber and wanna-be film-critic. You can follow her on Twitter @DrSylviaMcLain
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