| Vanessa Evers

‘Like many (all?) women in the academic world, I have also fallen victim either to explicit sexual intimidation based on a warped sense of power, or implicit intimidation due to a ‘lack of social skills’ on numerous occasions. The news reports about movie mogul Harvey Weinstein made me realise that it is very widespread and that it is accepted. The same applies in the academic world.’

Intimidation and abuse

It made me realise that we need to do something. That it is not enough to try to protect myself and the people in my immediate circle against this. We as senior researchers need to break the taboo and bring it out into the open. We will have to deal with the consequences of ‘snitching’, so that others are free to speak out about intimidation and abuse. Now that I have come to the deep realisation that it happens to so many women, I am ashamed I did not shout it from the rooftops sooner. Because I thought I had ‘handled the situation well’, or was not sure whether it was intentional on the part of my colleague who ‘just happens to be clumsy’.

Because we are not talking about the things that usually hold women back in their careers: the uninformed low estimation bias (too little management experience), the unwillingness to accommodate women’s dilemmas (just arrange a babysitter), the presumptions (she is so difficult), the sexist remarks (women are simply not technically minded).
This is about criminal conduct, violence, terrifying abuse of power, shaming and destruction of careers.

'The sexual innuendos in emails. Pornography on the work computer. I could go on.'

‘He pulled down my top’

In my case, it involved a vice president at the Boston Consulting Group where I worked at the start of my career. During a meal, he asked me whether I shaved under my arms. Then, as the whole table laughed heartily at the joke, he pulled my top down to see for himself. I reported it to the senior vice president, who discussed it with him in the presence of his wife. She also worked at the same company. I was told that the individual was challenged about his behaviour. I heard no more about it. I am no longer at BCG. Did the incident contribute to my decision to leave the consultancy field? Absolutely.

'Why I do not mention them by name? I am afraid.' 

Later, as a university lecturer, I was on a panel with that famous robotics professor from America at a conference in Japan. A group of us went out to eat that evening and the well-known professor was staying at a different hotel. Could he leave his suitcase in my room for safekeeping? After the meal, he walked with me to my room, even though I had proposed fetching his suitcase and bringing it down to the lobby. I asked him to wait outside the room while I fetched his luggage. He told me he knew how to give a good massage and did I want one. I did not and he found that very strange: why not? He was very good at it and it did not mean anything, etc., etc. I said all the ‘right’ things to get out of that situation. It could have turned out so badly. After I read the reports about Harvey Weinstein, I realised the suitcase ruse had been premeditated and that he had planned to catch me alone in my room long before that evening. This may even have been his usual routine. Creepy. He later sent me a nice book as a memento for having participated on the panel. 

Sexual innuendos in emails

But there is more.

Like that fellow student who, after my friend and I drank too much at a party, came into the room where we were sleeping and abused us both. We never said anything about it, because we had such fragmented memories of that night. I was that creep’s housemate for a year afterwards.

Or that professor who was unable to get home after a party and had to ‘stay over’. Or that colleague who, because of his inability to keep his hands to himself, forced you to go home early when you had actually wanted to stay. The sexual innuendos in emails. Pornography on the work computer. I could go on.

'It happens to my closest colleagues, every day.'  

I am afraid

Why I do not mention them by name? I am afraid. Afraid of the criticism I will get for this story. Afraid people will think I betrayed the academic field and my colleagues and that I cannot be trusted. And I regard the latter as my greatest asset as an academic. I am also afraid of being labelled silly, difficult and intimidating, with all the associated consequences in respect of my day-to-day work and anyone who works closely with me. And to protect the careers and personal lives of the abovementioned creeps, sadly. Why do I owe them that? What can they do to me now? I should be braver, but if I as an “established prof” feel that way, how must most senior lecturers, post grads, research assistants, and administrative and support staff feel?

What was your part in it?

Naturally, you can speak to a confidential advisor, dean, or student counsellor who will deal with it in confidence. But the culprit is also dealt with discreetly so that others do not find out. That way, the perpetrator can just move on to a new work environment. If you go to the police, it is his word against yours and you have to undergo tests. Or you have to attend an informative interview where you are asked whether you really want to make a statement to the police. You can tell others, but often they do not believe you. Or they want to know what your part was in the incident, or worse, they accuse you of lying.

It happens to my closest colleagues, every day. And everyone knows about it. So do you, because you have also been a victim, witness, confidential advisor, or offender. Will things change now that it is no longer dismissed, hushed up, laughed off, or because silence can no longer be bought? I fear not.’

Vanessa Evers, Professor of Human Media Interaction, Faculty of Electrical Engineering, Mathematics and Computer Science, University of Twente

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