Monday 30 October 2017

An Older Woman's Story: My Own Experiences with Sexual Harassment

An Older Woman's Story: My Own Experiences with Sexual Harassment

A few weeks ago the world learned that a famous movie producer, Harvey Weinstein, was a serial sexual harasser who had paid off several women so that they would not reveal his activities in court. Some of the things he did were so disgusting that I won’t repeat them here.

A woman at my gym asked why it had taken so long for his behavior to be revealed.  I answered that he was very powerful, so each individual woman would have been afraid that he could sue her for libel or ruin her career. As is usual in these cases, once one woman comes forward, others speak out. It seems several famous actresses such as Angelina Jolie suffered harassing incidents with him. Personally, I was not surprised by this as I’ve long assumed that all powerful men have extra-marital affairs and harass women (or men, depending on sexual preference).

After Weinstein’s behavior was revealed, someone started a #MeToo hashtag, so that women who had experienced harassment could discuss their own experiences. Margaret Wente, a columnist for the Globe and Mail then wrote a piece called “Please Turn down the Volume on the Outrage Machine” (October 21, 2017, p. F7) 

In her column Wente discussed what she called “the standard menu” of what happened to women in their teens and twenties when she was growing up (as I was too ) in the 1960s and 70s. The menu included “sidewalk catcalls, being trailed on the street at night, dates who wouldn’t desist until we got really angry, a few flashers…bosses who tried to kiss us…a handful of overly friendly colleagues, someone’s dad who made a pass when we were underage.”  All of these things, Wente noted, had happened to her. She argued that we should not pretend that these everyday incidents were the equivalent of actual rape. A few days later a retired (female) police officer wrote to the editor to point out that every one of the things that had happened to Wente was now illegal.

I thought about this for a while as I reviewed my own past. I also wondered if I should write about this at all on my own human rights blog.  Is it too personal, or should an older woman who is a human rights scholar write about this topic?  

I recently read an article by the distinguished geologist and memoirist, Hope Jahrens (Lab Girl, 2016)  that convinced me all older women should speak out. Jahrens wrote about how one of her best ever female students was considering leaving science because of sexual harassment by a professor.  According to Jahrens, this is one of the major reasons there are so few women in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and medicine) fields: women keep leaving because there is nothing they can do to stop the harassment. If you are working with the single most distinguished professor in your field, and he harasses you, what do you then do?  Find another supervisor and lost grant money? Switch universities and lose grant money? Or leave the profession entirely?

Nothing really terrible every happened to me. In 41 years as a professor, preceded by 10 as a student, no professor, student or colleague ever sexually harassed me. Perhaps this is because I have a sharp tongue, am relatively self-confident for a woman (by Canadian standards, anyway) or because by the 1980s there were strict controls about harassment in Canadian universities.

I did have a few incidents when I was younger. When I was eleven a man entered the bedroom I was sharing with my sister at a summer cottage, but I woke and called for my father before anything much could happen; my parents called the police. When I was seventeen a man exposed himself in the lobby of a building I was passing: I didn’t call the police, nor did I report it to any older person. When I was eighteen a boss made what we would now call an “inappropriate” remark to me, but I made a caustic reply, and he never bothered me again (though I heard from another girl about something truly appalling he’d said to her.)

When I was 21 a man lurking in the book stacks of the McGill Library exposed himself to me; a friend and I chased him into the arms of a security guard. That guard called the chief of security, who interviewed the man and then told me that he was a visiting professor from somewhere in Eastern Europe. I agreed not to press charges if he would visit a psychiatrist, as I was concerned about what would happen to him if I did and then he had to go home to a Communist country. You might think in retrospect that I should have pressed charges, but I could not take that responsibility and I am still glad I did not.

Once when I was a young professor, I attended a party for a distinguished visitor given by one of my husband's colleagues.  The visitor, who was drunk, grabbed me in a way that even then would have been considered assault.  I didn't say anything because I didn't want my husband to attack him, I didn't want to spoil the party, and I figured no one but my husband (whom I told later) would believe me anyway. 

In my first year as a professor (1975-76) I had a colleague who kept a large semi-pornographic poster of a nude woman in his office. It bothered me, and I assume it bothered his students.  In 1991, I had a meeting with a Dean (now deceased) in his office: he had a framed poster on his wall of a nude woman tied to a chair with a bag over her head, implying she was about to be tortured. I didn’t say anything in either of these two cases, in the latter because I was afraid the Dean would take revenge on me in some way if I said anything.

So that’s my #MeToo story. Nothing too dramatic, nothing seriously dangerous, nothing warranting the label “victim,” though some these of incidents were illegal and others would be considered inappropriate in a university setting now. It was, as Wente said, a normal part of being female at the time. But it’s a good thing it isn’t considered a normal part of being female any more.  And it is a human rights matter.