While women who work for investment banks win million dollar settlements for 'unpleasant remarks' from male colleagues those in academia who complain about harassment usually damage their careers, says Dorothy King Wednesday
August 25, 2004 - The Guardian
A few months ago I went to a rather dull conference with a girlfriend. During the coffee break a very old archaeologist came up to us and paid us a string of outlandish compliments. He told us we were "glamorous" for archaeologists, and things of that ilk. I said "thank you" and forgot about it; my American friend stamped her foot and said it was outrageous, and that "he should not be allowed to get away with that sort of behaviour". She wears make-up and low-cut tops, and I suspect that had she not been complimented on the way she looked, she would have been equally unhappy. The man is 80, and was trying to be charming - his hands stayed very firmly by his sides - but today even a few compliments seem to have become sexual harassment.
This may sound extreme, but the situation has been getting silly for years. I have American colleagues who refuse to have female students in their offices with the doors closed - just in case. Scenarios in plays like David Mamet's Oleanna make them live in dread. I used to laugh when I first heard this, but we are increasingly moving that way in the UK. Women who work for American investment banks are winning million dollar settlements for what often sounds like little more like a few unpleasant remarks. When we compare these sums to the couple of thousand that rape victims receive in compensation, they seem all the more obscene.
Women in academicia who complain about harassment usually only damage their own careers, and certainly don't get huge settlements. Naomi Wolf was called a drama queen when she recently admitted that one of her professors at Yale had sexually harassed her. His colleagues vilified her for damaging an old man's reputation. Other feminists said she should have spoken out at the time rather than years later. If Wolf had complained at the time, she would probably have ruined her career, as have many other women who have complained about their "betters" at universities.
A few years ago I tried to complain about a man who, during meetings, would stick out his arm and try to grab my breasts. The second time this occurred I tried to make a formal complaint about him, but was talked out of doing so. Was that the right thing to have done? I think I should have filed the complaint, but instead I kneed him in the balls the next time he tried this manoeuvre. Luckily he didn't press charges, and the situation was resolved. Although I would never advocate physical violence, this turned out to be a much neater way to sort out the situation that was more a nuisance than anything else. It didn't help my career, but I also wasn't branded a troublemaker quite as publicly as I would otherwise have been. Ten years on I can talk about it in a way that I could not at the time, and I can fully understand why Wolf kept quiet about her problems for a few decades.
There are degrees of harassment and this is something we should emphasise more. Some things that a woman might see as "harassment", is little more than an unpleasant comment. Although the world would be a better place without them, the world would also be a better place without famine and war. Wherever possible these should be ignored. The difficulty arises when harassment becomes damaging, either mentally or in terms of career.
A couple of years ago I spoke at another conference. This incident again took place during a coffee break, the great social centre of these events. I was introduced to the chairman of my panel, a suave media-friendly archaeologist. The man thinks a lot of himself, and is the closest we have to an Adonis in our field. My version of our conversation would be to describe him as flirting outrageously and me as trying to be friendly but clearly not reciprocating. We had never met before, but he gave all the women quite rude introductions on the panel. After my paper, he announced to the room that he didn't see why I'd bothered presenting it since John Boardman had published that research "years ago". This wasn't true, and several people leapt to my defence, but despite this a fair number left the room thinking I was a plagiarist. I find the many attempts to ban flirting at work rather ridiculous, but I also found this man's petty attempt to try to exact revenge sad, and ultimately quite damaging.
I have many friends who read newspapers and sympathise with women who endure problems at investment banks. Those women have the advantage of large pay packets to cushion their hurt feelings, and larger compensation payments to further soothe their ruffled feathers. Banks are now known for harassment problems because the pay-outs make headlines, but the problem can be found in all fields.
In academia large salaries and compensation are unknown, but men will continue to harass their students. I knew of one professor rumoured to only accept attractive female PhD. students. He expected them to sleep with him in exchange for guidance with their research. Fortunately he has now retired, and a younger, more "sensitive" generation is replacing him. Most harassment today is still verbal, and should be ignored where possible. However any student who feels they cannot or do not want to cope with any harassment should always report the problem.
I should admit that I finally left academia because I was fed up with one particular British academic. I was living in Athens, based at a non-British institution, but he kept making my life hell, threatening to "ruin" my career. Eventually I decided I couldn't be bothered to put up with that kind of nonsense any more. This cloud however has a silver lining as I'm far happier; I have plenty of offers to teach and all the time in the world to do research. I also make more money. Although it would be nice to be able to stamp out harassment, this is likely to take a long time, and make many people suffer through witch-hunts. Sometimes a move sideways is the best solution.