Unwelcome Roles: A Story of Sexual Harassment in Academia

A timeline of my last year in academia:
  • December 2011: Ask a materials scientist I’d been working with since 2010 if he’d be interested in advising my bachelor’s thesis project. Talk with the head professor of the materials science department, who’d be my official adviser with my colleague actually running the show. Get really excited about the prospect of what I could do for the field.
  • February — May 2012: Work. Continue work. Continue to continue work. Write. Write write write. Write more. Edit extensively. Edit more extensively. Present thesis. Get an A.
  • June — August 2012: Continue working with thesis adviser as an employee of his materials research startup, extending the scope of my thesis. Hear that my thesis data was presented to representatives from huge companies who were deeply impressed by both the research quality and the materials.
  • September 2012: Move. Adviser, now boss, picks me up at my new apartment in his distinctive, tiny-ass car and drives me to the R&D warehouse 20 minutes away, twice a week. He talks about his personal projects, which verge on the bizarre and creepy. I nod and smile and look out the window and feel the seatbelt biting into my neck.
  • Late September 2012: Boss and I are approached by local university’s graduate design program as possible project consultants. We sit in on a class, my boss gives a talk, I take notes on the actual job and meet the students.
  • Early October 2012: Students start emailing me with project descriptions and schematics. I’m in my last undergraduate semester and troubleshooting the work of students in Ph.D. programs. Boss starts talking about an international conference, for which I’d written and submitted an application regarding my expanded thesis projects. He’d do the fabrication, I’d do the data-gathering, he’d do the analysis, and I’d write the paper. If accepted, we’d fly to Florida to present in January. I’d be principal author of a study presented at an international industry conference, before receiving my bachelor’s degree.
  • Mid-October 2012: Boss emails me, our company’s co-founder, another employee, a former employee, two friends at school, his own wife, and two unknown names a PDF of a personal project he’d been working on: a quantum physics textbook formatted as a graphic novel, with the twist of being X-rated. The plot focuses on the assault, then the seduction, of a thesis student by her adviser.
  • Freeze.
  • Reread.
  • Reread.
The adviser is unnamed. The story takes place, notably, in my city.  The thesis student is first assaulted when she and the adviser are in a car by themselves, on their way back to the student’s home from the adviser’s lab. The adviser is overcome by a description of a point of theory, and grabs the student’s breasts to illustrate his point. She screams and leaps out of the car.  By the end of the draft, she has sex with her adviser.
The student has my first name and wears “the uniform of [my living group’s name].”
By this point — 10 p.m. or so, October 12th, a Friday — I was shaking too hard to breathe.
It wasn’t so much the humiliation of reading panel after panel of a person with my own name being seduced by an author-avatar of my own boss.  It was the scenarios I recognized, remembered, could not get out of my own head, that went so differently–apparently–in his. Staring out the window of his tiny car while he talked about custom-sized toilets for old houses?  Had he been thinking about grabbing me?  He knew where I lived.  He knew where I got coffee, where I got my hair cut, the specs of my computer.  He’d bought me the computer when I started working for him through the university’s undergrad research program in 2010, age 21.  Had he been driving me back and forth from my living group, thinking about how easy it’d be to grope me?  How I’d scream and spill myself out of the car onto a median or a curb or straight into traffic?  Had he thought—what hadn’t he thought, and why hadn’t I seen it?
Why hadn’t I seen it, and why was he showing this to me, and why the fuck was my name being written in dragged-out repeated-vowel moans in speech bubbles from my boss’s cartoon mouth?
I was his captive audience on all those drives.
I’m lucky, it sank in, over the course of an hour, that he only drew it.
  • After consulting, which is a nice euphemism for “crying my face off,” with several friends, I reply-all to the email and request that 1) the character and her affiliation be renamed, 2) I receive no further communication about my boss’s side projects.
  • I send a second email to my company’s co-founder, requesting that he speak with my boss regarding boundaries, and that I no longer have any one-on-one contact with my boss. In effect, requesting a witness to all interactions with a person I’d worked with for two and a half years.
  • Receive replies: From my boss, that he’s glad I brought this up now, because he hasn’t started inking the comic yet, and now he has a chance to rename the character a misogynistic slur and turn her into a racist caricature.
  • From the co-founder, that he thinks I am attempting to violate my boss’s first-amendment rights, as my boss was working on his own time on a personal project and included me in the email of the draft as a personal friend, not as a work connection. That by now I should be used to my boss’s quirky sense of humor and idiosyncratic charm, and that I should not question the creative expression of people who view me as a friend in addition to a professional contact. That he didn’t even read the PDF, because he’s on his phone.
  • From other recipients of the original email, all saying what the fuck, this is creepy.
  • Monday: I visit my university’s student support services.
  • Monday afternoon: I visit my university’s ombudsperson.
  • Monday later afternoon: I visit my academic adviser.
By October 19th, I have agreed to finish the consulting job with the design school students, because none of this is their fault, and I’ve been doing the majority of the consulting anyway.  I have withdrawn my participation from the company’s research.  I have withdrawn my name as a contact and affiliate with the international industry conference.
I have spelled out to the company co-founder, who believes I am overreacting to my boss’s screwball sense of humor, the precise steps he must take with my university’s IP department regarding the material in my bachelor’s thesis, on which the conference research project is based.  I have received a one-to-one email from my ex-boss, in violation of my request to the co-founder, saying how funny the coincidences in naming were, and how he’d thought that we were friends, but maybe he’d thought wrong.
My boss was, at the time, 54.
I was 23.
My academic adviser encouraged me to stop my research with them, to only focus on graduating while she took care of following up with the department’s HR team, and that she’d be in touch if she needed anything else.
She never got in touch.
I started having problems in November, when I noticed myself looking over my shoulder every time I stepped into the department’s buildings.  Whenever I approached my friend’s foundry or went near the machine shop, my chest tightened and my heart rate skyrocketed. On a third of my own campus, my old home, I was on hyper-alert, scanning and rescanning every hallway for glasses shapes and cement-powder shoe prints on the hall tiles.
When it came time to apply for classes in January term, I asked my friend if his welding classes were going to include my ex-boss—the metal-casting class in 2010, when I was 21, was my first introduction to him.  My friend said no, so I signed on, but I never stopped looking over my shoulder until I was in the foundry with the door firmly shut and five other undergrads hanging onto my friend’s every word about SMAW versus MIG versus TIG.
I wrapped up the project with the design students, and gave my regrets for not being able to attend their end-of-semester mini-symposium.  My ex-boss would be present, of course, to take credit.
I got my diploma in February. I emailed my academic adviser in May 2013, asking what had ever happened with that case.
Well, nothing.
He’s still a research affiliate, publishing under my university’s name, and his company is still supplying big brands.  He’s still present at every industry trade show in my geographic area.  A couple weeks into my first real job, I got called out, jokingly, for not having signed up to staff our company’s booth at local trade expos, industry shows, maker faires.
I emailed my boss the next morning asking for ten minutes.  He gave them, quite graciously.  I explained in brief to my new boss why I wasn’t volunteering to spend days behind a table in a room where my ex-boss would be.  The entire conversation, I was thinking on about fourteen levels, clutching a mug of coffee and only feeling it being too hot against my hands.
Coach your face, I was thinking, don’t cry, do not choke up.  Explain.  Few words.  Do not exaggerate.  I am this person, explaining that my boss wrote and intended to distribute porn about assaulting someone in my relative position with my name, and that his prevalence in my industry would prevent me from performing as expected.  Your voice is shaking.  Breathe.  Why do you want to laugh?
I would make up for my absence from local events however I could.  I was sorry I could not offer more, but I did not want to burden a volunteer team with the care of a hyperventilating customer support rep.
“What if I break his knees?” said my new boss.
I stared at him.  That was not in the script.  That’s a line I’d expect from my brother, not the person who signed my employment contract.
“No, I don’t think that would be, um, effective,” I replied, after slightly too long a pause.
He offered his sincere apologies for my experience and for my residual fear, and said he’d discuss the matter with the outreach coordinators.
I thanked him and went back to my desk.  I did not cry.  I swallowed half a milligram of Klonopin with my now-cooled coffee, to stop my hands shaking—when had they started?—and went back to work.
My ex-boss is still working closely with my official thesis adviser: an entire department at my university closed to me if I wanted to try grad school.
He’s the person I’ve worked with the longest, the most present on my resume and CV, and I cannot approach him or the company co-founder for references or letters of recommendation.  Both because they scare the shit out of me, and because they believe I’m, variously, an oversensitive flake who shirks responsibility to cushion my poor sense of humor, and, by all apparent evidence, a piece of meat.
I’m out of academia, and out of industry.  I have a bachelor’s degree from a department that I can’t set foot in without feeling my stomach clench, and professional contacts want to act like they’re my brother and he’s a prom date who got fresh.
I have no idea if any of my education has been worth it.
  • http://theflounce.com Jen Pink

    This was painful. I’m so sorry.

  • TheeLoveCats

    Eek. This whole thing was terribly frightening. I am sorry it happened to you.

  • http://www.theflounce.com AlexisO

    I really empathize with you and I hope you are able to find success after all this. It was out of line and scary and it’s really sad that your ex-boss thought sharing something that gross could be brushed off as a joke when it backfired.