Still surviving a”STEM” sexual assault
There it was, another sign that I hadn’t gotten over it. Last week, a colleague sent me an article via Facebook titled, CNN Sexual harassment in STEM: ‘It’s tragic for society’, and I could barely respond. He asked if I had seen the article, and my response was short: I’m just reading this one, but am aware of it, painfully and personally so. 😦 (complete with the sad-faced emoji.) Then it happened this week, the ultimate trigger. The video aired with the Donald Trump and Billy Bush footage on the bus where they were talking about the woman waiting to meet them to prepare for a TV spot. The comments…you’ve heard them. Essentially, Trump admitted to using his celebrity to sexually assault women. I won’t repeat the details.
Suddenly, I couldn’t control my brain … my mind (after all of these years) kept asking the question from my own situation in the past, “What was the instructor thinking? Why did that happen?” When I saw the Trump video, I was unprepared for the inside look at what a person is thinking before they commit an act that violates someone’s personal space. It broke me. I had told my husband about it before, but I had to share my feelings with him again. When I tried, I just broke down in an uncontrollable wave of crying.
Like one of those weird warped time-machine portrayals where you see yourself spinning back in time, I remembered. I was young, and was working hard, doing well, and excited about getting a good grade in a class. I went to the instructor for office hours, and to this day I don’t know why that office was in a dark hallway, tucked in a corner. I remember talking, and then I remember the grabbing, groping, and lips on my face. I remember wrestling away and running as fast as I could. I remember that the stairs seemed to go on forever, that I couldn’t remember how to get out of the building, that I had the sudden fear that I was going to be stuck and not be able to get out. I was blinded by tears and just wanted to get away.
After that, I was silent. I never told anyone. I never went to office hours again, I never asked another question in that class again.
Fast-forward. I work on issues of diversity, inclusion, and equity in STEM. I love my science and engineering background. I also love training new generations of professors, and am really happy to see many of our young men become strong champions for gender equity in STEM.
I contemplated writing this, but decided to do it because I needed the release. I also needed to let my students, and anyone reading this that, yes, this kind of thing happens and it has happened to someone you know. I wondered what image I would use, and thought about just posting a black box to symbolize my sadness, fear and talking about this, and the feeling of wanting to crawl into a box. I decided instead to post a happy picture that was taken about a week ago in Puerto Rico when I was about to meet colleagues and friends to talk about our plans for working with new generations of STEM students. Puerto Rico is also Jessica Soto Perez’ home, and I carry her memory and legacy forward through continuing to develop “The Jessica Effect.” As part of Jessica’s legacy, I continue to speak out about abuse in STEM environments, and I hope that all of us will work to combat a culture that allows people to have “locker-room banter” that leads to damaging mind-sets and actions. Many have heard this excerpt from UMBC’s President’s adaptation of a famous quote: “Watch your thoughts, they become your words. Watch your words, they become your actions. Watch your actions, they become your habits …”
So let’s end this. Stop the sexual jokes, stop the objectification. View counterparts with professional thoughts, even in preparation for meetings. To my young men, you can make a difference. You are in the room when we’re not around.
- Stop the discussion, don’t feed it.
- Don’t laugh at jokes.
- Don’t pass around pictures, memes, etc.
- Don’t post objectifying images in your office, cubes, or labs
- Speak up and say something and be clear about what is unacceptable.
- Don’t be afraid to report.
Make valuing women and girls for their intelligence and contributions a regular part of the thought process so that professional thoughts translate into professional words, actions, and habits.
I’ll end with thanking my husband. “Babe, it wasn’t your fault,” he reminded me.