I can’t help you do that

A few months ago, I spoke openly about an incident of gendered bullying and intimidation at a workshop. I was bullied as a nursing mother, and I was also cornered and intimidated by the host of the workshop. I by and large received support for speaking out. But I also received something else: people asking how they can be supporters of both me and the man who hurt me.

I can’t help you do that.

Harassment is a transgression against your humanity. I now have a body that has panic reactions it didn’t before. I have a body that locks up in response to certain stimuli. I am different, and the physical vehicle I inhabit is different. It is my job now to make peace with this new body. To learn to respect its quirks and to work around the its limitations. That’s a big job.

But harassment is not a transgression against the humanity of one person. It is an action against a community, centered on one person. To know about inequity is to put the relationship you thought you had with the aggressor in a new context. How can we continue as normal when things are not normal?

I can’t help you do that.

Privileges are not evenly distributed in the academy. A powerful man will have not just the material privileges of his position, but the ability to confer respect upon subordinates by his interactions with them. This is the exact dynamic highlighted in the NASEM sexual harassment report: academia is not a free marketplace of ideas. There are gatekeepers, and some of those gatekeepers abuse their power. How can we, as communities, shelter our members from gatekeepers acting inequitably?

We are culturally conditioned to expect female labor. It is because of that cultural conditioning that I was immediately challenged to forgive the aggressor. And I reject that cultural conditioning. I reject the notion that powerful, tenured gatekeepers should be able to make demands on the emotional labor of people who have experienced misconduct.

I reject the notion that powerful, tenured gatekeepers should be able to make demands on the emotional labor of people who have experienced misconduct.

This brings us back to community. If my job now is to take care of myself, what is the job of the rest of the community? In the days that followed my traumas being made public, a lot of community action happened. Women told me about their own experiences of gendered or sexual mistreatment. Fellow faculty told me about things they are doing to make their spaces safer. Several people did some deft digital bystander intervention to take heat off of me, and tell trolls to back off.

I posit that the role of a community member is this: to stand where we are, evaluate the resources at our disposal, and act accordingly. For the early career folks in the audience, that probably means to work hard, become the best scientist you can, and allow your observations to inform the culture you create.

For those of us on faculty, this means creating a lab culture we can be proud of, being aware of how to appropriately report misconduct, and being trained to intervene when we see abuse. When we help organize a meeting, or serve on councils, we are not responsible only for ourselves. We are responsible for creating an equitable and safe community. And we are accountable to our communities in success and failure.

I cannot do this work for you. The fact is that we all have done things we should not be proud of. By extension, we all have friends who have done things they shouldn’t be proud of. Collaborators. Bosses. I told a friend once that the floor is made of trauma, and no matter where we step, we step on each others’ painful past.  

The work continues. Every one of us has a role to play, and every one of us will play different roles at different points in our careers. The work is hard. And I can’t absolve anyone of it.

Cover photo by April Wright. Caption: An incident of gendered bias has haunted me for years. It occurred at a marine lab, where the sunny beach belied the darkness I felt.

April Wright
April Wright

April Wright is an assistant professor at a primarily undergraduate institution in the South. Her research focuses on incorporating fossils with molecular data for the inference of deep-time evolutionary relationships. In particular, she works with statistical methods to estimate phylogenetic trees from fossil data. As primarily undergraduate institution faculty, she also spends a lot of time considering how to educate and empower diverse undergraduate audiences. Her lab website is http://paleantology.com.

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