On being harassed, and being supported

Posted: May 31, 2013 by Jender in good mentoring, Good news, harassment

Female junior faculty member here. I was recently harassed at a conference, for the first and hopefully the last time. The offender started out making what I thought was reasonable conversation. Then when no one else was around, he made a weird comment about my body and asked if I “work out”. I told him my physical appearance was irrelevant and changed the subject, but he didn’t take the hint. He started coming in to talks, shortly after the speaker had begun, and sitting next to me, so that it would be awkward for me to get up and move. He would try to distract me during the talk, and would also touch me on the back and shoulders. I wasn’t especially frightened, but I was annoyed–I was at the conference to pay attention to the speakers.

Another woman at the conference, who had been another of this guy’s targets, saw what was going on, and approached me during one of the coffee breaks. She asked me if this guy was touching me, explained that he had bothered her too, and encouraged me not to worry about being polite. “Just stand up and walk away when he sits next to you”, she suggested, so I started doing that. He finally got the hint and got someone to deliver an apologetic note, which I found an inadequate substitute for not bothering me in the first place.

I wish I had not waited so long to tell my friends at the conference (it probably made it more awkward for me that most of them were men). Once they heard what was going on, all of them were supportive: they believed me and agreed to keep an eye on the guy. But I particularly appreciate the woman who actively noticed what was happening and reached out to me. (She also made a bunch of smart points in the Q&A sessions, so she was just all-around winning at this conference.)

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