I was 18

Having grown up in a less than ideal home environment, I was used to some pretty vulgar behaviour and language. But here I thought I was starting university at a place that was putting emphasis on encouraging female participation in STEM. Great!

Only classes started, and I found myself one of very few females in the subjects I was enrolled in. Not an issue in and of itself, it was kind of expected at the time that there wouldn’t be many females in the hard sciences. What did get me was the level of degrading and insulting comments made by my male classmates. Lewd comments were nothing new – I was fresh out of high school. But the comments seemed to reach a new level of disturbing all of a sudden. Instead of me reacting with “haha, you’re not funny…grow up” like I would have done in high school, I actually felt threatened.

And this was happening during class time. During practicals and tutorials. What made this situation worse was the fact that the lab demonstrators and tutors (i.e. teaching assistants) employed by the department to run these pracs and tutes were participating in this behaviour, and having a laugh right along with these guys.

At the time the university had no policy about harassment in place, or if they did, they certainly hadn’t made any of us aware of it. So I had no idea who to report it to. Naturally my initial reaction had been to report it to the teaching assistants (TA’s) who were running the classes, because this was happening in class! But then I started to second guess myself, because these TA’s were not only participating in and encouraging this behaviour (they thought it was hilarious and that as a female in STEM I just had to “get used to it”), but they were also in charge of grading our coursework. Did I really want to report on the people who were literally in charge of my grades, and thus my future?

I let it slide…

I was 20

There’s been a great deal of reporting in the media recently about a case at James Cook University regarding a rape case involving a staff member. It reminded me about what happened to me when I was a 3rd year undergrad.

I’d been dating this guy for a couple of years, we’d been living together. We were both employed as TA’s for some of the larger first year classes to assist with the practicals. An acrimonious breakup ensued after I literally caught him with his hand in the cookie jar so to speak. The problem was what followed. I’d wanted to keep the reason for the breakup quiet, as I saw there was nothing to be gained by badmouthing him. I just packed up my stuff and moved out into one of the university’s residential colleges (the split happened mid-semester and I didn’t have the time to go house hunting – this was simply the easiest solution). Turns out my ex had been going around the department telling everyone I was a lesbian and that was why we’d broken up. Even if I was, I didn’t really see how that should be an issue. Who I’m having sex with behind closed doors is nobody else’s business as long as it’s legal. It also turns out that my ex knew that our head of department (the one in charge of our casual employment contracts) was homophobic. You can see where this is going, right? I got no more TA work after that. Had to find another job to see me through to the end of my undergrad studies. But as it was when I was 18, I had no idea who to report it to. Presumably one would report it to the head of department, right? But what do you do when the head of department is part of the problem?

I let it slide…

But it gets worse. Several months after the breakup, I was at a party at the residential college that I’d moved into. It was an official college function. My ex was there too (I can’t explain how he got in). I was roofied that night. My new friends had noticed my abnormal behaviour and sudden sickness and dragged me back to my room and put me to bed. I went to the doctor the next morning and got sent to the lab for tests. Rohypnol. Now nothing happened because my friends were observant, and I have no irrefutable proof that my ex was responsible. But why on earth was he at a residential college party in the first place? He certainly didn’t live there and had never been to a party there in the years we’d lived together. Too many coincidences for me.

I reported the incident to the residential college manager – the guy who was supposed to be in charge of our pastoral care – since this happened at an official college function. What was his response?

What were you wearing? (jeans and a hoodie)

How much had you had to drink? (one UDL)

Are you sure you weren’t encouraging this kind of behaviour? (are you f’ing kidding me right now?)

My responses are in brackets, but let’s be honest here, my answers are kind of beside the point.

If that was the response I was getting from the residential college manager  – again, the guy in charge of our pastoral care – what kind of response was I going to get if I took it to the cops?

I let it slide…

I was 25

I escaped all of this mess that happened when I was an undergraduate. And in my infinite wisdom decided that I wanted to do a PhD because I’d always wanted to be a researcher. It was at the same university I did my undergraduate degree, but technically in a different (albeit strongly related) department. Everything was going really well to start out with. I had a great supervision team and we had a fantastic cohort of grad students.

Then the new guy arrived – my supervisor’s new PhD student. The golden boy – I could see why the department considered grabbing him to do his studies there was such a coup, he was good, and I won’t deny that. I was single at the time, and golden boy decided he was interested. I’m not opposed to a guy asking me out, even ones I have to work with, but if I say no, I expect that to be the end of it. That wasn’t the end of it. Golden boy made everyone in the department aware that he wanted me (and I swear this isn’t my ego talking) because he apparently thought that if enough people bugged me about it then I would give in to peer pressure. I wasn’t giving in.

Alas, my supervisor (also this guy’s new PhD supervisor) decided to get involved. And threatened to withhold signing off on critical paperwork until I agreed to go on a date with the golden boy. To this day, I’m not entirely sure how serious the threat was, but when your PhD supervisor is holding something like that over your head, what are you meant to do? I gave in and agreed to go on a date with the guy, nothing more. I figured if I could get everyone off my back the situation would just disappear. The date, somewhat predictably, didn’t go too well. I thought that was the end of it. Except golden boy didn’t give up. My supervisor was encouraging me to “give it another chance! He really likes you!”. Maybe he did. But here’s the thing – I didn’t like him. Again, with the threat of withholding signing paperwork hanging over my head, I agreed. It still didn’t go well. Eventually he lost interest.

It’s not so much the golden boy himself that aggravates me about that whole situation. It’s the fact that my supervisor decided to get involved in my personal life and threaten to withhold paperwork from me if I didn’t agree to date his new grad student – regardless of how serious he may or may not have been about the threat. And again, what are you meant to do when your supervisor who has been an active participant in the harassment also happens to be the head of department – the person you’re meant to report these things to? I had no idea where to go, who to report these things to. Because we’re told to report them to our immediate supervisor. What do you do when your immediate supervisor is part of the problem?

Again, I let it slide…

It goes on…In my mid-30’s

I eventually left that university when I finished my PhD. But I keep seeing media reports cropping up on my social media feeds about harassment and assault on Australian university campuses. And as terrible as it all is, I can’t help but recall my own experiences, roll my eyes, and wonder how on earth this is all still happening some 15+ years after I was an undergrad?

Maybe it’s because I never escalated these cases higher up the food chain. But when the people in charge are effectively holding your entire scientific career in their hands, what are you meant to do? I convinced myself that it wasn’t that bad for way too long. That at least I’d not actually been raped, despite some very vividly worded threats to that end. I let these incidents slide because I had convinced myself that my career was under threat if I actually pursued any further action. I didn’t want to have wasted all that time and money studying at university for nothing.

I work as a postdoctoral researcher now at a different university. I’m on campus every day. Despite my university’s public commitment to ending rape on campus and promoting women in STEM, sexual harassment in my department is systemic. It’s not just students on campus who are unfortunately having to deal with this – staff are too. But that’s a story for another day.

The commitments made to the public by university media and marketing staff about ending rape and harassment on campus come across as nothing but empty platitudes. The reality speaks for itself on a daily basis.