Thursday, January 08, 2015

Special Victims: the "she had an affair with him" accusation

The other night, I caught up with a friend whom I hadn't seen since before the holiday. Let's call her Mariah. Mariah is married, has a child, and likes her job. She generally seems in good spirits when I see her. So I was surprised when she needed to unload a story of frustration.

Mariah was complaining about some mutual acquaintances, and saying how she heard that ThisOtherGirl "had an affair" with OlderGuy (who is sort of a mentor figure in this situation).

Which just sounded like nasty, unfounded gossip to me.

Not to defend ThisOtherGirl, since I don't know her very well, but I tried to explain that I think this is something people often say about women they don't like.

Mariah said, "Oh, I didn't think of it that way. And now that you mention it, I'm not sure I trust the source."

When Mariah said that, I suddenly realized I knew exactly who the source was, and I knew he wasn't reliable. So it was probably just gossip.

But Mariah is really struggling. She wants more mentorship than she is getting, and she is looking for a reason why.

It reminded me a lot of the favoritism I witnessed in academia, and the office politics I've seen since I left.

Because what if OtherGirl is actually being harassed by OlderGuy, but everyone else is misreading the situation? It's so much easier to choose the default option of blaming the woman, like she was asking for it. Or trying to sleep her way up the ladder.


I was still thinking about this today when I watched this new episode of Law and Order: SVU .

SPOILER ALERT: I can't really say what I want to say without ruining it a little bit for you, so if you watch the show, go watch it first, and then come back. We'll still be here. 


Full disclosure: I stopped watching SVU for a while, and started up again because I feel like it's one of the few shows that really explores both the leadership roles, and abuses, of women. It's an interesting mix, following the careers of women like the character Sergeant Olivia Benson (played by Mariska Hargitay), and demonstrating all the violence against women happening on a daily basis.

So I was really struck by this episode about Detective Rollins, where they finally revealed what had happened at her previous job in Atlanta. They had hinted for a while that she was raped by one of her colleagues or her boss, but they left it vague for a while.

Rollins only comes forward on this episode because she is forced to, because a younger detective is similarly assaulted. The assault takes place in a hotel room, where the victim has an adjoining room with her boss. Which he insisted on because he said it would be easier to get reimbursed.

The script is just fantastic. There is discussion of the gossip about Rollins (that she was a slut who had an affair with her boss, which wasn't the case at all).

A couple of characters repeatedly use the word "ambitious" as an epithet. It's a great example of a word that, when applied to a man, is a compliment.*

And in one scene, Rollins and the younger detective describe all the things women do to try to avoid getting in trouble: avoid being alone with the boss, avoid social situations with drinking, just politely say no, etc.

This episode was meaningful to me because I could really relate. So many times during my academic career I passed on social drinking with colleagues because I didn't feel safe, and I knew that even if I could physically defend myself, it would be bad for my career. Multiple times I was at meetings and had a professor make a ridiculous request, like asking to come into my hotel room. I always said no. I always thought about how one of my advisors told me she had to fight off a famous professor who tried to assault her in a hotel room at a meeting when she was younger.

Once, when I was alone with my advisor in his office, ostensibly talking about work, I was made uncomfortable enough by something he said, that I gave away the shirt I was wearing that day.

It actually hurts to talk about it. Even to see that much in print is painful, maybe because that event was a turning point in my career.  I think that was when I realized that no amount of 'managing up' was going to improve my chances of getting a job.

And I was ever after reluctant to have meetings alone with older male professors. One time a collaborator wanted me to come back to his office to have a drink to celebrate after a successful presentation, and I had to decline because it was just the two of us.

Maybe it would have been fine. Maybe it would have been a great bonding opportunity. Maybe I could have gotten some great career advice or whatever. But I didn't want to risk it. I didn't feel safe. I didn't feel that the potential benefits outweighed the potential detriment.


I was thinking about all this also because a friend said something to me this week about how we should reward management when they make an effort to promote women. And I was trying to tell her that I had such a miserable time just trying to get my basic needs met (see previous posts like this one). And how I couldn't expect support from my boss or from my boss' boss, and no amount of managing up would have been sufficient to make any difference.

My friend said she wasn't immune to dealing with sexism, either, but based on other things she's said over the years, I don't think we experienced the same kind of sexism. Or maybe I was just that much more aware of it, that much earlier, than she was.

So I sometimes get frustrated with her, because I think she misunderstands all the myriad reasons why I left. It's almost harder for me to explain it to her than to some of my male friends.

But I'm grateful that she wants to try to make positive changes in real life, to help other women. Maybe she can do it because she won't be scrambling to get work done with one hand, while fending off her creepy boss with the other.

*aside: is there a word for words with opposite gendered implications? I'd love to know what to call these.

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