A little over a year ago, just before the pandemic veered into lockdown mode, I interviewed this week’s Open Mic subject, Jessica, for a television pilot I was producing. The series was to be about women’s issues where progress had stalled, and Jessica’s case was not only deeply relevant to the series’ goal of shining a light on these issues with the hope of moving them forward, but I also had a personal connection to her story.
Jessica had been working at an esteemed university, in a male-dominated science department, when in 2007 a young male professor from Germany was hired. Over time, Jessica and some of her colleagues experienced a pattern of sexually-charged behavior by this professor that they felt was not right, neither as a workplace standard for the faculty and students of the department nor for the university. In our episode, Jessica shares the details of the behaviors that she, her colleagues, and students experienced and the resulting toxic workplace climate it created. As was typical of the time, the people (mostly women, but not all) who were impacted and upset by this professor’s behavior, didn’t say much because they either didn’t want to seem “too sensitive” or, perhaps, not as understanding of the “European culture” from which the professor had come, and also for fear of further potential repercussions from drawing attention to the issue. Already the behavior of the now-popular professor had created an inside/outside mentality within the department - those who were on board with his style would reap benefits such as inclusion in career-furthering lab projects, publications, and recommendations for graduate schools, jobs, and funding; those who expressed their distaste of his behavior would miss out on such opportunities.
In 2013, the first formal complaint was filed with the department, but the then-department head felt the professor hadn’t broken any University rules pertaining to “harassment”, and he was granted tenure that year. In 2016, a group from within the department filed a complaint with the university, but two investigations (one internal and one by a University-paid outside firm) determined that the professor had “pushed the boundaries” but had not violated the University’s guidelines against harassment and discrimination. In 2017, an EEOC complaint was filed by seven current and former professors at the university, including Jessica, as well as a former graduate student. The charges laid out in the complaint allege that over a span of 10 years this professor contributed to a “hostile environment” for some graduate students, postdocs, and professors in the department, causing at least 11 women to actively avoid him and lose out on educational opportunities and that while the University-provided or -funded investigations ultimately cleared him of violations of its harassment and discrimination policy, the complainants dispute the investigation’s conclusions and say the university has since retaliated against the professors involved. Retaliations, also described by Jessica in our episode, included the seizing of emails, requiring “repayment” of maternity leave absences, missing out on educational and professional opportunities, and more. Meanwhile, during the investigation period, the professor in question was given a paid leave-of-absence, which prevented him from teaching but allowed him to continue the work of his lab. He was promoted within the department and given a second position in another science department at the University. Currently, the professor is back in the classroom and in the lab. On the professor’s resume, he states that during the period of 2009-2018 his research generated over $5.6 million in funding.
At the beginning of 2020, there had been no real movement on the case, but headlines local to the University revealed that the University’s legal team had made some missteps during proceedings, including “leaking” the names of anonymous information sources, creating opportunities for intimidation and further retaliation against them. This was the timing of my development and fundraising for the aforementioned TV pilot. Living not far from the University at the time, the headlines were unavoidable, and ai felt not only deeply troubled by them but also puzzled. Jessica and one of the other complainants no longer worked at the university, but they had both been named Time Magazine People of the Year in 2017 as part of the Silence Breakers groups that had reported #MeToo injustices. How could THAT not have brought the case to a settlement or at least some further development?
In 2007, the year that the professor in question had been hired by the University, I, too, had been hired to work in this same University, in the same department. I had been hired to facilitate the onboarding of several new professors, many from international locations, including this professor. Because my work was not embedded within the department’s research, my interactions with this professor were intermittent and administrative in nature. I did have ample opportunity to observe his interactions with departmental colleagues and students. I also came to understand the importance that the University placed on ambitious grant-funded science programs and their impact on the University’s medical center.
By 2020, there had been much media attention in the U.S. surrounding sexual harassment, assault, and rape on campuses, as it pertains to students. There had also, thanks to the #MeToo movement, been new attention on sexual harassment in the workplace. Additionally, years leading up to 2020, a new societal push had been made for women and girls to pursue STEM activities and professions. But what happens when women enter male-dominated fields - as students and teachers/leaders - and have to contend with a “boys club” mentality until representation becomes equal? If no one complains, if no one is reprimanded, can the “boys club” evolve? Do women have to acquiesce to the status quo in order to keep up or get ahead? How should that make women who DO work or WANT to work in the sciences feel? What about the moms sending their daughters off to college science departments? How should women prepare themselves, prepare their daughters, prepare the students they teach to handle potential problems?
In a 2015 study of female scientists, 35 percent of respondents said they had experienced some form of sexual harassment. A separate survey found that among female scientists working in field programs, that number rises to 71 percent. Janet Bandows Koster, the CEO and executive director of the Association for Women in Science says rates of sexual harassment remain as high as they are because of the rigid hierarchy in university science departments, which requires students to maintain long-term relationships with powerful professors and causes them to fear retaliation. “Who you study with, whose lab you’re in, could make or break your career,” she explains. “Oftentimes you go to an institution, and everyone knows who the serial sexual harasser is, but none of them will say anything.”
The idea of a TV series helping to move forward women’s issues that have stalled progress was initially well-received. Efforts toward raising funds for the pilot episode garnered accolades and many pledges for support at the concept stage. But as it became clear that the pilot would feature this local case, financial backing from local organizations and corporations started to be pulled out. The local public television station where the plot would be filmed began closing doors of communication. People who had enthusiastically signed on to participate in the production suddenly became unavailable. It became clear that while philosophically, the population supported the plight of Jessica and the other complainants in this case, the problematic truth was that the University is the largest employer of its city, one of its most desired business partners, and one of its largest philanthropic institutions. Every company, organization, and person in the city had a stake in the University and did not want to ruffle its feathers.
Presuming funding would come on the national level, I moved forward with my interview with Jessica. Four weeks later, the country went into lockdown and studio production came to a halt. One week after that, headlines announced that the University had settled with Jessica and the other complainants for over $9 million.
My hope in sharing this interview is to raise awareness among women - women in science, women who love women in science, women who care about a woman’s right to a harassment-free workplace, women who believe women shouldn’t be retaliated against for using their voice, and all women who support women - about this important issue that still carries on for today’s woman.
Our Open Mic series invites women to share their personal experiences with some of the most difficult issues facing women today, without judgment. Sharing first-hand accounts, the HERsay Podcast aims to feature women from all walks of life, demonstrating that we are all more alike than we are different. We believe that it’s only when we truly listen to each other that we can learn about the world around us and our place in it, become enlightened to our collectiveness, and help transform the world into a more understanding and caring place for all women.