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No Means No

A comic strip featuring six panels of a star stating various observations on consent

On March 4, 2016, The New York Times published an opinion piece titled She Wanted to Do Her Research. He Wanted to Talk ‘Feelings detailing sexual harassment of a woman scientist at her work place. This piece resonated strongly with many women scientists as it did with me. It made me want to write about my own experience with sexual harassment as a PhD student. Discussing this piece with fellow women scientists, it was striking how many had their own stories to tell, and surprising how easily they opened up when asked. I suppose, though, I can start by telling you mine.

It began in the third year of my PhD. I had just returned from India and a fellow classmate sent me an e-mail. The e-mail was about his feelings for me, asking me to consider a relationship with him. I talked with him and declined, saying I would be friends but had no intention of pursuing a romantic relationship. From there on the situation progressively worsened. He would send his friends (sometimes our mutual friends) to ask me to change my mind. I would say no. He wanted to talk, and I talked to him thinking talking it out was the logical thing to do.  He wanted to know all sorts of things: Was there someone else? How could I not be impressed with all the money he had? Wasn’t that enough? He would do whatever I wanted, provided I said yes. If there was no one else, why was there a gold ring on my ring finger? I tried, but could not reason with him.In hindsight, I feel like I contributed to this mess by keeping in contact.

The e-mails continued. By now he had accused me of being the reason behind his unproductive last couple of years. I knew I needed help. Having decided to keep his and my advisor out of the loop, I reached out to a female professor in the department. Her help proved invaluable. She advised me to be neutral while replying to the e-mails. This was hard so I started running my responses by her. Bit by bit I had an e-mail trail documenting my harassment.

One final incident pushed me over the edge. Working alone late into the night was routine. Ever since this episode started, I would intermittently keep the office door locked. If the door were open, others (including he) would peep in to say ‘hello’. By this point I had started to think of him as deranged. Sure, he was smart, doing cutting-edge science, but socially he was extremely awkward, unable to understand that ‘no’ means no; not yes, not maybe, but no. I was standing my ground, being pursued ferociously and getting mentally exhausted. In April 2007, a mentally disturbed student at Virginia Tech had gone on a rampage killing 33 people. This incident had stayed with me. I could not shake off the feeling that it would be me if I did not say yes.

One night, I had left the door open and was working when he walked into my office holding a cup of coffee as if he owned the place, as if it were his right to do so. For the first time in seven months, I lost it and started shouting, having a breakdown, asking him to leave. He tried to talk but I was furious. What if he had a gun? Coffee seemed harmless. A gun would not be. I was fearful for my life.

First thing next morning, I saw my professor and told her I was ready to file sexual harassment charges. Who knew? Who did not know? What consequences would there be for me? Would future employers know I had taken this step? I did not care. Consequences be damned, I was ready to file.

My professor agreed to help but first I was to let my classmate know of my decision.

His knowing that I was going to press charges put an end to seven months of harassment. With immediate effect, he stopped all contact. Seeing me in the department corridor, he would change his path. Not the end I had expected, as I had been prepared to fight. I did not file charges; informing him had worked.

My female professor was the one person who supported me with sensitivity throughout this time. Without her help, this incident would have turned out differently.

For my friends, at the beginning, it was confusing. Relationships begin with someone asking you out. The problem is, not everyone understands your refusing a proposal[1]. I heard a lot of ‘why not?’ from my department friends. Both of us were of Asian origin, a culture that does not take ‘no’ seriously. If a girl is saying no, she means yes: children in the eighties and nineties grew up with this thought. The prerogative of choice is considered a male privilege. In stereotypical fashion I too had sent my male friends to talk to him, to keep him away from me. It did not work. It took a while for me, and others, to understand that I was being harassed. No one ever advised me to take action against him, no matter how distressed I was.

My harasser was an acquaintance, neither a friend nor anyone in a position of power over me. It is more complicated to be pursued by a friend or a person in power. I hate to say it but it was easier for me than for some other people who find themselves in abusive situations because my harasser had no control over my work or me.

There is growing evidence to support that scientific environments can be abusive. In June 2015, Tim Hunt, a Nobel Laureate in medicine, resigned from his position at University College, London, following comments that he had made publicly about women in science. What he had said was,

Let me tell you about my trouble with girls … Three things happen when they are in the lab … You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them, they cry.

In October 2015, following a six month internal investigation, Geoff Marcy, an astrophysics professor at University of California, Berkeley was found guilty of violating campus sexual harassment policies between 2001-2010. Four women had reported him. He was disciplined, not let go. Severe backlash forced Marcy to resign. In January 2016, a Buzzfeed article detailed sexual harassment of two PhD female students at the hands of their advisor, astrophysicist Christian Ott at California Institute of Technology. Ott was disciplined, not fired, and will resume work in July 2016 following rehabilitative training.

In the United States, universities have been accused of brushing sexual harassment, abuse and assault cases under the rug. As of today, there are 282 on-going investigations into Title IX violations in US universities. Title IX, a Federal civil rights law, prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in education programs and activities. Under Title IX, discrimination on the basis of sex can include sexual harassment or sexual violence such as rape, sexual assault, sexual battery, and sexual coercion.

Should I have taken action against my harasser? Yes, I should have. All I wanted then was for him to stop, which he did. Not pursuing charges means no one will ever know about his capacity to be abusive.

The experience I share here took place in 2008. Eight years on, more and more women have come forward to report abuse in academia. Speaking up is power and the first step to reform. The movement to make science and universities safer and equitable is just getting started.

[1] ‘Proposal’, in the U.S. dating world, could imply a wide range of possibilities ranging from a date, casual sexual encounter, “be my girlfriend”, to marriage.

Illustration reproduced from Buzzfeed News / NASA