A Scientist Finally Realizes It Was Always #HerToo

By Nina Dudnik

I want to like this man. He is prominent in his field. He has spearheaded a project that I find fascinating as a model and want to learn more about. He is well-connected and could be a useful professional contact. He must be at least twice my age and is funny in a grandfatherly sort of way. For the most part, I do like him. It’s just that he keeps touching me.

It’s not outright lewd.  We are at a table with eight other attendees of this conference dinner, weaving in and out of multiple conversations. He keeps touching my arm, my shoulder, my back, punctuating the conversation. This is not new. In fact, it is so normal for interactions with men, even in professional situations, that it has taken me at least half an hour to realize how uncomfortable I am. And now I am carrying out an inner dialogue that I suspect is quite common for women.

Maybe I am misinterpreting his intent, I think. Maybe he’s just being friendly and if I say something he’ll be offended, I will have burned a bridge. But look, I say to myself, he isn’t touching the man to his left, with whom he is also being friendly. This is not inadvertent. Should I say something? I should have said something already. I’ve let it go on for so long, it will be strange to say something now. What do I say?  What if I just keep inching away, will he take the hint? Why am I more concerned with offending him than being offended myself?

I’m struck by how much this is affecting me. For weeks the news has been full of reporting on Harvey Weinstein and stories of other men in multiple industries being called out for harassment and assault. My social media has been full of #MeToos. For weeks I have thought I am lucky. I have never been assaulted. I don’t even get catcalled on the street. Only now, as I try to maintain outward composure despite my inner monologue, do I realize how often this sort of unwanted attention comes my way.

I am not an actress; I am a scientist and an entrepreneur. This is not a sector- or job-specific obstacle for women. It’s universal. No matter what your career is, advancement requires you to do a little pandering. You laugh at anecdotes you might otherwise not, you effuse over suggestions and are generous with compliments. These interactions are fundamentally unequal and you expect to put up with a certain amount of hassle. Everyone does this, it’s not limited by gender. What does vary is the kind of treatment you expect to put up with. Still, as long as you get the help you need, that’s just the price of doing business, right?

Is it?

Dinner is long over and I am still litigating this in my head. It has taken me this long to come to the conclusion that not being touched — anywhere — is a perfectly reasonable desire.  I am angry, but even my anger is ironic. I am angry at myself for not responding in time, not at him for doing it in the first place. I am still grappling with what I should have said and how I should have said it. Because of course the onus is on me to smooth out the situation, to make my point but not make a scene.

There is no such thing as a simple dinner conversation, no moment of unmitigated professional interaction in which my body is not part of the equation. Unwanted physical attention is still unwanted. It doesn’t matter if it were just my shoulder, I was uncomfortable. That should have been reason enough for me not to put up with it. That should have been reason enough for this man, for any man, to stop.

But it’s not.

(Nina Dudnik is the founder and CEO of Seeding Labs, a nonprofit working to create a world where a generation of problem-solving scientists in every country around the globe have what they need to tackle the world’s biggest issues. She is a Public Voices Fellow of The OpEd Project.) 


Sexual Harassment: No Laughing Matter, Especially for Women with Limited Finances

By Shirley L. Smith

I was in my mid-20s when I was first sexually harassed at work.  I was working for a governor, and I was standing next to him at a public event when his bodyguard grabbed my butt.  This was my Taylor Swift moment.  However, unlike Swift, who sued a former radio host for a similar offense and won, I did not have the resources or fortitude to do anything about it.

I was shocked, but as one of the governor’s public relations persons, I could not make a scene at a public event. I also did not feel that I could tell the governor what his trusted bodyguard had done, since his bodyguard was more indispensable to him than I was.  The next day, I told my supervisor about the incident, but he just laughed. I also mentioned it to a couple of my coworkers. They weren’t surprised.

Rather than confronting the bodyguard, I spent the rest of my tenure trying to avoid him.  I have since learned that men grope women in public, because they count on them not to make a public scene.

It is not okay for someone to touch you inappropriately without your permission.  This is a lesson many mothers teach their children.  The problem is, this message is inconsistent with our culture which routinely shames victims of sexual abuse and objectifies women for men’s amusement.  I think that feeling of shame is why I remained silent again when I was a child, and an older neighbor held me down in my house and shoved his tongue down my throat.

Thanks to the courage of women like Swift and Gretchen Carlson, the former Fox News anchor who broke the code of silence of sexual harassment at the network, claims of sexual harassment are being taken more seriously.  And, as more women feel empowered, the veil of secrecy around powerful men in Hollywood, the news industry, corporate America, academia, Silicon Valley and the political arena is being lifted. These men, once thought to be untouchable, are finally being held accountable for their salacious behavior.  This is a long-awaited feat.

For far too long, many women have endured working in a hostile environment where they are subjected to offensive comments and/or unwelcome touching or gestures from men who use their positions of authority to try to coerce them into a quid quo pro relationship.  Women often suffer in silence for fear of retaliation.

Carlson created a safe space for actresses Ashley Judd, Lupita Nyong’o and other women to share their stories of sexual harassment and/or assault by Hollywood bigwigs like producer Harvey Weinstein, which also resulted in his dismissal from his own company.

Unfortunately, reporting sexual harassment is still a major risk for most women, especially those with limited finances and young women just starting their careers. Women of limited means and power who sue their employers for sexual harassment are oftentimes outmatched by high-priced attorneys who drag their reputations through the mud and portray them as either promiscuous or as lying, disgruntled employees out for revenge or money.  Attorneys also use delay tactics and technical loopholes to get cases dismissed or frustrate victims into capitulating, and victims are blacklisted.

I learned this the hard way. Several years after I left the governor’s office, I went to work for another organization where sexual harassment was pervasive among top management.  Shortly after I was hired, a board member asked me, “Do you kiss boys?” then tried to kiss me on the lips. I was also subjected to other lascivious behavior.

This time, I demanded to be heard, but I paid a heavy price for it emotionally, financially, physically and professionally.  I was ostracized, subjected to retaliation and some of the witnesses I depended on to corroborate my story suddenly developed amnesia after being intimidated by management. Even members of my own family did not support me. One family member told me, “What did you expect, you are an attractive woman.”

No one should have to tolerate sexual harassment or feel uncomfortable or scared at work because some creep cannot control his sexual urges.  Sexual harassment is not a laughing matter.  It is a form of sexual abuse which can escalate to rape if men who engage in such perverted conduct continue to push the boundaries of decency with impunity.

Further, sexual predators always have more than one victim.  The only way to eradicate the virus of sexual harassment that has permeated our culture and workplaces is for women to break the silence, support each other, demand respect and advocate for better employment laws. Women who go along to get along or are quick to condemn other women who speak up, and men who turn a blind eye to sexual harassment only exacerbate the problem.

Shirley L. Smith is a freelance journalist.