Sexual harassment and the graduate student

The last few years have marked a critical discussion about sexual assault on college campuses, which is a huge problem in the United States. Campus rape has emerged as a significant problem in no small part because of the way it’s handled by colleges and universities, which seem to prefer to cover it up rather than addressing it. Lawsuits and outspoken commentaries have accused educational institutions of not following up on rape reports, of allowing assailants to continue going to school, and of failing victims in so many ways as to boggle the mind. Most of these cases involve women assaulted by men, making higher education extremely dangerous for women and reinforcing larger problems with sexism in academia.

But one thing that’s not coming up as much as it should in this conversation is a specific subset of this issue: That involving graduate students. Like their undergrad counterparts, graduate students experience sexual harassment and assault not only from their peers but also from advisors and other ranking members of their cohorts, and it’s a serious problem as well. Comparing it to the epidemic of campus rape among undergrads is also a bit of an apples to oranges proposition, because while both involve sexual harassment and assault at their core, they’re operating in different ways.

Here’s what’s similar: Graduate students are assaulted on and off campus by other students as well as faculty and administrators. They are also discouraged from reporting by their universities, and they face disbelief and sometimes even anger when they try to raise concerns about assailants, particularly those with a chronic history of harassing or sexually assaulting students. Like their undergraduate counterparts, they’re also likely to keep encountering their assailants on campus, with colleges reluctant to take action on the issue, and sometimes they find themselves penalised for being the ones to report.

But graduate students are in a slightly different position because academia is about both education and advancing a career. People are in graduate school either because they need professional training (attorneys, doctors), or because they’re developing careers as researchers and instructors. They’re in academia for the long term, and thus the events that happen around them can have serious repercussions that will resonate through their careers for life. When an undergrad reports rape, is ignored, and takes the issue to the broader public, she captures national news — when a graduate student does the same, the same sequence of events happens, but she also gets known as ‘difficult.’ She gets cut out of academia, and she gets treated like garbage for having the gall to believe that she had the right to protest sexual assault and abuse.

Female graduate students already face constant discrimination and grossness — they make less than their male counterparts, they’re talked over and ignored, their research is belittled. But when they report sexual harassment and assault, they’re told to ignore it. They’re told to focus on the job because their careers are important. Just get used to it, because everyone else is, and that’s just the way it is. Earlier this year, a well-esteemed female academic told graduate students that: ‘As long as your adviser does not move on to other advances, I suggest you put up with it, with good humor if you can…His attention on your chest may be unwelcome, but you need his attention on your science and his best advice.’

This was within the context of a larger column suggesting that men just can’t be responsible for their urges, and working with people of different genders is distracting — sound familiar, Tim Hunt? — and we just have to deal with these things if we want to function in the workplace. It’s not really sexually harassment, you see, if someone’s making a point of staring at your breasts. People put the onus on women in academia to ‘deal with it,’ and if they don’t, they’re not playing nicely, and they will be punished. They’ll find it difficult to get work in new labs if they’re in the sciences, or they’ll have trouble getting positions on the faculty as liberal arts instructors. Talking about sexual harassment can torpedo your career in a very immediate and painful way.

This doesn’t make what happens to graduate students somehow worse or even more not okay than the abuse that undergrads endure. But it’s a different facet of the picture, and the conversation, and that needs to be acknowledged. Women in academia face a lot of challenges, and the pressure to tolerate sexual harassment, and assault, is one of them. It’s important to bring this up in conversations about campus rape and sexism in higher education, rather than folding graduate students into the larger conversation and ignoring the troubling specifics of their situation.

The fact that many women in academia can relate stories of sexual harassment and sexual assault is disturbing. It’s even more so to hear that many of them never reported in the knowledge that doing so could endanger their standing, or on suggestions from friends that it would be pointless. For those who do, the result can be pressure from administrators to back down or not escalate the case, with warnings to avoid going public for fear of disturbing the school’s reputation and veiled threats about everything from funding to academic status to future career options.

This is not okay. Women in academia deserve to be able to focus on academics just like everyone else. And the fact that they have to balance sexism on top of the high stress load of working on graduate degrees is a load of bullshit.

Image: Bruce Kutter Centrifuge, UC Davis College of Engineering, Flickr