Friday, August 9, 2013

Friday's Female: Advisor Abuse

I have a friend suffering from a horrible advisor. I cannot write her down. I don't have the words. He is sexist, a quite bit more than the run of the mill sexism, certainly not the worst that I've ever met anyone complain of, but that is not a fair standard to hold an advisor to. That is like saying that your science is not good because it only got the largest ESF grant in the field to date, you have not won the Nobel.

He is sexist. She faces a regular drip of comments from him. She deals. Occasionally she rants in my office. Life goes on. She admires him. She admires his science. It is amazing what lengths people in abusive relationships will go through to survive. Sometimes survival requires admiration.

She wrote me recently to tell me that he is racist as well. Not that there haven't been hints of this over the time that I have known her. Early in our relationship, she gave me a hug of delight because I could pronounce her name correctly; her advisor, apparently, sees no need to try. The other day she told me a story where she sat with her advisor and coauthor and listened to them insult her country. She dealt. Amazingly well. She wrangled an apology from the coauthor in the room, but not one from him. A partial victory, but worth applauding.

I am stunned. Not by her courage. Anyone who has ever faced humiliation and power plays, whether or not of a racist or sexist origin, knows the steel one must have instead of a spine to talk back in the face of it, while it is going on. But that courage is not impossible, and I know my friend well enough to know that these ordeals will, in the end, just be a training ground for a woman who cannot be messed with. I expect no less of her.

No, I am stunned that this type of abuse happens in public. It so rarely does. When was the last time someone you knew and interacted with regularly made a racist or sexist comment to you or action towards you in public? In my case, it has been a decade. I am not talking about the drive by catcalls or shrieks of white power or go home screamed by strangers. Those are easy to say. They will never see me again. They are possibly already drunk. They probably have a team of cronies behind them to back them up. I am talking about the consistent, regular, day to day abuse that we put ourselves at risk to whenever our entire [fill in blank here] depends on one fucked up person. Very few of these people will abuse in public. In most cases, having a witness depletes the situation of complete power they have over the target.

When it is done in public, one of two things are likely going on. Either, the person has completely lost their own sense of scale, enough to misjudge the risk of public backlash, or, the person is completely aware of the company they keep, and know the witnesses think the behavior acceptable. Her advisor is not crazy. He knows the company he keeps. That he can find company at a major university that finds it acceptable for him to pick on a woman just over half his age, that will go the extra step to join him in the act, in 2013, in a country that claims that problems with race are a thing of the past is .... Is what? Astounding? Devastating? Farcical? Enraging?

I cannot write her experience. I have no words. My native tongue has failed me. Even now, the words on the screen before me dance dangerously around the wall I have built to segregate the memories of people in my life who live with far more intensity and frequency of abuse than this instance I have no words for. I have no words for them either. I acknowledge my privilege, beg their forgiveness, and move on. It is hard to write about abuse without feeling the need to pull out the most extreme cases. Compassion and understanding are such scarce resources. It is hard to survive it and not compare your own story with others', sometimes for comfort and commiseration, sometimes for a pissing contest of pain. This is not a pissing contest. This is about one woman.

I will show my friend this post, if only to tell her I am thinking of her. Any bits of wisdom or commiseration you may have for her, I am sure will go appreciated.  


  1. Your friend sounds amazing and brave which certainly deserves encouragement and support. So I offer mine wholeheartedly.

    The power structure in academic research always seemed so challenging to me. Where networking is so critical that young women often feel they can't address blatant abuse of power. It can be excruciatingly difficult to know what is right to do. If she chooses to continue in this environment, I hope she finds even more sources of support and encouragement and reminders that his perception of the world is perverted. And while his science may be good, his social worldview is terrible.

    And if she ever needs more help, find the institution's ombudsman. Or put a lawyer on retainer.

    I'm so sorry this is still happening. And I hope that as young women mature as scientists and acquire more power, you can force the environment to change faster.

  2. Good luck to your friend, she's dealing with a lot, and doing so brilliantly.
    This may be somewhat encouraging -
    Here's hoping more people start standing up to bullies and racists of all stripes.
    One suggestion for the future; maybe she could start to actively cultivate another mentor/supervisor of the same stature/experience for when it comes time for reference letters. Her current supervisor may not be the best reference given his horrible views/behaviour.
    All the best to her.