Tuesday, January 12, 2016

I Am The Leaky Pipeline

I originally published this piece in October 2013 on a different blog during the emergence of the #ripplesofdoubt hashtag on twitter (curated by the great @kejames) under the title "When The Only Way To Win Is Not To Play The Game"

Some of you may have read this piece before. For those who haven't, this is a long read about 7 years of relentless sexual harassment, recounted in vivid detail that eventually caused me to quit a prestigious UCLA PhD program.

I have done a little editing as of today, January 11, 2016. But not much. Be warned. This piece is not easy to read, even if sexual harassment does not trigger you. What happened to me, again and again, was and remains unconscionable. To this day, I'd love to find a way to hold the guilty parties accountable.

If you aren't sure what "The Leaky Pipeline" means: it's a metaphor describing the fact that many women - as well as black and disabled students and other underrepresented minorities - enter many academic fields as undergrads and grads, but end up with only a small share of prized academic positions down the line. The lion's share of those prestigious appointments belongs to white men, even today. So what happened to all the women and minorities who set out for an academic career but "fell through the cracks somewhere", as it's often put euphemistically?

The answer is: They are and continue to be The Leaky Pipeline. It is not an accident. It is not our fault. 

Here is how it works:

I am @ct_la on twitter. I am able to share my story of years of sexual harassment within academia in detail and with photographic evidence. For one thing, it happened 25-30 years ago. I also left academia in 1989 and never looked back, so there’s no need for anonymity. In fact, I welcome anyone who wants to contact me about what I am sharing here. 

When I encountered #ripplesofdoubt on twitter, everything that happened to me a quarter century ago bubbled to the surface, details I had repressed for decades, in stunning clarity. Before #ripplesofdoubt, I had rarely talked about.

There was only one thing to do: Record it all. Share it. For the better part of the last 3 days and 2 nights, I lived in my office and didn’t quit until the final draft was done.  I had re-examined single incidents over the years, but never before all 6 years of it, back to back. I forgot to eat. I couldn’t sleep. My computer developed strange glitches. By late Friday, my vision played tricks on me from sleep deprivation and emotional exhaustion. I was seeing my twitter avatar everywhere. I took it as a sign to continue, that twitter needed to see my story. I pushed on through bouts of unprecedented psychosomatic pain. I know what happens when long-repressed or denied abuse is suddenly confronted. I know there wasn’t anything *physically* wrong with me. Every 10 minutes, I had to remind myself to unclench my jaws and relax my shoulders. 

I offer my story with a great big Thank You to @kejames.


Sometimes, a picture says more than a thousand words. 

Those of you who have read enough #ripplesofdoubt http://storify.com/kejames/ripples-of-doubt contributions in recent days, or those of you who have been in my position, literally, can pretty much guess what’s going on in this picture. Read on if you want to know all the details. Be forewarned, though. This is not evidence of the incident that ended my academic career. It was the FIRST #rippleofdoubt I noticed. It continued and worsened well into my grad school days, seemingly wherever I showed up. When I quit, 6 years later, I had attended three US universities, including two graduate programs, earned a BA and an MA and was short one graduate course, plus a dissertation from a PhD in computational psycholinguistics. It turns out I wasn’t willing to do what was expected of me to get it. I thought I was Creep Magnet Central. I changed my appearance and behavior to discourage it. It didn’t matter. 

Looking back on it, I’m not surprised. I was raised to question authority, as well as pay attention to anything that “just doesn’t look right” or “just doesn’t feel right”.  I entered academia completely unprepared for the grief I would encounter based on my appearance alone, an attractive, 6-ft tall woman in my early 20s with a naturally large chest and long hair. This put me on a collision course with institutionalized sexism in academia from day one. Through it all, I sometimes questioned my worth, doubted my scientific abilities. But mostly I questioned and doubted the system that would permit what happened to me from occurring not only once, but over and over again, until I couldn’t take it any more without losing my sanity, or my integrity. In the end, I decided I wanted no part of it. 

I realize some of you reading this made a different choice and I applaud you. You are in positions where you are able to do tremendous good. Wield your power and influence wisely.

I understand if you stop reading right now. What follows is intensely triggering to survivors of sexual harassment, abuse and systemic powerlessness.

It is my hope that you will read on.

Because you know what? Dr. Creep (from the above pic) got canned and he had tenure. Yes, I set that in motion, albeit unintentionally. That’s the good part. I’m not naming the school because I know he is gone. I also don’t have a PhD, or an academic career. That is the reason for this article. Only a handful of people know what happened, aside from those involved. I never told my parents any of this; they have passed now. I have family in Germany who don’t know. Until #ripplesofdoubt, I hadn’t considered making my story public. 

For, you see, the above picture was the good one. There was another, details below. I went out of my way to get every single copy of that one, plus the negative. (Look it up, kids. “Kodak”, “celluloid”). If social media had existed then, that would have been the end right there; which is precisely why this is such an important issue to write about.

About the above picture: Halloween 1983. I am the one on the floor. I was 21, a senior at a major Midwestern university in a science major.  I had my sights set on grad school and a research career the following fall. UCSB, UCLA, UCB (Berkeley!!) – I got into all of them. Dr. Creep, center, was one of two crucial professional references and mentors who paved my way there. Co-incidentally, Dr. Creep also helped me get into my alma mater’s PhD program and very subtly pressured me to stay. At the time this picture was taken, I had just started the GREs / letters of recommendation process. I didn’t know yet I got in. I was also re-inventing my life in a whole new country, a new culture with new challenges. I was still self-conscious about my English language skills. Public speaking still terrified me. 

I had just accomplished something I had wanted more than anything since my first visit to the US six years earlier: Be(come) a scientist with the best in the world. I read everything I could find on and about Wernher von Braun, who passed in 1977. He had obstacles to overcome so much bigger than the ones I was facing – or so I thought - and he went on to help put humans on the moon at NASA! The fact that he was white and male, or that this mattered, didn’t even register with me. I spent almost all of my teenage years making sure I would look stellar on US college applications. At the time, about 1 in 1,000 foreign applicants got accepted into undergrad programs at my alma mater. Those odds looked good to me.

I had help along the way: My parents provided tremendous support and encouragement. My husband kept me from self-destructing when I realized my dream came with a price tag too steep for me to pay. The head of the German Languages Department at the university where I earned my undergraduate degree was one of the good guys. He worked with me on how to demonstrate to my alma mater that I did not have to retake basic math and science, since I graduated from (the former West) Germany’s excellent public education system. He made it possible for me to earn my BA in two years, plus two summers, which saves a lot of dough when you’re a foreign student who doesn’t get in-state tuition. He expected no special favors in return. To this day, I remember the poster in his office. A pie with an American flag crust top, and a slice cut out showing the German flag colors. It said: “A quarter of the American pie is German”, along with information on how German almost became the national language of a newly minted United States.

I was completely naïve about what was to be an education in something no college credit will ever reflect. As a woman wanting to join the Old Boy’s Network, you have to pay your dues. Or, at the very least, grin and bear it. 

I grew up in an environment that was comparably free from discrimination and harassment. West Germany in the 1970s meant living in a homogenous culture that vigorously discouraged exactly that sort of thing, at least on the surface. The same thing happened in East Germany, for very different reasons. The core of communism is based on everybody being equal, again, on the surface. Today, we have Angela Merkel, an East German native of my generation who took on the task of managing Germany’s reunification and has worked to keep the EU from disintegrating over the last decade. She is a world leader. I believe that English-language news media add the adjective “female” much more frequently than German-language news media.  Germans, on the surface, don’t seem to notice her gender. 

Moreover, German as a language, and Germans as a culture have a built-in system of “checks and balances” that prevent being inappropriately familiar in social and professional interactions, perhaps more so in the 70’s than today. English has no equivalent for it. The German language guides you to be appropriate and respectful of strangers and peers, socially and professionally, regardless of gender.  This doesn’t prevent harassment and sexism, of course, but it does make it harder, especially in adult student-teacher relationships. 

It can also help you lull into thinking sexism and #ripplesofdoubt is a thing of the past. Before moving to the US, I had extensively studied the US civil rights and women’s rights movement, as well as American feminism. I expected to be living in a culture were racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination were a thing of the past.

My guard was down completely. In October 1983, I was extremely vulnerable to the likes of Dr. Creep.

Which brings us back to the above picture: Yes, I’m wearing a bed sheet. This was the first Halloween party I was invited to, ever, and I had just seen “Animal House”. Unfortunately, the party was at Dr. Creep’s house. Up until then, Halloween was something that existed for me only in Peanuts cartoons. After these pictures, I never dressed up for Halloween again.

If the word “harem” hasn’t crossed your mind yet, allow me to explain about the picture that horrified me so completely, I knew for the first time what betrayal feels like.  It was similar to the one above. On the left is “Anne”, one of Dr. Creep’s graduate students, who was under the impression she was in an exclusive relationship with Dr. Creep.  She was in the process of making life plans with him, willing to follow him to the ends of the Earth and beyond to learn from him. On the right is “Beth”, grad student #2, whose body language says she had a different plan. Then there’s me, completely clueless. Who is behind the camera, you ask? That would be “Cristi”, Dr. Creep’s grad student #3. 

This is about to happen: I am looking down on a cauldron of dry ice purloined from the lab starting to billow. As it does, Dr. Creep stands up, pulls a giant zucchini out from under the chair, and positions it to point from his crotch at my face, after placing his foot above my hip area, without touching me, striking a pose of a hunter proud of his kill. Cristi snaps the picture, I don’t notice a thing, and Ellen and Beth do nothing. Yes, you read that right. A giant zucchini, forearm-sized. Dr. Creep had talked a lot about his talent for growing giant vegetables. Yeah, I totally missed that red flag. I considered all of these people friends or mentors at the time. 

Until I saw the pictures. The first thing that went through my mind was “No!! My grad school applications!!” The second thing was “Where is the negative? Who has copies?” even as I joked about it, along with everybody else. The third thing was “Who was in on this?” To this day, I don’t know if it was just Dr. Creep or a pre-planned harem effort.

I secretly went through people’s purses, offices and in one case searched an apartment to find the negative and all the copies. The lesson I learned was that betrayal breeds betrayal. I don’t know if I got them all, but it doesn’t matter anymore. 

Dr. Creep, if you are reading this, you will recognize the picture. I hope you enjoyed your forced early retirement courtesy of yours truly.  Perhaps you found gainful employment in the vegetable growing industry. I dare you to call me a liar publicly. PLEASE do that. Know that I thought about not obscuring your face, if only to display your insufferably smug smirk to the world. Alas, social media have a way of bringing us full circle with our pasts in ways only a few of us even imagined in 1983. I left your face obscured. Let’s see what happens after I publish this. Your past looks pretty grim from here.

Anne, Beth and Cristi, you, too, will recognize the picture. Know that I do not blame you, at all. Your academic careers didn’t fare any better than mine. If you want to add your voices to mine and #ripplesofdoubt / #ripplesofhope on twitter, you have a forum here, and an audience that never wants to see another grad student, male or female, go through what we did. The silence ends here.

I thought getting my hands on all the zucchini pictures was the end of that and I resolved to be more careful. I cut 30 inches from my hair length and got glasses I didn’t need. I never wore heels, make-up or suggestive clothing.

Fast forward several months, right around the time I was starting to get grad school acceptance letters.  I was biding my time to escape what had become an extremely uncomfortable professional situation. I worked at Dr. Creep’s lab. He pretty much picked me out of his undergrad psych 101 course and offered me a job I sorely needed. I didn’t question his motives until after the zucchini incident. By February 1984, I just wanted to move on. All the inappropriate behaviors and references I had not noticed earlier were piling up. The Amazon jokes were starting to grate on me. (No, kids, not amazon.com).

I arrived one morning at the lab to find only Anne, utterly beside herself, in tears and in a state that led me to believe something terrible had happened. She was in no shape to work. She wouldn’t talk to me. There was data to collect, experiments to track. It was a Monday morning, where was everybody?  

What would you have done?

Here’s what I didn’t do: I didn’t try to find Dr. Creep. I didn’t call Beth or Cristi. 

I went to talk to Dr. Ellen, my other advisor and mentor, one of the good guys. I told her Anne was in distress at Dr. Creep’s lab, and I didn’t know what was going on or what to do. I really, truly didn’t. That is how the zucchini incident itself became the freight train that derailed Dr. Creep’s career, missing me by a matter of inches. Had I felt comfortable enough to go to Dr. Creep, things would have very likely gone quite differently. 

Dr. Ellen went to talk to Anne that morning and it all unraveled from there. Anne was in distress because she had discovered that she was, in fact, not in an exclusive relationship with Dr. Creep, not by a long shot. The future she had envisioned for herself got torpedoed and sunk that morning. I know how she felt. What came to light in the weeks and months that followed was that Dr. Creep had been sexually harassing and/or having sex with at least a dozen former and current female students, grad and undergrad, who entered his orbit pretty much the same way I did. 

I told you I was completely naïve. I missed All The Red Flags. 

I learned that Dr. Ellen was the senior professor who had supported Dr. Creep’s tenure and was instrumental in getting him to join the faculty. Imagine how she felt. Sadly, she has passed in the interim, but I know she would be cheering me on right now. I also learned that Dr. Creep had an ex-wife, a former grad student and that the divorce involved infidelity. There was a lot of stuff I didn’t know. But that morning back in 1984, I could instinctively tell that something was really, really wrong. When that happens, I don’t look the other way. I don’t slowly back away. I do what I can to help. For the same reasons I’m writing this article. 

I have no idea if any of the women drawn into the scandal welcomed my “help”.  I have played this over and over in my mind and I always arrive at the same conclusion. Looking back on it now, I’m glad it was me who stopped you, Dr. Creep. You deserved everything you had coming. 

Once Dr. Ellen became involved, I learned about another part of academia: internal disciplinary hearings and tenure revocation procedures. By the time all was said and done, I was already plotting my escape from UC Berkeley to UCLA (did I mention Creep Magnet Central?). My alma mater flew me back from California twice to testify and enter statements. Try explaining to your current male grad school mentor you have to fly halfway across the country for a few days because you are involved in getting the professor fired who helped you get where you are now. Yeah, I didn’t do that.

I don’t know if universities keep tenure revocation records for 30 years, but if they do, it’s all there. From Dr. Ellen I learned that in a long string of women who appeared in front of the committee I was the only one who said I didn’t have sex with Dr. Creep, which was true. It never crossed my mind. I was still struggling with my native country’s boundaries of propriety. It took me a year just to address my professors by their first names, even though all, male and female, encouraged it. 

I did enter the zucchini picture into evidence and that nailed it. I’ve often asked myself why I didn’t simply destroy the negative and all the copies the second I got them. The answer is that I knew what happened to me, to all of us who have contributed to #ripplesofdoubt, was and is very wrong and I held the proof in my hands. It was a data point, tangible, real, indisputable. It just took a while for twitter to get here.

Some of you may consider this a happy ending. I did at the time, reminding myself that women academics that came before me didn’t even have anti-sexual harassment policies to protect them and could do absolutely nothing. I considered myself lucky and set my sights on UCB.

Where I promptly met Dr. Psychotic and Dr. Alcoholic, both men. That was the first time I seriously questioned my passion for joining a system that allowed those guys to become tenured or tenure-track professors. I am sympathetic to your plight, I really am, but do you have any idea how hard it is to have a conversation about my professional future with you, when you are not grounded in reality, or totally wasted and trying to hit on me? I blame the people who gave you and let you keep your jobs. How could you do that to a group of 1st-year grad students who have enough to worry about as it is? 

By the end of my first semester, I was on the phone with the schools I had turned down and managed a transfer to UCLA the following fall, with enough transfer credits that the year wasn’t a complete waste of my time.

At UCLA, I could finally focus on science for a couple of years without too much grief. But I avoided almost all social interactions with many professors and grad students, on general principle. 

I fell in love with Los Angeles during that time and set out to build a social life completely outside of academia. That worked for a while. I learned about research methodology, experimental design, data analysis and interpretation, skills I value highly that have passed the test of time. I earned my MA. I discovered a passion for teaching and inspiring other young scientists, especially foreign students trying to navigate their way around US academia. I mentored an Olympic athlete who was struggling academically, and went on to both graduate and win a Silver medal for the US in the Seoul Olympics. I realized that mentioning the word “AIDS” in front of a packed lecture hall in the 80’s got everybody’s attention like a gunshot. I used it as a teaching tool. I met my best friend who is still in my life. She was one of my students when we met. I was diligent about keeping our nascent friendship at arm’s length until the course was finished. 

During my third year at UCLA, I was starting to feel safer and became a little more open towards social interactions with my peers, professors and mentors.

Until the day I got a visit from a tenured professor I barely knew from another department while alone in my office, who expected me to give him a BJ right then and there. I wasn’t even surprised anymore. I closed my office door carefully with him and me inside and blocked the door with my body. I looked him up and down for a number of seconds to make sure I had read the situation correctly. I could see that expression on his face, that of a teenage boy going  “oh boy, oh boy, I’m gonna get some!”. When I smiled, his eyes widened expectantly. That expression turned to dismay, then fear, as I said, sweetly: “ I’d rather beat my head with bricks than touch you. If you are planning on raping me, I figure you have about 10 pounds on me and 0 inches. I lift weights and I kick box, you look like a desk jockey. I have gotten tenured slime like you fired before. I like my odds. Try me”. 

I had long ago learned to arrange my office layout so I couldn’t be easily cornered. I closed the distance between us as I mentally calculated the angles I had available to deliver a kick to his general groin area if he so much as touched me. I was hoping that he would. He didn’t. I have never seen a guy flee from me so fast. It didn’t feel like a victory. I didn’t even bother to tell anyone; I had no time for disciplinary hearings. However, I seriously looked into getting a cattle prod. 

After that, whenever I saw a closed office door, I wondered what was going on inside. I realized that this would never, ever stop, and I decided to get my PhD and get out. The private sector started to look pretty good. I focused on finishing my course work, stopped teaching and mentoring, and passed my qualifying exam for my dissertation.  

Then I ran afoul of Dr. YouThinkTooMuch and his wife, Dr. ListenToWhatHeSays, my two main committee members. They wanted me to focus on a part of their own research and the pressure didn’t let up. I understand this is not unusual. If it hadn’t been for all of the above, it might even have seemed like a good idea to do a “safe” dissertation and get it done. I also understand that professors have a vested interest in seeing their students graduate. 

By that time, however, I was having none of it. If I was going to spend a year of my life on research and writing, I wanted it to be something that mattered to me, something that could potentially make a difference, something that could have made all the grief to date worthwhile. I made suggestion after suggestion, all were turned down. I was beginning to wonder if the recent incident-behind-closed-doors had come back to haunt me, if having sex with the guy was what it took to get my dissertation approved. It could have been telling the guy “I have gotten tenured slime like you fired before”, which was the first time I had mentioned that to anyone at UCLA. This is the incident I have wondered about most since I quit. Could that have been it? Sometimes I conclude “No way. The guy would never admit to what happened in my office”. In reality, though, he didn’t have to tell the story exactly as it happened. So more often than not, I think “Yes, that had to be it. It’s the only explanation”. Do I regret letting that comment slip out in a moment of anger? No. There are some things that I will simply not put up with, not in academia, not anywhere. There are some things I simply won’t do. If getting my dissertation approved required providing sexual favors to a random faculty member, it was a requirement that was never going to be fulfilled.

I recently (2015) checked up on

Dr. YouThinkTooMuch and Dr. ListenToWhatHeSays. They now run a prestigious lab at UCLA. I have not had the stomach to look at the research they've published for fear I find some of my own ideas there - all those dissertation ideas that were rejected. 

I have a recurring fantasy of walking into their lab with two copies of this article, saying "Hello. Remember me? I have something for you. It may prove relevant to your careers. Go ahead. Read it. I'll wait. Then I'd actually wait and see what their reactions would be to me, face-to-face.

What do you think, dear reader, do it or no?

But back to the story, the bitter end: One day in 1989, I simply had enough. I can’t even tell you exactly what it was. I told myself that the private sector still looked pretty good with an MA. Late one night, I cleaned out my office, left my keys on my desk, and walked out. It was a huge relief but, again, not much of a victory. 

I accepted the first job in the private sector I got, and I have worked in it or as a freelancer ever since.  Sexual harassment became a thing of the past, mostly because I picked my employment situations carefully. I haven’t set foot on the UCLA campus again, even though I live only a few miles away. If I need academic resources, I go to USC. For many weeks after I quit, I expected to get a call from… someone wondering where I was. The call never came.

I figured I'd had lousy luck in picking programs, professors, mentors. After #ripplesofdoubt, I now question that, too. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that the problem was and is pandemic and ongoing.

Maybe I would be heading my own lab or department by now, had I not said “Enough!” Maybe I could have done more than I have to date to invent the Universal Translator or help get humans to Mars, if I had stayed in academia. I know that was the plan. I still want to do all those things, but not in academia. I doubt the fundamental flaws in our current academic system are fixable in a meaningful way. I often argue that the best thing to do is to scrap the whole thing and start over, this time with all adults, who are mentally healthy and who are capable of separating their sexual urges and prejudices from their professional  behavior, people who deserve positions of power, trust and authority, who do not viciously and habitually discriminate against those that aren’t exactly like them. But I’m not at all optimistic about it. 

So consider this: Mars University won’t be riddled with the likes of Dr. Creep, their enablers and propagators. Those who want to be sexist creeps or worse in space or on Mars will perish, most likely by “accidental” airlock failure. Adapt or go extinct, your choice.

If that sounds harsh, it was meant to be. Throughout this account, I have done my best to keep a lid on my anger and sarcasm and simply relate what happened. So I think I’ve earned taking this one shot. Plus, I believe it to be true. Sexism, obnoxiousness and survival situations don’t mix. Think about it. If you were sexually harassed for six or seven years in space or on a Mars colony, at which point would you invoke the open airlock policy?