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Walk A Mile In Her Shoes

"Why did it happen at all? I’d never been a target before."

I’ve been involved in seismology for my entire working life.

In recent years I’ve been fortunate enough to have the opportunity, autonomy, and confidence to branch out into the wider earthquake research community, something I hadn’t really done before. I decided to attend one or two well-respected conferences each year, despite knowing almost none of the hundreds of delegates from my area of science that attend these events.

At the latest conference, while in an after-hours social discussion with a group of women about sexual harassment in our scientific community, I realised that I’d experienced exactly that, at a different conference a year earlier. It happened at an evening dinner for delegates, when I was talking to one of the few people who had been consistently friendly towards me in the few years that I’d been attending these conferences. During the conversation they took my hand, and placed it on an inappropriate part of their body, but we were some distance from the other guests at the time so I don’t think anyone noticed. I thought it was strange at the time, but I wrote it off as part of their quirky personality, or perhaps they’d had a drink and were feeling more relaxed. Nothing more happened, so I didn’t think about it again other than to mention it to my partner at some stage after I returned home, which again didn’t raise any red flags. Maybe it’s the way I relayed the story because my partner is vehemently intolerant of this sort of behaviour.

During the conversation they took my hand and placed it on an inappropriate part of their body, but we were some distance from the other guests at the time so I don’t think anyone noticed.

There was no power dynamic at play during this incident, something that many women who suffer harassment in our scientific community have to contend with. This person did not, and probably will not, have any direct impact on my career. It seems so obvious now, but why didn’t I consider it a problem back then? The #MeToo movement had already started, and I was aware of sexual harassment in our industry as some female colleagues had previously confided in me with their experiences. One was frustrated that the perpetrator was not reprimanded due to their perceived value to the organisation, despite them being reported through the appropriate channels by different women on different occasions. Another asks me to help shield her from interactions with several individuals whenever we are at professional events together because she doesn’t feel safe. I had just never thought about my incident in those terms until the recent group discussion.

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Why did it happen at all? I’d never been a target before. Thinking back, I started wondering if my improved self-confidence was a factor. When I was young I was rather shy with new people, but when starting university I made a concerted effort to develop a more outgoing personality. In the time leading up to this strange event, my partner had recently gone through treatment for cancer and was working hard to counter the physical effects of the post-treatment medication. I joined in and was soon in the best shape I’d been in over 15 years, since after my son was born, so I was feeling very comfortable and confident. Had I given the person signals that I was interested in their sexuality? I don’t think so, as I remember feeling that it was completely unexpected and quite surreal, but the questions and doubt started creeping in.


Does the perception of this situation change by clarifying that I am a straight white man?

Does the perception of me or of the perpetrator change? How does the impact of the event change depending on the gender of the offender? Does it change the perceived severity of the incident if the other party had been a woman? A guy being made to grope a woman? The other person was, in fact, a woman. My take on it was that it was no big deal, but I think I’ve been wrong.

Does the perception of this situation change by clarifying that I am a straight white man?

The discussion that sparked this whole train of thought was between a group of women who had earlier been to a conference session about sexual harassment in our community. They were rightly appalled that the advice from the (female) senior presenter was to not report the little things. What are the little things? Little things like what I experienced? Just let them slide. It’s not worth fussing about. I’m ashamed to say that’s exactly what I did.

I then started thinking about why I don’t report it now. It’s not about how it’d affect me mentally - I’m fine. A year has passed, and my interpretation of the situation is a fading perspective. For something that might have been a one-off inappropriate act, the potential effect on the career of this woman may be significant. We don’t need fewer women in science. She is a very senior and respected person, and I’m a relative newcomer to this corner of our community, so their reputation is at stake where I have little to lose, which gives me pause. I also consider the potential effects it would have on other innocent parties - on their family, on their employer, on their colleagues. It hasn’t adversely affected my life (other than to reveal my own obliviousness) so why would I damage or even destroy theirs? If I knew that there were others who had been subjected to the same sort of thing and that it had made them feel unsafe, would I feel differently? Yes: I’d report it without hesitation to ensure it doesn’t continue. I’ve not heard any related rumours about this person, probably due to my limited exposure to others in this community, but even then, there is no male equivalent to the “whisper network” that exists as a safe way for women to share their stories.

I’ve always “understood” all of the reasons why victims don’t act. The difference is that I’ve now got a personal perspective - just like the dozens of women I’ve directly heard about who have been subjected to sexual harassment in our commu