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secretaries in science

Thu Mar 7 12:16:39 EST 1996

Though not directly related, the recent thread on "being mistaken for 
the secretary" motivated me to share this experience.

Not too long after the Anita Hill saga, while I was working on my PhD, 
I had a rather devestating interaction with a male faculty member in
my department.  He was not on my committee but I was working as a 
teaching assistant for him when this occurred.  At a social gathering
the topic turned to sexual harrasment and this professor asserted that 
he was forced to discriminate against females because of his fear of
being unjustly accused of harassment.  He maintained that he could not,
for example, travel to a meeting sharing a car with one female grad student
(but he could with a male student and a plane trip might be ok with 
either because it was public and there were other people around), and if 
a male grad student was in the lab late and the prof was too maybe they 
would go out and have a beer and talk about work and research etc but that
females students would have to be excluded from such interactions unless
there were other people to accompany them out.  I think you get the idea.

The conversation also got personal as specific examples involving myself 
and some other male students was discussed.  I was overwhelmed and finally
excused myself to the bathroom and tried not to cry.

I did not want to go in on Monday and face this person but I did and intiated
several tough conversations over the next week till we got all of these 
issues worked out between us.  How did I manage to do this?  With the support
of his secretary!  She knew him well and knew the ropes of grad school 
and academic science inside and out. She and I discussed the issues and 
strategies for discussing them with him.  She gave him articles (such 
as those from the issues of Science that have dealt with women in science)
and gave him relevant cartoons (signed with both of our intials).  She handed
me tissues.  She was my much needed ally at this time.  We did have a couple 
of female faculty members in this dept but they worked in different fields 
and I really had no interaction with them.

I knew all along that as bad as these comments sounded that they were 
his reaction to current events and from my own past interactions with this
professor whom I had known for years I knew his words did not match his actions.
This individual was instrumental in my becoming a scientist. But his 
secretary has also played an important role.    


Anita DeStefano, Ph.D.
Boston University Medical Center           
Dept. of Neurology L320            TEL: 617 638-4057
80 E Concord St.                   FAX: 617 638-4275
Boston, MA 02218-2394              email: destefano at med-genepi.bu.edu

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