On Mentorship and Harassment

October 14, 2015

Several times before now, I have considered writing about my experience of sexual harassment in academia in the early 1980s, but I thought: this is old news, it’s not really relevant or useful. Then a few days ago the news broke that Dr. Geoff Marcy, a famous professor of Astronomy at UC Berkeley, had been harassing his students with impunity for a decade or more.  I found myself following the news of his case obsessively and returning again and again to considerations of how my own early career had been shaped by a powerful and sexually-predatory mentor. This morning I wrote the following narrative: 

[Note: my stylistic approach in this piece was inspired by a post about “Impostor Syndrome” by Elisabeth Newton, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics; it was shared recently on the blog “Mahalo.ne.trash.” You can read it here (and I recommend that you do): http://mahalonottrash.blogspot.com/2015/09/guest-post-by-elisabeth-newton-impostor.html]

On Mentorship and Harassment:

Young Ambitious Professional is thrilled when Powerful Older Professional praises her achievements. Y.A.P. is even more thrilled when P.O.P. recommends her work to his colleagues and nominates it for prizes. Suddenly unknown doors are opening and previously unimagined vistas of success appear on her horizon. P.O.P. seems to know everyone and everything. Y.A.P. drinks in his knowledge and his wisdom; she glories in his championship of her work. True, P.O.P. is a touchy-huggy kind of guy but that doesn’t especially bother Y.A.P. because she’s a reasonably huggy kind of gal too. Anyway, it’s California. It’s the eighties. “Sexual harassment” isn’t a thing, not a thing anybody names or talks about. Y.A.P. considers P.O.P.’s attentions to be evidence of her talent and intelligence, not her physical attractiveness. When he begins dropping hints about his “open” relationship with his wife, she ignores them. When he mentions a fellow P.O.P. at another major university who is opening doors for one of his students and also sleeping with her, she ignores the implications very hard indeed. When P.O.P.’s hugs turn into pats on the butt, she pulls away and says nothing.

Time passes. Y.A.P.’s professional career has gotten off to a brilliant start, thanks in no small part to P.O.P.’s mentorship. But now her career has stalled. Although no longer P.O.P.’s student, Y.A.P. continues to send him her manuscripts. He responds with articulate, intelligent, and dismissive criticism. “A tempest in a teapot” is one phrase she remembers decades later. She deliberately draws no conclusions from his slackening interest in her work, and she continues to seek his approval. But after he writes her the world’s most tepid letter of recommendation for an important fellowship, she finally stops trying to figure out how to please him.

Eventually, she will find other champions for her work and, more important, she will learn how to advocate for herself. But she wishes to this day that she had learned these lessons much earlier.

Shortly after writing this piece, I learned that Dr. Marcy had resigned from his faculty position. This result was thanks to four former students of his who filed complaints and to the investigative journalism of BuzzFeed news reporter Azeen Ghorayshi. Without the courage and persistence of these women, Marcy’s harassment would have remained the “open secret” it long had been in the Astronomy community. Ghorayshi’s original article posted on October 9, 2015 can be found here:  http://www.buzzfeed.com/azeenghorayshi/famous-astronomer-allegedly-sexually-harassed-students

Meetup #33: Carol Lashof’s Disclosure

Wondering why I haven’t been blogging on WordPress lately? Producing theater has been keeping me busy. My fledgling company Those Women Productions, cofounded with Libby Vega was recently named “Best Year-Old Theater Company” by the East Bay Express. We have one show running now – DISCLOSURE at PianoFight in San Francisco – and another, IN PLAIN SIGHT, opening in Berkeley September 4. Tickets for IN PLAIN SIGHT here: http://thosewomen.brownpapertickets.com/
Tickets for DISCLOSURE here:
http://www.eventbrite.com/e/disclosure-tickets-17559102749

Works by Women San Francisco

disclosure1 Disclosure by Carol Lashof (Photo by Those Women Production Staff)

For our 33rd Meetup, WWSF attended the latest play Disclosure, by Berkeley playwright Carol Lashof. It is the second production from Those Women Productions, a female led, and female focused company ‘giving stage to hidden truths of gender and power’

Disclosure questions where the lines between memory and truth, pleasure and transgression, love and the abuse of power are drawn. Who decides? 

Women artists on this production include: Anne Hallinan (actor), Emily Holtzclaw (costume design), Gabi Immelman (set design), JinAh Lee (stage management), Kelly Rinehart (actor), Molly Stewart-Cohn (lighting design), Libby Vega (Producer) and Valerie Weak (actor, member Actor’s Equity).

The show runs until Saturday August 29th. Get tickets here.

If you saw the show with the WWSF Meetup Group or on your own, leave a comment and share your thoughts!

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Dennis Chowenhill Interviews Carol Lashof

Works by Women San Francisco

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Dennis Chowenhill, Resident Dramaturg at the Virago Theatre Company, shares the transcript of this illuminating interview of librettist, playwright, and educator Carol Lashof.

DC:  How did you get into playwriting?

Lashof:  I probably should credit my 4th Grade teacher.  I was at the Laboratory Schools in Chicago, a pre-K through high school, run by the University of Chicago in association with their Ed. School. There were a lot of “faculty brats” there. It’s the school the Obama kids went to when they were living in Chicago.  My 4th Grade teacher, Louise Pliss, had us write and produce a play, as a class. Actually, there were two teachers, Faye Abrams and Louise Pliss, who shared their classrooms.  Miss Pliss, who was also a children’s book writer, taught English, and that is where I was also introduced to Greek mythology. I can still remember the opening lines of…

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