#Metoo: a testimony of sexual harassment in the water sector
Overwhelmed by emotions I read the testimonies of all these women who after years finally dare to tell about their experiences with sexual harassment in response to the Weinstein scandal in Hollywood. Sad emotions because it brings back vivid memories of very anxious moments in my life, angry emotions because this world let this happen again and again to so many of us.
Sexual harassment is unfortunately also not something foreign to academia nor the water sector. The academic environment is notoriously competitive as academic status and rank are granted mostly on the basis of individual excellence (publications, citation indexes, and acquisition of grants). It is this environment in which big egos thrive and are produced, as the debate in Dutch media shows. This, in combination with the legacy of white male supremacy in the water sector, makes most of our workplaces into high risk environments in which abuses of power take place, including sexual harassment of (mostly) female colleagues and female students. Not rarely are these assaults left unrecognized or labelled as ‘unfortunate though isolated incidents’ by the men who dominate higher managerial ranks and professorial positions.
It happened to me too. I was working for a few years at IHE when I got involved in a capacity building project in one of the countries where we work. Together with the project leader we visited the Embassy in The Hague a few times to update the Ambassador of that country on the progress we made. The same Ambassador also visited IHE a few times on formal occasion together with his wife. One day he invited us for a dinner so that we could discuss the project more at length in a casual atmosphere. The day he proposed my colleague was not available, so I suggested an alternative date. The Ambassador insisted and said that I could just come alone because the dinner would not have any formal status, but just an informal conversation about the project and possible future activities. Immediately I did not feel at ease going alone, so I consulted my boss, and even the boss of my boss, but these male colleagues did not see any reason for me to be worried or suspicious. They said they frequently got invited by Ambassadors for this kind of dinners, they told me that this is normal practice and that I should not make a fuzz of it. So put on my most fancy black dress and I went.
From the moment I arrived at the luxurious restaurant, in an icon building in Scheveningen that also served as a fancy hotel, I knew I had to get out there as fast as possible. From the just too long welcome kiss on my cheek and the squeeze in my hand to the refusal of the Ambassador to talk about anything remotely related to work, it was crystal clear to me that he had other intentions than my colleague convinced me of. I kept my mobile phone on the table, saying that I should be on stand-by as my sister was about to deliver a baby (which was actually true), and I ordered the quickest dish on the menu. I attempted to steer the conversation again and again to the project and the political situation in his home country, but he kept asking questions about my private life. When this awkward dinner was finally over and I indicated that I wanted to go home, he insisted to walk back via the beach to the boulevard. Despite my efforts to avoid this, including out of desperation uttering the argument that my shoes were not fitted for walking on the sand, I ended up on the beach with the Ambassador. There he felt the need to put his jacket around me to ‘protect me from the cold’ and when we were far enough from other people to see us, he grabbed me and kissed me on the mouth. I pushed him away and walked as fast as I could to the tram station to get the hell out of there. I felt dirty and deeply humiliated, I cried on my way home. For several weeks he kept me sending messages how much he enjoyed the dinner and when we could see each other again. I never responded. All formal communication with the Embassy I handed over to a colleague until a new Ambassador was appointed.
And for all those who wonder: but why did you walk with him on the beach? Why did you not slap him in the face? The answer is: it is about hierarchy. I remember that during that dinner I constantly thought how I could get out of that situation without damaging the professional relations between the organization I work for and the Embassy? If he would have been my equal, I would have told him no from the beginning in a straightforward manner. This Ambassador was not only physically stronger than me, but also in his social position he was more powerful than me. Unfortunately the answer is also that sexual harassment of women has become part of the established normalcy, or even worse: a good joke to laugh about. This goes to such extent that women to whom this happens start to doubt themselves and even feel guilty that they called this upon themselves. This is why many of us keep silent. I remember that I told my colleagues the next Monday in office what happened to me and some of them said I should have worn another dress, others laughed about it or simply did not believe my story. One of my superiors even said: ‘’you are so lucky, I hope I will one day be kissed by a female Ambassador’’. Only few (male) colleagues were sympathetic and supportive. So what does it bring us when we do have the courage to speak up?
This was not the first (nor the worst) time in my professional career that I was sexually harassed and unfortunately it was not the last time either. I learnt my lesson the hard way and that lesson is that I always need to trust my own instinct rather than listening to the advice of others. If I feel not at ease being alone in an office with a male colleague, I should not go there because probably my intuition is right. This is not only problematic because it restricts women’s freedom at the workplace, but also because it is easier said than done. Now that I am more advanced in my career I have more control over what I do and with whom I work, but I know for so many (young) women in subordinate positions it is very difficult to refuse tasks based on not feeling safe. So this blog is not about me needing to tell my story, this is not about me wanting attention, this is about all the women to whom this happens today, it is for all the women to whom this will happen tomorrow.
From my own experience in trying to address some of these cases of sexual harassment in a professional manner, I know formal complaint procedures often do not solve anything let alone discipline the perpetrators. In the established hierarchies her voice against his is simply rendered into a ‘lack’ of evidence. And it even becomes trickier to address cases of sexual harassment when the perpetrators have diplomatic immunity, like Ambassadors, UN staff or members of the EU parliament. Sometimes following formal procedures actually makes the situation worse for the victims, (threatening with) filing slander suits or acts of retaliation against victims or their loved ones are not uncommon, as I have also experienced myself. Therefore I wholeheartedly support the public campaign (#metoo) and encourage you all to share your stories about sexual harassment in academia and the water sector in order to demand change of this structural poisonous, yet seemingly accepted, behaviour. If we break the silence, if we shout together, our voices cannot be longer ignored. I do not have any hope of changing the behavior of the perpetrators, they simply need mental help to cure their sick minds, but I count on all the others to condemn this behavior and to act upon it. So I encourage all those kind and well-behaving, yet sometimes ignorant, men around us not to turn a blind eye but to support us in our struggle and take our concerns of feeling unsafe at work seriously.
P.S. As transgressions in the Catholic Church and soccer clubs have shown, for male victims of sexual harassment and abuse it is sometimes even harder to speak up. I hope those men can and will use this collective demand for change to share their stories, whether the perpetrators were other men or women.