I would love nothing more than to leave my past experiences in academia behind me. The problem is that my past experiences are other peoples’ painful present. With the echoes of these experiences still residing in my body, I cannot ignore any more what stays hidden beneath the surface in the world around me.
People protect themselves from understanding what experiencing intimidation and abuse of power means. Most people affected by it are too afraid to tell their story. Most people not affected by it, do not really want to know. Which is why people who abuse their power can feel safe and those who experience it have no chance to restore a normal sense of safety.
As a result, the people who experience abuse of power tend not to file a complaint. Which is why my faculty can reference its clean record, the low number of official complaints, as a proof that there is no problem with abuse of power.
A low number of complaints can be a bad sign.
In order to file a complaint, you need a minimum of trust in how your own institution handles such problems. You need, in other words, a certain sense of safety to complain about how your sense of safety was violated.
I never filed a complaint.
Seven years ago, after working in the department for more than five years, I was abroad on a research fellowship for the first time when the news reached me that I was faced with teaching assignments for the next academic year that were so unfair that it was utterly incomprehensible to me. They also differed significantly from the assignments of my exclusively male colleagues within my chair group.
I sent politely formulated e-mails to my male boss in which I explained my objections and pragmatically tried to suggest alternatives, indicating right away where I would be willing to compromise. The reaction was a wall of complete denial. As if I was out of my mind.
I desperately searched for an explanation for what I experienced. Eventually my mind had to surrender to the one explanation I did not want to think: Everything made sense if I conceded that this was a conscious effort to put me into a subordinate place, to show me that – as a female academic – I was second class and that I would be treated as such.
This realization came to me in form of a severe shock.
I sent one final message to my boss in which, for the first time, I expressed my feelings of disappointment more openly and pointed out how unfair the assignments were in relation to my colleagues, that I did not understand why this happened, that I experienced this treatment as humiliating and that it negatively affected my motivation and my health.
The answer was silence.
Little did I know that this had only been act 1.
Still abroad, I was also heading toward the end of my first two years on a regular assistant professor job. In the Netherlands, these jobs begin with a fixed two-year contract, followed by a permanent contract after an evaluation. There is already considerable legal job protection at this early stage. I knew that. I could not imagine any reason not to give me the permanent contract.
A few days before the scheduled and obligatory evaluation meeting, I received my boss’ evaluation. Everything was fine with respect to my academic achievements. But the way in which I had formulated criticism of how the teaching tasks were assigned to me were represented as a major problem. I would get the permanent contract, but would have to agree to receive coaching whose “results” would be “evaluated” in order to assess if I had “worked sufficiently at improving the work relationship” and if I accepted “the way decisions are being made”. If not, I risked losing my job.
I still had some desperate hope that a reasonable conversation would enable a better understanding between my boss and me. I called the department of Personnel and Organization (P&O) in the faculty administration. I asked the woman responsible for my file to come to the evaluation meeting with my boss. I indicated that there had been a conflict, I also indicated that I had the impression I was discriminated against as a woman. She assured me she would come.
The meeting took place on a Friday afternoon. It was Pentecost weekend 2012. I came prepared carrying with me prints of all the relevant e-mails of the conflict.
The woman from P&O entered. She sat at the opposite end of the table, together with my boss.
My boss started the conversation by claiming that I had refused to teach any first-year courses. The first e-mail on my pile contained a sentence in which I said the exact opposite: I was of course willing to teach first-year courses, the problem being merely the quantity assigned to me.
This information did not seem to matter. The conversation was not about a rational exchange of arguments. It was about power.
My boss went on to tell stories about my supposed tendency to get into conflicts with people. I realized that he only knew about the two situations he mentioned because I had, at the time, sought his advice about them and had subsequently followed it. I said so. Again, it did not matter.
The woman from the personnel department and my boss acted as a team. She consistently blocked all of my attempts to turn something that felt like a combination of an inquisition and a show trial into a conversation about two perspectives instead of one.
Then, both of them together unleashed their decisive “argument”. They made an offer that I could not refuse, meaning they threatened that I would immediately lose my job, if I did not accept the evaluation, the coaching, the accompanying continued threat of being fired and all that was demanded of me in the process.
They gave me no chance to contact a lawyer about this. Instead, they demanded that I had to decide if I was willing to accept their “offer” before the beginning of the next working day.
This is the balance of power during this meeting:
boss, supported by the P&O representative = 10
me = 0
Any abuse of power rests on intentionally creating and sustaining a situation in which the power resides solely on the side of the abuser, and the person who is abused has no power, no capacity for self-defense, no protection.
When power is abused, the usual rules of civil behavior and respect, the usual protection of procedure don’t apply any more. What remains is a crazy making swampland. The crazy making aspect consists in the fact that the abusers also have the power to do as if theirs was all normal behavior. You are treated as crazy.
The following Monday (Pentecost holiday) 10 o’clock at night, I wrote an e-mail to the head of department. Instead of “accepting” the coaching and the threat of being fired if it wasn’t deemed successful, I wrote that I would sign the evaluation document merely “as seen”, which was my legal right. The head of department answered immediately, at 10 p.m., that it was really necessary that I explicitly “accepted” the suggested treatment.
At this moment, I had a bitter choice. I could do what seemed the only humane thing: refusing to comply with this demand. Yet this meant to risk my job, since I had no means to verify if the threat of losing it immediately was believable or not. Accepting, however, meant that I would participate in my own humiliation, that I would violate the necessary minimum of respect I owed to myself.
I chose the latter. I am still ashamed of it.
Producing shame in the victim for participating in the abuse is a common part of any abuse. In this case, it also meant that afterwards there was no way for me to complain about the treatment. My “acceptance” had itself the effect of producing a façade of legitimacy, thereby enabling further abuse of power.
I lived through the next academic year in a fog of humiliation and in constant fear. I had to smile to everyone, fearing that any departure from the “nice girl” attitude in any situation could be used against me, all the while my insides felt raw like a battlefield of anger, disappointment, rage and shame.
When I received another major research fellowship, in March 2013, the situation culminated. I had applied for the fellowship because – guess what – I was afraid to lose my job and thought this was a chance to ensure at least another year of income in the academic world in case the worst happened. The people who were supposed to evaluate the coaching’s “success” – the head of department, my boss, the woman from P&O – came together in my presence and in the presence of the coach and my vertrouwenspersoon (person of trust). The head of department vented his anger about the fellowship and used it against me as a “proof” that I “really could not properly communicate” and that there really “was a problem”. Why? Because I had not informed my boss, nor him, about applying for the fellowship.
In this meeting, the purpose of the whole scheme, namely continued abuse of power and intimidation, became once more crystal clear. The moral universe was turned upside down again. In the normal world, I should have been congratulated for receiving a prestigious research fellowship. In the world of normalized abused of power I was reprimanded for it and threatened to lose my job because of it.
All this time the woman from P&O was present in the room. Her presence gave an additional seal of institutional approval and legitimacy to this swampland scenery. To me, her presence manifested the institutional normality of the swampland.
After this meeting, I knew that I could not go on like this. I talked to a full professor whom I trusted and who had offered to help. I said that if nothing changed I had no other option than calling in sick or quitting my job immediately. I also told him that I had contacted a lawyer. He talked to the head of department and told him about the lawyer. As a reaction, the latter called me into his office and asked: “Don’t you know that we never had any legal basis to fire you?” It was astonishing how easily these words came out of his mouth, words which acknowledged that, from the beginning, this had all been a sadistic game intended to intimidate me.
I still had to activate my lawyer to make sure the game finally came to an end as my boss tried to continue the official threat of being fired into a second year.
Is it any wonder that I had no trust whatsoever in a complaint procedure?
Everything I had experienced had taught me that to complain means to become the target of more abuse. I was afraid, completely worn out and soon had to stop working because of a severe burnout. I spent the following two months on sick leave. During the rest of the next academic year, while I was on research leave, I recovered only very slowly. And even afterwards, confronting the risk of a complaint procedure, the risk of being exposed to another round of intimidations because of it, was inconceivable to me.
Much later I learned that, according to the current regulations, my university would not even have been obliged to react to my complaint if it was filed more than a year after the events.
Without a formal complaint, however, the archive remains spotless, the administrative record remains clean, the fiction of the organization’s innocence remains intact.
No complaint, no trace of abuse, no problem.
The woman from P&O who was complicit in the abuse of power still works at my faculty (the two main bullies have retired).
Occasionally, I see her. Seeing her can still, seven years later, cause my hands to tremble. Someone told me she had recently ventured the opinion that there was no problem with abuse of power in our faculty and that the faculty policies regarding these matters were sufficient.
Why did she, seven years ago, actively support my boss in threatening me? Out of fear for being reprimanded or intimidated herself by those professors who were situated above her in the hierarchy? Did she know she could not count on any support by her direct superiors if she had resisted the demands of my bullies? Or was it simply because that was the usual way of dealing with such situations in my faculty? Or was it all of the above? Either way, her role in my story manifests that there is a structural problem with abuse of power in my faculty. Her acts are merely a symptom of a much bigger problem.
Abuse of power and discrimination are a team. Together they form a system that prevents its own reality from becoming visible. I experienced one seemingly small incident of sexism and discrimination after another, eating away at me until I realized the structure in a shock and snapped. Still in shock, I expressed my indignation. As a result, I was singled out for a special treatment aimed at preventing me from ever trying to expose the structure again, aimed at silencing me forever.
Meanwhile I have heard enough stories to know that my experience is not an exception. Abuse of power continues to happen and it continues to seriously harm people’s well-being.
Who can describe the effects? Who can describe the scars? Who can describe the desperation, the loss of all energy and the endless hours of psychological and emotional work it takes to digest the indigestible knowledge that there is no protection?
Universities that boast about their “diversity policy” spread the message that they are committed to create a “respectful” work environment “free of discrimination” and that they do everything to protect their employees in situations like the one I have experienced. The reality is that, in my faculty, as we speak, there is no protection for the abused, but there is a lot of protection for the abuser.
When anyone on the receiving end of discriminatory practices or harassment from someone higher up in the hierarchy starts to openly raise the problem, the probability is high that, instead of help, this person will be attacked by the full load of institutional and hierarchal power, with the aim to silence her (or him) and
keep the record clean.
For e-mails to the author use the following form. I read English, Dutch, German and French.