How it Hits You, Again and Again

A Story from Academia, Part II

When I wrote about my experience of being bullied in academia, I revisited the events that have hurt me to the point of nearly crushing me. I engaged in rethinking how it had affected me and how it had affected others around me. As I wrote down these memories and reflections, I rewrote them, and then rewrote them, learning something new every time. I confronted again and again what scared and scarred me most. By transforming these scars into my own story written in my own words I took back my dignity and integrity.

Publishing and sharing it was an act of liberation.

There is no going backwards from such an act. There is only the next step.

Some people have contacted me after reading my piece to tell me their story. Some people have told me about the experience of other people they knew. Everything I heard strengthened my impression that bullying is endemic. It confirmed my assumption that a top-down university administration with its practices of micro-management and control based on the principle of competition creates a fertile ground for abusing power. It also confirmed the impression that, while at times women are the bullies and men suffer from being bullied, the target of people who abuse their power is more often than not: a woman. If this is true, it is no coincidence.

The next step means confronting the next fear.

There is a silence in my story. I used the word “patriarchal” but I shied away from spelling out what I meant by that. I flinched from exposing how, already before the abuse took place, I was repeatedly targeted in my workplace as a woman.

The next fear is my fear of talking about sexism. About the sexism that I have experienced and about how it was intertwined with everything else. How the power position that was abused in this case was the power a man had over a woman.

Patriarchy can be enacted in many forms. Sexism is one of them. Bullying is another. In this case, the first preceded the other. Probably, this is not unusual. But we don’t know, because we don’t speak, because we have very good reasons to be afraid and stay silent.

How have I experienced sexism? Probably in a similar way that many women experience it. It has hit me out of nowhere, again and again. Conform to the culture we live in, I have tried to ignore it, to trivialize it, to rationalize it, to blame myself for it. Until I couldn’t anymore, because my body had stored every single incident and started to say no. I started to speak my frustration while I was still too afraid to speak its name. That was when I was hit the hardest. That was when sexism transformed into outright bullying. It was a smooth transformation. Only my shock of its reality was sudden and rough.

A job interview

At a job interview I am asked questions about . . . my husband. What does he do? Where does he live? I answered the questions. I didn’t say that it was inappropriate. A member of the committee, present in the room, bravely mentioned that such a question was probably illegal. The reaction of the rest? Laughter.

I didn’t get the job.

And I didn’t take the question seriously.

After all, it wasn’t the first time such a thing had happened to me.

Once, back in Germany, the head of a job committee was visibly an old patriarch who dominated the whole interview. He asked the same question. He then explicitly doubted that, with my husband being a professor in another city, I would move cities for my new job as would be required of me. (I could only guess the logic behind: Good wives don’t do that. Proper male professors don’t let their wives do that.)

The diversity officer was sitting right next to him, staying silent. The atmosphere was a nightmare. In that situation, for the first time in my life, my soul left my body. I could watch the scene, myself and all the others, from above. The body sometimes invents interesting methods to keep you safe and sane.

I didn’t get the job.

I was mostly glad.

It did not seem like a friendly environment.

Then the interview mentioned above happened. A while later, I received the opportunity to start working at the same place on a lower level. My boss was the same guy who had asked the question about my husband, the one whose question I hadn’t taken seriously, whose question I had chosen to forget. My new workplace at the time was a male dominated chair group. It was also a male dominated department. A new generation of both genders was just, very slowly, starting to pour in. It wasn’t bothering me. It was a reality that I was used to and that I expected.

I had a part time non-permanent teaching position. I was very happy to have a foot in the door to academia. I was as keen to make the best of it as any young scholar. Being a woman, if anything, made me more ambitious. With a slight touch of hubris, I hoped to maybe one day become a role model for other, younger women. I knew it would be difficult, but, for whatever reason, life had graced me with a self-confidence that was hard to shatter. I knew the quality of my work. I also knew my limits. I loved the work. I was eager to grow.

I shared the job with an amazing colleague. We hit it off from the very first second. I was new to the Netherlands, she was Dutch. We shared the office with a male colleague we both liked very much. There was real companionship. The two helped me enormously to find my way through the universe of Dutch academia. Sometimes they helped me by admitting that they didn’t understand it themselves.

A reception

A reception with drinks to honor a colleague who retired. My friend and I entered the room together. We immediately saw our boss, who was standing together with a male colleague unknown to us.

He introduced us to him. He said:

“Here comes the adornment of the department.”

No names, no specializations, no professional positions, no academic pedigree.

Just: “the adornment of the department”.

The Dutch word is “sieraad”, literally “jewelry”.

Something stopped. Inside myself time stopped. We both whispered to our mutual male friend what had just happened. He didn’t like it, but he couldn’t grasp the poison. Neither could we, to be honest. Yet, I felt it in my bones. In a strictly professional setting, I had just been reduced to an object, something nice to look at, without any work-related information worth mentioning.

When something like this happens, it is difficult to understand. A different world penetrates and disrupts the world you think you are living in. In the world that you live in, your gender doesn’t matter, quality matters. In the other world, your gender entitles men to talk about you as an object. It entitles them to put you in “your place”, to make clear that this entitlement exists, that they have the power of the male gaze, of reducing you to a physical surface made to be judged by them, made to be defined as inferior. The implicit message is that you don’t belong here as an academic, that your female body stands in the way of that belonging.

All of this was present for me in just one way: Something painfully stirred around in my stomach.

I can see that clearly now. I couldn’t when it happened. I just knew that it was wrong. So wrong that it cast a shadow on my relationship with my boss. I seriously considered talking to him about it. I thought about it several days. I didn’t do it. I did not spell out for myself why not. But I must have had an intuition that it would have only made things worse. I must have understood that his comment wasn’t an accident that he would regret afterwards. I must have had a hunch, that he wouldn’t understand even if I had explained to him that it hurt, that I felt belittled and humiliated. I must have known, that he wouldn’t have apologized, that he wouldn’t have restored my trust in his basic respect for me. I must have recognized, that it was dangerous for me to mention it.

I admitted neither of these intuitions to myself.

I tried to forget it.

A public lecture

A well-known colleague from Oxford was guest teaching in my boss’s lecture class. I was interested. I attended the event.

Afterwards, my boss approached me.

He asked me: “What are you doing here? Why are you not in China?”

In China?

My husband was, at that moment head of another department in the same faculty. My boss was head of our department. Both saw each other regularly in meetings.

My husband was in China in his capacity as a head of department.

It was in the middle of the semester. I had a full teaching-load.

A big question mark filled my brain.

I brushed the question mark away as well as the weird feeling in my stomach, but it caught up with me later.

What had happened?

My boss was telling me that he expected me to travel with my husband, while I had responsibilities as a teacher in his chair group? To be fair, maybe he wasn’t aware of my teaching schedule. But one thing was clear anyway, namely that he had just assigned to me, once again, the role of the inferior woman, the woman whose place in the world is next to her husband, the woman whom he did not take seriously as a scholar, or even just as a colleague, in her own right.

Again. I did not formulate it in these words. Once again, I just felt that it was wrong. I didn’t want to look at it clearly. I didn’t want to take it too seriously. I tried to laugh about it and take it lightly. I tried to move on.

An empty lecture hall

Picture an empty lecture hall. The official ceremony to hand out the BA certificates to our former students was about to take place right there in a little while. Some of the teachers who would be present poured in. Except for me, they were all men. We were talking about the procedure, about who would take care of what. Then, in front of all the others, a colleague looks at me and says:

“So, Natalie, you can just go around, like these women in a boxing match, and hold up a sign announcing the next round.” – Laughter.


The pain immediately hit the body.

I must give credit to this colleague that he, after saying it, somehow realized that his remark was inappropriate. He tried to back out of it by minimizing it, by joking about his own joke. I don’t even remember how exactly. For me, at that moment, it was too little too late. I was in shock, trying to keep up the appearance of the friendly colleague, trying to somehow, nevertheless, indicate that I didn’t appreciate this, wrapping this attempt myself in the form of a joke, trivializing thereby the incident, in my desperate effort not to become the killjoy woman…

The pain stayed in my body. The body stores such things.

Once again, the other reality smashed into my world with full force. There was the proof that even younger male colleagues could feel the need, and feel entitled, to enhance their own position by putting me in my “woman’s place”. There was the proof that even in my own generation, a colleague would prepare the pit of female ridiculousness – the reduction to a body that exists to please men – and push me into it with a callous joke.

All of this was present, somewhere in my head, somewhere in my body, but, again, I was scared to spell it out even to myself.

I swallowed it and tried to forget about it.

Although I probably already knew that I would never forget it.

If I had said something, what would have been the probable reaction? Shame would have prevented my colleagues, none of whom are bad people, from taking me seriously. It would have rather made them put the blame on me. The joke was innocent. Not a big deal. I was overly sensitive. The joke was not meant to hurt anybody. – Of course the joke was “innocent”, it cemented the usually unspoken, self-evident, and therefore “innocent” status quo.

A structure

My friend and I were the only women in the chair group. The only women also in a larger teaching section of the department. There was a whole new cohort of people on positions like our own.

At a certain moment, it occurred to us in a way we could not ignore any more, that my friend and I, as a rule, were given a particularly heavy teaching load in relation to our part time positions. On paper, of course, it added all up. But the reality was that there were courses that demanded much more time than others. Compared to our male colleagues on the same level, we couldn’t help but notice that we had to teach a disproportional number of those courses.

We talked about it with our boss. Of course, we did not say that we feared that the reason for this was our gender. We just pointed out the fact that we were not entirely satisfied with the choice of courses and that we observed that other colleagues on the same level did not have the same problem. He said that he agreed but that he himself could do nothing about it. It was all in the hands of the director of the teaching program. That was that.

We suspected a gender bias, either by my boss or by the director of the teaching program. We felt discriminated against. Yet, there was no way of talking about it.

Patriarchy has its unspoken ways of delivering the message: If you speak up and point to this reality, the reality will be denied. Or worse, you will be punished for speaking up.

We got the message. We didn’t say anything. We were right not to do it.

Only later, I would learn how right we had been. Later, after it had all gotten much worse, threatening the core of my existence, I started to put the pieces together. Even later than that, I started to grasp how the weight of a persistent but usually hidden and unspoken power structure had constantly shaken the ground beneath my feat. I could suddenly see it, because that same power structure was deeply interwoven with my experiences of humiliation and bullying.

For the first time in my life, the word “patriarchy” filled itself up with terrifying meaning and started to make real sense.

The difficulty of speaking

This power structure is still alive in myself while I am writing this. It appears in form of a voice that gives me one reason after the other why I should never publish this piece.

Sexism works by making itself disappear under the surface of the speakable. First, it creeps under your skin without you noticing it. Once you do notice it, you don’t want to acknowledge its reality. Once you do acknowledge its reality, it makes you fearful of speaking it. By not speaking it you unwillingly accept it as “normal”. Thereby you become a silent part of it. Once you feel uneasy because of this, you are even less willing to risk speaking it.

If we don’t want to reproduce sexism, we must speak our experience of it. We must speak it to women, so they can speak back and tell their own stories. And we must speak it to men, so we stop hiding a reality from them that hits us again and again. We must speak it to ourselves, to those whom we love and trust, eventually to society at large.

If we start facing the reality of sexism and misogyny that we experience and if we acknowledge the wounds it inflicts upon us, something else might happen. We might open up and recognize better the experiences of people who are even more exposed to being stereotyped, belittled, dehumanized, discriminated against and harassed again and again. If we dare to look into our own pain, we might also begin to see the pain of other people and recognize our own habitualized callousness towards them. We might start listening in a new way to the whole variety of stories about experiencing racism, sexism and homophobia.

We need each other to learn how to live and how to act in order to defend both our own dignity and that of everyone else. Because the truth is that they can never be separated, neither in academia nor anywhere else.

“These Things Can Break You”

A Story from Academia*

My burnout happened three years ago, and it took me more than a year to recover from it. I had to stop working because I had panic attacks, sudden stomach aches and I often began to tremble and break into a sweat for no good reason. I realized at a certain point that I wasn’t even able any more to read a simple newspaper article. After a sentence or two, I would get dizzy and feel a sharp pain in my head. Even after I admitted to myself that I couldn’t work anymore, it was still a difficult step to announce it at my department. I had a large number of students whose thesis I supervised. I felt I let them down. I also worried about my colleagues who would have more work because of me.

There is a story behind every burnout. Mine is a story of people who abused their power to intimidate, threaten and bully me, of administrators who backed this behavior up, of Kafkaesque procedures by which university personnel transformed the bullying into apparently legitimate but in reality close to Stalinist forms of control and coercion. Patriarchal abuse of power meets the neoliberal university that likes to boast about its ‘modern’ forms of personnel management but treats people less and less as real human beings and more and more as output generators. To be clear, my “output” was never an issue in this case.

After twelve years of professional experience in the academic world and six years of teaching in my department, I was threatened with dismissal because I had, one single time, openly challenged an assignment. I had expected a conversation and some form of understanding. Instead, I was forced into a year-long process of coaching coupled with “examinations” in which I had to demonstrate that I was developing a “professional attitude” and that I would henceforth “accept decisions”. If the coaching was not deemed “successful” after a final evaluation, a “trajectory” would be put in place that would “lead to” my “dismissal”.

I was intentionally, and skillfully, deprived of any possibility to resist this treatment: On a Friday afternoon I was confronted in an official meeting with the “information” that I would immediately lose my job if I didn’t explicitly “accept” this humiliating scheme and that, on top of it, I would have to make this decision before the end of the weekend. What I had to say did not count one bit, neither during this nor during any of the meetings in the gruesome months that followed. The whole procedure aimed at reducing, once and for all, my possibility of speaking for myself, of making my perceptions heard at my workplace. I was systematically disrespected as a scholar, as a colleague, as a human being. At its worst moment it became a scheme that effectively prevented me of any possibility to speak for myself at all.

“These things can break you” said a wonderful colleague from South Africa after I indicated the outlines of my story to her. Well, it certainly broke my health in the spring of 2013. While it also dealt a heavy blow on my spirit, it did not completely break it. Or, to put it differently: As broken as I felt then, eventually I was able to put myself together again. The most horrible experience in my 40 years of life couldn’t make me give up and leave a job and a profession I was, and still am, passionate about. There was an element of luck, the bully and his main accomplice left the shop at the right moment. But mostly I am still here because my story is also a story of support and of friendship, of colleagues who behaved as real and wonderful human beings when I most needed it.

My main strategy of survival was to individually talk to those colleagues I thought I could trust. I made a list of names, I made appointments with each of them, I told my story again and again, my heart beating every time. Apart from one exception, nobody disappointed me. These conversations helped me in two ways: First, the pure fact of telling my story helped me starting the very long and difficult process of making sense of something that seemed utterly senseless. But, secondly, getting a compassionate reaction and thus being able to connect to my colleagues helped me even more. While the bullying works by pushing the victim into social isolation through arbitrary acts of shaming and humiliation, every single conversation I had was a powerful experience of human solidarity that counteracted this isolation and shame.

There were colleagues who reacted with more empathy than I myself might have been able to show them had the situation been reverse. Nothing humbled me more during that time than this realization. I now know better than ever how social and psychological violence committed in a workplace strains everybody who gets in touch with it. It puts a strain not only on those who support the victim, but also on those who become complicit, most often unwillingly, in a culture which protects the bully and shames the person who dares to speak up. I became a living and breathing warning to my fellow colleagues that this is what might happen if you challenge a decision from higher up no matter how impeccable your record. There is a reason why some countries, one of them France, have laws which criminalize bullying by bosses. Dealing with it privately asks too much of human beings. If such violence remains unaddressed it is like an invisible poison continuing to diffuse in the workplace long after it happened.

I am also still here because a good colleague and friend of mine did not stop telling me again and again to get myself a lawyer. She ended every single of our many skype conversations with that point. She knew what she was talking about, she had been through a similar thing. Luckily I followed her advice. I didn’t have to go to court to finally make my torturers lift the threat of dismissal they had placed above my head for a whole year in order to discipline me into a nice and quiet girl without a sense of justice and without a voice to raise. I knew I had to act, when the bully himself likened my situation to a “snake hole”. I understood then that as long as he could, he would use this threat to keep me in an utterly helpless position completely at the mercy of his arbitrary attacks. He used the expression (“slangenkuil” in Dutch) in the presence of several other people attending the meeting in an official function. That’s how save he felt in his posture. That’s how unsafe my own workplace had become for me.

Continuing this work situation was not an option any more. It was either quitting on the spot or activating my lawyer. Although there was nobody else in my immediate surrounding who really supported me in this, I chose the latter. Sometimes things become so clear that you know what you have to do even if all your friends worry that it is unwise. But then, they were safe, I was not. They did not, could not feel exactly what I felt. They even, I often thought, had to protect themselves to a certain degree from recognizing the intensity of my ordeal in order to be able to help me at all. As it turned out, the pure presence of my lawyer, a very smart woman, in just one meeting was enough to end what I can only call a sadistic game.

This one last meeting has burned itself in my memory in a way that superimposes all the other memories of humiliation. It was an act of psychological hygiene for me. Neither she nor I had to actually say what became clear simply through her presence: Had the sadistic game not stopped, I would have gone to court and I would have won. There was a certain kind of beauty in that clarity, there was also a beauty in two women knowing exactly what to say and what not to say to make sure the bully was put back in his place. Yet, that I endured a year of unbearable harassment supported by my university in spite of this clear legal framework is still painful, even now. It brings to the surface again the stain that stays with me, like the shadow of a stigma once burned on my forehead: the shame of having been an outcast. It is the trace of this stain, I think, which usually makes people with a story like mine, and there are way too many of us, remain silent about their experiences.

Thanks to the introduction of my lawyer the game was over, I had won a fierce battle that had been forced upon me. But the feeling of relief lasted only for a short moment, only until the psychological and physical repercussions of a year in hell truly hit me. I had been at war, months and months on high alert, always anticipating what the brains of my bullies had in store for me next, constantly figuring out my strategies of survival. While keeping up my teaching I had refrained from most research activities because I sensed from the beginning that this situation was dangerous for my health, that my capacities in such a toxic surrounding were very limited. Several times I was very close to giving up and resigning immediately because I thought, because I feared, I could not endure it even a day longer. This is what persistent humiliation does, what it always does, to anyone exposed to it.

The breakdown was in that sense no huge surprise. But when it hit me it shocked me nevertheless. Its first clear signs occurred at the end of the only conference I attended during this academic year, shortly after the battle was over. Coincidentally, it was a conference on “post-traumatic cultures” – as if fate had found an ironic way to announce the next phase of my life. To be exposed to such inhumane behavior at your workplace, to experience that it threatens your physical and mental health, to understand, as a consequence, that even if you have successfully and with great enthusiasm done everything you are supposed to do in your academic life, such an event can force you to leave your work and give up what you have achieved and what you love in order to, literally, safe your life – this kind of an experience shatters the ground you thought you were standing on.

At a certain point, when I started to look back and to begin the long and agonizing process of comprehending it all, it slowly dawned on me that I had experienced a form of reality shock after which the world would never look the same to me. The following year I crawled in, through and eventually out of the rabbit hole of complete exhaustion, mourning and physical and mental reconstruction. At the other end, I came out as a different person. A person who would live with and honor her scars and vulnerabilities in order to be able to connect to others with similar, or worse, experiences. A person who knew she would never again let herself be silenced any more. A person who knew about the wonders of solidarity. In short: A person who would more than ever embrace the idea that “going human” is the only sensible reaction to a dehumanizing world.

* This story from academia is not told with the intention to attack anybody, neither my current employer, the administration of my faculty nor any particular person. What I do intend, however, is to engage in, and thereby encourage, an honest and open conversation about experiences of (patriarchal) harassment that have increased with the neoliberal management of universities and that are very difficult to talk about. To break open the paralysis produced by these developments we need a new language and new forms of conversation. We need these new forms if we want to safeguard and nurture the university as a place in which learning, teaching and exploring the world through research is understood as a creative, and therefore vulnerable and complex human activity. This activity cannot fulfil its promise of insight and emancipation in a culture of fear. I tell my story because I am not willing to give up this promise.


Reading recommendations:

On fear and silence in organizations: Jennifer J. Kish-Gephart et al., “Silenced by Fear: The Nature, Sources, and Consequences of Fear at Work”, Research in Organizational Behavior 29 (2009) 163-193; Elizabeth Wolfe Morrison and Frances J. Milliken, “Organizational Silence: A Barrier to Change and Development in a Pluralistic World”, The Academy of Management Review 29 (2000) 4, 705-725.

On workplace harassment and its physical and mental consequences see the work of Marie-France Hirigoyen, especially her Malaise danls le travail. Harcèlement moral. Démêler le vrai du faux (Paris: Éditions La Découverte et Syros, 2001).

On bullying and shame in academia see Duncan Lewis, “Bullying at Work: The Impact of Shame among University and College Lecturers”, British Journal of Guidance and Councelling 32 (August 2004) 3.

Finally, as inspiration for how the university might reinvent itself as a creative space that actively engages in fostering a fear-less environment, I want to recommend Ed Catmull (with Amy Wallace), Creativity, Inc. Overcoming the Unseen Forces that Stand in the Way of True Inspiration (New York: Random House, 2014). It is somewhat ironic that Catmull, the head of a profit generating company (Pixar Studios), seems to understand much better what kind of management a creative workplace needs than the majority of today’s university managers, including those at the head of (semi-)public places of learning.

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