The #MeToo Reckoning

An illustration shows a group of hands being raised, as if to say "Me, too."

When Alessondra Springmann ’07 landed a job at a major observatory in a remote location as a data analyst, observing asteroids passing by Earth with radar, she was elated. She had earned her master’s degree in astronomy at MIT in 2011 and, after difficulty finding a job in the field without a Ph.D., the appointment felt like the opportunity she had been waiting for.

“It was really hard to find a position with a master’s in astronomy, so finally when this job came along, I was so excited. I had finally found something with a really great group of folks,” says Springmann. A planetary radar astronomer now studying asteroids and comets at the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory in Tucson, Ariz., she expects to complete her Ph.D. in planetary sciences in the next few years.

A mere month into her 21-month assignment at the remote observatory, Springmann says her work life and feelings about the opportunity changed radically when a visiting scientist began touching her back and shoulders in an inappropriate way. Though she reported this conduct, it wasn’t until he showed up on her doorstep uninvited one evening that her concerns were taken more seriously by observatory management.

“I was living on-site at the observatory. This guy showed up on my porch at 11 p.m. one night and was knocking on the door after I’d told him to stay away from me. I closed all the doors and windows, shut out the lights, and hid under the bed,” she recalls. “I shouldn’t have to deal with that at work.”

Astronomy, like other STEM disciplines—science, technology, engineering, and math—is largely male-dominated. According to statistics from an overview of women in STEM professions conducted by the Economics and Statistics Administration’s Office of the Chief Economist within the Department of Commerce, women filled 47 percent of all U.S. jobs in 2015, but held only 24 percent of STEM jobs. Furthermore, although women constitute slightly more than half of college-educated workers, they make up only 25 percent of college-educated STEM professionals. While Springmann was aware of the gender inequity in her chosen vocation, she had never experienced sexual harassment in other academic settings and was, like many victims, at a loss about how to respond.

“What do you do? How do you report it? I went to talk to the director and he told me he’d take care of it, but it was not clear who to report these things to and how you report these things. The people who were on my side didn’t know what to do,” she says. Springmann describes an “excruciating” conversation she had with the human-resources department, where they blamed her for inviting harassment by talking to the visiting male scientist.

As bad as the harassment was, she says, the response from the organization and human-resources department made it worse. Shortly after Springmann made a formal report, a supervisor several levels above her in the organization came by her office after hours.

“One evening after 5:30 p.m., he knocked on the door. [He] came into my office, and he shut the door and berated me for an hour and a half for reporting the incident. He said harassment reporting devolves into ‘he said, she said.’ It was horrible. I was crying. I just wanted to crawl under my desk. I wanted to quit. I had been there for barely two months at that point,” she says. “I just wanted to do the work. Now I didn’t feel safe doing it.”

Springmann reached out to other women in her field for guidance on how to navigate the situation and found others who had similar experiences. “It’s cultural in fields like astronomy,” she says. “There are many men who harass others at these remote sites, and continually get away with it. Sexual harassment is also common in other fields, and worse in isolated locations. Women doing fieldwork in geology and archaeology experience it, too. Places where no one takes responsibility for maintaining a safe environment are where harassment thrives.”

#MeToo: Across All Industries

Springmann’s experience is a microcosm of the scandal that erupted after the New York Times published an exposé detailing decades of unchecked sexual abuse and harassment of women by film producer Harvey Weinstein early last October. The revelations gave new momentum and a hashtag to the Me Too campaign started by Tarana Burke more than a decade ago after actress Alyssa Milano (who wasn’t initially aware of Burke’s campaign) urged fellow victims of sexual abuse and harassment to reply #MeToo to her tweet. In response, women (and men) from all walks of life and professions started to share their stories on social media and elsewhere, exposing the scope of the problem. The TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund, housed at and administered by the National Women’s Law Center, soon followed.

In the wake of the growing revelations, a host of prominent men—Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer, and Al Franken, among them—stepped down or were removed from their posts amid allegations of sexual abuse or misconduct.

Not everyone was supportive of the movement either then or now, decrying what was viewed as a “witch hunt” when former colleagues or prominent people they once, perhaps, looked up to fell from grace. The sheer volume of allegations brought against leading figures from all industries, from journalism to business, entertainment to sports, was hard to fathom—or easily dismiss.

Yet, as potent as this moment seems, once the media spotlight moves on, will the public desire and momentum for change falter? There have, after all, been other cultural touchpoints that promised a watershed that never came. Among them are the 1991 Senate Judiciary Committee hearings when Anita Hill described being sexually harassed by her former boss, U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, and the Take Back the Night movement that took off on college campuses during the same decade. Both carried the promise of systemic change before being sidelined by public backlash.

While Take Back the Night started in the 1970s as a protest against sexual violence and violence against women, it expanded its focus to combating sexual violence of all kinds. Once it gained prominence in the 1990s, it wasn’t long before it became the target of both thoughtful critique and open ridicule in the press, thus effectively trivializing the efforts to mobilize and demand institutional change. Perhaps unsurprisingly, some of the same critics of the Take Back the Night movement, including author Katie Roiphe, who decried the effort as “march as therapy” and “rhapsodies of self-affirmation,” have come out to protest the #MeToo movement as an overreaction by “a certain breed of Twitter feminist.”

To get a sense of what’s at stake and what might come of this moment, perhaps it’s best to start with where we currently stand. After all, when a planetary radar astronomer like Springmann can’t figure out how to navigate systems meant to respond to workplace harassment, there is likely much that needs to be addressed before a turning point can be reached.

Navigating the Law

Springmann’s experience is often the norm, even decades after equal-opportunity statutes like Title VII and Title IX, aimed at eradicating discriminatory behavior, were passed, according to Donna Ballman ’81. (Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. Title IX, passed in 1972, protects people from discrimination based on sex in education programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance.)

Ballman, a Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based attorney, whose practice centers on employment law and who has represented employees against unfair labor practices and sexual discrimination for most of her career, says Springmann’s confusion—and the retaliation she faced—is, sadly, par for the course.

“The requirement that people go through the company’s sexual-harassment policy before they can go someplace like the EEOC [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] and file a lawsuit, it’s impractical. People have to be basically a lawyer to navigate the sexual-harassment laws as they exist. It’s ridiculous. There are so many hoops that they have to jump through,” says Ballman.

She says that not only does Title VII not directly address sexual harassment, the laws governing discrimination in the workplace and educational institutions have impossible standards that need to be simplified and adopted across the board.

“The standard is that [the harassment] has to be so severe or so pervasive that it alters the terms and conditions of employment. Well, that’s a lot, isn’t it? If somebody is groped by their boss, then to them it probably did alter those terms, but if you ask a judge or jury, probably not,” she says.

Fear of Retaliation

Worse still is the reality that when women come forward, despite their fear of not being believed, they—and not the accused—are often punished. A 2016 report on harassment in the workplace by the EEOC found that three out of four individuals who experience harassment (whether sex-based or based on religion, race, disability, or other factors) never report it “because they fear disbelief of their claim, inaction on their claim, or social or professional retaliation.”

“My experience [is] that women who come forward are retaliated against. I don’t think that’s really changing,” says Ballman. “What is changing is that women who come forward publicly [with] multiple women to back their stories are believed, but a single woman who comes forward is pretty much disbelieved.” She adds that often, when colleagues hear about the charges being leveled against a coworker, they shun the victim and not the accused. Frequently, she says, the victim is moved to a different department or location where there are fewer opportunities for advancement or is suspended with pay and, thus, effectively punished.

In addition, many companies continue to assume that the accuser is lying instead of presuming that, like other crime victims, they are telling the truth and starting an investigation from that premise, Ballman says.

“Let’s assume they are telling the truth,” she says. “Let’s investigate and look for witnesses and other people who have worked with these people, former employees who are less likely to be terrified to come forward because of retaliation.”

‘Let’s assume [women] are telling the truth. Let’s investigate and look for witnesses and other people who have worked with these people, former employees who are less terrified to come forward because of retaliation.’

Why Women Are Doubted

Leigh Gilmore, distinguished visiting professor of women’s and gender studies at Wellesley and the author of the 2017 book Tainted Witness: Why We Doubt What Women Say About Their Lives, knows the phenomenon all too well.

Gilmore says when she started working on her book, she wanted to examine a seeming paradox. There was a new openness about, and eagerness for, women’s first-person accounts of injury and harm, which were popular both in the realm of memoirs in the 1980s and in mainstream media, like Oprah Winfrey’s talk show. But at the exact same time, she saw a growth in the mechanisms used to smear women, to demean and destroy their reputations.

She found in her research that it was not a paradox, but part of two phenomena that were co-evolving.

“They weren’t separate. They weren’t contradictory. They were part of exactly the same formation. We have a persistent and a pervasive culture of doubting what women say,” Gilmore says. “We attach shame and silence to their oppositional accounts of violence. When [their] stories are challenging norms of male power, then those particular women are discredited with great force and speed.” The more women rose up with their stories, she found, the more discrediting went on.

She says that this pattern is deeply woven into the law and custom of our democracy, informing not only law and policy, but women’s experiences in everyday life. Gilmore believes it explains why Anita Hill’s testimony did not stop Clarence Thomas from being appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“Everyone is an expert on what women say. Everyone doubts women,” Gilmore says. “One of the things we do is weigh in on whether or not women have the right to speak and whether what they say is valid, and we do that as part of our participation in culture.”

Then there is the usual pattern of managing a woman’s volatile testimony about what happened to her—the “he said, she said” argument that Springmann and countless other victims of sexual harassment and abuse have faced.

“It feels fair to us, right? Well, we’re going to give these equal weight, and you never really know. But ‘he said, she said’ puts the thumb of doubt on the woman’s side of the scale of justice because we always doubt what women say,” Gilmore concludes.

Then there are the usual questions that are raised about people who bring charges against their accusers years after the fact, which is extremely common.

“What we saw with #MeToo was a lot of people from years ago came forward and said, ‘Yeah, [Weinstein’s] a jerk,’ because they’re less afraid, but even those women are being retaliated against,” says Ballman. “‘Where was she 20 years ago?’ ‘Why did she wait so long?’ Well, because people are jerks about this whole thing, that’s why they wait so long, that’s why people never come forward. The ones who came forward just to back somebody up are being attacked, so you can’t win.”

Linda Williams, senior research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women and co-founder of the Justice and Gender-Based Violence Research Initiative, points out that even when women do come forth and press charges, prosecution rates for sexual assault and sexual violent crimes are the same today as they were in the 1970s. “These facts and research are out there, that there is such a low percentage of women who report sexual assault because they very rarely get justice. Yet people say, ‘Why didn’t she report it sooner or report it?’” Williams says.

While there have been many positive changes in the 40 years Williams has been studying gender and sexual-violence justice—like the rise in victim services—true justice seems far from at hand. “There are still a lot of positive things that have happened, but the question becomes, Why is this so intractable?” she says.

A Transformative Moment?

To say the odds are long for change seems an understatement given the forces stacked against it. Yet Gilmore, Ballman, and Williams all say there are measures both individuals and organizations can take to help alter toxic cultures.

What doesn’t work, much like it didn’t for many of the victims of alleged serial abusers like Weinstein, is relying on the fact that the abuser’s bad behavior is an open secret and making it the victim’s responsibility to do all the work to get justice.

Springmann, who in the wake of her own experience learned about the experiences of other women in her field, says the “whispernet” fails.

“The passing notes, the whispering and talking about this, open secrets, they don’t help anyone. First of all, they don’t get rid of the dude. Second, the onus is on women to communicate all this, and third, it doesn’t reach people it needs to reach,” she says.

Gilmore says that one way women can help shift the landscape is by learning strategies of amplification.

“Research shows that when women’s voices amplify each other and amplify each other’s experiences, then their ideas gain traction, so we need to learn strategies for amplification,” she says.

Gilmore is optimistic about the impact of #MeToo and #TimesUp, saying these movements have already “cleared a couple of hurdles.” First, they have stayed in the public eye far longer than she would have predicted based on other moments of seeming openness to women’s accounts of harm. And, second, she says the movement has given new life and spurred high-profile donations to social-justice initiatives for survivors of sexual violence.

“I don’t think we should be asking ‘Is this going to change things?’ I think we should be charting how things have already changed,” Gilmore says, pointing to how differently the Weinstein scandal has played out from the flashpoint of interest she wrote about in Tainted Witness surrounding Anita Hill’s testimony.

“With Anita Hill’s testimony, there was a moment of interest in workplace sexual harassment. Then she was so effectively and shamelessly smeared that that kind of closed down. That lasted not very long, and so we’ve already surpassed the time limit on whether or not this is going to have a lasting impact. We’re already beyond thinking that this will just return to ground zero. I think we’ve gone beyond,” says Gilmore.

Indeed, even the once-maligned Anita Hill, now a professor of law and policy at Brandeis University, sees that times have changed. Appointed chair of the Commission on Sexual Harassment and Advancing Equality in the Workplace, formed last December in Hollywood in the wake of the Weinstein scandal, Hill put her experiences in a hopeful context.

“In today’s atmosphere, there would be more people who would understand my story, who would believe my story,” she said during a panel discussion at United Talent Agency organized by the National Women’s Law Center to announce her appointment, as reported by Variety. “I don’t think of 1991 and 2017 as isolated moments in history. I see them as part of an arc, and an arc that has been bending toward justice.”

Wellesley’s Efforts to Prevent Sexual Misconduct

As assistant director of health education and wellness at the College’s Health Service, Claudia Trevor-Wright is on the front lines of combating sexual misconduct.

An attorney as well as a health educator by training, she co-chaired the committee that wrote the sexual misconduct policy for students. She coordinates first-year programming on the topic and advises SAAFE—Sexual Assault Awareness For Everyone, a student group—which runs educational programs in residence halls and the campus center. Trevor-Wright has even partnered with the College’s Title IX coordinator and Career Education to talk with students in two of Professor Joseph Joyce’s Econ 202 classes about how to respond to sexual harassment in investment banking firms and startups.

In other words, she is involved all over the College. Trevor-Wright calls the community “brave and forward-thinking in its commitment to confronting and ending sexual misconduct wherever it may occur” and notes just how many people are involved—students, faculty, and staff. Here are just some of the offices and groups on campus that are part of the College’s comprehensive “it takes a village” approach to combating sexual misconduct, including harassment.

Title IX Coordinator

This administrator is focused on ensuring campus compliance with the statute. She provides information to students, faculty, and staff regarding policies, investigation processes, andremedies and also works with on- and off-campus resources. The coordinator plays a central role in ongoing education and prevention in many areas of campus, developing programs and speaking to groups ranging from class deans to Career Education staff to RAs in the residence halls.


Academic Council, the faculty legislative body, enacted a policy that prohibits faculty and staff from engaging in sexual or romantic relationships with students. When they arrive at the College, individual faculty are taught how to recognize and report sexual harassment, and faculty who are traveling with students receive mandatory training on everything from addressing sexual harassment to finances to emergency management.

Career Education

“Unfortunately, we do recognize that sexual misconduct is present in all sectors and all industries,” says Christine Cruzvergara, associate provost and executive director of Career Education. “We’re fortunate to have an incredible network, and through the Hive, we can help our students/alumnae get connected to each other to learn more about what realities may exist in [a] profession.” CE provides online resources for dealing with sexual misconduct in the workplace on its website. The department also sponsors sexual-misconduct education for students entering internship and civic engagement programs and for seniors as part of “Life After Wellesley” programs.

Human Resources

Sexual-harassment training is part of the onboarding process for all new employees at the College. Ongoing online training—Mosaic: Prevent Sexual Violence Together—teaches employees how to recognize and report sexual misconduct.

Division of Student Life

This large department, which is headed by the dean of students and includes Academic Advising and Residential Life, helps students who might have experienced sexual misconduct address short-term needs (such as course extensions or alternative housing needs), coordinates with on-campus resources, and acts as a liaison with other educational institutions.

Campus Police

A resource (along with the Title IX coordinator) for reporting incidents. All reports are treated with extreme sensitivity, but in some cases the police are required to use information to address a threat or maintain safety. In the case of a report of criminal activity, a specially trained Campus Police officer responds and investigates.

Health Services, Stone Center Counseling Services, Office of Religious and Spiritual Life

Trained responders in these offices provide confidential medical care, counseling, and emotional and spiritual support. They do not share identifiable information without a student’s permission, unless sharing is required to address an imminent safety risk or if a student is a minor.

Alison Stateman ’91 is a writer and journalist based in Los Angeles.

As this article went to press, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine released a groundbreaking report, Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. President Paula Johnson co-chaired the committee that produced the report. For more information, click here.

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