fanning the flame but burning out::how can I keep fighting a toxic work environment

“I wanted to tell you first, before I did it, just to let you know.”

“Even though it doesn’t change anything… ” I replied, confused.

“No, but I just wanted to talk with you first, that’s all. But I am required to report what you’ve told me.”


I’d shown up in Professor D’s office two weeks before on the pretense of asking her to speak with my graduate student club – but I quickly confessed I was there seeking help. “There is behavior in my department, towards myself, towards other female students, towards students and staff in general, that I find absolutely unacceptable. Not just in my department, but in this entire school.” I began, but my blood was already boiling from a story a friend had told me earlier that day where she’d had to navigate the bizarre, unfair, and mine-filled conversation of both politely declining a colleague’s proposition for sex (gotta watch out for that ego) and while also telling him never to do it again. My calm façade disintegrated into a well-exercised flow of problems, examples, outrage.

I’d talked to countless students in other non-engineering departments, baffled on if this was a universal experience in graduate school. I’d talked to my advisor and she had commiserated with me. I’d been to someone in the Dean’s office. Once, wandering through a student hall on campus, I happened upon some Office of Ethics or another and tried to talk to them. They gave me a business card, and told me to call them. As if I were an administrator with some directive power rather than a graduate student looking for someone to do their job right.

I have turned almost every direction. By the time I got to Professor D’s office, I was exploding. She actually called me out on it. Told me I was going to put anyone I spoke to on the defensive. (As a side note, I understand that, but not getting frustrated while trying to describe all the nonsense that’s been happening around here would require lots and lots of practice. And that’s the problem – the graduate students that care the most and reach out to the most people are busy with both that and their research. Being level-headed to boot takes practice, and that takes time that we often do not have. Neither do faculty, I don’t mean that they do at all – but that’s where training and common expectations of behavior should come in from the administration.) I was chastised and a little regretful, but as per sidenote, unashamed. She recommended I seek out an ombudsman to help me if I chose to go with some of my grad student peers to the faculty of my department for a big discussion on the lacking environment at my school.

I was frustrated that she was reporting what I’d told her, because it meant they’ll be coming to talk to me soon and I haven’t yet decided what the best thing to do is. But I was also relieved that she was … and frustrated that no one I’d gone to before had put their foot down and said, “You’ve asked me not to tell any names to anyone but unfortunately I am legally obligated to stop this behavior.” It was another symptom of the system a few friends and I have been trying to fight.

I had a long car-talk with one of these friends. She told me that she and her advisor had sat together for an hour one week, very unusually, and just talked about all the things wrong with our department. I told her, “You know I used to be so relieved when you would tell me things like that, or if I’d meet a student who also felt that the atmosphere here was sexist or very casually racist… but now it happens so often that it’s quite the opposite. I feel so overwhelmed, and so hopeless, because before I thought that simply no one had noticed. I thought people were beginning to notice. But no, it’s turning out more and more that everyone knows, everyone sees it, but no one does anything about it because it hurts someone else more than it does them.”

There’s steps to be taken. I can go find an ombudsman. I can go talk to faculty. I can go talk to whatever office will be handling this report. I know my friend won’t stop fighting, and neither will I. But I feel so tired, because it doesn’t seem like anything will work or anyone will care. Change is slow, I know, I’ve been told many times (I think it’s overused as a lazy but inevitable answer), but I am feeling that whatever change I can push for will be lost when I look around at the people here and simply cannot imagine them choosing to take a stand. Time to go to sleep — perseverance is easier with sunshine



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