Last week, I joined more than 200 other female colleagues in signing an open letter on sexual harassment in the national security community. I knew I would sign as soon as I read the second paragraph: “We, too, are survivors of sexual harassment, assault, and abuse, or know others who are.” Finally, I thought, we have an opportunity to share all of the things we’ve only felt safe talking about behind closed doors, to shed light into the darker corners of our profession, and maybe, just maybe, to promote a culture that holds all people accountable for their actions, no matter how senior or powerful. I signed the letter the moment I finished reading it.
I didn’t think much more about it, though, until I read Rosa Brooks’ stunningly eloquent essay on what she thought about it. She initially felt she didn’t deserve to sign, because nothing really bad had ever happened to her. But as she reflected more, she began recalling experiences that she had genuinely forgotten about – including the time that she was assaulted by a respected senior colleague who forced his tongue down her throat while trying to pull off her clothes. What struck me like a ton of bricks, though, wasn’t the incident itself (horrible though it was), but what she wrote next:
I think I edited all these experiences out because they just seemed so… normal. They were so common they were forgettable. Inappropriate comments and the occasional drunken assault? They were only what every woman expects to encounter in the workplace. You don’t get a special “survivor” merit badge when you’ve only gone through what every woman goes through, do you?
That line has haunted me since I read it. It haunts me because I have always considered myself extremely fortunate to have “only” experienced some harassment and discrimination. And the truth is, I am extremely fortunate, because I’ve never been physically assaulted, systematically harassed by a superior, or faced significant career retaliation or retribution. Brooks certainly deserves that merit badge more than I do. But let the implications of my statement sink in for a moment. What does it say about our community that I genuinely consider myself lucky to have been able to do my job without having my basic physical and mental well-being severely violated?
As that question kept swirling around my head, I decided to share the reasons why I signed the open letter. I want to do so not because I have the worst story in our community, but for the opposite reason: I probably have one of the better stories. I am the child of two parents who firmly believed that their daughter should face no limits at all. Every educational institution I have attended has been either all-women or co-ed since its founding (an extreme rarity, I might add). I have had incredibly supportive male mentors and colleagues, including a former secretary of defense and my current co-author and partner-in-crime, who have always gone to great lengths to support and promote my career. And I’ve achieved far greater professional success than I ever dared dream.
So why on earth did I, of all people, feel so compelled to sign that letter?
I signed because, despite my success, I still cannot count the number of times that my ideas have been overlooked, only to be deemed brilliant and insightful when repeated by a male voice. Or how many times I’ve had to deal with mansplaining, when I am an expert on the subject that a man is condescendingly explaining to me. Or how many times my male colleagues are introduced as “Dr.”, even when they have not earned a Ph.D., while my actual Ph.D. somehow vanishes, and I am introduced as Ms. Bensahel, or, even worse, as Nora. I can, however, count the number of times I’ve been asked to get coffee during a meeting: only once, but it was during a meeting that I had convened.
I signed because the biggest concern one of my bosses had about promoting me was that a more junior male colleague would be unhappy about it, rather than the merits of my accomplishments or contributions. I signed because I was once told that it would be a big deal for me to manage a modest amount of research money, when I was already quietly managing six times that amount.
I signed because my boss’ boss once came up behind me while I was working and started touching my hair. When I whirled my chair around and asked him what he was doing, he said he’d always wondered what my ponytail felt like, in a tone that implied that any objections on my part would be an unreasonable obstacle to satisfying his curiosity.
I signed because of the male colleague who had information that he knew I desperately needed for my research, but refused to discuss it anywhere but over drinks at a bar. I literally spent hours trying to figure out how I would manage all of the awful situations that could arise without jeopardizing that information. Thankfully, his behavior that evening went right up to, but ultimately did not cross, the proverbial line. When I called a close friend the next day, ostensibly to report how it went but really to share my anger at having been in that situation in the first place, she listened patiently and then suggested I get a pedicure as a small and not publicly visible way to reclaim my femininity. It wouldn’t have worked for everyone, but she knew me well, and it did exactly that. And even though that incident occurred two decades ago, it’s why I still paint my toes to this day.
I signed because I was terrified I would be fired after my first-ever briefing to a three-star general. I had prepared extensively, and I thought I was ready for any possible question. I was wrong, though, because I had no clue what to do when he started by asking me how old I was. I decided to answer and get back to the briefing as quickly as possible. That bought me a couple of minutes, but then he interrupted again to ask me how I was qualified to be there – as if I had wandered in off the street instead of having been invited by his staff to talk about my work. I mumbled something about my Ph.D. from Stanford and dissertation on coalition warfare, and then quickly resumed my briefing, which was on – wait for it – coalition warfare. I lost all hope, however, after his third and final interruption, when he said, “you know, you look like that actress.” Afterwards, my boss and my employer were extremely supportive, and told me I had handled a difficult situation well. But it took me years before I could walk into a Pentagon meeting feeling anything other than dread, and even longer to feel anything that remotely resembled confidence.
I signed because I want back all the time and energy that I had to devote to thinking about and armoring myself for these and countless other gender-driven issues, when my male colleagues could simply focus on their work and advancing their careers. Dan Drezner recently described this as an ongoing tax that women are forced to pay, a metaphor I like even though it cannot fully capture the sheer mental exhaustion involved. While I’m at it, I also want back all of the money that my mother and I spent back during the first years of my career, in the days of long-distance telephone bills, so that we could use it for something a whole lot more fun than her listening to me cry so often and trying to reassure me that everything would somehow be okay.
I signed because I am incredibly fortunate to be able to share my experiences now without fearing any repercussions, when so many of the women I know do not have that luxury. I know my path has been far easier than for the women of the generation who came before me, but there is still a very long way to go. We seem to be at a watershed cultural moment, where the men who assault and harass women are finally facing serious consequences for their behavior, and where both men and women are starting to grasp how extensive and pervasive these problems truly are.
I signed despite my gnawing fear that we are about to face a backlash, where even many well-meaning men conclude that they should keep their distance from female colleagues lest they say or do something offensive. Let me say this loud and clear: These problems cannot be solved through additional discrimination. The insidious, demeaning logic of measures like the Pence Rule (the vice president refuses to eat alone with a woman other than his wife, even in professional settings) is that they force women to bear the full burden of avoiding even the appearance of male impropriety. They treat women differently than men simply because they are women, which is the very definition of discrimination. Even though it may seem risky, men need to proactively mentor, sponsor, and provide opportunities for women, if there is any hope of treating women equally and fairly.
Finally, here is the single most important reason why I signed (and also why I wrote this article): because I desperately hope that speaking out about these issues will help move us a tiny step closer to a world where no such letter is ever needed again.
Dr. Nora Bensahel is a Distinguished Scholar in Residence at the School of International Service at American University, and co-authors the regular Strategic Outpost column at War on the Rocks.
Image: U.S. Army/Marie Berberea