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Counteracting harassment

Guest Column/Caroline B. Huang

Should women receive "special treatment" at MIT? This is a current question asked about all minority groups as well as women. I will address the question as it applies to women from my experience as a woman graduate student in electrical engineering.

Women have the Margaret Cheney Room, which is a women's meeting-place and study room. There are women's organizations, such as AMITA, an alumnae association. There are groups devoted to fighting for women's rights, such as Pro-Femina (which also welcomes concerned men as members). Mary Rowe, the special assistant to the president, is especially concerned about women's issues at MIT.

Do women deserve this "special treatment"?

A male professor offers a woman student a bachelor's thesis only in exchange for sexual favors. A comment made by a female graduate student at a seminar is ignored, while her male colleague is listened to seriously. Some members of a fraternity write a letter to Penthouse detailing an orgy they supposedly had with a women's living group next door. They distribute copies of this letter to that group.

A picture of a nude woman is printed out on a research group's computer system to demonstrate the graphics of the system.

Do women deserve this "spe-<>


cial treatment"?

The incidents cited above have been described in The Tech and the student-published booklet, Barriers to Equality in Academia: Women in Computer Science at MIT (1983). But cases of sexual harassment are not often publicized. The student learns of them mostly by word of mouth. How reliable is this? Sexual harassment is prevalent enough that, even if one hasn't experienced it oneself, one almost certainly knows someone personally at MIT -- an office-mate, a secretary, a neighbor -- who has.

The kind of harassment which is that prevalent is not just the subtle put-down or off-hand sexist comment, but the kind of harassment which causes a woman to move out of her living group, change faculty advisors, or change her job.

How does a victim of harassment decide what action to take and how to deal with the stress which harassment causes? Women must organize. Organized, women can direct their voices and actions most effectively. Women have organized themselves, without the help of the Institute, to discuss problems specific to women.

These problems exist, and they won't go away if we pretend they don't exist. Support groups can help a victim of harassment feel [el-33p4]

less alone.

"The younger women students are unaware of discrimination," a fellow graduate student remarked to me. "They feel they have the world in their hands!" Optimism is very powerful, and women should use it. Those who don't believe resistance will counter them may have that much more encouragement, that much more confidence to go forward. Often, however, resistance does appear in some form -- if not at MIT, then later on the job.

That resistance should not cause total discouragement; it should not make the earlier optimism a farce. That is only possible if one is ready to face resistance, if there are ways of countering resistance. At MIT, we have some established means of recourse: a woman can talk to Mary Rowe or Pro-Femina, for example.

Optimism must be combined with knowledge that sexual harassment exists, that one can take action, that one must take action if discrimination against women and others is to be stopped. Many of us are here only because of the actions of women before us, who recognized problems and did something about them. "Special treatment" which originates from those hostile to women must be countered by special actions.