My stomach drops. Time slows down. I freeze like a bunny, hoping the moment will pass if I just don’t move. The hand glides up the thigh. The straying thumb and forefinger pinch the ass. My brain fuzzes. I can’t process all these emotions at once. Anger. Fear. Humiliation. Resignation. I’ve been fair game in the office since I began my PhD program in biology 17 years ago. I thought it would get better as I moved up the career ladder. It didn’t, it just changed.

One might imagine that I have similar experiences during my 25 years of running. After all, I’m always the lone woman running with a gaggle of men. But it doesn’t. Never. What’s the difference? Why do I feel helpless as a woman in science, but in control as a runner in an equally male-dominated arena?

First, let’s address the theories that cannot explain why I’m more likely to be harassed in the office than on the trails.

  1. The type of men that do science are different from the ones that run. I don’t buy this. They are pretty much the same men, from similarly educated backgrounds, just placed in different contexts.
  2. I behave/dress/speak differently in the office. If anything, I’m less inhibited on the trails.
  3. I’m more decorated as a runner so garner more respect. Not really. It’s hard to compare, but I get about equal media coverage for science as for running.
  4. I have Aaron to protect me. So, when’s the last time you guys ran with Aaron?
  5. I don’t socialize as much with runners. If anything, I socialize more with runners.

In reality, one word explains why men behave differently towards me in the office versus on the trails: Hierarchy. It all comes down to power.

Women runners have freedom to self-negotiate. Men are not saints. Neither am I. We work it out like school kids on a playground. No one holds anyone’s leash. It’s the power imbalances in top-down organizations that create bunnies and wolves. For historical reasons the upper rungs tend to be filled by men. I never get harassed by men who are equal or below me in the office hierarchy. It’s always supervisors. It makes sense. The greater the power imbalance, the fewer options I have and the greater the costs of fighting back.

I don’t mean to idealize runners. There are bad eggs in any community with a spectrum of personalities. The difference is the bad eggs don’t arbitrarily occupy rungs on a ladder from which to rain down grenades on underlings. Of course this happens all the time in professional running, and the history of abuse of women runners by coaches and other authorities is long. For that reason I never joined any organized track clubs or coaching systems after college.

And I don’t mean to downplay the risks and abuse women runners experience in the public arena. Running around the globe I’ve had catcalls, taunts, knives brandished, beer bottles thrown at me. Running in DC’s parks on my own I’m constantly aware of threats. But the threats are from strangers. In my 25 years of running I have never felt threatened or harassed by a runner I know, even as an acquaintance, in the way I do at work. No one feels that sense of entitlement.

Sometimes I have to remind myself that predators in the office would probably be harmless on the trail. It’s a luxury that I always have have a safe place to return to. It helps me fling myself into the fire at work, spinning the roulette wheel each day to see whether I get monster. Most days not.


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