In 2014 I attended a national meeting on women’s health in Chicago, Illinois. One of the talks I had the opportunity to see was a thoughtful piece by Dr. Khalid Khan, the editor of The British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, about writing a good academic paper. Given that I have already written many published papers, I was thrilled to hear about an editor’s take on the kind of material that is prioritized, and I hoped to understand what it took to get published in such a prestigious journal.
He also gave a fantastic talk about collaborative science and the need for multi-center trials to better understand gynecological pain conditions. These so-called diagnoses of exclusion–bladder pain syndrome, vulvodynia, endometriosis, dysmenorrhea, and other variants of “chronic pelvic pain”–are some of the most vexing chronic pain conditions faced by clinicians. Physicians rarely have the knowledge needed to treat them because such knowledge does not yet exist (Dr. Khan, I, and an army of unsung heroes have devoted our lives to this purpose). Dr. Khan made the important point that, to obtain the kind of sample size needed to really parse out potential symptom patterns within these symptom complexes, multi-center trials are a clinical and scientific necessity. I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to briefly speak with him after his talk to thank him for his thoughtful take on how the chronic pelvic pain field can meaningfully move forward by harnessing the strength of scientific collaborations. I later saw him in the foyer a few hours later, and I asked if I could pick his brain about some of my research dilemmas dealing with multi-center neuroimaging data. I asked if he would have time that evening for a drink, and he graciously said that would be fine.
That evening—still exhausted from the influx of new information I had been taking in all day from the other talks—I met with Dr. Khan at the hotel bar, but it wasn’t the main lobby bar. It was a smaller one the hotel concierge had suggested. It was just him and me.
I didn’t feel uncomfortable or threatened. We started chatting, each ordered a drink, and then Dr. Khalid proceeded to ask me earnest questions about my challenges with my studies. It was refreshing to have the one-on-one attention of someone who understood the difficulties in integrating clinical reality and research. He sat with me for over an hour and helped me reconceptualize the research issues I had been struggling with for months.
It made me proud that in 2014, after all of the hard work I had put into my academic career, I demanded professional respect from such an esteemed colleague. I was glad that I had made a professional connection with someone who, perhaps one day, I could collaborate with.
Even as a researcher in the field of gynecological pain, I knew my interactions with Dr. Khan had little direct impact on my career. You choose to submit manuscripts to the journal that best fits the scope of your work. Peer review is blinded, so usually your main source of publishing anxiety is whether your own peers will be fair to you. Academic researchers are pretty passionate about fairness because we define ourselves by our ideas, and we all want our ideas to be treated fairly by others.
At the end of the hour, something happened that still makes me smile. He asked me to join him and some good friends of his for dinner. I was flattered and excited to have more time to interact with him. So I proceeded to enjoy dinner with people who had known him for many years, people who clearly respected him long before he reached his current position and would still respect him long after he retires. And I realized he was not an Editor God. He was a normal person.
I was not being “hit on.” I have certainly been hit on many times at academic meetings in ways that range from subtle to downright vulgar. However, at the end of this evening, I must admit he did touch me unexpectedly. As he said good night outside the restaurant, he shook my hand. And I remember exactly he said to me: “You have a very strong handshake. That’s good.”
Why write this, now?
My mom was a proud, second wave feminist. Her first year of university, she was expelled for letting a young African American woman visit her dorm room to study. The university said that “such behavior” was not appropriate for a young woman like her and it would not be tolerated. What I learned from my mom is that sometimes standing up for others isn’t popular or appreciated, but every human being has the intrinsic right to be treated fairly.
If a man is accused of inappropriate behavior and my direct personal experience contradicts this, I have every right to write about it, and I choose now. I decided to write this because I may not know the experience of other people, but I know my own personal experiences. And my experience is no less real or meaningful than another person’s experience.
The glass ceiling is still real, and academia is a tough place for women AND men to thrive within. There is no question about it. But unloading anger about all men onto one man is something I find offensive. Unloading years of frustration about potentially missed opportunities due to other interpersonal encounters onto one man is something I find offensive.
Making a Difference in Women’s Health
I have nothing to gain from writing this, other than my personal conviction that every story may have multiple sides that should be heard. And I could stand idly by and watch an esteemed colleague be gutted—a person who has championed women and children’s health, stands up for scientific rigor in gynecological research, and kindly gave me the time and space to help me with my own research–or I could share my personal experience because every story deserves to be heard.
I do not make a habit of trying to attract attention with controversial blog posts. Instead, I’ve been in research laboratories for the last 13 years working my ass off and producing quality work. I have conducted years of research on female sexual health and chronic pain that now contribute to our collective knowledge of women and men’s biopsychosocial complexities. I have conducted years of basic science research on causes of chronic vulvar pain that afflict up to 9% of women in North America, and I have conducted brain imaging studies identifying ways in which the brain adapts to chronic pelvic pain in women and men.
In the midst of all of this, I have experienced sexual harassment by men of many ages, in and out of the academic research realm. And despite all of these experiences, I still think that every human being deserves to be treated fairly by their peers.
This is my truth, and I will not be silenced.