By Karla L. Miller
Special to The Washington Post
— Q: In graduate school, I was sexually assaulted by a student from another school. I didn't tell anyone at the time because he was friends with my adviser, alcohol was involved, and those who knew something had happened thought it was consensual. Eventually, I sought counseling and tried to put it behind me. To this day, I've told only my husband and closest friend.
My attacker and I went into the same field, in which women are underrepresented and collaboration is important. During the past 10 years, I've seen him occasionally at professional events; I've kept my distance, and other than a "hi" from him there hasn't been any interaction.
Now I've been invited to a meeting that will include social obligations with this person and others. Some attendees are big names in our field, so declining would hurt my career.
Do I grit my teeth and work with this person, at great cost to my mental health? Do I decline and tell my supervisors why? They're all male and part of the field's "good old boys" culture, so I'm not comfortable discussing personal issues with them. While my immediate supervisor would probably try to help, I'm not sure I want him to know this about me.
I've thought about returning to therapy, but part of me just feels angry that I have to spend more time, energy and money dealing with this intrusive presence in my head.
A: So your choices are (1) keep mum and work with your attacker at the risk of re-traumatizing yourself into a career-derailing breakdown; or (2) tell your bosses what he did and run the risk of being interrogated, disbelieved, subjected to humiliating speculation about your morals and motives, and marked as a troublemaker in a field where you're already a minority.
Hell, meet high water.
Here's a third idea: Confide your dilemma — only that you have personal knowledge about this person, unrelated to work, that makes it extremely difficult for you to work effectively with him — to one trustworthy ally who will be at the meeting. Maybe your ally can run interference as you network, pulling you away or stepping in to chat if the guy tries to approach you.
I urge you to hash out your options — and the other issues this situation will trigger — with a therapist specializing in sexual trauma. You need a safe place to plot your course and stock your arsenal, so you can be the champion of your own health and career.
Thanks to Sharon Snyder, of the Ober Kaler national law firm.
Karla L. Miller writes an advice column on navigating the modern workplace. Each week she will answer one or two questions from readers. Miller has written for and edited tax publications for 16 years, most recently for the accounting firm KPMG's Washington National Tax office. You can find her on Twitter, @KarlaAtWork.