By Melissa Vine | Executive director, Beacon of Life
Barriers for women and nonbinary folks can be systemic, such as earning 82 cents on the dollar for every man, or they can be individual acts of discrimination. The systems in place support the continuation of individual acts of discrimination because we live in a culture that is more likely to blame than support victims, although certainly the tide is turning. By speaking up about individual and systemic barriers, we can normalize their occurrence, encourage others to speak up, and educate the population about their prevalence.
2013: When I was 31, I started to believe that it might be OK for me as a mother to pursue a career outside of the home. My husband at the time was not supportive of this decision, but in a move that surprised even myself, I started my master’s degree in counseling anyway.
2014: During the week in which I would take my comprehensive exam required for successful completion of my master’s degree, my then-husband (who often acted out when I sought growth of some kind) left me alone with four small children. I decided to get divorced the day I took the exam. It was so stressful that I can remember literally leaning my head against the wall as I took the test because I was physically and emotionally exhausted.
2021: After six years of facilitating healing as a therapist for women who have experienced trauma, I continue to look further upstream, wanting to understand and address the systems that impact what is happening in women’s lives. I want to know how we can actually put an end to the misuse of power. So a few weeks ago, I signed up to take the LSAT. I knew I didn’t have an adequate amount of time to study, but in true Melissa fashion, I went for it anyway.
One week before the exam, my furnace went out, several pipes froze, and my toilet broke. I’m studying at the last minute for this test in a 47-degree house when I receive a message about my father, who was abusive to me in childhood. We were working on a relationship with strict boundaries for the sake of my sons, but he had been engaging in behavior that was in direct opposition to the claims he had made to my face just weeks before. I spent the next few days with family as we uncovered the depth of his behaviors. Whenever I tried to study for the LSAT, I just stared at the page, feeling numb. I wanted to quit.
The test was administered online due to COVID, so I had an online proctor through ProctorU. My proctor started repeatedly sexually harassing me before and after the test. He commented multiple times about my smile and how it made his day. He talked about how I looked young and used a tone of voice that felt similar to when someone is hitting on me in person. He shared a story of “helping” another woman who had been struggling with her test and how she poured compliments on him afterward. (This is a type of grooming and self-inflation.) The proctor told me in a very creepy manner that I looked like Jackie Kennedy after stating that he was “watching” me as I completed my test and again commented on my appearance.
I was afraid to ask him to stop, because he could make up a claim that I was cheating on my test or interrupt me during it. So I just smiled and produced the fake female laugh that so many of us have learned how to do. The proctor could see me the whole time, but I could not see him. I just heard this voice speaking these things to me and knew he was watching me. The LSAT is not a test in which you can afford to lose focus for even a minute, because its primary demand is efficiency in completing the questions.
I ended up getting a call directly from the chief compliance officer after reporting the incident. She indicated that many people had reviewed the screen recording of my test, called his behavior “creepy,” and noted there were multiple incidents of sexual harassment, any one of which call for immediate termination. As a result of my report, several more women came forward. Now, ProctorU is investing a significant amount of money in training their proctors nationwide about sexual harassment. I did score in the top 15%, but I will always wonder how I could have scored without the misconduct of my father and this proctor, which ironically supports my entire motivation for even considering law school. ProctorU has refunded my test, and LSAC, which oversees the LSAT, has been in contact with me as well. Now I have to decide if I want to retake it or stick with my score of 162.
I am in a healed place and moving forward in my life, supported by healthy relationships. But, as a woman, I cannot ever be done with sexual harassment and discrimination. Every step forward takes more effort than it would for a man. If I had less drive or less intelligence or less support, I’m not sure I would be able to push through the barriers.
For many women, these incidents may have prevented advancement entirely. When you look at pictures of past presidents and CEOs and clergy, this is why there are few or no women. The barriers are real. Make room for women, and even more so women of color and nonbinary folks at the table; we have to fight 10 times as hard to get there.