MeToo play leaves Mechanical Engineering staff in silence

On the education day of Mechanical Engineering, employees got to see a play about transgressive behavior in academia. This is part of a social safety pilot at the department. The play concerning a PhD candidate, her supervisor and his escalating abuse of power left a strong impression on the audience.

photo Ralph van Ierland

About seventy employees seated in long rows are looking at a table with a few chairs. They are about to watch a play entitled “#MeTooAcademia: The Learning Curve” by Het Acteursgenootschap. Though they themselves do not know that yet. The program sent to them in advance only reads the words “Social Safety”.

The play is part of a social safety pilot at Mechanical Engineering. "There is a reason why our department started this pilot," says Ralph van Ierland, who leads the pilot. “With only 15% female bachelor students, a male culture still predominates within our department, though there has been improvement. Nationally, there have been many reports of transgressive behavior toward women. Within our department we also recognize signs of this. From interactions between students as well as within education, varying from subtle differences in how women are addressed or treated to explicitly misogynistic remarks.” It was partly because of this that the department and university decided to set up a pilot together based on the central vision of social safety. “In part to see how we can implement this across the entire university.”

“The story might be triggering,” Van Ierland adds as a disclaimer to the audience. “In that case, there’s someone present here to support you.”

Academic passion 

The play opens on PhD candidate Suzanne De Jong and her supervisor, Professor Loek Roden. They are in a room together to discuss her research. It starts out innocent. Then Roden says he has grown a beard. “Do you like me better with or without a beard,” he asks. Suzanne laughs it off, but is visibly uncomfortable. The professor continues: “Do you have a boyfriend, actually?”  

In addition to the young woman, a female professor is introduced. She will be the new head of the department, of which Roden is also a part. She also receives comments from the professor such as: “Can you handle that position? Seeing as you have a family.”

Enough is enough 

In subsequent scenes, things go from bad to worse. The problematic questions to the young PhD candidate turn into stares at her breasts, a hand rubbing her shoulder and repeated insistence on having a drink in the hotel room when they have traveled to Berlin for a scientific congress. Until finally, things go horribly wrong when they are back in the Netherlands, inside Professor Roden’s locked office. 

When De Jong tries to report the situation, she is discouraged on all fronts. Even by the confidential counsellor and the female professor. The PR image is considered more important and for a moment, it seems that all hope is lost. Until a new report is made of transgressive behavior concerning Professor Roden. “This is where it ends. Enough is enough.” 

Post-performance discussion  

After the applause dies down, the atmosphere in the room feels heavy. Some people shift in their chairs uncomfortably, but for the most part, they remain silent. “The actors noticed that too during the play,” says Van Ierland. “Normally there is chatter and sometimes even lighthearted laughter in earlier scenes, they told us, because the play exaggerates certain things. That wasn’t really the case this time.” 

First, employees were given a five-minute break to let the play sink in. After that, a discussion was held. For the sake of privacy and creating a safe environment for open discussion, Cursor was not present for this.

According to Van Ierland, a positive discussion ensued, with the heaviness already having subsided a bit. “People shared their own experiences. We talked about how to act in certain situations as either a bystander or a victim, but also pointed out at what moments in the play boundaries were crossed. We also touched upon a more diverse range of social safety topics throughout the discussion.”

The next step in the pilot is more focused on students. As part of their professional development in the bachelor’s program, first-year Mechanical Engineering students will get to see another play on social and sexual safety later this month, this time from a student perspective. “This way, we hope to make good strides together towards a socially safe department.”

Watch the trailer of the play from the education day below.  

Trailer #MeTooAcademia: The Learning Curve - Het Acteursgenootschap

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