Dr Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin“I was quite worried because there was no way out of my office without him leaving first, you know?”

As heard on Today with Claire Byrne

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For two years, scientist and broadcaster Dr Aoibhinn  Shúilleabháin was harassed by a colleague in her workplace. On Tuesday’s Today with Claire Byrne, Dr  Shúilleabháin took us through the disturbing sequence of events that eventually led to her colleague being convicted of harassment and ordered to stay away from her for five years. Dr  Shúilleabháin told Claire that she was speaking out about her ordeal because so many people go through harassment and don’t report it: 

“I really felt that this was an issue we needed to have a broader conversation about.” 

Dealing with what was happening to her took over so much of Dr  Shúilleabháin’s time that it was only afterwards that she considered how much had to be worked out in her own head: 

“It took me a huge amount of time to process what I had been through. You know, to first of all consider that it wasn’t good enough that it was happening and then to think about, ‘Oh actually, is this a criminal offence that’s happening? Could I go to the guards?’ Because in my head it was a workplace issue only.” 

The timeline of what happened to Dr  Shúilleabháin is chilling: she was less than a year in her new job at UCD – where she had been an undergraduate – and she was loving life as an academic there. But less than a year into her time there, Hans Benjamin-Braun, Theoretical Physics professor, began having conversations with her that she considered increasingly inappropriate. He would interrupt her talking to other colleagues and propose they both work together on events. Despite her wariness, Dr  Shúilleabháin initially gave Prof Braun the benefit of the doubt: 

I was kind of batting him away. Sometimes maybe people are over-friendly and, you know, they mean well, maybe. 

But then he came into her office and asked her out on a date. And he didn’t seem too impressed when she said no. Despite Dr  Shúilleabháin making it clear that she didn’t want to go on a date with him, Prof Braun didn’t wait very long before approaching her again: 

He came back again the next day and that was quite frightening because he was in a very frantic state the next day, accusing me of lying to him, of not being honest with his feelings, you know, saying that he wouldn’t ordinarily ask a person out and I had to, you know, go with him basically, on a date. And I was quite worried because there was no way out of my office without him leaving first, you know, he was blocking the door, basically. 

Dr  Shúilleabháin thought that when she reiterated her position the second time Prof Braun came into her office, the matter would be over and done with. A friend she told about it advised her to report the incident to HR. But, Dr  Shúilleabháin told Claire, it happened to be a Friday evening and she was going away with friends for the weekend, so she decided to leave it until Monday. She spent the weekend in a hotel with three of her girlfriends. At 9 o’clock in the morning she got a phone call from the hotel reception to say that there was someone waiting for her downstairs with a bunch of flowers 

“And I asked, you know, what was their name and it was Prof Braun and I was really, really just, I was just, creeped out. It was just awful.” 

Braun had – bizarrely – told the receptionist that Dr  Shúilleabháin was expecting him, as it was their weekend away together. The hotel called the Gardaí and they asked Braun to leave, which he eventually did. But, he returned the next day and again the Gardaí had to intervene to get him to leave. That was not the end of his harassment of Dr  Shúilleabháin, however. There was much more to come. 

Listening to Aoibhinn describing what she went through, it’s easy to think that it sounds like the plot of a movie – a really tense one – because it just seems so extraordinary. But of course it was a very real and terrifying experience for her and continued to be for two whole years. And it happens to people all the time, which is why Dr  Shúilleabháin wanted to speak up about her ordeal.

You can hear Aoibhinn  Shúilleabháin’s full conversation with Claire Byrne by going here. 

Niall Ó Sioradáin 

© The Listener 2020

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