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Standing Together

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The recent uproar in the science blogging community has gripped my attention and held it there.  There is so much to reflect on here; so much for all of us to learn and apply. Let me begin this post with a brief recap.

Scientific American has an impressive blog network – scientists who regularly blog about their work, sharing ideas, lines of inquiry, and research with the larger science community. Bora Zivkovic is the Blogs Editor for Scientific American. I’ve never met him but have heard of him. A very charismatic guy, high energy, talented – someone who really captured and leveraged the power of online communities for doing good in science. In addition to the blogging community he built an extremely popular and successful conference, ScienceOnline, designed to …”cultivate the way science is conducted, shared, and communicated online.”

Well, the uproar started about two weeks ago with a post from a woman named Danielle Lee who writes a regular blog for Scientific American called “The Urban Scientist”. On October 11, she posted an entry about being asked to blog for a different organization called Biology-Online.org.  Lee asked the editor about the terms for the work. She opted to turn down the offer and the editor, assuming Lee declined because there would be no compensation for the work, asked her if she was “an urban scientist or an urban whore?”.  He actually asked her that. So Danielle created this pitch-perfect video response:

Scientific American took Danielle’s post down within an hour (!).  There was an outcry. Scientific American put it back up again three days later, tepidly claiming that they took it down in order to “verify the facts”.

Other women began blogging about similar treatment. Monica Byrne weighed in with an important update to an earlier blog entry about protracted sexual harassment that she’d originally posted without naming names. In the update she provided the name of the man who harassed her:  Bora Zivkovic. Zivkovic posted this apology, claiming that this was “not behavior that I have engaged with before or since.”  Really?

Then other women scientists started posting about their experiences with Zivkovic. Like this from Kathleen Raven. And this from Hannah Waters. And this summary article in Slate by Laura Helmuth. 1000’s of hits, Twitter came alive with it, science discussion groups on fire. And finally, weeks later, Zivkovic “resigned” his position at Scientific American. [10.23.13 update, the conversation has now made it to the New Yorker.]

I’ve been chewing on this all week, reading the commentary, trying to sort out my feelings and get some perspective.  While digesting, I’ve talked with many women friends and nearly all of them has a similar story to tell of harassment in their workplace or in school.  If you read the comments on the blog posts linked above, you’ll read similar stories of even more women. Each recounts some version of a power differential abused, a mentor relationship perverted, a predator zeroing in on his prey. And all of this happening on the heels of the excellent New York Times magazine piece, “Why Are There Still So Few Women in Science?” dated October 6th.

I can’t help but think of Nancy Hopkins (a molecular biologist and cancer researcher at MIT) and her amazing work, advocating for women in science. After documenting a startling array of inequities and discrimination, Hopkins was appointed Chair of the Committee on the Status of Women Faculty in Science at MIT in 1995.  The committee published a summary of their findings in 1999, which paved the way for much-needed reforms at MIT – and beyond [this video of a talk Nancy gave at University of Chicago on the subject is well worth watching]. Nancy acknowledges that women in STEM fields still encounter the same problems today, because (as she puts it) “you can not quickly change the thinking of every person who STILL undervalues women to men for equal work.” Still. So, I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised that these young women scientists are telling a story that sounds so much like MIT in 1995. And so much like mine from 30 years ago.

Reading their accounts, I quickly coughed up the memory from my undergraduate experience.  I had a work-study job in my male-dominated science department office where I was harassed for months by a senior faculty member in the department. There was no touching, no violence, no threats…but there was a constant stream of inappropriate storytelling.  How unhappy he was in his marriage, how sexually frustrated he was, how misunderstood he felt.  He recounted embarrassing details of sex with his wife and waxed on about how much more he wanted from a sexual partner. I felt powerless to diffuse his approaches and instead, channeled my efforts into avoiding him or making sure I was never alone with him. When the department secretary had to leave the office, I would lock the door. When an errand required a stop at his office, I would ask someone to come with me. Like the stories of these women scientists, I felt completely powerless to do anything about it. It was indeed the insidious power of “not-quite-harassment”, as Hannah Waters put it so well. Nothing he did to me was illegal, there was no touching or violence, but it was wrong, wrong, wrong.  And even though I knew that it was wrong, I didn’t tell him to stop and I didn’t march to an authority and call him out.

Why?  Just as with the women in these blogs, the reasons are deep and complex. Let’s start with the obvious one for me:  30 years ago there was no credible “authority” to march to. Where would I go? What person in authority at my university would have taken me seriously and considered this faculty member’s action anything more than a harmless flirtation? I was operating in a completely male-dominated culture. There were no female faculty members in my department and often I was the only woman in my classes. From there, let’s move to the more nuanced and timeless reason behind the silence – the men in these stories are powerful and the women are less so.  Tenured professors to undergraduates, blog editors to bloggers, managers to employees.  Typically there’s  an age differential ….he is usually older and experienced while she is young, gullible, and uncertain.  He is credible, she is not.

In my situation, I know that there was one more thing.  At root, I thought that I was somehow at fault.  Each time he cornered me in the office, got waaay too close to me, or told me some sexual dissatisfaction story, I became more and more complicit. I just knew that if I complained to someone they would look at me askance – what had I done to encourage him?  Why hadn’t I said anything earlier?  And the longer it went on, the fewer options I felt I had. Complicating my situation was the unlikely fact that I felt sorry for him.  Even though he had me caught in this intractable bind, I knew he was pathetic and stunted. And that made it all the worse. This ongoing harassment impacted my own self respect and vision of myself. I started to doubt my own judgment (just who was pathetic, him or me?). In the long run, I know that this experience caused me to suspect that whatever progress I’d made was not based on my work or my abilities but on my perceived value as a sexual object, an adornment. And it took me many years (and a change in profession) to clear that up.

The thing is that these things happen all the time and no one talks about them.  It’s a rare thing for people to speak up when they’ve been victimized. The perpetrators are not called on their behavior and, therefore, patterns can not emerge and action to fix what’s broken is not taken. Are you as struck as I am by the similar patterns in these stories of abuse?  So many of them involve men talking inappropriately and graphically about their sexual dissatisfaction, as if over-sharing their deepest frustrations will unlock the heart (or other body part) of their victim.  The cunning way the perpetrator lures in the victim – a light flirtation, a confession, the allure of pointing out that you’re the only one who understands and then, whammo, before you know it, you’re ensnared in the whole nasty business (and they’re counting on that). And how about the harasser’s refusal to own it – even after he’s been outed? Denial. Blame shifting. A misunderstanding. Discounting. Only this one aberration. I would venture to bet that, even now, Zivkovic thinks that this is all a tempest in a teapot or perhaps he’s even gone so far to conclude that he is the victim. Or maybe he is learning. One hopes.

I suspect that nearly all women have had similar experiences (and not just in science) and I encourage them to speak out.  The most horrible damage done is the blow to the victim’s confidence.  The fear that she will not be taken seriously. Do I have this job only because I’m perceived of as a sexual object? Do my contributions really matter? And the best way to combat that damage is to hear, to understand, and to recognize the pattern in the stories of others. Hearty kudos to these brave women for speaking up in such a balanced, constructive way.  It’s not easy to sort this out. How do we define behavior borders? What makes for harassment? And what do you do when you encounter it?  Danielle, Monica, Kathleen, and Hannah – I value your stories, respect your courage, and will pass along your wisdom to everyone I know. And while I’m being grateful, let me also thank the internet – for the blogs, for Twitter, for the networked communities that made it possible to share and amplify the conversation so effectively.

Onward. Can we arrive at a way of being where we respect and honor each other? Complimentarity. Where our interactions, regardless of a power divide, are additive. An indivisible whole.

10.28.14 Update:  Nature posts an editorial on the subject.

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