The Personal and The Professional

I’m (as usual) very late to the party on the whole Scientific American masterclass on how not to deal with sexual harassment, but here’s the gist of the (first) situation:

  • Dr. Danielle Lee has been blogging at Scientific American for 2 years. Her research is in ecology and evolutionary biology, and she does a lot of excellent outreach work to the general public and especially underserved groups; she’s highly regarded for both of these.
  • She got an email last week asking if she would contribute to a site, she asked the terms of the request (including, among other things, if it was a paid gig), and then professionally declined. In response, the other person asked “are you an urban scientist, or an urban whore?” I’ll give you a moment to pick your jaw up off the ground — it can take a minute to jiggle it back into the joint properly.
  • She turns around and publishes a post on her blog at SA that not only clearly lays out not only why this is totally unacceptable, unprofessional, and breathtakingly rude, but also talks about it in terms of “your work is valuable — don’t let someone else dictate the terms you work on.” Academia has a lot of endemic and unresolved labour and sexism issues, and even outside of the context of this one incident, that is an important point to make. She handled this very professionally, I thought, and in a way to underscored how while this is an isolated incident, it exists within a larger context.
  • SA then took her post down without contacting her, later citing in a very hand wavy way that SA publishes on science, not on personal matters. The later justification was that they were worried that the site that contacted Dr. Lee would lawyer up, and until they had proof that she wasn’t making it up, they wanted to cover their butts. Note that these are totally incongruent explanations, and the second implies that Dr. Lee would potentially fabricate sexual harassment. Faaaaaantastic.
  • After much of the community around the SA and other blogs raised a stink about this, Dr. Lee’s post was reinstated, and an “apology” was posted. I’m using scarequotes because at no time in the piece was Dr. Lee actually apologized to by SA, and there was nothing in their post covering this to the effect of “this person’s behaviour was completely inexcusable.” While it’d be nice to think that that goes without saying, I’ve been around the sun enough times to know that that’s not the case.

And then yesterday morning, it came to light that SA’s blog editor Bora Zivkovic has sexually harassed a woman named Monica Byrne (and, judging by the comments on that piece, some other women) at what she thought was business meeting where she was trying to pitch stories. Byrne who wrote that post a year ago without Zivkovic’s name on it, and actually named him elsewhere a few weeks ago, but in light of Dr. Lee’s harassment, she updated her own post and it’s gotten attention. He’s issued an apology — notably not on SA — and while it’s a clear enough apology, I’m not holding my breath that it means an awful lot. It’s straightforward to apologize after the fact, but shifting your attitudes and actions takes work.

The second incident underscores how asinine the initial SA response to Dr. Lee’s harassment was:

The environment we live in shapes how we do our work, what work we do, how we talk about our work, and who we are as scientists. The personal isn’t separate and distinct from the professional, and nor should it be: our personal experiences and perspectives are bringing a much needed diversity of viewpoints to academia and to science. The personal, for women, includes navigating a minefield of sexism and sexual harassment in the past, the present, and the future, and as these two incidents clearly show, the professional regularly requires the same. Scientific American still owes Dr. Lee a proper apology, and Dr. Zivkovic needs to demonstrate that he understands where he crossed boundaries and refrain from crossing more. Hopefully both of these will occur shortly, but unfortunately I don’t expect that this will be the last instance of harassment being poorly handled.

Quite a lot of people have already written thoughtful reactions to these two incidents, so I’m just going to direct you to some of them (below this paragraph). Additionally, LadyBits has posted a call for submissions on sexual harassment for a collection on Medium.

WEDNESDAY EVENING UPDATE: More people have come forward about their harassment, notably Hannah Waters. I’ve added another few things to read at the end of the list.

Other things to read:

Scientist or ‘Whore’? Incident Symbolizes Familiar Struggle for Women of Color in Science
What @sciam’s actions tell me as a female scientist of colour
Derailing Techniques and My Final Thoughts on Scientific American’s Public Statement
Why Be So Militant About a Woman’s Right to Name Her Harasser
Another Sexual Harassment Case in Science: The Deafening Silence That Surrounds It Condones It
This is Not a Post I Want to Write
Silence and Friendship
Let Me Fix That For You
The Insidious Power of Not-Quite-Harassment
Mixed Up
Science, Blogging, Sexual Harassment, and the Power of Speaking Out
Science Online Board Statement 10/16/2013

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