Every December 6th I sit down and work, and reflect on the voices missing from the scientific community. I generally work in public, and this is the first year I’ve worked in public in an non-academic space. I have no academic space in this city, and soon will have no academic space at all; I have still not quite adjusted to that. Somehow sitting in a coffee shop with a laptop and half a dozen terminal windows open is a poor substitute for sitting in my office, or the library, or the table at the end of the fourth floor hallway where I started this ritual over a decade ago.
In 1989, it was nearly unthinkable that someone would walk into a school and start murdering people in cold blood. But 27 years and hundreds of school shootings later (largely in the US), it’s still heartbreaking but somehow no-one’s really surprised anymore. Violence aimed at women has always, always been a thread running through society, but in the nearly three decades since the École Polytechnique massacre, that violence is increasingly in public eye. Much of this is due to the tireless and brave work of women and feminists to hold abusers to account, to speak up when they are harrassed in the work place, and to work towards a society where violence against women is not accepted or acceptable. I cannot emphasize how grateful I am to the women who came before me, and how important that work continues to be.
The other reason violence against women is more visible is because the perpetrators are increasingly public about their actions. One glance at the Twitter mentions of any prominent, outspoken woman will likely turn up rape threats, death threats, and a stream of harassment. Being a woman in public on the internet is to be subject to a steady grind of violence. And when the American president-elect is publicly gloating about sexually assaulting women, suddenly all those men forming the Greek chorus of harassment and violence feel like they have permission to act with impunity.
Violence isn’t always as stark and overwhelming as the École Polytechnique massacre, but mass murder sits at the very end of a long continuum of violence against women, and that violence is far from eradicated from the scientific community. In the past year, multiple cases of sexual harassment and abuse have surfaced from science departments, and there are surely dozens and dozens more cases that haven’t made it to national media. Scientific departments are still male dominated and still operate in sexist ways, even if there isn’t a serial abuser or three operating with few repercussions to their actions. That low-level hum of violence and the constant resistance to push back against it just to stay in the same place is draining, disheartening, and ultimately leads to a lot of women and other underrepresented people to leave science. Sometimes this is voluntary, sometimes it’s not, and blessedly rarely it’s at the end of a gun.
I have mostly accepted my decision to leave academia as being the right choice for me. I didn’t leave because of harassment or violence, I left because I realized I would be happy doing other things, and the notion of hopping from contract to contract around the world filled me with dread rather than excitement. I am not leaving science, just the academy. I have the capacity to fight, the bandwidth to push for inclusion and acceptance, the strength to pull people up the ladder behind me, and the conviction to follow through on that. I continue to fight, but outside the academy rather than from within, and I worry that that’s not enough. I know I don’t carry The Weight Of All Women in Science alone, and I know that burning out helps precisely no-one. But on days like today, the weight is heavy.
As a closing note for this admittedly scattered post, this piece from two years ago reflecting on how the women murdered in the École Polytechnique massacre were portrayed remains a very important read.