Today I’m going to share something different with you all. Because of this blog, I get a lot of email and contact with women who have stories to tell about their experiences in science. I have heard enough of these by now, stories of harassment and assault, of belittling and being passed over, of subtle and overt sexism, that I feel it’s time to share some of them. What I’ve noticed from these stories is that some individuals, when doing field research in foreign countries, behave in ways that would be considered morally repugnant at home. My hope is that if more people see the reality of these stories, we can work towards solutions around better community monitoring, speaking up, and institutional change.
Deciding to share one’s story is a brave, and in some cases dangerous act. Therefore, in the story you are about to read, the author and I decided to change a few details to protect her anonymity.
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When I began to experience sexual harassment as a graduate student, I felt I was being hazed. As one of few female students in a male-dominated field, I assumed my professor wanted to see how tough I was. I must say, I rose to the challenge. I laughed off his and other male students’ sexualized banter and came back with insults of my own in an attempt to fit in. I was a young, enthusiastic researcher and I wanted to be accepted. I interacted with my professor and male colleagues informally, not realizing how badly it could backfire. As time passed I became a target, rather than a participant in the joking.
In moments of discomfort, I kept my feelings to myself. At our research site in a foreign country, my professor and the male students often made lewd comments about the local women. One day early in my training, my professor took us on a tour of a rural town. We came across a friendly young pregnant woman and her husband. My professor chatted with the couple in their language then turned to me. In English, he commented approvingly upon the woman’s breasts. Her husband realized what he was saying and ordered his wife to cover up. The young woman quickly drew her shawl across her chest, eyes cast to the ground. My professor seemed unconcerned about the humiliation he caused them. I was put off by his lack of respect, but I said nothing. The incident has nagged at me for years.
My professor often joked that only pretty women were allowed to work for him, which led me to wonder if my intellect and skills had ever mattered. He asked very personal questions about my romantic life, often in the presence of the male students. His inappropriate behavior was a model for them, making it not only acceptable, but the norm. My body and my sexuality were openly discussed by my professor and the male students. Comments ensued about the large size of my breasts and there was speculation about my sexual history. There were jokes about selling me as a prostitute on the local market. Once I mentioned that I admired a senior female scientist and they began describing scenarios in which she and I would have sex. Pornographic photos appeared daily in my private workspace. What started out as seemingly harmless joking spiraled out of control. I felt marginalized and under attack, and my work performance suffered as a result.
Often, I was left with a pile of work at night while my professor and his male students went out to bars. They enjoyed the attention of local women, who were attracted to their wealth and prestige as foreigners. Many of my co-workers engaged in affairs with local women. On the other hand, I received unwanted attention if I went out unaccompanied. Local men would follow me down the street, making catcalls, sometimes groping me. Foreign women were often treated that way. Because of this, I became increasingly reliant on the men I worked with, though I felt nearly as unsafe at work as I did in the streets.
By the time the harassment got out of control, it was too late for me to back out. I had spent too many years immersed in the research to walk away and start over. So I modified my own behavior, hoping things might change. I dressed as modestly as possible to avoid drawing attention to my body, but the sexual comments continued. I tried dating one of the male students, thinking that if I had a boyfriend I would be protected. But the romance fizzled, leaving me more vulnerable to humiliation than before. I also tried working twice as hard as everyone else, but my professor never noticed.
I finally confronted my professor, out of desperation rather than courage. It didn’t go very well. He told me that I was oversensitive and that I kept talking like that he’d fire me. And for many reasons, mainly shattered self-esteem, I stayed. The most blatant sexual jokes and comments stopped. My professor curbed his comments out of fear of the consequences. But our relationship deteriorated so much after that conversation that he eventually revoked his promise to fund me through graduate school.
In the early days of my research I knew nothing of academic life. I didn’t realize that many research projects are run like pyramid schemes, with rigid status hierarchies, ruthless competition, the exploitation of students and objectification of women. I realized too late the extent of the strings attached to the funding my professor had promised. My education was compromised for no reason other than my femaleness.
When a professor makes the commitment to mentor a student, the student’s professional future is in their hands. This should never be taken lightly, and in the case of male professors and female students, it is crucial to maintain ethical boundaries. Women students at foreign research sites are particularly disempowered, being far from family and other support networks. This is the kind of setting in which the power imbalance between student and professor can be exploited.
I have read about sexual harassment lawsuits underway at Yale University. Some of the stories are eerily similar to mine. We start with a young, enthusiastic, intelligent woman. A male professor takes an intellectual interest in her, takes her under his wing, gives her a job and training. When the inappropriate comments start, she feels uncomfortable, but says nothing. She feels indebted to the professor, and he has promised to guide her to a successful career. She becomes deeply engaged in and committed to the research, but the professor continues to pester and demean her. She feels increasingly insecure, and she must decide whether to confront her harasser or leave the research she loves. She has to pay a price, simply for being a woman.
Someone always asks, “Why didn’t she just leave?” Well, she might not leave because she is funded, and there aren’t many other opportunities. She may be too committed to the research. She could be years into a graduate program, and changing professors would slow her progress to graduation substantially. Potential new professors will want to know why she left, and it will be difficult to answer. Others in her field will think she is an unreliable scholar for switching horses midstream. Her professor may refuse to give her a recommendation, limiting her options. She knows her life and her choices will become subject to public scrutiny. She knows that some would say that she was “asking for it.” Finally, she knows that there is a lot to be lost from standing up to an abusive professor.
What can we do about this? Individual responsibility is fundamental, and many women do set boundaries and investigate potential graduate programs for any history of sexual harassment. I wish I had thought of that. But it is not enough to place all responsibility on the would-be victims. Women students deserve to have the same learning options that male students do. In this day and age women should not have to forego certain educational opportunities out of fear of being demoralized, harassed or abused. Universities must hold their professors accountable for their actions. There must be a safe place for women to present their concerns about harassment without having to risk their futures. I also believe that professors with a record of harassment should be ineligible for research funding until they demonstrate a commitment to professional conduct.
I managed to graduate and have a great job doing research I love, but I bet a lot of women in these situations don’t. Fortunately I have discovered a community of brilliant, outspoken and supportive female scientists. If I’d had role models like them as a graduate student, things would have been very different.
To the women who have had experiences similar to mine, I hope you are healing, and I hope you consider sharing your story. And to any women who are currently in such a situation, you are not alone. Don’t be afraid to reach out for support. As I’ve learned the hard way, women in academia really need to look out for each other.
The women in scienceblogging session at Science Online this year was very different from last year. More people were venting, and what they were venting was scary: stalkers, rape jokes, physical threats. It has not been a good year to be blogging while female: Elevatorgate was one of the more frightening events I’ve ever observed, because it exposed a level of hatred, of vicious, violent sexism that before that point I would have said was only believed by the tiniest fraction of men. Elevatorgate ramped up the defensiveness and sharpened the fears of women who speak their mind in the skeptical and science blogospheres.
Even when the threats aren’t physical, the antagonism towards women has been nasty. I have been called a sexist, someone who plays victim, told I should be fired, and worse, personal things that I will not relay here. I have had my writing challenged by brash claims regarding my character or intent without any attempt to build a case with evidence.
And even though I can look at the evidence and my writing, at what I do and what I stand for, and know these claims are ridiculous, each one of these attacks shatters me.
Back at my old blog, these attacks would have had little effect on me. At my old blog my posse would have crowded them out, shrugged their way past them until the attackers were shouting uselessly at the periphery. My old blog was a warm, inviting space where I could take risks because people were willing to take them with me.
I could blame the loss of my posse on the commenting system or the more heavily-male readership here at Scientific American and throw up my hands. But I also know I have not been modeling the appropriate behavior to encourage you to get comfortable in my new place. I have left almost all attack comments up rather than delete them because I worried that getting rid of them would open me up to more attacks, or make it look as though I was silencing my opposition. And so I left them, and waited, hoping someone would come and back me up. Sometimes someone would.
Supporting a female blogger under attack in a comment thread is a very risky endeavor. If you are a male ally, you may be afraid of making things worse. If you are a woman, you may be afraid of drawing some of the attack on to you. The attack may also just feel like it’s not your business. It takes a very brave person who doesn’t mind sticking their nose in to put together a reasoned response and handle the blowback.
By letting the oppressive and rude behavior in my comment threads get out of control, I have put my posse in an impossible position. I have silenced potential commenters, and lost the most valuable part of my blogging.
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Science Online was fun, just like last year. But I also felt raw, and exposed, and put on a pedestal. I can’t tell you how much it meant to me that so many of you admire my writing and perspective, that you told me you have started to write, or stood up to an adversary, or followed your dream in part due to me. But I do not write well on this pedestal. It wobbles with my every move and there are spikes lining the fall below.
Blogging is a selfish endeavor, a desire to be heard. Blogging is insisting you have something to say. Blogging is saying come here, come here and respond and tell me that at least some of what I am saying means something to you.
And so I am going to be selfish right now. I am asking you to register on this network. You can register as a pseudonym or Anon371 or under your name and only I see your email address. But I want you to register so that you are more likely to comment and participate in this community, because that’s the only way I can get back down.
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In order for you to have the support you need to come back and rebuild our posse, I am enacting a new comment policy here at Context and Variation. The policy is as follows:
- Be decent. Decent people don’t attack character and they appreciate genuine attempts to engage, push boundaries or be allies. They avoid rather than embrace belligerence.
- Be responsible. Be intolerant of wrongdoing and oppression. Model the kind of behavior that enriches this community.
- Provide evidence. Show, don’t tell. Comments that only tell me you hate my conclusions get deleted. Comments that explain what you disagree with and why it is incorrect get to stay.
The science blogging community – and you don’t need to be a blogger to be in this community – is one that has been held together by the decency and strength of Bora Zivkovic. This community operates more like a meritocracy and democracy than many other areas of science because that is what Bora has modeled and what he has demanded of us. But this community grows larger, and one man cannot be expected to hold together the hundreds of thousands of us who engage with science and science writing every day. With scientific literacy more important to economic and political success than ever, yet fewer newspapers with science sections, readers are coming to us. And it’s on all of us to honor the model produced by Bora, Anton Zuiker, Karyn Traphagen and so many others by being responsible and supporting each other.
We all have different ways of supporting community, and different ideas of civility. I’ve only articulated what I expect on my blog. Clearer articulation and enforcement of these policies in our own spaces will create the spaces we need to maximize our impact and honor our communities.
In his SciAm post addendum (scroll to the bottom), Jesse Bering has been very gracious. This post really isn’t about that now-infamous advice column, but about broader ways to interrogate claims people make.
This post is another way of thinking about Sci and my #scio12 session on “Sex, gender and controversy” (see our other session posts here and here). When do we use evidence? When do we interrogate claims? When should we rile people up and when do we calm them down? Maybe unpacking the good and the bad from our follow-up posts (because Sci has an excellent one up as well) will provide more fodder for conversation Thursday.
As Scicurious has done in her own post, I am pasting Deep Thinking Hebephile’s original letter in the beginning as a reference:
“I am a non-practicing heterosexual hebephile—and I think most men are—and find living in this society particularly difficult given puritanical, feminist, and parental forces against the normal male sex drive. If sex is generally good for both the body and the brain, then how is a teen having sex with an adult (versus another teen) bad for their mind? I feel like the psychological arguments surrounding the present age of consent laws need to be challenged. My focus is on consensual activity being considered always harmful in the first place. Since the legal notions of consent are based on findings from the soft sciences, shouldn’t we be a little more careful about ruining an adult life in these cases?
“— and I think most men are —”
Deep Thinking Hebephile (DTH) makes the point that “most men are” heterosexual hebephiles. But is this consistent with what we know are the most common preferences and actions of heterosexual men? Further, is this behavior within the range of natural sexual preferences, or is it pathological?
Let’s first be clear on definitions: hebephilia is the sexual preference for pubescent children. Not teenagers, but pubescent children. In industrial and post-industrial populations, that means a sexual preference for ten to twelve year olds, in agricultural populations eleven to fourteen year olds, and in forager populations maybe closer to thirteen to fifteen year olds. Scicurious has already alerted us to studies that negate DTH’s claim that most men are hebephiles. Others that assess sexual preference through a measurable penile response (though in some ways a problematic assessment) show not only high agreement between men’s stated preference for pubescent children and their response to images of them, but that these men are quite small in number (Blanchard et al. 2009).
“…the normal male sex drive.”
Embedded within this idea that “most men” practice hebephilia is the assumption that it is a part of the “normal male sex drive.” If DTH is contending that hebephilia is the normal male sex drive, that implies he thinks it is the natural state for men to prefer pubescent girls.
For something to be naturally occurring, it does not have to be practiced by everybody in a population, so the earlier evidence that hebephilia is uncommon doesn’t necessarily negate this next claim. But for that behavior to continue in some frequency in future generations, it needs to be an evolutionarily stable strategy. So let’s go over the main conditions that would convince me hebephilia is an evolutionarily stable strategy:
- Hebephilia is an adaptation: sexual preferences would have to be variable and heritable, and hebephilia itself would need to promote reproductive success under plausible conditions. Further, we would need evidence selection is acting on the sexual preference for pubescent children, rather than a correlated response to a different trait.
- Hebephilia is at least equivalent and ideally resistant to alternative reproductive strategies – it needs to be successful enough to beat out most other strategies.
Condition 1: Is hebephilia is naturally selected?
I think the claim could be made that sexual preferences are both variable and heritable – these are the first two conditions necessary for a trait to be naturally selected. For instance, despite very poor support for a “gay gene,” there is strong support that sexual preferences are both heritable and influenced by environment (Jeremy Yoder’s SciAm Guest Blog post on the topic explains this very well). So I am okay with extending this claim to hebephilia, that it very well may be part of sexual preference variation and that it may be heritable. Just keep in mind that hebephilia being part of the range of variation of sexual preferences doesn’t necessarily keep it within the range of normal, appropriate, healthy or socially acceptable.
The third part of natural selection – that the trait must promote reproductive success relative to other strategies – is where the claim breaks down. DTH’s first point, that he thinks most men are heterosexual hebephiles, suggests it is an evolutionarily stable strategy that results in enough reproductive success to continue to succeed among other existing strategies (like, say, a sexual preference for adult women). Perhaps hebephilia couldn’t beat out a preference for adult women (though I am being very generous here, since in a way this is exactly what DTH is trying to argue), but can it at least beat out the other sexual preferences?
I’ve talked about this before, but girls just past menarche (that’s her first period) are usually what’s called “subfecund” – this means that fewer of her cycles, when she does cycle, are ovulatory, compared to an adult woman. In fact, the most consistent ovulatory cycles and highest hormone concentrations are found in women 25-35 years old, shattering the myth that younger women are actually the most fertile (Ellison et al. 1993).*
So it is harder to get pregnant if you are just past menarche. And since the definition of hebephilia is attraction to a pubescent child, this includes attraction to and sex with girls who haven’t necessarily even had a period yet – girls who are completely infertile. If you are going to bet your reproductive success on one partner age, pubescent girls are probably the wrong one.
The second issue is that very young teen pregnancies have pretty negative health outcomes. Girls who give birth over sixteen or seventeen don’t experience any more negative birth outcomes than those over eighteen, but girls under fourteen – which, again, fits the hebephilia preference for pubescence – have increased risk of maternal and infant mortality (Kramer 2008). Further, the higher rates of infant mortality in those girls who first give birth under fourteen years of age can therefore expect a lower number of surviving children out of the total number they bear (Kramer 2008, Figure 1).
Now remember, these data come not from the “puritanical, feminist” American culture, but from a rural, traditional Mayan culture. But these data do support those found in industrialized populations found in a simple Google Scholar search. This search revealed a wealth of data showing that very young girls having babies doesn’t happen much, and when it happens it doesn’t often end well (Chen et al. 2007, Duenhoelter et al. 1975, Felice et al. 1981, Fraser et al. 1995, Haiek and Lederman 1989, Merritt et al. 1980, Olausson et al. 1999).
Condition 2: Is hebephilia resistant to alternative strategies?
For hebephilia to be an evolutionarily stable strategy, it needs to beat out other strategies. Already we are in danger of this strategy losing out because young teen pregnancies are far less successful than older teen and adult pregnancies. But let’s put a few more nails in the coffin.
We know of past and current cultures where older men marry pubescent, even pre-pubescent girls. However, hebephilia is defined as an adult who wants to have sex with pubescent children. This is not the same as an adult man who wants to marry a twelve year old girl and not have sex with her until she is older, for the purpose of securing a dowry or piece of land or better relationship with her family. That is common throughout human history. We cannot use as justification the few marriages in the Middle Ages (or partnerships in traditional forager societies) that happen to involve pubescent girls, because they rarely, if ever, involve sex with the child until she is older.
The example I know best is from the classic !Kung ethnography Nisa by Marjorie Shostak (1983). In this book, Nisa narrates how she is forced to marry an older man before she hits menarche. She runs away to her family several times, and her family is very permissive of this behavior. After a while, they demand she grow up and live with him. And she more or less does. Nisa eventually gets her first period and the menstrual celebration commences. It is only after this point that she is pressured to have sex with her husband. And eventually, she does.
Sex with pubescent girls appears to be highly infrequent. In Kramer’s paper on birth outcomes in teen pregnancies in traditional Mayan population, she reviews this exactly literature (2008). She finds:
“In natural fertility populations, the lapse between menarche and exposure to conception is highly variable, and may last one to two years up to over a decade (Whiting et al., 1986; Schlegel, 1995)” (Kramer 2008: 346).
And yes, she’s being nice about it, but by “exposure to conception” Kramer is talking about straight sexual activity. So in traditional, natural fertility populations (where natural fertility generally means non-contracepting) girls tend not to have sex, on the lower end of the spectrum, until a few years after menarche. That is post-pubertal, which means non-hebephilic.
Finally, there are definitely strategies that beat out hebephilia. There are two main mating strategies to secure a high chance for reproductive success if you’re male: to control the fertility of a female starting early, or to find a female who already has demonstrable reproductive success – a mother. Our closest primate relatives generally choose the latter: male chimpanzees don’t salivate over adolescent female chimps, and in fact reject them as sexual partners quite frequently. Instead, male primates and other animals fight over sex with the older females who’ve already borne a kid or two (Anderson 1986, Muller et al. 2006, Nichols et al. 2010, Proctor et al. 2011, Robbins 1999).
In humans we see plenty of individuals choose between either strategy and both can be quite successful. The former strategy is not unlike the one Nisa’s husband employed: marry the girl he wants, but don’t actually have sex with her until she comes of age. Of course, DTH will be sad to know that many consider this strategy to control female fertility part of a suite of behaviors that helps us understand the evolution of patriarchy (Smuts 1995).
At the end of the day, neither condition is supported. Hebephilia is not a direct product of natural selection, nor is it a successful strategy compared to other existing ones. DTH cannot get the satisfaction and validation he so desperately wants, because no matter how much he wants to justify it to himself, it cannot be justified in the context of the scientific evidence. Even if somehow this evidence were overturned by a wealth of opposing data, hebephilia is still not a permissible behavior, and it’s important to remember to make the distinction between what we can observe within human behavior, and what is right.
I would like to thank Scicurious and Charles Roseman for their comments on an earlier draft of this post.
*Subfecund is still fecund, and age-based probabilities are still probabilities. Don’t let these data fool any individual into ever thinking unprotected straight sex when a woman is postmenarcheal and premenopausal has few or no babymaking strings attached!
Anderson, C. 1986. Female age: Male preference and reproductive success in primates. International Journal of Primatology 7:305-326.
Blanchard, R., A. D. Lykins, D. Wherrett, M. E. Kuban, J. M. Cantor, T. Blak, R. Dickey and P. E. Klassen. 2009. Pedophilia, hebephilia, and the DSM-V. Archives of Sexual Behavior 38:335-350.
Chen, X.-K., S. W. Wen, N. Fleming, K. Demissie, G. G. Rhoads and M. Walker. 2007. Teenage pregnancy and adverse birth outcomes: a large population based retrospective cohort study. International Journal of Epidemiology 36:368-373.
Duenhoelter, J. H., J. M. Jimenez and G. BAUMANN. 1975. Pregnancy performance of patients under fifteen years of age. Obstetrics & Gynecology 46:49.
Ellison, P. T., C. Panter-Brick, S. F. Lipson and M. T. O’Rourke. 1993. The ecological context of human ovarian function. Human Reproduction 8:2248-2258.
Felice, M. E., J. L. Granados, I. G. Ances, R. Hebel, L. M. Roeder and F. P. Heald. 1981. The young pregnant teenager*,**:: Impact of comprehensive prenatal care. Journal of Adolescent Health Care 1:193-197.
Fraser, A. M., J. E. Brockert and R. H. Ward. 1995. Association of young maternal age with adverse reproductive outcomes. New England Journal of Medicine 332:1113-1118.
Haiek, L. and S. A. Lederman. 1989. The relationship between maternal weight for height and term birth weight in teens and adult women. Journal of Adolescent Health Care 10:16-22.
Kramer, K. L. 2008. Early sexual maturity among Pume foragers of Venezuela: Fitness implications of teen motherhood. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 136:338-350.
Merritt, T. A., R. A. Lawrence and R. L. Naeye. 1980. The infants of adolescent mothers. Pediatric annals 9:100.
Muller, M. N., M. E. Thompson and R. W. Wrangham. 2006. Male chimpanzees prefer mating with old females. Current Biology 16:2234-2238.
Nichols, H. J., W. Amos, M. A. Cant, M. B. V. Bell and S. J. Hodge. 2010. Top males gain high reproductive success by guarding more successful females in a cooperatively breeding mongoose. Animal Behaviour 80:649-657.
Olausson, P. O., S. Cnattingius and B. Haglund. 1999. Teenage pregnancies and risk of late fetal death and infant mortality. BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics & Gynaecology 106:116-121.
Proctor, D. P., S. P. Lambeth, S. J. Schapiro and S. F. Brosnan. 2011. Male chimpanzees’ grooming rates vary by female age, parity, and fertility status. American Journal of Primatology
Robbins, M. M. 1999. Male mating patterns in wild multimale mountain gorilla groups. Animal Behaviour 57:1013-1020.
Smuts, B. 1995. The Evolutionary Origins of Patriarchy. Human Nature-an Interdisciplinary Biosocial Perspective 6:1-32.
Scicurious and I are leading the “Sex, gender and controversy: writing to educate, writing to titillate” session on Thursday (at 2:45pm, room 1cd) at Science Online 2012. Despite the fact that the discussion at #scio12 will only be an hour long, we managed to fill a two hour Skype conversation with our thoughts and ideas about the panel earlier this month. I want to share some of our thoughts on the broader perspective we are taking on our session. Sci has shared her origin story over at her digs, which will give you a sense of our introductory remarks and why we care about this topic.
Agency and Institution in Three Acts. Act I: Within yourself
This is not a session on the science of sex, on being sexy while doing science, or on being sciency while having sex. Sci and I aren’t particularly excited by the idea of talking about any of those things, at least in a #scio12 session. What we want to talk about is the tension writing about this topic creates between the two major systems of our lives: our agency as individuals, and the institutions we operate around and within. Writing within this tension is where real risk-taking, exciting writing happens, and we want to help our fellow discussants figure out what this means for their own blogging.
For me, it’s the juxtaposition of my inherent agency as a tenure-track professor with academic freedom who can do whatever she wants for a research program* with institutional pressures of the various contexts in which I work: American culture, Polish culture (since I do my fieldwork in Poland), my university, my discipline. I have one of the most amazing, agency-filled jobs, where I get to decide where and when I work more than many other people I know. Yet I continually bump up against institutional oppressions, and observe the same in many of my peers.
As someone who is gendered female, people have long assumed that my academic interests must naturally tend toward ladybusiness: is that lifelong pressure why I study women’s reproductive ecology, or is it that I just don’t find the dudes that interesting since they aren’t the ones who make the babies? I imagine it’s a hefty portion of both. As a woman, I choose to study women and I understand the drives and assumptions that underlie this, that I didn’t make this choice in a vacuum but in the context of my personal agency and the world I’ve grown up in. I know I may be taken less seriously to do research on something gendered female, and that I may be taken more seriously as a female academic if I did research on something more obviously gendered male. But I also know the safety of women, and the risks where they are fewer of them.
This is a conversation I’ve had among other academics countless times: that this push by others towards particular topics, their own natural tendencies which may agree or disagree with that push, and their desires to subvert assumptions all influenced their topic of study. I know women who don’t study anything to do with women to be taken more seriously, and I know women who study women because it’s the only thing anyone would believe they wanted to study so, of their several projects, it’s all they could get funding for. Queer folk are often assumed to have interests only in queer topics. Several grad student friends of mine over the years have been directly told by their advisors that they should study their own ethnicity. Our agency as scientists is continually subverted by broader assumptions that who we are as people dictate our scientific interests.
Act II: Within your science
This, I think, is why I find the idea of bias in women’s health so interesting. Agency and institutional pressures are constantly at war within me, and so I seek out this tension in my own discipline. On the one hand, you have the scientific method, a nearly perfect form of agency that allows one to ask and test questions about the world in which we live. On the other hand, you have the oppressions and biases that permeate those who conduct science. Sometimes the outcome is pretty bad.
Writing about this tension is risky, but it also has the potential for an enormous payoff in terms of the quality of the final product. What were some of the most popular blog posts after #scio11? The ones that came out of the women in scienceblogging panel. These posts exposed many to the roiling mix of fear and courage many women and people from other underrepresented groups feel in the pit of our bellies every single day. Other posts that I’ve seen really hit a nerve involve tensions between different hypotheses, different interpretations of evidence, or the testing of a long-held assumption.
We are drawn to tension, to controversy, to provocation. Some want to engage, some to pitch a fit, and some to eat popcorn and watch. And a lot more people come when the science we write about is about the intersection or opposition of agency and institution because of that natural tension. The more people who come, the more people with a little more science in their day.
Act III: Within your writing
Here is a final way to think about these two concepts. As science bloggers, we have ultimate agency: even when we write for a network we usually have full editorial control. We can be whoever we want online, write about whatever we want.
But here is a place where institution – as culture, biology, our training or our relationships – can bring a healthy kind of unease to our writing. The kinds of people we choose to be are, as a whole, decent people. And decent people can be provocative, but they don’t lie on purpose. Decent people may spin wild theories, but not without qualifiers and evidence. Decent people find the controversy, but the controversy doesn’t define them.
And that is the core of the conversation Sci and I had the other day: with great power comes great responsibility. I credit Sci the most for first pointing out, understanding and personifying this last point. If we are the ones who have decided to communicate science, to break it down for our audience, to share it, or to push its boundaries, we need to be responsible. Our posts may be passed around on Facebook or Twitter, show up on Boing Boing or Reddit, and as a result be the only post someone reads on a given topic. Do we fan the flames of someone’s prejudice? Indulge our worst ideas? Write purely for pageviews?
So on Thursday, this is what we will talk about in our session: finding the tension in ourselves, our science and our writing. Delighting in the controversy, thrilling from the risk, but never forgetting our responsibility to the readers on the other side of our screen.
*This is of course within the confines of what it takes to get tenure and given the horrible funding situation which makes it hard to get any science done in the first place. Of course my job isn’t perfect. But that’s a topic for another post.
This is a repost of a piece I wrote after the women in scienceblogging panel at Science Online 2011. Seeing as we’re heading into #scio12 season and there will be another women in scienceblogging session (this time in the brilliant and capable hands of Janet Stemwedel and Christie Wilcox), AND a writing for women’s magazines session, I thought it was time to bring this one back.
A few years ago, I was standing outside the building where I taught, unlocking my bike. It was one of the first days of the semester, and I had just finished teaching. I was wearing one of my teaching uniforms: wideleg trouser jeans, a black boatneck sweater, and beautiful forest green heels. Except in really bad weather, I wear heels when I teach because it helps me feel older, like I have some authority. Being sometimes several decades younger than my colleagues, but usually less than a decade older than my students, meant my gender and age made me a sort of sexualized second class citizen.
An older faculty member approached me to unlock his own bike. He complained about where some students had locked their bikes because they obstructed the bike lane. He mentioned that he had told the police but that they never did anything about it. I nodded sympathetically.
“Of course,” he then said, “if I had been dressed like you, maybe they would have listened!”
And just like that, I was no longer a colleague. I was a woman.
* * *
The perils women sciencebloggers face are not that different than those we face in the real world… though the exposure of the internet can occasionally make it less safe. And the risks that women avoid out in the world, are not unlike those we avoid in the blogosphere. That was one of many important conclusions made in the panel Sheril Kirshenbaum, Anne Jefferson, Joanne Manaster and I ran for the Sunday midday panel entitled “Perils of blogging as a woman under a real name.” I believe Sheril was the one who first suggested the topic.
This panel ended up being a great experience, for several reasons. First, leading up to the session, I had the opportunity to meet with other women at the conference and discuss the topic. I found myself in large, women-only groups on a number of occasions (though I just realized, this happens to me a lot at academic conferences too: I think I avoid schmoozing with men more than I realize, a point I will return to later). Each time, I brought up the panel to hear what they had to say, and they made beautiful points, expressed legitimate frustrations, shared both good stories and horrible ones, and in general kicked ass. There were some seriously smart and savvy women at Science Online 2011.
“Even when we want something, we feel the need to hide it”
Because I’m not sure whether these women want to be identified by the points they made or stories they shared, I’m not naming names here. But after each impromptu mini-panel, I took copious notes. Here is what the women I spoke to had to say:
- There is serious friend bias in who gets promoted in the science blogosphere, and it ends up that men promote other men quite a lot (in order to avoid potential defensiveness, I will say that we did also discuss several notable exceptions). We need to share the empirical evidence about the fact that people like to read people who are a lot like them, as a kind of sensitivity training for men, to help them train their brains to appreciate many different voices.
- We are all very, very tired of making a point on a blog, on twitter, or in a meeting, being ignored, having a man make the same point, then having that man get all the credit. Very tired.
- We still can’t be ambitious without being considered a bitch. People will always fall back on that term if they think you are too aggressive, but the same behavior is not criticized in men. One woman brought up an article she read by a journalist who said, of all the famous women she had ever interviewed (including leading political figures like Hillary Clinton), only Catherine Zeta Jones had ever admitted to being ambitious: the others had denied it. Even when we want something, we often feel we need to hide it.
- Women already have to be two and a half times better than a man to get the same job in science (referring here to the Wenneras and Wold article), women who blog using their real names have to be even better than that if she doesn’t want her blog counted against her when going up for promotion.
- Both the attacks and appreciations are different for women bloggers. We get unwanted attentions and compliments on our appearance, surprise that we are an authority on certain topics or have an interest in male-dominated topics, or are bullied in a way that feels gendered when a man decides we are wrong on the internet.
- The risk-aversion women bloggers display only hurts us. If we continue to be risk-averse women will never occupy positions where they can influence the community of bloggers — we need to take on editorships, we need to manage networks, run carnivals, so that we can then involve and promote more women. The blogosphere, like academia, is not a pure meritocracy.
- There are differences in the pros and cons of blogging depending on whether you are pseud or use your real name, and different ways you find support in the community.
- If we think we have it bad, look at other underrepresented groups: the situation is in some ways even worse. We need to avoid the Oppression Olympics and think about how to pull everyone up the ladder with us.
And remember… this is what was covered before we even started the panel!
“I want to puke on their shoes”
The panel itself was great, because the four of us panelists had different backgrounds and stories to share. Anne and I are both academics who spent some time in the science blogosphere with pseudonyms before engaging with our real names. However Anne is in a more male-dominated discipline and co-blogs with a man; mine is a bit more equal, but also I study women’s reproductive physiology, which leads to more reflective, sometimes more personal writing. Joanne makes science videos for a broader audience and has a great mind for visuals, humor, and for a really engaging style. Sheril has co-blogged with a man as well, in a high profile website, and has published two books (I must admit, I am frantically trying to finish two books right now so that I can finally start her book The Science of Kissing: What Our Lips Are Telling Us!). But again, while I think all my co-panelists had some very important things to say, and some great stories (and awful stalker stories), the audience is what made the panel. Here are a few things they had to say (I wasn’t able to take notes as readily during the panel, but I will link to the video of the panel when it’s up):
- We need to be clear about how bad it really is to write under your own name — some women have had no problems at all where others have been driven out. Depending on the topic you write about and the kind of audience you write for, you will have different experiences, and many women will have only good experiences. We shouldn’t be too negative.
- Some people think writing for a female audience is lame. Apparently there is a listserv of science writers, and about once a year a conversation starts up about whether science writers should write for women’s magazines — apparently many people come down on the side of not thinking science writers should write for them. (My take? Any time anyone says there is anything wrong with writing for women, it is sexist.)
- One fantastic young woman talked about how she avoids discussing her blog with her peers for fear of becoming the “soft skills chick.” Doing anything other than the hottest science seems to delegitimize women very quickly; however in some cases men get rewarded for doing the same thing (examples that come to my mind are picking up extra teaching and service, or having offspring, the latter being empirically supported).
- Robin Lloyd already mentioned this in her article, but Ed Yong attended our panel (one of, I think, only three men). He mentioned that he gets DMed on Twitter regularly by men who want him to Tweet or promote their posts. He said he had never been DMed for promotional reasons by a woman. I was completely flabbergasted by this comment (and I don’t think I was the only one), because it had never occurred to me that I could even do that sort of a thing.
- The brilliant Zuska made several great comments (as Sheril pointed out, she really should have been on the panel!). One that really struck me is that we need to interrogate assumptions about women and provide empirical evidence against them. The reason this came up was that we were discussing where attacks can come from, and how sometimes the attacks come from women as well as men. I believe someone made the comment that women can be worse, and alluded to the idea that women make bad bosses for women. Zuska pointed out that when you look at the evidence male bosses are still worse to women than women are to women. And of course, towards the end of the panel Zuska also used what is likely her most famous and beloved line, “I want to puke on their shoes.”
Building an old girls’ club
At the end of the day, being female is a risk factor for unwanted attention if you choose to put yourself out there in any aspect of your life, from your job to your blog. But a risk factor is not the same thing as a foregone conclusion. We can choose not to engage and participate, not to take on positions of power (like, say researchblogging editorships) or attention (blogging on a network). But we’re holding ourselves, and women younger than us, back. We aren’t directing or shaping the debate. We aren’t holding people accountable when they ignore or forget issues relevant to women and other underrepresented groups.
Women need to connect with each other in private spaces, like email and private forums, and we need to continue to write “life of science” posts that mentor other women. Anne and I have been writing each other every week for a few years now, sharing the work we need to get done, the work we are going to let go and not feel guilty about, the happy and sad happening in our lives. Those emails help me structure my week and make action plans for my big academic projects. What’s more, Anne and I probably know more about each other than many people who see each other every day. And that relationship has given me the confidence to write this blog, to engage with sciencebloggers, to be a mommy and a scientist and a professor.
Be bold. Be ambitious. Be a little bit of a bitch. Plan your life in such a way that it gets bigger, not smaller. I plan my life so that my daughter, now almost three, will feel as though anything is possible; I want to be her example that a woman can occupy space and be pleased with herself.
I hope more of you blog, I hope more of you who already blog promote your blog and get your name out there, I hope you email me or someone you feel you could connect to when you need a reminder that you’re not alone. Because, why be small when you can be big?