This year, I was invited to contribute to the Edge Foundation’s Annual Question. Other contributor include Helen Fisher, Irene Pepperberg, Alan Alda, Nina Jablonski, Jay Rosen, and, well 150 others:
The question was, “What scientific idea is ready for retirement?”
The Way We Produce And Advance Science
Last year, I spearheaded a survey and interview research project on the experiences of scientists at field sites. Over sixty percent of the respondents had been sexually harassed, and twenty percent had been sexually assaulted. Sexual predation was only the beginning of what I and my colleagues uncovered: study respondents reported psychological and physical abuses, like being forced to work late into the day without being told when they could head back to camp, not being allowed to urinate, verbal threats and bullying, and being denied food. The majority of perpetrators are fellow scientists senior to the target of abuse, the target themselves usually a female graduate student. Since we started analyzing these data, I haven’t been able to read a single empirical science paper without wondering on whose backs, via whose exploitation, that research was conducted.
When the payoff is millions of dollars of research money, New York Times coverage, Nobel Prizes or even just tenure, we often seem willing to pay any price for scientific discovery and innovation. This is exactly the idea that needs to be retired—that science should be privileged over scientists.
Putting ideas above people is a particularly idealistic way of viewing the scientific enterprise. This view assumes that the field of science is not only meritocratic but that who a scientist is, or where they come from, plays no role in their level of success. Yet it is well known that class, occupational, and educational attainment vary by race, gender, and many other aspects of human diversity, and that these factors do influence who chooses and who stays in science. As unadulterated as we may want to envision science, the scientific enterprise is run by people, and people often run on implicit bias. I know scientists know these things—scientists wrote the papers to which I refer—but I’m not sure we have all internalized the implications. The implications for implicit bias and workplace diversity are that social structure and identity motivate interactions between workers, increasing the chances for exploitation in terms of both overwork and harassment particularly for those who are junior or underrepresented.
Scientists are not blind to the problems of the ways we culturally conceive of scientific work. There are increasing discussions among scientists of the ever-elusive work/life balance. By and large these conversations center around personal ways we can create a better life for ourselves through management of our time and priorities. To my mind, these conversations are a luxury for those who have already survived the gauntlet of being a trainee scientist. But there are few ways to consider or improve work/life balance when you are one of the grunts on the lab floor or fossil dig.
Overwork and exploitation do not lead to scientific advancement nearly as effectively as humane, equitable and respectful workplaces. For instance, recent social relations modeling research reveals that when women are integrated rather than peripheral members of their laboratory group, those labs publish more papers. Further, years of research on counterproductive work behaviors demonstrates that when you create strongly enforced policies and independent lines of reporting, work environments improve and workers are more productive. The hassled, overworked, give-it-all-for-the-job mentality in science is not empirically supported to produce the best work.
The lives of scientists need to be prioritized over scientific discovery in the interest of actually doing better science. I know many of us operate on fear—fear of being scooped, fear of not getting tenure, fear of not having enough funding to do our work, fear even of being exploited ourselves. But we cannot let fear motivate a scheme that crushes potential bright future scientists. The criteria for scholarly excellence should not be based on who survives or evades poor treatment but who has the intellectual chops to make the most meaningful contributions. Thus, trainees need unions and institutional policies to protect them, and senior scientists to enact cultural change. An inclusive, humane workplace is actually the one that will lead to the most rigorous, world-changing scientific discoveries.
A few months ago, I received the following email from one of the leaders of a Cool Science Thing. We’ll call him Dude from Cool Science Thing (DCST). What follows is the email from him, modified only to preserve anonymity.
I am writing to you at the urging of [Prominent Female Scientist]…. In return for [agreeing to participate], PFS has given us marching orders: “More women!” Very good point. And she has sent us a list of “50 smart women scholars who are doing cool work”, and your name is on it. PFS writes:
[Then a direct quote from an email from PFS exhorting her list and encouraging DCST to do a better job recruiting and supporting women, and offering to help with the recruiting.]
So, in the spirit of PFS’s “nudge”, I am pleased to invite you to participate in Cool Science Thing. I very much hope to hear from you in this regard.
[Mention of a side project.]
Dude from Cool Science Thing
Cool Science Thing, Inc
I was pretty stunned by this email. DCST shares that he is only inviting me because another woman told him her participation was contingent on more women being invited. The lack of women invited to past CSTs is acknowledged only as a “good point.”
It was the most backhanded invitation I have ever received.
I considered turning down the offer, but then thought I would try to turn it into an opportunity. Perhaps if I tried to explain why I found the email upsetting, even while accepting, it would create some dialogue about how to engage with women and make them feel welcome.
So my response:
Thanks for thinking of me (or rather, my thanks to PFS). First and most importantly, I am pleased to accept this.
Second, I am struggling to figure out how to say this, but I am going to be honest. If you want more women, telling the women you are inviting that you’ve been told you have to have more women, particularly said in a way that implies you are being forced to do it rather than are aware of and eager to eliminate gender disparities, does not promote a welcome environment for women. I hope you realize the impact of your statement towards those you invite, regardless of what was likely a benign intent.
I expected either a condescending reply, or a hasty “so sorry, I should have written something more thoughtful.” PFS, who I CCed, responded with a “heck yeah!” email and thanked me for writing that email. But from DCST?
By this point, I felt invested. I knew immediately what I wanted to contribute to CST. I wanted to take this opportunity to do something provocative and meaningful, something that would contradict the dudeliness of CST, something less about me and more about how I wanted to see the world change.
I talked about my contribution to friends and loved ones over winter break, refining my ideas. I did several freewrites. I found the work a bit terrifying, but I also felt good about it. Sometimes I need to spend a lot of time thinking and freewriting before I can put something coherent together, and by then the draft comes together easily. Thankfully, that’s what happened with this piece. I submitted my contribution on the day of the deadline, had a great workout at the gym and roller derby practice that night, and slept very well.
The next morning, in a meeting with a friend, I told her the story of DCST and PFS. I said I submitted my work the day before and was very curious how they would respond to my contribution. I had intentionally gone meta with the kind of contribution I wanted to make, and what I wrote was explicitly feminist, so I worried they would find a way to cut me out of CST. We laughed over the improbability of this and how I was over-worrying.
A few hours later, I got this email:
Thanks for your piece which is extremely interesting but doesn’t work for this year’s CST.
It seems more suited for the op ed page of the NY Times. If you are so inclined, try [name of NYT contact] ([her email]).
Dudette With Whom I Had Never Before Corresponded
Cool Science Thing
To Raise a Fuss or Smile Through Gritted Teeth?
As my Twitter followers know, at this point I took to social media to express my frustration.
Has anyone ever been invited to write something, then condescendingly disinvited? Asking for a friend.
— Kate Clancy (@KateClancy) January 10, 2014
I was met with a variety of answers – some taking my question at face value, others perhaps sensing the anger underneath. I elaborated:
Let me add to that first question. Were you invited because there were too few women, but then they didn't like what you had to say?
— Kate Clancy (@KateClancy) January 10, 2014
At the same time that I was venting, I was also trying to think through my anger. Was there a way to salvage this? How could I support the efforts of Prominent Female Scientist? My long term goal is to increase representation of people of color and white women in science. It’s really hard to tell sometimes whether one’s effort is better spent making a big stink about something, or playing nice and staying quiet.
PFS and I corresponded during this time. She was upset and wanted me included in CST. So she told me to sit tight, and while she wasn’t hopeful it would do anything, she was going to talk to Top Dude at Cool Science Thing to see if the decision could be reversed. I also emailed the Dudette to ask for clarity around why I was uninvited.
Another few hours later, and I received this message, again altered only to preserve anonymity, misspellings not mine:
Dear Kate Clancy,
[PFS] wrote and asked me to reconsider your [contribution], which I’ve now re-read. But first, one thing to note is that you did write a serious, well-written essay which is intelligently argued. It’s fine. The issue for [CST] is that it doesn’t address [x]. Rather, it’s a commmentary about [x] (and a good one, I would say).
That said, PFS correctly pointed out that we have other responses that are also “meta-responses”…. So it becomes a completely subjective editorial decision on what gets in and what doesn’t (and fyi, we turn down quite a few pieces), and that’s my job. Usually, if I have questions, there are three or four people I turn to as advisors, and although we have no hard or fast rule, in practice, if any of them weigh in strongly pro or con, I defer to their judgement and they get to over-rule me. Now that PFS has stepped up and spoken strongly on behalf of your essay, she gets to have her say, which is that you wrote a excellent piece that has merit… and we have to publish. An so we shall.
[A few details about the contribution.]
Top Dude at Cool Science Thing
cc: Prominent Female Scientist
PFS and I corresponded some more, and I decided to keep my contribution in CST. My middle-ground decision between shit-storm and smiling with gritted teeth was sharing how my contribution came about via this blog post.
It Happens Every Day
I think it’s worth more people seeing what is behind so many of the contributions women and people in other underrepresented groups make when they try to improve their representation in science (or business, or probably a number of other places). We have to deal with the folks who think we are only being invited because of our identity – and sometimes those people are the ones inviting us. We have to deal with rudeness, tone-deafness, and condescension. And the way we deal with it can have repercussions for how these people and organizations change (or not) when it comes to their own mission and priorities in regard to representation. I constantly worry whether the way I handle sexism in the workplace is going to help those who come after me, or hinder them. And I know too many people who would rather not deal with the condescending invites and #ripplesofdoubt, so they just opt out altogether.
This is only one of many stories of sexism in the workplace. Women get put off, by this and a million other indignities, and many of them leave. The women that stay endure being told – sometimes explicitly – that they don’t belong or are only there by the grace of their identity. Knowing the person who invited me didn’t particularly want me to be a part of Cool Science Thing occupied my brain for almost two months, and frazzled me as I finally put words to page last week. And I even had someone working the inside, PFS, who was trying to fix the situation for underrepresented groups! Most people don’t have that.
Be that person on the inside of your organization. Be that person on the outside. Don’t let people get away with the many indignities that make people of color, white women, LGBT folk, differently abled folk feel like less. And don’t let them stop you from taking opportunities that will open more doors for you, expose more people to your thinking, and make things easier for the brilliant folks who will come after you.
Yesterday was a pretty big day for me. I was named as one of the Nature 10 for 2013, and one of my posts made it into the Best Online Science Writing of 2013 (AKA The Open Lab) – that’s three years in a row I’ve been in that anthology. I cannot thank you all enough for the emails, tweets, and Facebook posts, comments and messages I’ve received over the last 24 hours.
A few of the messages I received were simultaneously thrilled for me, and horrified as to the reason why I – because of my field-based harassment and assault research project with collaborators Katie Hinde, Robin Nelson and Julienne Rutherford – was included as one of the people who “mattered” this year. We are putting the finishing touches on our manuscript and will be sending it out for publication shortly. In it, we draw from our dataset and the broader literature to help identify a few ways we can reduce harassment and a hostile environment in science. But in the meantime, I get the feeling it would be good for people to feel more empowered on this issue.
Here are a few things to ask yourself or look into for the new year:
- What is your institution’s sexual harassment policy, and what is the reporting mechanism?
- Do your colleagues and/or students know of this policy, and if not how can you insure that they do?
- What kind of training does your department or group provide to researchers before they enter the field? What kind do they need once they arrive?
You may have more tools than you realize to create a welcoming environment for all researchers. And if you don’t, that’s also good to know.
The actions of a few have exposed some major problems in the actions and thinking of many.
The way the science communication community responds to crises, and the desire of some to prevent “scolding” or not “attack allies” has revictimized members of our community. This actually implicates the whole community as stifling progress and hurting our most underrepresented and targeted members. While I do think the science communication community is a false construct in many ways, as Dr. Isis has rightly pointed out, I’m going to push on this construct a little bit today.
I insist on the shared responsibility of all of us who live and work in science communication to do better than, for lack of a better term, the total shit show of the last month. Every one of us is implicated as people who could have made things better and handled the aftereffects better. And I want to resist the idea that we can’t learn from this and turn the false belief in a utopian community many of us carried in our heads into something more real.
Let’s recap what has blown up this community – just, you know, the RECENT events. Danielle Lee gets called a whore. She is denied the ability to control her own experience and express frustration with this, and is secondarily revictimized by her employer and mine, Scientific American. I still haven’t heard back from Scientific American what protocols will be put in place to prevent silencing in the future.
The Blogfather Bora Zivkovic, at the time our boss and leader of the Science Online community, turns out to be a serial sexual harasser. As the first harassment story was breaking, some of us who were Zivkovic’s friends contacted him privately asking for an explanation. Some quotes from his emails, because at this point honoring the privacy of email is hindering us moving forward:
“I never did that to anyone before and after. I was in a very bad moment in my life, I was crying out for help, but she was the wrong person at the wrong time.”
“Lawyer also said that in cases of harassment, usually when one person speaks out, many others some out of the woodrwork [sic]. None did in my case (as there aren’t any), but if this blows up I hope many women come out saying they didn’t feel harassed by me etc…..”
The same day he was sending us these emails that promised he had never harassed anyone else beyond Monica Byrne, Hannah Waters’s story broke (the third, by Kathleen Raven, would be the following day). Zivkovic was sending out emails of apology, and requests for us to silence or console specific people (by this point I had refused to help him). I can’t help but think there is still more to come on the issue of harassment in our community.
I have spoken privately with many of Zivkovic’s friends who are devastated by how easily they were duped by Bora’s promises and excuses. Scicurious has allowed me to use her name as one of the people targeted by Zivkovic to help his public image; Ed Yong and Janet Stemwedel are others who have shared this publicly. I know I was especially shattered, because it made me hesitate in figuring out how to best support the women Zivkovic targeted.
I think the 12 hours or so I spent working this through and realizing my error might be the most shameful 12 hours of my life. I am so very, very sorry.
So many of us had thought we constructed the science communication community as a meritocratic, healthy space, one, as I’ve often said, that is intolerant of tolerance. But women and men of color and white women are not only still on the periphery, their own experiences are invalidated and silenced when they demand a seat at the table. In fact, I think it’s important to note that women of color have been among the strongest voices, from the beginning, regarding our complete blindness to the sexism and racism coming from within.
* * *
Last week, a photo from a Carl Sagan tribute was tweeted as such: “These men are defining the future of #scicomm. Proud to know them.” A few folks pointed out, rather kindly at first, that it was a shame that the emphasis was on what four white men were defining. Protestations that women make contributions too, and aren’t they totes great, revealed that the other main picture tweeted from this event, the one of white women, referred to them not as “defining the future” of anything, but as “lovely” (this tweet was deleted, and it’s important to point out that this is because the person who wrote it realized his error and did not want to contribute to the problem).
Later that same week, Joe Hanson of It’s Okay To Be Smart and one of the men pictured as “defining the future of #scicomm” posted a Thanksgiving science video. In it, Marie Curie, the only female scientist represented, is first admired, then blatantly sexually harassed by Albert Einstein, while Hanson observes and even encourages him. Einstein eventually takes off his clothes, and also “falls” on Curie. Both of these are instances of sexual assault. What was upsetting to me was that what Hanson referred to as “flirty” behavior was a harassment and assault story mirrored not only by some of the stories told by women who were targeted by Zivkovic, but stories told by research participants in our ongoing #safe13 project.
When several people called out this video for its triggering representation of sexual assault, Hanson did apologize. Some of that apology felt sincere – I think he probably did feel very bad for hurting anyone’s feelings. What stung, though, was that he didn’t seem to get why people found the assault triggering or harmful to women scientists.
“One of the many points I was thinking about when I made this piece was that woman [sic] are under-represented and don’t receive the respect they deserve in science today, well after Marie Curie’s time. I say this directly in the video and had intended the outrageous behavior of the Einstein doll to speak to this idea, as well. It doesn’t seem to have come through the way I had hoped and I apologize for that.”
Shorter: I’m sorry you misunderstood what I was trying to do there.
What I still don’t understand is how Hanson, or anyone else at PBS Digital Studios, could have misunderstood. How calling an assault a flirtation and making a joke of Curie would make any woman feel welcome in science. In comedy, if you want to take on a sensitive topic, you punch up, not down. Hanson not only punched down, he denigrated the memories of two amazing scientists, colleagues who knew and admired each other greatly.
It stings a little when random trolls make sexual assault jokes about me. I am left a little more frightened, a little more vigilant, but the sting fades until the next trolling. A lasting wound is created when people within this community commit thoughtless, hateful, or triggering acts. There is a sense of grief and loss that comes with the reminder that science communication is hostile to women, it privileges the voices of men over women, and even enlists women to troll other women. I had gotten good at pretending otherwise. But I no longer get to pretend this is my posse. I am reminded, again, that I am only on the periphery. And perhaps I’m expected to act happy to be included, to make the men feel they’ve done their part.
* * *
The story with PBS is not over. As Emily Willingham reports, there is now a disclaimer on the video that says that “some people were offended” by the video. Some people. Dr. Isis encouraged many to contact the PBS ombudsperson and reference her post to get this video taken down. Instead, they doubled down.
Though the ombudsperson says that the comments he has received have been “sharply critical,” the official PBS response claimed the comments have “ranged from critical to laudatory.” Let’s be honest here: on the internet, you can find people who write laudatory statements about Hitler. The presence or absence of laudatory (or critical) statements on the internet should not be your criteria for whether this video is good. Instead, PBS, perhaps you should consider the substance of the comments.
But they clearly didn’t. Here is the key part of their response:
“With this video, Joe has opened up an important, though difficult, debate. We believe we are meeting our public service mission by providing an open forum where this and other conversations about complex subjects can take place.”
Joe has not opened up this debate. He has shut the door on women and their reactions. He and PBS have denied all of us a chance to change the outcome, to minimize the risk of triggering a rape survivor. When PBS considers a video exhorting rape culture as one that somehow fosters debate in a healthy way, what they are really doing is making women feel like they have nowhere to go.
* * *
When harassment, assault, triggering behavior, sexism or racism occur, the response should not be to handle it privately. I thought we all learned that with Zivkovic’s actions – doing so limited the voices of the people who needed to speak out and have their feelings and experiences legitimized. Perpetrators can always make space to tell their story and to apologize, it’s not something we have to explicitly enable. We don’t have to protect their feelings, because men’s wrongdoing always eventually gets forgotten or forgiven (think of the many alleged and convicted famous abusers of women that have continued to have successful careers).
We also shouldn’t handle it by saying that triggering or harmful behavior is somehow a good thing, that it creates an “open forum.” Exposing people to a rape joke at the expense of two-Nobel-Prize-winner Marie Curie CLOSES the conversation because it trots out all the tired old arguments about humor, and those bitches who don’t get it.
I want us to start to think about what a community response to these and future actions should look like. PBS is not a safe space, the sci comm community is not a safe space. Fine. We don’t need a safe space to get the people who actually care and want to be allies to change the tenor of these conversations and act.
Bullying, sexual harassment and assault literature all have ideas to contribute here, where the main components of a community response are: 1) Connections across relevant organizations, 2) Community-embedded support, and 3) Training.
1. Connections across relevant organizations
NASW, Science Online and its offshoots, and any other organizations that create professional gathering spaces for science communication need to create (if they don’t already have one) and enforce (create an obvious line of reporting and repercussions) sexual harassment policies.
2. Community-embedded support
Calling out bad behavior publicly should be encouraged. People behave less poorly when there are more people watching and willing to intervene. Rather than see this as the community being oversensitive, think of this as a recalibrating towards equality. Resist the urge to worry about folks who might get inadvertently called out. I’ve done it and had it done to me, and it always gets cleared up quickly if there really was no wrongdoing.
Enlist your community’s support. We already have the #trollerderby hashtag, so make good use of it. Do not hesitate to count on your friends. Do not experience sexism or racism alone.
3. Prevention or resistance training.
Reach out to feminist organizations that provide information on rape resistance and intervention programs to enable more conversations and trainings among science communicators. Early prevention programs (and still many of those used on college campuses) end up blaming the victim and trying to figure out how a person could have prevented their rape. But more recently, these programs are framed around resistance and intervention – involving the community in intervening, rather than feeling like a powerless, silent witness. When we apply these methods to general issues of sensitivity and climate in science communication (and also to harassment and assault), we need to think about how to create opportunities for resistance and intervention, rather than prevention. In time resistance and intervention do lead to prevention.
* * *
Conclusion: Thinking about ally work
Being an ally means a lot more than calling yourself one and thinking you are a nice person. I think there are lots of ways to celebrate and appreciate ally work as folks gain confidence in their role, and ways to create space for honest mistakes, so long as they are willingly and earnestly corrected. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the forgiveness and patience of many people as I’ve fumbled through my own attempts at being an ally.
Resist the urge to silence those around you. Sit with the growing unease you feel as the women around you get angrier and angrier. Let yourself feel that little bit of fear that makes you wonder if you are a good enough ally. I sit with these feelings every day as a white person, and the day the discomfort goes away is the day I forget my privilege.
May we always be uncomfortable.
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Applicants must have a Ph.D. (or equivalent) in hand at time of appointment. Applications from medical scholars (MD/PhD) are strongly encouraged. A successful candidate at the level of Assistant Professor should present evidence of an active research agenda, effort in seeking external funding and a strong commitment to teaching. Candidates for Associate Professor should demonstrate a record of scholarly publications, grants and awards, and excellence in teaching and student mentoring. Scholarly excellence is our primary criterion for evaluation. Salary will be commensurate with experience.
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So…Matt Shipman shared this story with me on my Facebook wall today:
Go read the whole thing, but here are a few key quotes. Looks like other folks finally picked up on Dr. Lowman’s poor treatment and the broader problems at the NRC:
“The top scientist at the Nature Research Center is leaving her post three years after taking the helm of the science museum’s new $56-million wing. The move comes four months after the museum’s new director effectively demoted her….
“On July 1, Lowman was effectively demoted from her original position as director of the center, where she oversaw nine scientists and other staffers who conducted research in labs designed to showcase science to the public. Her altered role, created by Koster, contained no management duties….
“Bilbro said she also opposed the move, although she understood Koster’s motivation to unify the great museum.
“”I saw the Nature Research Center as a part of the museum,” Bilbro said. “I just disagreed with the way he restructured and reorganized.”
“Lowman said she didn’t know about the California job until the academy began recruiting her for the position. But she pointed out that her transition to new job responsibilities at the North Carolina museum made the timing of her departure ideal.”
Trigger warning for graphic description of internet harassment.
* * *
We science writers all have our favorite troll comments. For me, they are the ones that claim I don’t know my topic, that tell me what I should have written, that criticize my tone rather than my content. The commenter that said my child is an abomination and will die before she’s 40. The commenter who claimed to hope I never got raped, worded in such a way that he did, indeed, hope I got raped. I’ve only had comments with content on rape a handful of times, but each one manages to terrify me and upset me for several days.
Yet, is our experience in academia that different? What about the student who asked one too many questions about masturbation? The emails that try to overwhelm you with evidence in a way that clearly implies they don’t think you have read the same literature? The colleagues who question your expertise, particularly if they disagree with your behavior or the way you perform your gender? The reviewer that will never be satisfied with your responses and revisions, because they fundamentally disagree with your research question? And of course, in science writing and in science we have stories of outright harassment and sexual violence.
Next week, I am giving a talk at the 2013 American Anthropology Association Meeting in Chicago, IL on the impact of internet trolls on attempts by women to write for the public, as part of a broader session on public anthropology (the session, 8-9:45am Friday the 22nd; my talk, 8:30am). What I want to explore are the intent and impact of troll comments on women who communicate science. I’ve been asked to do this in the context of my own science writing on reproductive health, and I will be drawing a bit on some of my past writing, notably this and this. As I implied above, I’m also thinking of weaving this conversation in among the ways women’s work gets criticized in academia.
But I would like to broaden the conversation.
My question is, dear readers: what are your most notable trolls/troll comments? I’m intentionally asking in this way, because I am not writing to solicit your “worst stories,” but rather the ones that stick with you. I am not trying to gather data in a rigorous way for this talk, I am just thinking the discussion will be richer if I don’t draw only from my own experience.
So, if you have any stories or quotes you’d like to share, of trolling or mansplaining or threats that happened to you when you tried to communicate science, please let me know in the comments or email me. I am happy to attribute or anonymize your contribution, depending on your preference. I’d also love being pointed at any folks who have already written a lot about internet trolls and gender in science writing, as I’ve inevitably missed some in my own research.
In addition to the public anthropology panel, I’ll also be participating in a roundtable discussion Sunday the 24th from 12:15-2pm on The Urgency of Now: New Forms of Writing and Communicating Anthropology.