Look

This has been a hard week for everyone who considers themselves a part of the online science communication community. There has been racism and sexism, sexual harassment, and ultimately the resignation of a leader in our group. I’ve been stewing over whether or not to add my voice to those weighing in on recent events, and I decided to write because I feel very strongly about a few things.

I’ve seen a lot of people on twitter and in blog posts, male and female, wondering what to do, what action can they take in light of the sexual harassment that has been revealed in our professional community. I don’t want to tell anyone what they should do, but I will tell you one very simple thing that you can do – look at it. If you do nothing else, I’m asking you not to turn away.

This is actually a very hard thing to do because it is dark, sad, embarrassing, and a bunch of other things that I think all of us are at first inclined to step away from, to turn back from because who wants to look at something that makes them sad and uncomfortable? Look at it anyway. If you want to help, but don’t know how, one of the best things you can do in my opinion is to tell the community that you won’t turn your back – and mean it.

When we turn our backs on a situation that we believe is wrong, we are admitting that we can do no better. I’ve seen enough men and women sharing stories and having thoughtful conversations about sexual harassment in the last few days that I truly believe that we can make changes in all of our behavior, as a group, that lead to increased inclusiveness.

I have felt very torn and guilty in the last week. This article by Priya Shetty calls out our community for staying silent after Monica Byrne came forward and revealed Bora Zivkovic as her sexual harasser. I’ve seen arguments on different sides saying people did speak up, saying people didn’t speak up, saying people want to speak up but don’t know what to say.

I feel so guilty that when Monica came forward, I said nothing. I very much wanted to believe that Bora, who I do consider a mentor, did not do this. Yet, in my gut I felt it was true, that isn’t evidence it is just a feeling. Then Bora himself, confirmed it was true. Still I didn’t say anything. I wanted it to be an isolated incident. I had a very hard time trying to see that someone I looked up to, and who had my back when I tangled with sexism myself, was also perpetrating sexual harassment against my friends and colleagues.

These things are not mutually exclusive – one person can, and has, gone to bat for women against sexism and sexually harassed at the same time. Big shocker here, but, people are complicated. They can do good and bad things. Just because they have done good, doesn’t mean we can dismiss the bad.

I feel very guilty that it took Hannah Waters, who I am familiar with and have interacted with online coming forward before I said anything. Then, all I did say was that to Hannah, and Monica “you have my full support.” Really, all that amounts to is my refusal to look away. It is me saying, I won’t make you feel like you have done something wrong for calling this out.

After I tweeted my support, I had a conversation that really upset me. Someone I look up to made the argument that talking about sex, in a way that makes someone uncomfortable, doesn’t really count as sexual harassment. That perhaps Hannah shouldn’t have spoken up because it may very well cost Bora his job. That maybe I shouldn’t have spoken up in support either because Bora supported me.

I feel like this argument dismisses Hannah’s feelings, her experience, and the fact that she earned her career herself. It says that I betrayed someone who helped me. I read this, I went home, and I cried. I cried the ugly cry, where my makeup was running and my face was red and my contacts got all gooped up and I had snot flowing in a way that make tissues sort of inadequate. I cried for a long time.

I’m not sure how telling someone who has experienced sexual harassment (and yes, being made to feel that the only value you are adding is not your work but your physical attractiveness is sexual harassment) that you believe them could be perceived as the wrong thing to do.

It felt like this person who I respect was telling me to be quiet, she was telling me to look away. Perhaps because I, like many other writers, was supported by Bora in a way that led to increased success and recognition as a member of this community. I am grateful to Bora, I always will be, but I do not owe him my silence. I don’t owe my voice to anyone.

One of the things that has stuck with me over the last few days, is something that Janet Stemwedel tweeted, I’m paraphrasing here, but the idea was that if you are really someone’s friend, you call them on their shit. You don’t look away. Hold the people you care about accountable, and help them to be better, that is what it is to be someone’s friend. That is what I am trying to do.

I want to say that I respect the women who have walked this career path before me, and have faced sexual harassment even more blatant than what I’ve personally encountered. But, just because we have come far from the days when women even working outside the home was taboo, doesn’t mean that the status quo is acceptable. I don’t think the current practice, dismiss bad behavior until someone “we” (who counts as we?) deem “reliable” (again, who counts as reliable?) names names – then cut the perpetrator off at the knees, is a good way to go about dealing with harassment. We need to acknowledge, and demand better, every time.

I ¬†feel very guilty that on the handful of occasions where I’ve heard people in our professional community say or do things that either made me uncomfortable or could have made others uncomfortable I said nothing. The only thing I can say in response, is that I am resolving not to look away anymore. I promise you, that I am listening, and I want to think and understand beyond my own point of view. I hope others will do the same.

There are a lot of people talking about these issues, and I hope you will click on some of the links in this post, read, think, look at these problems. I specifically would like to call out the tweets started by Karen James under the hashtag #ripplesofdoubt (wow, did the knowledge that people feel as if not being harassed is a sign that they aren’t pretty enough make me sad) and the collection of harassment stories put together by LadyBits on Medium. I’m also amending this to include the most recent post regarding Bora’s behavior by Kathleen Raven. Please look.

19 thoughts on “Look

  1. Really well said. I’m usually a very optimistic person who believes that there are no problems that can’t be solved, so it’s painful to recognize that there are times I’ve turned my back or thrown up my hands. Your admonition to “look at it” is especially important and relevant to someone like me, who doesn’t have much to say or contribute beyond paying attention. Thank you.

  2. Excellent post. I think many, many tears have been shed this week, and sensitive memories which had been forced into the recesses of our mind are coming to light.

    This is key: “I am resolving not to look away anymore”. From my personal experiences, there were times when inappropriate comments were made in a group setting, where I was too embarrassed to speak up… and no one else noticed the way I shifted in my seat or stared at the floor. And then when I finally had the courage to speak up for myself, my concerns were dismissed.

    We all need to listen, and we all need to speak up.

  3. I’m glad you said this. What I worry about is in two or three weeks, how can I keep paying attention? It has been hard to look these past few days, but I’ve done it because it feels important. But I thought I was paying attention before, and it’s now clear that I wasn’t, so how do we (I) keep up the vigilance once #ripplesofdoubt is no longer tending?

    1. That is an important point Kevin, and one I hadn’t fully considered. I personally feel that I just didn’t see a lot of the behavior for what it was, I think we have to move toward creating an environment where people can speak up and flag what bothers them. Though I know some people may never feel comfortable doing so, no easy answers it would seem

  4. It gratifies me beyond belief after leaving behind the career I’d wanted since I was 4 (and been more than qualified for) some two decades ago because the atmosphere was simply so poisonous I couldn’t get anything done, to see that this is finally being talked about.

    It depresses me more than I can say that, twenty years later, it still needs to be said.

    I am sick of the locker room. I am sick of the “this is our space and you’ll play by our rules” attitude. I’m sick of pathetic excuses being made for people who have achieved middle age and hence can be damned well expected to know when they are being unpardonably OBNOXIOUS. A grown man who doesn’t realize that nonstop sexual conversation will make the young women around him cringe? GMAFB — he’s not a toddler. He damned well knows what he’s doing.

    I am also sick of the unsubtle message that’s communicated to women that there can be only one “girl” in the room at a time, because it sets us against one another if we’re all competing only for one spot.

    And I am sick and tired enough to SCREAM over the lip-service being done to attracting women to STEM careers that glosses over the fact that this horseshit is a HUGE part of why women don’t go into or aren’t retained in STEM careers.

    I am SICK AND TIRED of the chipper, cute little commentary about “telling girls it’s cool to be in science!” and the stupid interviews with women at NASA that always make sure to ask them, “Did you *gasp!* like math?” with the implication shoveled at girls — who are all completely incompetent at math, right? — not to worry, girls! You can stink at math and still work at NASA! I’ve never once read an interview with Mohawk Guy or Adam Steltzner that asks them, “So here’s your chance to say that you suck at math so men who can’t add two and two can still feel heartened that there’s a place at NASA for them.”

    I’m tired of having the “problem” of women in STEM being equated to a problem with WOMEN. They’re not confident enough! Their too scared at being thought uncool! They’re too stupid at math and think they can’t work there! They think it’s not girly pink-n-frilly enough!

    Never once is the idea even floated that maybe, just maybe, they get treated like shit by the men there and often abandoned by the lone woman who’s afraid of losing her Queen Bee status as the only woman allowed in the room.

    Not enough women in STEM? Gosh, what’s wrong with them?

    Here’s a possibility: NOTHING. Maybe we can ask what’s wrong with STEM instead?

    Sorry — that was quite a rant. But after twenty years, this is still raw and leaves me sputteringly angry. The older I get the angrier I get — age does not bring serenity when I see young girls and women still going through this fucking shit after I’ve started going grey. Call me bitter, I don’t fucking care anymore. I’ve spent the last two decades trying not to tell myself that Mother Nature made a mistake putting a brain like mine into the body of a creature destined to never be taken seriously, so if you call me bitter thinking it’s some conversational secret weapon that will make me collapse in a pile of little girly tears, you’re a fucking amateur.

    Sorry for the profanity.

    1. OMG. you rock.

      like you, my career in science was destroyed by a man who wanted sexual favours in return for a letter of recommendation. i kept quiet for years about this, hoping i might be able to (somehow) land a job in science anyway. but no, this was impossible.

      now, ten years later, i still wake up every morning, realising that i am the walking dead. that if i had died on the day that my postdoc ended, it would have been better for me and for the world in general because all the resources i’ve used to stay alive since that day are a complete waste. because after all, what have i done since then that i value? nothing! what have i done since then that the world values? NOTHING!

      honestly, i would have rather lost a limb than lose my career in science. my career loss has irrevocably changed me from an open-eyed realist to a hardened cynic who believes only the worst about people. although my life experiences nurture my personal cynicism, i am quite certain that the world needs far fewer people like me.

      1. In a way, I wish I were the only person who felt like this, but in a way, I’m so relieved to run into another woman who does. The raw, boiling anger and soul-eroding cynicism doesn’t go away, and it’s not cured by just petting puppies and thinking about rainbows. Seeing everything you ever wanted for yourself and everything you feel you were created to achieve ripped apart by people who thought the ripping was the highest form of toilet humor is not something a sane mind “recovers” from. My twitter feed and FB page are filled with NASA and JPL-related pages, and I swing wildly in the course of an hour from loving them to feeling like I want to scream every time I so much as see them.

        We are RIGHT. THEY are broken. Not us. Most times, I simply hope to die as Winston Smith hoped to die: hating them. I feel like that’s the only victory I have left.

        Other times I think that I should just bite the bullet, throw my financial stability and any possibility of a retirement down the toilet, and go the hell back to grad school and get a doctorate in mathematics, but the rage boils back up and I fear that the first time I’m patronized or talked down to I will end up on the evening news. “Middle-aged female gunman(!) goes berserk and kills six at mathematics conference. Film at 6.”

    2. excellent rant. yes, I agree, I feel traumatized anew by the caution and sympathy that was expressed for Bora initially. Even after he admitted it, who could seriously think it was a one-time fluke? The whole situation was plain to me from the first story. He is an operator. Oh, and to the author of the OP, he does good because he is really into all the attention and praise. What’s so weird is how much still goes on in secret. So, we need to look deeper. Do some people overlook more than they should? How widespread is this behavior, who else is doing it? Nobody is even asking these questions, everyone is just getting all weepy about it.

      1. This is a big part of why I think we do indeed need to name names. Being discreet about having been victimized is certainly not doing any good, is it? These assholes aren’t discreet. And if we “do damage” to science, well … I’d submit that damage is already being done. It’s just not being done to people who matter.

        Buy me a margarita and I’ll tell you who at UC Irvine told me that I should expect to get treated like crap by men for the rest of my career because “if you put a male guinea pig in a cage with females, he’ll try to fuck every one of them.” Funny, I never got treated like that when I was in the linguistics department. I guess male linguists aren’t as close to rodents on the evolutionary scale as male physicists.

        1. Yes, that is the crazy part! Women, who have already been victimized, are being told they are mean for not covering up the crime. It’s absurd.

        2. Ha! Some of the male linguists in my department were *very* rodent like. The female faculty and grad students were always treated like shit.

        3. I’m sorry they forced you out, Janis. You are so right–science is damaged already. I’m leaving my field and going to try to make a go of it in the arts. Two other women on my floor have lost any interest in making a career in science and now plan on studying law or medicine once they graduate. I thought I was going to get a degree so I could do my part to change the field, but it’s not worth it to me.

          It’s not fair and I know it. I am also glad that stuff like this is being talked about publicly.

  5. Excellent, well said. Do not look away. I wish this would be true especially of those in authority who are told of sexual harassment. But those in authority do not always listen or take the action they should.

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