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.