The Bug Geek

Insects. Doing Science. Other awesome, geeky stuff.

Learning the importance of listening: sexism and harassment in science

No adorable caterpillar photographs today, I’m afraid. We’ve got more important things to discuss.

If you are involved in the online science community at all (and I assume you are, since you’re reading this), then you know that in the past couple of days some distressing stories have emerged regarding sexism and harassment.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then please take a moment to read this: Give Trouble to Others But Not Me.

And this: This Happened.

Even though I have no direct affiliations or associations with any of the people involved, other than occasional exchanges of tweets or blog links, the situations  and the many ensuing online discussions, blog posts, tweets and reports have left me reeling – and angry.

I’m fiercely proud of Monica and DN Lee for speaking out. Publicly talking about challenging or taboo personal experiences is a very difficult thing to do. They have taken huge professional risks, shared very personal information, and have opened themselves up for attack, criticism and blame. However, in taking these risks, they have also provided us all with an opportunity to have some incredibly difficult and uncomfortable but important conversations; conversations that ask us to check our own assumptions, actions and privileges. Most of us will not like some things we discover about ourselves.

What happened to these two women were not rare, isolated incidents. Sexual discrimination and harassment is a pervasive, systemic problem. Not just in the science community or the science journalism community but in the Community at large. We are all affected, whether we like it or not. It’s everybody’s business. We all have a responsibility to acknowledge the fact that sexual harassment and discrimination happens, TO people we know, BY people we know. And yes, it even happens in the Ivory Tower. We’re not immune just because we’re “educated”. Ask around, and listen.

There was a time when I didn’t acknowledge or believe that sexism persists in academic settings: as an inexperienced 20-something student working in a biology department with a goodish number of female professors, I thought claims of unequal treatment or harassment were dubious at best, and feminazi-ish at worst. “Look at all the female profs,” I’d say.  “Sexual harassment or inappropriate behavior? Here? It’s never happened to me,” I’d say. “It can’t be as bad as that, if it’s never happened to me,” I’d say.

I’m a considerably more experienced 30-something now, and I’m embarrassed for my younger self. For whatever reason (I have my suspicions but that’s a whole other post), I am still fortunate enough to have avoided explicit harassment while in a scientific or academic setting. However, my 30-something self has learned how freaking important it is to listen to other people when they say this stuff is going on. Just because it hasn’t happened to me does not mean it isn’t happening. This sh_t happens all. The. Time. My own (incredibly unusual) experience does not negate or invalidate the experiences of countless women (guys, are you listening?).

I have so many thoughts in my head right now, about power and how it can be abused, about privilege, discrimination, inequality, and our explicit or implicit acceptance of really unforgivable actions, words, and assumptions. I think about the ways in which I have condoned or accepted these unforgivable things (explicitly or implicitly) in the past. I think about how these things have been acted out for such a long time that some people can hardly recognize or acknowledge them, or even shrug them off as part of the “normal” culture of science. I think about the type of work environment that creates for me and my female colleagues, how it affects our professional actions and choices, and how it affects our future. I despair that things won’t change.

I don’t know what to do with all these thoughts, so I’ll keep chewing on them. In the meantime, I recognize that things will never change if we don’t talk about them. This is not something to just “calm down” about and hope it blows over. I wanted to acknowledge the situation and say that I want to listen to, and hear, what others have to say, and to be part of the conversation.

3 responses to “Learning the importance of listening: sexism and harassment in science

  1. smccann27 October 16, 2013 at 6:53 PM

    That was a great post, Crystal. We all need to be aware of this issue, and these recent events have provided a great catalyst to start the discussion.

  2. Heath Blackmon October 16, 2013 at 7:45 PM

    Great post. I think all these stories that have come out lately are incredibly important. Academia is an environment where sexual harassment happens all to often and at far too many levels. I am now embarrassed to admit that when I first started hearing the twitter version of this my knee jerk response was that maybe it was a bit excessive to call Bora out. However any reservation in that regard melted as I read the comments and accounts on ‘this-happened’. This obviously appears to be a guy that has a history of interacting with woman in a way that I certainly would not want my daughter to suffer through.

    People are going to seek relationships with the people around them that is completely unavoidable. What I don’t know and wonder is if people that do something like this 1) just have no perception of how one sided an interaction is or 2) they are aware of their abuse of their position and are trying to use it to their advantage. If it is a lack of perception then maybe we can change this through training either way though quick reporting and zero tolerance would certainly help.


  3. Jon Quist October 17, 2013 at 12:41 AM

    Great post. This bioguy sounds pretty ignorant. It is a damn shame considering just how much woman have contributed to science, that this is not the only case. I don’t know what I’d be studying right now if it wasn’t for Tatiana Gidaspow’s contributions to Cychrini (Carabidae) literature.

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