The Bug Geek

Insects. Doing Science. Other awesome, geeky stuff.

Category Archives: Work

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.


(Ok, maybe my love of science, research, and teaching also had something to do with it.)

But this stuff seriously pushed me waaaaaaay over the edge. Any one of those cubicles could have been mine. Heck, it was filmed in Ottawa – one of them probably WAS my cubicle! AAAK! I’m having flashbacks! *curls into a little ball in the corner*

The Freedom Post

I love being “that person”

You know: “The Person In The Office Who Knows About Bugs And Stuff”.  People tend to bring/show/tell you about buggy, geekly goodness, which provides a welcome distraction from boring shit work.

I entered a co-worker’s office this morning to find her fretting over one of her potted plants: a lovely pale pink Amaryllis.   “I saw a bug in here,” she stated accusatorily.  “I think it’s killing my plant!”    Indeed, one of the blooming stems had sagged overnight, and a second had an inch long indentation, surrounded by bright reddish flecks, running up one side.

I peered at the plant and the soil.  I lifted the green plastic pot out of the purple ceramic one enclosing it and looked in there.  Finding nothing remotely buggish, I handed the pot back over and asked her what she saw.

“It was small, and dark, and wormy, and had little legs like this,” (she brings her hands up close to her sides and wiggles her fingers  suggestively) “but not like millipede legs.  What was it???”   Hmm.

I really didn’t know what to tell her other than “come get me if you see it again”, and suggest that (to my very un-pathology-trained eyes) the speckled dent on the stem could be a virus or other pathogen but was almost certainly not caused by an insect.

“But it had legs like this!” (fingers wiggling)  Sigh.  I shrugged and went back to my cube to continue my boring shit work.

Hours later, I heard the thudding of feet running down the corridor.  My co-worker appeared, breathless, with the Amaryllis (still in its generic green pot) in one hand and the purple ceramic one in the other.  The latter was thrust at me with an air of triumph.

“THERE!  There it is, I TOLD you there was a bug!”  Sure enough, an eensie-weensie rove beetle was busy doing laps in the bottom of the pot.  It was indeed small, dark, wormy and it had little legs…like this; ironically, reasonably accurate descriptors for a rather cryptic-looking group of beetles.

I distinctly remember the undergrad entomology class where I first encountered one of these strange critters.    I remember thinking “wow, what a weird-looking earwig”.  Then spent a good while flipping through the pages of my trusty Borror, Triplehorn, and Johnson, mainly through the chapters involving the more primitive orders.  I was quite surprised to discover (after actually using the key and not just looking at pictures, duh) that it was, in fact, a beetle.  A beetle who had totes received the short end of the elytra stick, but a beetle nonetheless.

Image from Wikipedia

The rove beetles (Coleoptera: Staphylinidae) are the second largest beetle family after the true weevils (Coleoptera: Curculionidae).  With over 46,000 known species, there is considerable variation in size, colour and shape.  However, most can easily be identified by the typically elongate body and very short elytra, which leave over half the abdomen exposed.  I herded the little one in the plant pot onto my finger, where it promptly demonstrated the flexibility of its vulnerable lower half by curling its abdomen up and over in a threat display.

Image from Wikipedia

These beetles are found in a range of habitats but tend to haunt moister areas with leaf litter or similar decaying plant matter.  Staphs feed on almost anything: mainly smaller arthropods and other invertebrates, but also dead plant and animal tissue etc.

Luckily for my co-worker, one of the few things they rarely eat is live, healthy plant tissue.  Her Amaryllis was safe (at least until the virus or rot or whatever it’s got does it in).

Sewer WHAT?

I’ve invented a fun new game at work.

It’s called Gross Out Your Colleagues With Bug-related TMI.

This is how you play:

1. wait for a co-worker to notice, then comment on, the strange-looking little flies crawling on their window pane, desk, or coffee mug

2. wait for the co-worker to swat at or otherwise shoo away the strange-looking little flies as they mutter something along the lines of : “damn fruit flies”

3. smile nicely and say “those aren’t fruit flies, they’re SEWER flies”

4. wait for the pause, then your co-worker’s cautious words: “what do you mean, ‘sewer flies’?

5. share the following fun factoids:

  • sewer flies (also called “drain flies”) are typically found in moist areas ladden with highly organic debris, such as sink drains, sewage treatment facilities, storm drains, dung and rotten vegetation.
  • female sewer flies lay their eggs in the sludge lining drain and sewer pipes
  • the larvae FEED on decaying organic material found in the pipes

6.  enjoy the look of disgust that slowly creeps over your co-worker’s face and laugh as they scamper off to find the nearest bottle of hand sanitizer.

I’m having too much fun with this game to mention what is obviously a pretty bad infestation to the building services/sanitation peeps.    Does that make me evil?

(for the Geekalicious: Sewer flies = true flies (Diptera) of the suborder Nematocera, which contains flies with largely aquatic larvae and includes the mosquitoes and crane flies.  Too cool for school with the bad-ass family name “Psychodidae”…but also a tad too fuzzy-wuzzy and cute to take them seriously).

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