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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.

In which I LOL at an old-school National Geographic article and talk briefly about sexism.

One of my Xmas prezzies was a digital compilation of every National Geographic issue since 1888.  Très cool.   This little gem consists of 6 disks of full-colour issues whose articles are fully searchable by topic, author, year, etc.   Although I dearly loved the sight of yellow row upon yellow row adorning my old bookshelf, I eventually donated my own hard copies to an elementary school because a) they took up too much space and b) they were simply not practical.  The searchable index of this electronic version is a godsend, not to mention user-friendly and visually appealing.

So I plug “insects”  into the search engine, and find an article from May 1959 entitled “GIANT INSECTS OF THE AMAZON” (bah-bah-baaaaaah!) by Paul A. Zahl, a NG naturalist and senior editor at the time.   Sounds like a goodie, so I click.

It is, overall, an interesting article peppered with good photographs, mainly centered on the authour’s quest to get his hands on specimens of the impressive and elusive Titan beetle, Titanus giganteus (now I know what to ask for next Christmas).  But what struck me most, almost to the point of distraction, was the archaic and overly anthropomorphic writing style.

The article begins with the authour’s harassment of giant ants, Dinoponera gigantea (and I’m not using “harass” in the sarcastic sense, he literally smashes up their colony with a pick, axe, shovel, then comments on how “sorrowful” and “frustrated” the evicted ants appeared the next day.  How nice of him to notice).  

Zalh refers to individual ants, which are almost exclusively female, as “ladies”, “huntresses”, “sisters”.  Those he collected in a jar as they returned to the colony from foraging become part of  “his harem”.     He places a large number of them in a cage with soil for observation.  Later that day he spots a number of them clustered in a circle around a newly-deposited clutch of eggs, a scene which he describes thusly:

 The sisters were gathering around to honour the event, perhaps to act as midwives, certainly to serve as nurses to this brand-new ant life.

Excuse me a moment while I BWAAAAAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!  *sniff*  I’m sorry, but this is some funny stuff.  I’m as guilty as the next entomophile of assigning personalities to my tiny charges, just for funsies, but this stuff is RICH.   “Huntress“?  Who says that?*  “Harem”?  “Midwives”?  OMG!!!

It’s interesting to observe how writing styles and the acceptability of certain phrases/terms change with time.  I suppose that this type of narrative would have been considered colourful and amusing, and, really, socially relevant at the time.  Considering that “sexism” was not a widely used term until a decade after Zahl’s article was published, and the use of gender-neutral language was largely scoffed at prior to, oh, the early-to-mid 90s or so, I suppose I should read the article with this in mind.   It’s very hard not to “OMG” my way through it though.  

Very rarely have I come across this kind of language as a student/researcher of the 21st century, with the notable exception of one caricature of a professor (he wore tweed, received his degrees from Haaaaaahvard and insisted on being called “Professor” So-and-so, no exceptions).  Some of the crap that spilled out his mouth was so maddening, it would throw me off my game for entire lectures.  Days later,  I would find myself staring at lecture notes I couldn’t remember taking – my hand must have been dutifully working on auto-pilot while my brain was seething over Professor So-and-so’s latest sexist brain fart.**   This exception duly noted, I must acknowledge that while my chosen field is traditionally considered “male-dominated”, I have never felt demeaned, overlooked, patronized or otherwise oppressed in any way because of my gender.   It’s encouraging to see such a stark contrast between the attitudes and beliefs that cultivated Zahl’s report of his ant “harem” and the current reality for female scientists***. 

And on that positive note, enjoy this fun clip of researchers bagging a Titanus specimen in the field, complete with happy dance.

* even my WordPress spell-checker doesn’t recognize this word!

**the most maddening one involved his description of insect exoskeletons.  Exoskeletons are in part composed of overlapping layers of chitin; these layers are oriented in different directions, like plywood; this arrangement strengthens the structure.  The plywood analogy is a good one, but  Professor So-and-so started describing it like this: “So you girls in the room will probably not get this, but you men will: exoskeletons are blah blah blah”.  WHAT???  Three giant fails here: 1. assuming women don’t know what plywood is; 2. forging ahead with the analogy anyways, despite the (however erroneous) belief that half of  the audience won’t understand the explanation, and; 3. referring to the females using a noun usually reserved for children while referring to the males using adult terminology.  AUGH!!!

***while I recognize that there will always be exceptions, as well as ignorant a-holes, I think it’s safe to say that, for the most part, the playing field has leveled

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