On Ripples of Doubt

So, there’s something going on in the worlds of science communication and academia that I couldn’t not write about. It started, I s’pose, last week, when SciAm blogger and awesome lady scientist D.N. Lee turned down a request for an unpaid guest blogging position from a biology blog and was called an “urban whore” by the editor of the biology blog. This in itself sparked a lot of outrage, but what happened next is what planted the seed of this new controversy: Scientific American removed Dr. Lee’s post about the experience. Naturally, the science communication community was upset: this amounted to silencing a female scientist of color who had been called a whore by a male scientist and colleague, and SciAm’s excuse for taking down the post was pretty feeble (it started out “this post was not as much about science as personal issues” and slowly morphed into the current excuse of, essentially “lawyers”). It would have been bad regardless of Dr. Lee’s identity, but it was even worse given her gender and race.

A lot of people stood on Dr. Lee’s side, and much of the criticism of SciAm was directed towards Bora Zivkovic, who is nicknamed “the Blogfather” because he is in charge of the SciAm blogs – he also helped create the Science Online conferences and was a member of the board. I say “was” because, pursuant to recent events, he has stepped down and is no longer a part of the conference which he created. Shortly after the debacle with Dr. Lee’s experience, the Blogfather came under fire again, this time much more directly.

A writer named Monica Byrne named Bora Zivkovic in a story about sexual harassment in which she recounts how they met in what she believed to be a business meeting about her writing, and Mr. Zivkovic insisted on talking about his sex life rather than Ms. Byrne’s writing. Then, yesterday, another SciAm blogger, Hannah Waters, wrote about how she was also harassed by Mr. Zivkovic and found his behaviour disturbing. Mr. Zivkovic did apologize, both on his SciAm blog and on twitter. But still, the worst was yet to come.

Bora Zivkovic is a big name in science communication and blogging; he’s helped a lot of bloggers who were just starting out get on their feet and gain a following. But after these stories came out, more and more women who have been helped by the Blogfather started wondering whether their success was due to their talent and skill, or simply due to their looks and Mr. Zivkovic’s attraction to them. This doubt continued to grow, to ripple outward, to more and more women in science and science communications questioning whether their success is owed to skill, and more and more women sharing their unsettling stories of harassment. It was unsettling not only because of the stories of awful harassment by superiors and professors and colleagues, but also because of the pure volume of stories. It seemed like every woman had a story to tell. To read some of the stories, and people’s reactions (largely very heartening and supportive, from both men and women), you can look at #RipplesofDoubt on twitter or at Karen James’ Storify here. I highly recommend that you do.

Personally, I have never been harassed by anybody (aside from one or two random street drunks), especially nobody in the science community. I have been treated with the utmost respect by everyone I’ve met. I guess I don’t really have the “right” to write about this, but it was horrifying to see such a huge proportion of awesome lady scientists doubting themselves so harshly. Their stories showed just how much impact even the smallest comment can have, and how careful we all (male and female alike) need to be in order to make sure we’re treating one another with respect and professionalism. Verbal harassment isn’t petty. It has an effect, and the pervasiveness of the problem is terrifying. So we all need to think really hard about what we say to our colleagues and about how we interact on a personal level, and we need to support victims of harassment as hard as we can, instead of trying to justify the harassment or protect the reputation of the harasser.

I’ll end with this: I’ve worked really hard to gain a presence in the science communication community. I’ve also been handed some opportunities by pure luck and generosity of others. I am sure that this is the same way that many of the women posting their stories in the #RipplesofDoubt hashtag got to where they are – I am motivated by my admiration of all the awesome and badass and brilliant women (also men) who have achieved success in science and science communication. They are impressive and strong and inspiring, and I have absolutely no doubt about that.

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