A chance to discuss sexism & misogyny in science communication: DNLee, Bora, & the SciAm fiasco

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If you’re reading this blog, chances are good that you already know the backstory for this: Last week, an editor at Biology Online asked Danielle N. Lee, a zoology postdoc and well-known blogger, to contribute posts to the site. She asked how much she would be paid — and when he responded that her payment would be in exposure (which, last I checked, doesn’t pay the rent or buy groceries), Lee politely declined. His response to that was to reference the title of her Scientific American blog, Urban Scientist by asking, “Are you an urban scientist or an urban whore?”

On Friday, Lee wrote about the experience; within an hour, her post was removed from Scientific American without any explanation. A firestorm, fueled mostly by the patently false justification tweeted by Scientific American editor Mariette DiChristina.

Many people, including me, were outraged by this; I tweeted about it a handful of times during a chaotic and busy Saturday with my kids. By Sunday night, SciAm Blogs had republished Lee’s original post, DiChristina had publicly explained what had happened, and the offending Biology-Online editor, who still has not been identified publicly, was fired.

Then, at some point yesterday, writer and playwright Monica Byrne updated a post she had published a year ago detailing a encounter she had with a “prominent science editor and blogger.” You can read Monica’s detailed description of the encounter; the CliffsNotes version is: The editor friended Monica on Facebook; Monica sent him clips and asked him to coffee; in the course of discussing her clips, Monica mentioned visiting a strip club; using that as a jumping off point, the editor began talking about his marriage, his sexuality, and his sex life in ways that were clearly inappropriate. Monica later confronted the editor over email; several weeks later, he wrote her an apology and acknowledged he had behaved inappropriately.

Monica’s update contained one new piece of information: The editor and blogger was Bora Zivkovic, who runs SciAm’s blog network and is probably the best-known and most influential person in the science-blogging world. Today, Bora acknowledged that Monica’s description of the events was accurate and that his behavior was wrong – and also that his superiors at SciAm had gotten involved.

Monica writes very eloquently about the ways in which her encounter with Bora affected her. I’m grateful to her for sharing this: As a white man living in the United States in the twenty-first century, I have no idea what it’s like to be bombarded with loutish behavior and unwanted advances on an ongoing basis. Several years ago, a female friend told me about being groped on the subway. I was shocked, a fact which she found laughable: She couldn’t believe that I had no idea that every single woman living in New York had to navigate those waters every single day. By bringing light to one of the often-undiscussed realities of being a woman, Monica has made it that much harder for men to be clueless about what’s going on in the future. Speaking as the father of a daughter and as a teacher, I’m grateful she’s deepened my understanding about the insidious harassment women face.

That does not mean that Bora’s outing was not painful and confusing to me. Bora has been a friend to me and a supporter of mine. I’ve always seen him as someone who was a champion for increasing the diversity of voices in science and science communication. So I didn’t say anything about it — I didn’t tweet about it, didn’t bring attention to it on Facebook or Google+ or LinkedIn.

But my not joining in the discussion on social media obviously does not mean I haven’t been thinking about the situation. As I said above, on a global level, I’m glad Monica came forward. On an individual level, I’m struggling with the correct context through which to view his behavior. Viewed in the context of an increasingly visible attitude towards women on the part of some people whom I’d consider intellectual allies, and then in the immediate context of what happened to Lee, this is horrendous — another piece of evidence that women deal with outrageous types of discrimination and harassment that men can barely imagine.

But is that the right context? Bora has, as many have noted, done an enormous amount to increase the voices of women in science. So do I view his behavior of someone who has internalized the power imbalance and misogyny of much of the scientific and science communication worlds? Or do I view it as the fumbling, bumbling, and clearly inappropriate behavior of someone in the midst of what he has said was a difficult personal crisis?

Obviously, I don’t know all the facts here; obviously, we all may learn more in the next few days; obviously, my judgment may be affected by my personal feelings about Bora and his family. That said, to me, this certainly seems like the latter — and for that reason, it saddens me that Bora was outed at this particular moment. Based on what I know right now, I don’t think the implied rationale–that Bora is another example of the type of sexism that allowed a Biology-Online editor to casually call Lee an “urban whore” when she refused to write for him for free–is correct.

At the moment, that is all a bit beside the point. And hopefully, the events of the past four days will force a conversation about many of these issues into the open — and that is inarguably a good thing. Women are overrepresented among the ranks of those starting out in the field — here at MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing, it’s not unusual for between 75 and 85% of our applicants and admittees to be female — but men remain overrepresented in positions of authority. We, as a community, have had years to have this conversation. Let’s not let this opportunity fall by the wayside.

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