Misogyny and sexism in SciComm, pt 2: Act inappropriately and suffer the consequences. Full stop.

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Yesterday, I tried to publicly process my feelings about an incident in which Scientific American blog editor and ScienceOnline co-founder Bora Zivkovic acknowledged acting inappropriately^ toward a young writer named Monica Byrne.

Over the past twenty-four hours, I’ve had many conversations and spent many hours thinking about the information that’s come out as a result of all of this. I’m not sure if I’d even know how to get into all of that here, but I’ve been left with the following conclusion: If we, as a community, are to acknowledge that sexual harassment is both pervasive (and literally every single woman I’ve spoken with has confirmed that it is) and wrong, we are obligated to find ways to address this — not in the abstract and not in the future, but now.

One obvious step is to insist that there be consequences for people who engage in inappropriate behavior regardless of whether they were aware that their behavior made someone uncomfortable at the time. We can’t say, on the one hand, that we want to be a community where women are treated equitably and fairly and then on the other hand say that those among us who do not treat women equitably and fairly get a one-time free pass. Inappropriate behavior often occurs under murky circumstances, and women are right to assume that promises of raised awareness and different standards in the future too often translates as a quick return to business as usual.  There has to be a line in the sand. This is wrong. Do it and you will be punished.

Even after reaching this conclusion, I still struggled with the appropriate consequences for Bora. At least until this afternoon.

***

Earlier today, Hannah Waters, a Scientific American blogger who also runs Smithsonian‘s ocean portalposted a vividly disturbing and searingly honest account of her uncomfortable interactions with Bora over the years. I’m unspeakably grateful she shared what I can only imagine was an excruciating story to tell:

What makes this so hard to talk about—my experience and Monica’s—is that it may not look like sexual harassment. There was no actual sex or inappropriate touching. Bora wasn’t vulgar toward me, nor did he even directly announce his interest. It was all reading between the lines, which made it easy for me to discount my own experience. Instead, I did my best to ignore my discomfort to avoid conflict, or otherwise convinced myself that I was reading too far into it. How vain! To imagine all men want to have sex with me!

I’ve made it far enough now that I know my work is valuable on its own. And I’m writing today to let anyone else who has experienced sexual harassment—especially the type of harassment that can be mistaken for acceptable behavior—that you aren’t alone. Whoever did this to you is the one in the wrong. They are the one who did not examine their own power and the effect their “harmless flirting” could have on you.

It’s easy to say that now but, at my most insecure moments, I still come back to this: have I made it this far, not based on my work and worth, but on my value as a sexual object? When am I going to be found out?

I don’t think Bora intended to make me feel this way. In fact, if he knew I were carrying this with me, I’m sure he’d be horrified. But it’s our actions that matter, not our intentions. He did make me feel that way. His actions degraded my self-worth.

That’s a horrible experience for anyone to go through, and it embarrasses me that I’ve been clueless about the extent to which my colleagues and co-workers have dealt with painfully similar situations and emotions. I’m still struggling with the best and most appropriate ways to translate what I’ve learned into concrete actions.

There is one action that can occur immediately. Bora can leave SciAm and his leadership role at SciO. Bora has done a lot for the science communication community over the years, and he’s had an enormous positive impact on many young writers’ lives — and for that, I’ll be forever thankful. He’s also made smart and talented young women question their abilities and their worth — and that is unforgivable.

* Update, 4:22 pm: As I hit publish on this post, I saw that Bora voluntarily resigned from the ScienceOnline Board of Directors; his future involvement with the organization is under review. The full statement from Anton ZuikerKaryn Traphagen, and Scott Rosenberg is here.

^ Update, 5:04 pm: In the first iteration of this post, this passage read “acknowledged sexually harassing.”

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