Post Removed: Yet More On Sexual Harassment

PLOS BLOGS has determined that the “On Science Blogs” post that had occupied this page  violated one of the key principles we hold for our blog network, specifically, the following language which is included in our independent blogger contract:  PLOS is interested in hosting civilized commentary and debate on matters of scientific interest. Blogger will refrain from name calling and engaging in inflammatory rhetoric. 

Because, after careful review, we’ve determined that this post crossed the line delineated in this tenet, we’re taking the post down. We’ve left the comments intact.

We’re sorry for any distress that the content of this post caused to the target, Emily Willingham, and hope that discussion and debate can continue on the original and vitally important topic of sexual harassment  without resorting to this level of exchange.

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—Victoria Costello, PLOS BLOGS Community Manager


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29 Responses to Post Removed: Yet More On Sexual Harassment

  1. Lori Oliwenstein says:

    I think you had every right to disagree with Emily, and even to do so publicly, since she made her disagreement with you public. Your comments about whether or not she got the word counts right are reasonable to include in a rebuttal; your comments about why you thought talking about the men at the session are even moreso, since they address the heart of her criticism of your report. Emily called you out for the choices you made in your writeup, and you should be allowed to talk about why you made them. (Although, if you do, then you should also listen to people who might still disagree with you. Without requiring a birth certificate to determine whether what they have to say has any weight.)

    But the vast majority of the rest of this is personal–condescending, irrelevant, and flat-out bad-taste-in-my-mouth nasty. You should be ashamed. I am, simply for having been witness to it.

  2. Angela Rasmussen says:

    Her piece criticized your coverage of the XX Panel and your choice to focus on the men getting involved, rather than the women on the panel itself. Dr. Willingham did not cast aspersions to your age or anything else, or attack you personally. In fact, that was entirely you and Beryl in this lengthy, bipartite personal takedown, where you mocked her age and her credentials. You are completely missing the point about how petty and personal this type of discussion is, about a very important issue. And since you are so out of touch and easily affronted, perhaps you should take a seat and remove yourselves from this debate rather than simultaneously singing the praises of men and being extraordinarily butt-hurt by a differing opinion.

  3. rborchelt says:

    I was very glad I heard the discussion in Gainesville during the XX plenary session; it was an important discussion about two very different things: gender equity in the science writing community, and sexual harassment in the science writing community. While I personally thought it was a mistake to conflate the two — especially in the context of a discussion of “what should NASW do?” — I thought the discussion was moderate, respectful, and enlightening.

    Unlike Emily Willingham’s post in response to Beryl’s and Tammy’s posts here.

    I was particularly mystified that Emily seemed to want a posted transcript of the entire plenary rather than the sensitive, nuanced, and — yes — thorough discussion (and comments) the two blog posts here have provided. As a (gay) male science writer of some longevity and visibility in NASW and our community, I didn’t find either the data or the personal revelations very, um, revelatory. I took them in what I thought was the spirit in which they were offered — as a frame for considering options that NASW and other organizations might have to address one or both of these issues. I did not expect the XX session, or the in-room or online discussion following, to address the personal needs of the panelists to be heard.

    The facts the panelists presented are just that — facts. They are not in dispute, no one in the audience or online since has dismissed them, nor are they new to most of us. We benefited at NASW and in discussion since from having them so eloquently posed, but the discussion is no longer about whether sexual harassment and gender inequity exist in science writing, but why they persist, what mechanisms exist for their address/redress (and what responsible body politic for those mechanisms might be), and how to move the discussion beyond the panelists’ individual, albeit painful, stories.

    That’s why a respected journalist like Beryl could do such a good job of summarizing the issues in her two blog pieces. Far as I know, she was not engaged as a stenographer or a court reporter to take dictation at the event. I thought her analysis *of the issues* was spot on, and illuminated for those who could not attend what the facts in discussion were (and how they have not changed significantly over the span of several decades), what the issues on the table for an organization like NASW are, and where we as a community of science writers might engage these issues productively. And I ESPECIALLY welcomed the long-term and historically informed perspective of someone like Beryl — the very antithesis of complacency to all who know her — to point out that these are neither new stories, nor new issues, and that it takes more than hearing them repeated by new generations of writers, female and male, to move forward.


  4. becca says:

    With all due respect to one of your age and feminist credentials, haven’t “good” men been shocked (shocked!) about revealed cases of sexual harassment for quite some time? Is that news?
    While its wonderful to have allies, and the recognition by allies of the moral duty to speak up is heartwarming, presumably all the sexual harassers aren’t just people who were ignorant of the existence of actual sexual harassment. Bora gate makes that pretty clear the problem is more insidious (and also, shouldn’t all science writers know by now the limitations of the “information deficit” model?). The story comes across far too much as “women tell personal stories of harassment, men present get with the program. Yay now we can move forward”. My apologies if my extreme youth has colored my views, but that strikes me as hopelessly naïve.
    I, for one, don’t much care if you give more coverage or credence to what men say. Anyone of your generation has their own assumptions about what they have to do to be taken seriously, I suppose. But information solving sexual harassment? That is near journalistic malpractice, in an article with a pictorial reference to Bora especially.

    • Tabitha M. Powledge says:

      As we keep saying, sympathy and solidarity from men is not the point. History repeatedly shows (e.g., the civil rights movement here, Gandhi’s liberation movement in India, Mandela’s in South Africa) that change comes when people in power commit to change and take action to advance it. This session was different because we heard from men who have the power to promote changes in other men’s behavior, and who committed publicly to doing so.

  5. Angela Rasmussen says:

    *i find it difficult that she disagreed with your priorities and you responded in this way. Even now, you continue to insist that your personal attacks are legitimate, and there is no room for dialogue.

    Of my mentors, only one was a woman. The reason is that there are PLENTY of men who already encourage women in science. The problem is women like yourselves who think this is remarkable, and criticize other intelligent women for having a different, evidence-based opinion.

    • Tabitha M. Powledge says:

      Angela, you really need to read more carefully. To repeat: we thought the men’s comments deserved an airing not because they were expressing solidarity and encouragement of women in science (and science writing, which the session was about.) We wanted to circulate and emphasize their public commitments to take action against sexism and sexual harassment. All of them are are men in positions of prominence in science writing. They can make a difference. Which is what we all want. Right?

  6. Angela Rasmussen says:

    I certainly read her post, and I still find it ridiculous that she disagreed with your priorities. By my reading, your priorities involve delight that there are a few men who verbally “commit” to not being sexist. Great. Hopefully in the future, I can celebrate the few men who pay lip service to women in science, because that is the real key to ending the insidious sexism that permeates science and science writing.

    Furthermore, the suggestion that the appropriate response to this is to personally attack the author of a different perspective is appalling. The sooner you both retire, the better off women scientists and science writers will be. Your defensive tone and lack of objectivity is apparent to all.

    • Tabitha M. Powledge says:

      So, the appropriate response to a personal attack is silence? Grin and bear it? Casting aspersions on account of age is different from doing so on the basis of gender, right? Old ladies deserve to be smacked around?

  7. Hilda Bastian says:

    I was at the NASW XX session and, like, Emily Willingham, was deeply disappointed at the original post. I am a baby boomer who remembers well when many things we had to face and do battle with were far worse in many respects than they are today. But – and it’s a big but – the impact on violence against women and sexual violence and harassment is nothing to write home about. The principal achievements have been in other areas.

    For me, listening to the younger women that day was deeply saddening. I’m a grandmother now, and I simply wouldn’t have believed when I was a young active feminist, that my children and presumably now grandchildren’s generation would still be facing the kinds of experiences spoken about that day on this scale. How could it be, that all the other progress was accompanied by so little progress in something this fundamental to our integrity and ability to move with comfort and confidence in our work lives – a very big part of “the real world”?

    I know, looking at the data on women’s lives today, here and globally, that progress on issues of violence and sexual trespass has been elusive – if I’d known 30 years ago, how little this needle would shift, and how powerful rape culture and all its tentacles would prove to be, I’d have had trouble believing it.

    That day, while I felt pride in the achievements of the women who came before me, as well as those of my own generation, I also felt a sense of regret and shame that we had also somehow let the next generation down: what more could we have done, should we have done? Because in this, we fell far short.

    When the focus shifted so much to men’s reactions, I found it disheartening. Because of the reasons other commenters here have already expressed so well. Because it is critical for women’s own agency to move this forward if there’s to be progress – further forward than we have been able to achieve so far. The way to do that isn’t passive – it never was. It’s simply not true that men can do more than women about this: the argument is patently absurd. For starters, for those men whose awareness was raised that day, it wasn’t the voices of men who raised their consciousness, was it? The logic that the way forward now is to amplify men’s voices escapes me.

    Furthermore, it isn’t only men who have power. Many of us XX’s now have power in our own spheres and went away with specific action plans related to the specific issues raised that day.

    Nor is it remotely the case that some men understanding and being deeply moved is something new. The notion that it is new adds offense to the many men who don’t need their consciousness raised, to the original offense to the women who spoke that day. It wasn’t old hat to every woman and it wasn’t news to every man.

    The sentiments here have wildly missed the point. Far worse, though, is the lack of grace and civility in expressing them.

    • Tabitha M. Powledge says:

      The persistence of sexism and sexual harassment despite many decades of struggle, in our opinion, only illustrates how deep-seated and difficult these problems are, not any failing on the part of the older generations who did their best to fight against them.

      We want sexism and sexual harassment eliminated too, but think that will happen more speedily if men’s agency is added to women’s. Not just sympathy, action. Not just talk but concrete steps, such as those suggested at the session.

      One thing that will certainly not help to bring change is women pointlessly and publicly attacking other women for expressing views about how to bring change that differ from their own. As for grace and civility, we thoroughly approve. Happy to practice them when other discussants do too.

      • I won’t address the areas where I think everyone agrees: there are plenty, and you point some out here.

        But I think it’s worth remembering that none of us is free of bias and it’s rare for someone to be entirely free of the influence of their society’s weaknesses. It often takes others to see things in our actions and behavior about which we are not ourselves aware. That’s a profoundly important reason to value criticism, even when it’s painful. And I think that applies to seeing what the aspects of the initial post were that made so many of our hearts sink – and made so many of us appreciate Emily Willingham’s articulation of exactly what it was.

        Yes, we all did the best we could at the time, with what we knew and what we were dealing with. That doesn’t mean, though, that we couldn’t have made other choices and possibly been more effective. Self-reflection about what the things were that we could have done better – and there’s always something, is there not? – is an exercise of both inherent and practical value.

        If there were things we did that were ineffective, or roads we didn’t take that we realize with the wisdom of experience and hindsight were critical lost opportunities, they’re also vitally important things for us to be passing on. If we don’t reflect self-critically, and allow space for the thought that we can improve, how do we know what those are? I’m not for one moment suggesting that you don’t self-reflect or self-critique: just that this is missing from the inter-generational aspects expressed here.

        I just re-read Willingham’s post carefully: I could detect nothing – not a word – that was an attack on the writers. It was about the post and choices such as the artwork. People are separate from the artifacts they produce: criticism of the artifact is not the same as a criticism of a person. And taking something personally is not somehow proof that the thing was in fact personal in the first place.

        The implication here that attacks on a person are justified by “she started it!” have no basis as far as I can see, anyway – not that would be adequate justification for a diatribe against a person. The way to elevate the quality of discourse is never to race to the bottom – nor to demand others’ civility as the price for offering our own. And I don’t believe that that, too, is something about which we really do agree.

        • * Oops – got myself tangled at the end there. I meant of course that I’m sure we agree about that.

        • Tabitha M. Powledge says:

          OK, just one example: the charge that our original post was a “lapse back into the programmed complacency of sexual inequality and unreported sexual harassment.”

          It is untrue, and its untruth is not just a matter of opinion. It is objectively untrue. Beyond that, it implies lack of concern for these issues, which, in this context, is a comment on motives and values. What, in your estimation, would have been an appropriate response to this untruth?

          • I think I see what you mean, but I didn’t take it that way.

            The original made me wince badly – not that I believed the writer wanted subterranean abuse of women to continue, but it was not a sensitive segue out of a sensitive topic, and it was severely loaded. We all strike wrong notes sometimes, and I think that was one.

            I thought Willingham picked it up and used it symbolically. It was powerful, and it would have stung me if I’d written the original. But I hope I would have taken it as a fair cop when I’d put my feet in my mouth. I hope I would have reiterated that I cared about this and regretted that I fumbled that (ideally) – or just sucked it up.

  8. Kristina says:

    You had an opportunity to take the high road and despite your age you didn’t!

  9. LucyMB says:

    I’m shaken and disheartened by the tone of this post. I can’t imagine why you would demean yourselves in this way. Your response to Emily Willingham is utterly personal, snide and condescending, and suggests you could not come up with anything substantive. Your message seems to be that she is but a small child who can’t comprehend the magnitude of the challenge or the roles of feminist pioneers (including yourselves, apparently) in addressing it. This post will stay with me for a long time as a prime example of gracelessness in the face of criticism.

  10. Angela Rasmussen says:

    These writers ought to be embarrassed. From what I can tell, they disagreed with Dr. Willingham’s commentary, and proceeded with a long form attack that derides everything from her age to her undergraduate degree, and then has the audacity to accuse her of “ad feminam” attacks. I realize that Ms. Powledge and Ms. Benderly are not scientists themselves, but as a female scientist myself who was “learning to count” around the time that Dr. Willingham was, I wonder if they realize how destructive this catty, personal, ultimately superficial squabble actually can be to women involved in any aspect of science. You know what helps the old boys’ club continue to be in power? Bitchy blog-fighting. I would think that two such august members of the vaunted world of the science blogosphere would understand just how undermining it is to all women in science–and tacky, and unprofessional–to belittle a female colleague for her youth, appearance, and life experience rather than respond with dignity, respect, and professionalism.

    I am deeply unimpressed with Ms. Powledge and Ms. Benderly’s rants, and I sincerely hope that all readers do not associate my generation–and Dr. Willingham’s–with thin-skinned, hypersensitive, bitter old biddies who cannot abide respectful and legitimate criticism and respond in the most immature way. I suspect that while Dr. Willingham was learning to count in kindergarten, she also learned professional respect, a lesson that has clearly been lost on the authors of this post.

  11. Errwhat? says:

    Looks like this Willingham is one of those uber-sensitive, slightly paranoid individuals who regards even the most humdrum posts as personal affronts. At best her response was no more than obsessive and pointless nitpicking. I thought your posts were entirely reasonable and you don’t have to apologize for anything.

  12. Emma A says:

    Off topic comment, I’d like to object to your use of “Sharia Law” to illustrate a point about laws oppressive to women. I’m a Muslim woman and the actual meaning of Sharia Law to me, is not the oppressive and barbaric caricature that the media and islamophobes would have you believe. It is simply the term applied to the societal and legal systems as taught in the Qur’an and tradition of the Prophet Muhammad – which are not, in context, oppressive to women despite how they are used in many Muslim majority countries and how they are used by certain organizations. It’s misguided and alienating to use a hot button political term totally out of context that means something to an entire religion of people and that is misused in crusades against us.

    I don’t have a comment on the rest of the debacle but, as the mother of an 8 year old girl who adores all things science, I wish the best in the efforts for equality in the sciences.

  13. I have to say the overly defensive tone here — filled with wounded dignity — will likely do little to help you make your case. And I think you have missed the gist of what several people (myself included) found so disturbing about your earlier writeup — and it had nothing to do with Willingham’s post, or respective word counts, etc., and everything to do with unconscious gender bias. You clearly consider the voices of the men, and the attitudes of the men, to be more significant than those of the women, who were, after all, just saying what women have been saying for decades (yawn). And you’re apparently doubling down on that in this latest post. To wit:

    “The women’s testimonies that Emily believes were the most important for the session were painful and hugely significant in their own lives. But there wasn’t much news there. Women have been complaining to each other about this stuff forever.”


    “What was news, as Beryl reported, was that the scales have fallen from men’s eyes. … We learned once more that decent men have been clueless. Smart men, men whose work we all respect, have had no idea what their women colleagues (and some men) have been put through. But now that consciousness has been raised, at least some men seem resolved to work for change. And they said so at the XX Question session. This is not only new news, it is marvelous news. That’s because, as women have lamented forever, men have most of the power.”

    And still further:

    “What is news is not that women have suffered forever from pervasive bias and sexism and worse, but that men can be recruited to their cause, and that some of the men are eager to be recruited.”

    I get what you’re trying to say — we need/desire men as our allies to effect broad cultural changes, which is true — but your diminishment of the voices and actions of women, even now, is kind of appalling. I, too, have been experiencing such things and hearing such stories for many, many years. (Really, you think decent men being shocked at the degree to which women suffer from harassment is “news”? Good men have long been shocked by such revelations.) But let us not become so jaded and world-weary that we fall victim to the ingrained cultural assumption that men’s voices are invariably more significant than women. As long as we continue to do so, those power dynamics will never change.

    I’m reminded of a story Bernice Sandler, of chilly climate fame, told a couple of years ago, about how she realized that despite decades of fighting on behalf of women in male-dominated spheres, during a panel she found herself checking her watch only when the women were speaking, and paying more attention to the men — because of course those voices were the “Important” ones. She realized she, too, suffered from unconscious gender bias, and resolved to only check her watch when SHE was speaking from then on. Her point is that we all have our blind spots and can fall victim to ingrained cultural attitudes even after years of feminist activism.

    We’ve come a long way. We’ve still got a ways to go. And elevating women’s voices and experiences to the same position of authority as men’s is a very big part of continuing that journey.

    • Tabitha M. Powledge says:

      How would you have handled the men’s comments? We thought it was noteworthy that the men did more than express sympathetic solidarity. They gave public commitments to take action. We think those pledges should be trumpeted. And exploited.

      • LucyMB says:

        Isn’t this like jumping around in excitement when a guy changes his own baby’s diaper or “babysits” his own kids? Are our expectations of men really so low that we’re thrilled when they say something reasonable? That we keep the spotlight ON THEM in recognition of their recognition (bless them!) that the spotlight has always been ON THEM?