We have something important to say

In case you’re not up on the latest Science Blogging/Writing/Communication gossip (which I’m assuming most of you aren’t), well, shit has really hit the fan recently.

There have been a slew of misogynistic occurrences in the past week, with more stories of sexual harassment coming to the surface. Numerous scientists and bloggers have commented on the developing situation far more effectively than I will be able to here, and I’ll be sure to link to them as I go. But first, the unfolding story.

Last week, Danielle N Lee (or DNLee, as she commonly goes by online), a biologist and blogger for Scientific American at The Urban Scientist, was invited by a relatively unknown biology site to do some guest blogging. Pretty standard. They said they were unable to pay her for her services, and she politely declined. Also pretty standard. Then the blog editor responded by asking her if she was “an urban scientist or an urban whore”. NOT STANDARD.

Obviously, her response was one of outrage, and she very eloquently documented the entire exchange on her blog for Scientific American. She included video, pictures, excerpts from the original email exchange, and an epic take-down of the idiot who dared insult her in such a degrading, simplistic and childish way.

At this point, the story should have ended with DNLee coming out on top, the editor being fired (which he was), all of us being shocked and appalled that such blatant unprofessional misogyny still exists, and writing a few tweets and blogs about it.

Unfortunately, it didn’t. Scientific American made the short-sighted and cowardly decision to take down DNLee’s post without telling her, claiming that their content was supposed to be solely science-based. Mariette DiChristina, the magazine’s editor-in-chief, explained this decision over Twitter, and the community erupted.

The science Twitter and blog-o-sphere were a-buzz with outrage, and #standingwithdnlee started trending. (This entire exchange has been well documented on BuzzFeed and Jezebel, among other places.)

Stunned by the backlash, DiChristina and Scientific American officially apologized the next day, DNLee’s original piece was re-published, and again it seemed like we could all move on.

But then it REALLY got messy.

Flash back one year ago. Monica Byrne, a writer and playwrite, posted on her blog about an incident of sexual harassment she had experienced from an older male mentor that left her understandably shaken up. There was no overt sexual assault, just lots of inappropriate, unwanted innuendoes, which in some ways left her questioning herself and her reaction even more harshly. At the time, Byrne elected to leave the perpetrator unnamed. However, the recent incident involving DNLee caused her to change her mind, as the man in question was very high up in the Scientific American blogging network, and she suspected he had something to do with the initial silencing. So on Monday she decided to out him in an update on her original post.

This man is Bora Zivkovic, or BoraZ, otherwise known as “the Blogfather”. He is extremely influential in the world of science writing and is known to be generous with his connections and retweets. (I have never met or had contact with him personally, but he has retweeted for me, and those I’ve met who do know him have spoken of him highly.)

This reveal shocked the SciComm community more than learning that Darth Vader was Luke’s father. Many were quick to jump to Bora’s defense, questioning and mistrusting the victim as we are wont to do in this “slut-shaming” society we unfortunately inhabit. However, Bora himself admitted on his blog of the inappropriate behavior he had engaged in with Byrne and apologized for his actions.

Then someone else spoke up. Hannah Waters, another female scientist and blogger at Scientific American, responded to the fury surrounding Byrne’s accusation with her own report of “not-quite-harassment” that she had experienced at the hands of Bora.

Again there was shock and outrage. Again, Bora did not deny the claims.

And then came the final nail in the coffin. The two prior reports accounting Bora’s behavior describe uncomfortable, unprofessional and certainly unnecessary interactions. But do they qualify as harassment or abuse? Some were still unswayed, staunchly standing by their friend and idol.

But Kathleen Raven ended all of that today with a personal and painful account of her own experiences with sexual harassment from Bora and others. Her post came complete with explicit email snippets sent to her, which are jaw-dropping.

The disappointment and disgust at this formerly revered man are wide and ranging. But by far the best response I’ve read was penned by Hope Jahren, a professor at the University of Hawaii.

She writes:

The Worst Part Is Not.

The worst part is not when it all blows over just as you thought something was going to finally happen.  When everything goes on as usual, except that your colleagues pass you in the hall with a wider berth.  That when all the shock and outrage dies down, the only job that changed is yours.  You used to be a valued mascot.  Now you’re a traitor.  You’ll never be Department Chair or Dean now that this has happened.  How dare you throw all the Monopoly pieces in the air – we were letting you play!  But that’s not the worst part.

The worst part is not when his wife and his employees come to you and say please don’t do this to us.  Our mortgage, our children, our paychecks are at stake.  When they ask you if you care about anything besides yourself.  When they tell you the full story, which you never wanted to know.  That there’s a rotten root of sickness and betrayal underneath it all.  That this is your big chance to be the bigger person and walk away, proving that you are actually more compassionate than you seem.  This is not the worst part.  Although that part is pretty damn bad.

The worst part is the pivot.  The click.  When the switch flips.  When you press down, turn the child-proof cap, and the thing breaks in your hands.  When it dawns on you that this isn’t an interview, it’s a date.  That there’s no study group, it’s a date.  That this isn’t office hours, it’s a date.  That it’s not a promotion, it’s a date.  That it’s not a field trip, it’s a date.  It’s a weird f*cked up date and you had no idea, you dumbass.  You’re just as stupid as he thinks you are.  Why are you carrying a backpack full of questions, homework, manuscripts, resumés and various other homely hopeful aspirations?  All you needed to do was to show up.  Show up for this weird f*cked up date.  Sucker.

And then she got angry, and she wrote some more:

Five Reasons Why You Liked My Post

1. It Was Well-Written. Lordy lordy how well-written it was. Let’s all turn toward the East and say it together, loud enough to shake the walls where a certain book proposal is languishing on a certain desk. “HOPE JAHREN SURE CAN WRITE,” we bellow while choking back our collective sob. Someone should give that girl a goddam book deal.

2. It Didn’t Name Names. First Ofuck or Ofek or whoever-the-f*ck hate-spoke Danielle Lee and we were all like, String him up! How daaaaaare you! And the guys were all like, Let me at him! Then Borat or Boraz or Borehole sleazed up Monica Byrne and we were all like, Not Mr. Rogers! He’s a flesh-and-blood dude! He gave me peelings for my compost heap! He defragged my harddrive! Why universe, why? And the guys went kinda silent at that point (did you notice?). Then we looked at each other and said, Whoa this is complicated. Eventually we got to this place where we sure as hell don’t want him making decisions about women’s careers but we’d still probably perform CPR on him if we saw him lying in the street. Turns out he’s neither an angel nor a devil, just like all the other men I don’t know. Just like every sorry soul made flesh temporarily wandering this lonely dusty Earth.

Jahren generously allowed me to re-post some of her content, but I strongly encourage you to check out the full pieces here and here.

So that’s what’s buzzing around the ol’ science-sphere these days. Name-calling, misogyny, back-stabbing, sexual harassment, victim blaming, and some badass, brave, brilliant women who will not be silenced when they have something important to say.

Update: Bora has officially resigned from Scientific American. And Christie Wilcox, another scientist, writer and former protégé of Bora’s, has written an excellent piece from a position not of outrage but of numbness. Equally powerful perspective.

More sexism in science

Following on my post the other week on Gender bias on both sides of scientific research, I want to draw attention to an incident that occurred at the annual Society for Neuroscience meeting last week in New Orleans. SFN is by far the largest neuroscience event every year, drawing over 30,000 attendees to come and revel in nerdy neuro madness for a week (think of it as a music festival for science geeks). With so many talks, poster sessions and symposiums, not to mention the sheer number of people, the conference can be overwhelming. But it is also overwhelmingly positive and exciting, allowing you the opportunity to check out new research, get new ideas, forge new relationships and collaborations, and, if you’re lucky, even meet your academic super-star crush (I’m looking at you David Eagleman).

However, one conference-goer decided that the quality of the researchers wasn’t quite up to his standards. Dr. Dario Maestripieri of the University of Chicago complained on Facebook that the cosmetic caliber of the female attendees was lacking this year, stating “there are…an unusually high concentration of unattractive women [at the conference]. The super model types are completely absent.” The comment, originally discovered and posted by Drug Monkey on his blog, went on to ask, “Are unattractive women particularly attracted to neuroscience? Are beautiful women particularly uninterested in the brain?”, and considerately topped it off with, “No offense to anyone…”

Fortunately many people did take offense to Maestripieri’s comments, including Dr. Janet Stemwedel who posted an eloquent rebuttal on Scientopia, which I highly recommend. Maestripieri’s overt sexism demeans female scientists, belittling them and insinuating that their value is only measured by their looks, not their research, intelligence or contributions to the field. And keep in mind that this comment was made at a professional scientific conference, where the emphasis should especially be on one’s intellect and creativity, not on beauty or breasts. The response to Maestripieri’s comments has been overwhelmingly negative, and a Wikipedia page about him has even been updated to mention the controversy. However, others still think his behavior was acceptable, writing it off as a joke and telling people to not take it so seriously. This is particularly problematic given the underlying gender bias we know to still exist in science. If we accept overt and covert discrimination against women in science we all lose out, not just women who are dissuaded from the field because of it, but everyone who might have benefited from their future work.

Gender bias on both sides of scientific research

A disturbing new study from researchers at Yale University was released this week in PNAS, reporting that gender bias is still pervasive in science and the workplace. An identical application for a laboratory manager position was given to 127 senior faculty members at a number of research universities, the only difference being that half of the applications contained a male name, while in the other half the applicant’s name was female. Across the board supervisors (male and female alike) ranked the ‘male’ application as more competent, more hireable, and stated that they would be more willing to supervise this candidate. Even more striking was the pay gap that existed between the recommended wages for the male and female applicants, a difference of roughly $3,700 starting salary. This is representative of the reported 23% average earnings difference between men and women in the workplace.

Despite efforts for equal opportunity and the eradication of sexism from science, this study clearly demonstrates that there are significant lingering differences in the perception of male and female applicants and their competence based solely on gender. These findings are particularly disturbing as the job was for an entry-level research position, suggesting that there is a bias against women even trying to get their foot in the door in science. The gender disparity in tenure-track professorships has previously been explained with similar rationales as those used to justify the dearth of women in executive suite positions in finance or industry, namely differences in life choices or a lingering male-domination from previous generations. However, now there is clear evidence that women are discriminated against from the start of their careers, making it far more likely that they will drop out of the profession, and thus perpetuating the gender imbalance in science, particularly at the higher end of the career ladder.

Gender bias in science isn’t just present in a lack of professional opportunities; women are frequently excluded from being subjects in research studies, particularly those involving the brain or behavioral traits. Women can be ‘difficult’ subjects as anatomically our brains differ in size from males, and hormonal fluctuations can affect chemical reactions to pharmaceutical challenges used in experiments. Instead of pursuing and exploring these differences though, females subjects are often omitted from both human and animal research. Results from male participants are then applied to females post-hoc, however this method is far from perfect as these very differences in behavioral and biological performance make extrapolations imprecise and potentially invalid.

For example, a study published earlier this year in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research reported on the differing effects of heavy alcohol consumption and recovery on the brain in men and women. Females appear to be more sensitive to the neurotoxic effects of alcohol on the brain, particularly in the frontal lobe, with a greater proportionate reduction in white matter volume than men with every additional drink. Conversely, male alcoholics show a greater decrease in volume in the corpus callosum (neuron tracts that connect the left and right hemispheres) related to the duration of heavy drinking. Fortunately, abstaining from alcohol was linked to recovery of white matter in both genders, with longer periods of abstinence associated with greater recovery in each region. However, men did not exhibit this trend with less than one year of sobriety, while women experienced neurogenesis only within the first year. While these distinctions between women and men are subtle ones, they are significant and could be related to differences in behavioral ability or possible treatment outcomes.

Ignoring female subjects in research studies biases results and can hinder progress in the advancement of clinical treatments. Similarly, dissuading or not adequately supporting women in their own research endeavors undoubtedly handicaps scientific progress by limiting the intellectual pool of talent. Reports of women being naturally ‘bad’ in science or mathematics have been overwhelming refuted and lingering prejudices, even unintentional ones, hurt not only the individual but the field of science as a whole.

(Thanks to Adam Levy and Ruth Watkinson for the gender bias article.)