Guest Post: Missteps on the road back.

(by Janet D. Stemwedel) Jan 03 2014

This is a guest post from Martin Robbins, who writes about science and other interesting things for The Guardian, Vice and New Statesman.

* * * * *

The first time I ever met Bora Zivkovic, we talked about sexual harassment. We were in Dublin to take part in a panel at ESOF 2012, and I found him beforehand catching some air outside. The issue of harassment policies at TAM and other conferences was high on the agenda, and he explained to me that he felt a similar policy was unnecessary at ScienceOnline, though they’d probably stick one in to ‘keep people happy’. Bora argued that maintaining a high proportion of women at events was more likely to lead to a safe environment than any policy. It seemed like reasonable logic at the time.

During the panel, I took this photograph. As you can see from the comments, the #IHuggedBora meme was in full swing. If I’m honest I found his fixation on hugging everybody – even showing us pictures of previous hugs on his phone - a little odd in person, but nobody seemed to mind. It was July 2012, the same month that Bora told Kathleen Raven that he wanted to have sex with her, a few weeks before he told Monica Byrne that he was a ‘very sexual person’, and two years after he began his pursuit of Hannah Waters.

In October, these stories and others came to light. Bora was forced to resign from his positions at Scientific American and ScienceOnline, and he removed himself from public discourse. On January 1st he returned to the blogosphere - supported by his friend and ScienceOnline cofounder Anton Zuiker – with the intention of rebuilding his reputation and career.

In the rest of this post I intend to explain why I’m deeply unhappy with the manner of Bora’s departure and return. Along the way I will fisk Zuiker and Bora’s posts, and Bora’s later addendum, and explain why Bora’s apology is not just insufficient, but concerning to me. Then I’m going to try to answer Bora’s question, about what he needs to do next.

I’m going to do all of this without any personal anecdotes about brewing with root vegetables, and in considerably less than 5,500 words. Continue Reading »

127 responses so far

Good strategies and bad strategies for furthering your cause.

(by Janet D. Stemwedel) Dec 26 2013

Let's say you're a non-profit organization "dedicated to building a global community who will speak up for the ocean."

Maybe part of your strategy to make this happen is to aggregate relevant news about the ocean environment and the impacts of human activity upon it on your website.

A quick and dirty way to do this might be to scrape content from other websites.

However, the people who generated that content might object to their copyright being violated by your quick technological solution.

Given that the people writing the stories that describe the ocean environment and the impacts of human activity upon it (whether in words or in pictures) might already be sympathetic to your organizational goals, a better strategy might be to respect their copyright (and, more broadly, their intellectual and creative labor). Instead of scraping their content, and burying attribution to the actual authors or artists at the very end of the post, it might be better to quote a paragraph, link prominently to the source, seek explicit permission for use, and cultivate a network of relationships with scientists and blog readers.

It takes relatively little to get the people blogging about science (and the audiences reading them) on your side. However, being too lazy or careless to respect their work is likely to communicate that you're running one of those non-profits that plays fast and loose with important things when it suits you. Maybe those important things are proper attribution, maybe those important things are sound scientific research. If you're cutting one kind of corner, what are the odds that you're willing to cut another kind?

Don't do that. In a crowded field of nonprofits, this kind of careless behavior will make you stand out in the wrong way.

2 responses so far

Figuring out why something makes me cranky.

(by Janet D. Stemwedel) Dec 05 2013

For some time I have been aware of my own discomfort in situations where I'm talking about certain challenges for girls and women in their educational trajectory, or the difficulty of the academic job market, or the challenges of the tenure track.

Sometimes I'll note, in passing, my own good fortune in navigating the difficult terrain. Sometimes I won't. Yet, reliably, someone will chime in with something along the lines of:

"Yeah, it's hard, but the best and the brightest, like you, will survive the rigors."

This kind of comment makes me extremely grumpy.

And I know, usually, it's offered as a compliment. Frequently, I think, it's offered to counteract my residual impostor complex, to remind me that I do work very hard, and that the work I do actually has value by any reasonable metric of assessment -- in other words, that my talents, skills, effort, and determination have made some causal contribution to my successes.

But I know plenty of people with talents, skills, effort, and determination comparable to mine -- maybe even surpassing mine -- who haven't been as lucky. I'm not inclined to think that for every single one of them -- or even for most of them -- that there's a plausible causal story about some additional thing they could have done that would have made the difference.

Assuming there is amounts to assuming that our systems "work" to sort out the meritorious from the rest. That is a pretty serious assumption hanging out there with pretty scanty empirical backing.

And this morning I finally figured out how to articulate why I get cranky about the personal accolades and affirmations offered in response to my discussions of challenging systems and environments: they shift the discussion back to the level of individuals and individual actions, and away from the level of systems.

I guess if you think the systems are just fine, there's not much point in examining them or thinking about ways they could be different.

But the evidence suggests to me that many of our systems are not just fine. When that's what I'm trying to talk about, please don't change the subject.

9 responses so far

DonorsChoose Science Bloggers for Students 2013: let's dedicate December to helping public school classrooms.

(by Janet D. Stemwedel) Dec 01 2013

Since 2006, science bloggers have been working with DonorsChoose.org and our readers to help public school students and teachers get the resources they need to make learning come alive.

Chances are you care about science, or education, or both. Probably you're the kind of person who thinks that solid -- and engaging -- math and science education is an important resource for kids to have as they hurtle into the future and face the challenges of our modern world.

It's a resource that's getting squeezed by tight public school budgets. But as 2013 draws to a close, I invite you to do something small that can have an immediate impact.

DonorsChoose is a site where public school teachers from around the U.S. submit requests for specific needs in their classrooms — from books to science kits, overhead projectors to notebook paper, computer software to field trips — that they can’t meet with the funds they get from their schools (or from donations from their students’ families). Then donors choose which projects they’d like to fund and then kick in the money, whether it’s a little or a lot, to help a proposal become a reality.

Over the last several years, bloggers have rallied their readers to contribute what they can to help fund classroom proposals through DonorsChoose, especially proposals for projects around math and science, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars, funding hundreds of classroom projects, and impacting thousands of students.

Which is great. But there are a whole lot of classrooms out there that still need help.

To create the scientifically literate world we want to live in, let’s help give these kids -- our future scientists, doctors, teachers, decision-makers, care-providers, and neighbors -- the education they deserve.

One classroom project at a time, we can make things better for these kids. Joining forces with each other people, even small contributions can make a big difference.

How to join in the fun with a challenge of your own:

1. Go to donorschoose.org

Scroll to the bottom of the page. In the second column of links from the left, right under Campaigns, click Create a registry.

2. You'll find yourself on a page that gives you several options for what kind of Giving Page you'd like to create. Click the one that says "Science Bloggers for Students".

3. Name your challenge, add a personal message if you like, and choose a "Giving Group" from the pull-down menu. Specify the kind of classroom projects you'd like to appear on your Giving Page. (If you'd rather hand-pick projects for your Giving Page, you can do that after you've saved your Giving Page customizations -- instructions are under #3 on the "Customize Your Giving Page" page.)

4. Share your Giving Page -- on your blog, on Facebook, on Twitter, wherever! Let people know about the projects you'd like to help fund, and put your dollars (and networks of information sharing) together to make it happen. Let me know you've mounted a challenge -- and give me the link to your Giving Page -- and I will publicize it here, and on Twitter, and on Facebook!

How to help as a donor:



Follow the links to your chosen blogger’s challenge on the DonorsChoose website.

Pick a project from the slate the blogger has selected. Or more than one project, if you just can’t choose. (Or, if you really can’t choose, just go with the “Give to the most urgent project” option at the top of the page.)

Donate.

Even if you can’t make a donation, you can still help! 

Spread the word about these challenges using web 2.0 social media modalities. Link your favorite blogger’s challenge page on your MySpace page, or put up a link on Facebook, or FriendFeed, or LiveJournal (or Friendster, or Xanga, or …). Tweet about it on Twitter (with the #scibloggers4students hashtag). Share it on Google +. Sharing your enthusiasm for this cause may inspire some of your contacts who do have a little money to get involved and give.

Here’s the permalink to my giving page.

Thanks in advance for your generosity.

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An open letter to men scared that women will call out their behavior publicly.

(by Janet D. Stemwedel) Nov 19 2013

Hey guys,

It's come to my attention that some of you are feeling kind of uncomfortable at the possibility that women in your life -- in your community, in your trusted circle of friends -- might call you out in the event that you engage in behavior that hurts them or someone they care about. Some of you have been telling me that you're especially worried that you'll be called out in front of other people, labeled persuasively as a bad guy, and that this will destroy your good name, your career prospects, your happiness.

I don't doubt that you are anxious here. So, I have a few questions about how you'd like us to proceed.

First, can you provide assurances that, when women bring criticisms of your behavior to you privately, you will take those critiques seriously and change your behavior accordingly?

If so -- and if you make this commitment public, so the women in your world know about it -- you should be fine! You'll address the harm you are doing right away, and everyone will move on.

In the (I'm sure rare or non-existent) event that you don't respond to privately raised critique of your harmful behavior in a way that addresses the harm, can you provide assurances that you will respond promptly and constructively to a gently worded public critique?

If so, you should be fine! You'll address the harm you are doing promptly, and everyone will move on.

In the (purely hypothetical) event that you don't respond to a gently worded public critique of your harmful behavior in a way that addresses the harm, how many free passes on your harmful behavior do you believe you are entitled to?

Give us the number -- is it two? five? ten? -- so we know the point at which you recognize that you deserve a critique that is not private and not gently worded.

Yes, having your behavior criticized makes you feel defensive. We know this. As fellow human beings, we have those feelings, too.

But if you are defaulting to the position that it's never OK for the women in your life to tell you when your behavior is harming them, never OK for them to expect you to address those harms, you know what? The women in your life will be defending themselves against you.

They will not trust you. They will not see your good-guy status shining through your actual behavior. When you proclaim yourself an ally, your best-case reaction will be eye-rolls.

It does not feel good to be told your behavior is hurting others. But it does not feel good for others to be hurt by your behavior.

Prioritizing your own hurt feelings over growth is a sure way never to be trusted as an ally by anyone paying attention.

And we are paying attention. For our own well being, we have to.

Sincerely,

Dr. Free-Ride

_____

Related reading:

On being an ally and being called out on your privilege

On the Fixed State Ally Model vs. Process Model Ally Work

On allies.

On the labor involved in being part of a community.

11 responses so far

I have awesome friends.

(by Janet D. Stemwedel) Nov 04 2013

Not to brag (at least, not more than I should), but my friends are pretty great.

When I checked my mail at work today, I found an envelope that contained this note:

Note with text: "Sorry the blogosphere is rough. : (   Audrey."

and these gloves:

Gloves with letters on the fingers that spell FEMINIST.

And I gave thanks for having friends who understand that, some days, trying to get the world into better shape is a slog, but who remind me that it is work worth doing, and who show me (and many, many others) kindness to help me (and the others) find the strength to get the next incremental piece of the job done.

Thank you, Audrey. You rock!

3 responses so far

Bystanders won't always interpret you as charitably as I do.

(by Janet D. Stemwedel) Nov 01 2013

I recently had occasion to chat with someone in my professional circle about a well-publicized case of a member of our field who is no longer employed in our field because of being a sexual harasser. Verily, I was anticipating that the extent of the chat would be, "Hey, how about that [now-famous-for-sexually-harassing dude]?" met with an eyeroll or an "Argh! That guy! Good riddance!"

And yet ...

My interlocutor somehow started along a path of harassing emails not being so bad, at least if the proper contrast class (physical assault) is considered, and from there we were off the path and into the weeds.

My best attempt at a charitable interpretation is that my interlocutor was trying to mount one of two arguments (or maybe both simultaneously):

1. That our professional field is no worse, when it comes to sexual harassment, than is the larger human community.

2. That sexual harassment in our field is not a sufficient condition for the truly dismal gender balance in our field, especially at the highest career levels.

And, you know, I'm actually inclined to accept both of these claims as true.

However, to (1) I must respond that "no worse than the larger human community" is a pretty low bar to set for one's professional community, especially when we hold ourselves to a much higher standard than that for things like analytic reasoning. And, to (2), I reckon that even if it's not sufficient to explain the relative lack of senior women in our field, being sexually harassed within our field before we make it to senior ranks sure doesn't help us want to stay.

But I'm not sure it matters that I could find a charitable interpretation for what my interlocutor was trying to do. Later, someone else who was in close proximity to our chat said to me, "Wow, that was really something, watching [my interlocutor] defend sexual harassment."

Perhaps this is one more reason colleagues like my interlocutor just aren't aware of all the harassment that happens to people in our field -- because they come off as minimizing or defending it, which doesn't make them a great choice as far as people in your field with whom you want to share that experience.

6 responses so far

Who hasn't lost something important?

(by Janet D. Stemwedel) Nov 01 2013

Seen on a bulletin board on my fair campus:

Picture of C3P0 and R2D2 with the caption "Have you seen these droids?"

The part that makes it art is the tear-off contact information at the bottom:

Contact: darthvader@aol.com

I don't know if that tells me more about Darth Vader or about AOL.

3 responses so far

#ripplesofdoubt and harassment's collateral damage.

(by Janet D. Stemwedel) Oct 19 2013

For context, in the event that you want or need it, read my last post, and Hannah's, and Kathleen's, and Erin's. (If you want a dash of irony with your context, read this post I wrote after Bora solicited my support for Kathleen and Erin in the wake of some casual sexism in a professional context.)

Then read Karen's #ripplesofdoubt Storify.

This post is about some of my ripples of doubt.

I am not trolling for reassurance -- I recognize that these doubts are not entirely rational. But I'm presenting a peek at what's going on inside my head right now so that you can get a sense of why sexual harassment (among other instances of treating women in the community as not fully human, not full members of the community) is harmful even to those who are not the direct targets of that harassment.

This is also going to be more stream-of-consciousness than most of my posts. Things inside my head get kind of tangled.

* * * * *

Eight years ago, people who were not my students were just starting to find this blog. A big part of this was because Bora Zivkovic (who had loads of readers, was on lots of blogrolls, and had lots of blogospheric visibility) started regularly linking to my posts.

(Would anyone have found my blog if Bora hadn't promoted it? Did he promote it because it was actually good, or for some other reason?)

And then, I got invited to "sell out" and join ScienceBlogs at its initial launch. Which was exciting, because I was on a network with some very engaging (and very high-traffic) bloggers. I didn't kid myself that this meant I was better than the excellent bloggers I was reading who were blogging elsewhere, but it felt a little like an independent confirmation that my blog crossed some quality threshold. It felt good.

(But the process by which those blogs were selected for the initial Sb launch was opaque to me, and I got the sense later that some of that was shaped by blogospheric tastemakers like Bora -- maybe even by explicit advice from Bora. His judgment is feeling pretty suspect to me, so can I trust his judgment that my blog was quality?)

About a year later, Bora and Anton were planning the first North Carolina Science Blogging Conference, the ancestor of ScienceOnline. Bora invited me to be a keynote speaker. I had never been invited to be a keynote speaker anywhere before. I felt so validated and excited that I jumped up and down on my bed for about five minutes before emailing back to accept the invitation.

(Why was I invited to give a keynote? What real expertise did I have to share on science blogging and its larger significance? Bora and I had never met in real life at that point. I was still in my 30s, and my profile picture was more "flattering" than "accurate". Why did Bora invite me to give a keynote?)

At ScienceBlogs, somehow I developed a reputation as a "voice of reason" kind of sensible person, able to find middle ground where there was some, able to at least grok the impulse driving opposing sides of blogwars.

(In retrospect, I wonder what role Bora played in constructing that narrative. Did people listen to me because he flagged me as reasonable? Was there some ulterior motive for positioning me this way?)

I'm resisting a strong urge to scour my curriculum vitae for workshops and panels I have been on that Bora has also been on, or that I have good reason to believe I was invited to be part of on the basis of Bora's recommendation. Off the top of my head, I'm counting at least four.

(Was it Bora's professional reputation and influence that got me these invitations, rather than anything I had done on my own to demonstrate my own expertise? How on earth could I tell?)

My invitation to blog at Scientific American was definitely due to Bora. There were lots of murmurs at launch (and there continue to be today -- I've seen them on social media, posted literally today) that the way the blogs were selected was inappropriate-to-deeply-flawed.

(That's my blog they're judging as not belonging at Scientific American. It's not good enough to be there, but Bora chose it anyway. What was his game here?)

Bora never hit on me. Bora never veered into inappropriate topics of conversation with me. When we talked about blog network issues, Bora treated me very professionally. When we interacted as friends, he treated me cordially and never disrespected my boundaries.

(But that's not how he treated other women. How did I escape the inappropriate interactions that are coming to light now?)

I took Bora for a real friend -- not just a real friend, but one who grokked systemic gender bias, how important it was to listen to women's accounts of their own experiences, how people's boundaries should be respected. He didn't always get it right away, but he seemed committed to learning.

(While meanwhile, he was ignoring other women clearly asserting their boundaries, telling him to stop.)

He acted like he valued my friendship.

(Maybe he just valued my loyalty and that reputation I had as a reasonable voice in the blogosphere ...)

(Maybe he was using me as cover, a loyal friend who would deny, on the basis of her N=1 personal experience, that he could ever harass a woman or disrespect her boundaries.)

When specifics from what he claimed was his one-and-only instance of harassment came out, he asked me to get particular other people in the community on his side, to reach out to them and get them to put down the pitchforks.

(Appealing to me as reasonable. Appealing to me as loyal. Appealing to me as a friend, who should know, from her own experience, that he couldn't have done this more than once, one tragic moment of misunderstanding.)

(Just as he had groomed me to be. As if maybe that was the point all along.)

(Maybe I wasn't actually a valued friend -- not really, not valued for myself so much as my usefulness in a crisis.)

(And maybe my work never was that good.)

(And how can I trust my own judgment, about my own work, my own friends, my own community, if I could have been so wrong for so long about Bora?)

Edited to add:

There are also profound ripples of doubt in my head about why I didn't see the harassment that was happening, what I did to make myself unapproachable to people in the community who who targeted -- who I would have liked to help in some way if I could have. Those are far more painful to me right now, and words fail me when I try to spell them out. I'm sorry I wasn't there for you folks. You didn't deserve to be harassed.

39 responses so far

This is not a post I want to write.

(by Janet D. Stemwedel) Oct 15 2013

I think sexual harassment is bad. I think other kinds of harassment, especially those that work by way of power imbalances, are bad. That's a position I stand by, and I hope I still would even if I had not been sexually harassed myself, and even if I didn't count among my friends an alarming number of people who had been sexually harassed.

We'll never know about the truth of that counterfactual claim, though, given that I have been sexually harassed (in more than one professional field), and that the number of people I know who have themselves been sexually harassed seems only to increase.

I know what it is like not to be able to share details of my own experience for fear of the professional repercussions it could have for me. When the person who harasses you has enough power that he could literally destroy any chance of a career for you in your chosen field -- when it's clear that your professional community values that person a lot and that it hasn't even gotten a chance to know you, let alone to value you -- choosing to go public looks an awful lot like choosing to burn your own career.

So mostly, you don't.

Maybe, eventually, once you find people within the community you feel like you can trust, people who've given indications that they value you, you share some of the details. Probably you wait for some sort of sign that these are people who, at least in principle, agree that harassment is bad. And probably, as you're naming your experience, you avoid naming the perpetrator, just in case there's a longstanding professional relationship that you didn't know about.

Because even people who are against harassment in principle can be damned loyal to their friends.

But often by the time you're ready to share some details with someone, you've so internalized the apologia that comes out when people do tell that you aren't even sure if you can call what happened to you "harassment". You wonder if, objectively, what happened to you can really be as big a deal as it feels like it is to you -- if the fact that it feels like a big deal to you, one that you can't just shake off, means that something is wrong with you.

Some days, when you start to notice how much harassment there is, how many of your peers (and mentors) have been harassed, and how little that seems to faze your community, you maybe even start to wonder if harassment is just the price of admission to the community, if shaking it off is the kind of skill people in the community need to cultivate to survive.

The landscape we bump up against every day discourages us from making a fuss.

It encourages us to use the most equivocal language available to describe our experience, if we talk about it at all.

It reminds us that we're weak if we can't shake it off, that we will be blamed for not finding some way to prevent what happened to us even though someone else did it to us.

It underlines that push come to shove, people are going to side with someone with more social capital, even if that person did something that the people siding with him are against in theory -- and that people are going to trust their own gut feeling that the person who harmed you is a good guy over the most careful and accurate recitation of the facts, even over what they see with their own eyes.

Not speaking up is the most rational move in most circumstances. Jennifer L. Berdahl, a Professor of Organizational Behavior, notes that

It's individually adaptive to go along with or try and act like members of the majority group when one is outnumbered. There are even rewards for criticizing others for not doing the same. But this individually adaptive behavior perpetuates the status quo.

So, if people aren't brave enough, or fed up enough, or whatever, to risk the individual harm that comes with speaking up, we are likely to be stuck with how things are right now. And some days, how things are right now is indescribably shitty.

The proximate cause for my writing this post is that writer and playwright Monica Byrne described her own experience of being harassed and named an influential member of the online science community, Bora Zivkovic, as her harasser. In a statement on his personal blog, Bora confirms the facts of Ms. Byrne's account, describes the measures put in place at Scientific American to address the professional harms to Ms. Byrne, and offers an apology.

I have known Bora for years. I have respected his professional judgment. I have deep affection for him and for his wife. I count him as a friend. He has never harassed me.

But that doesn't mean that I am going to offer apologia for his bad behavior. It doesn't mean I'm going to preemptively disbelieve Ms. Byrne's account, not just of what happened but also of how it affected her.

People make mistakes, even people who are our friends. People who do great things for a community can also do great harm to individual members of that community -- and, by extension, to the very webs of trust within that community that they worked hard to build.

I'm not going to stop being Bora's friend, but I'm not going to try to minimize or excuse his behavior, either.

I'm going to keep caring for him, but part of that will involve me continuing to hold him to a high standard -- because I know he can be that good, and I'm prepared to do what I can to help him do that.

I'm not going to cut Bora off as irredeemable, but I'm not going to center his redemption over mitigating the harms caused by his bad behavior. I'm not going to prioritize telling the world about his redemption, since I understand redemption as a quiet, personal, daily effort to live the standard one endorses.

I'm not going to argue that anyone else should forgive Bora or trust Bora. That's a personal matter, and I'm not equipped to make that call for anyone else but myself.

I am going to argue that, within our communities, we should look very hard at the power gradients that enable bad behavior that doesn't seem like bad behavior to the people committing it. We should interrogate the factors that make it dangerous for targets of bad behavior to speak up. We should recognize our tendency to focus on intent and ignore actual effects. We should notice when we get sucked into the familiar narrative of apologia and cut that out.

We should hold each other to high standards and then get serious about helping each other reach those standards. We should keep tinkering with our culture to making being better to each other (and to ourselves) easier, not harder.

Being good can be hard, which is one of the reasons we need friends.

I stand with others who have been harassed. And I hope, as a loving and honest friend with high expectations, I can help bring about a world with fewer harassers in it.

30 responses so far

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