Guest Post: The Storm Is Coming

Today’s guest blogger, Fernside, is a PhD student in Ecology


This past year has brought an increasing number of highly visible cases of prominent male professors accused of sexual harassment and/or assault. First it was astronomy with Geoff Macy and Timothy Frederick Slater. Then Christian Ott in Astrophysics. In February it was Jason Lieb, molecular biologist at the University of Chicago, and paleoanthropologist Brian Richmond at the Museum of Natural History in New York.

I watch the media storms getting closer and closer to my own discipline and wonder whom it will hit first.

Believe me, in ecology we have stories too. The lack of public stories does not mean we do not have them. For every Geoff Macy or Jason Lieb there are dozens of cases that get hushed up, settled quietly, swept under the rug. And for every formal report that is filed, hundreds of incidents are never reported. They range from a senior male professor physically blocking you in a corner while talking during a departmental happy hour to inappropriate comments about a student/employee’s looks or sexual activity. From the supervisor who stares at his post doc’s breasts during meetings to the guy with wandering hands at conferences and retreats, to attempted rape, to rape, and everything in between.

As women in academia we’ve seen, heard about, experienced these things, and yet, most of the time, we do not report. We have been socialized not to make a fuss, not to complain, not to ‘inconvenience’ men. We are told “Oh, that is just the way it is”, or “You just have to put up with it if you want to get ahead.” We are told “Oh, he is actually a good guy”, or “It would be unfair to ruin his career, look how much he’s done for science.”

There are so many intertwined issues here, so let me address just one. .

The “He’s done so much for science” Defense.
Commonly used to pressure victims of harassment, bullying or assault into not reporting or talking about it.   “Think of the science!” they cry, as if SCIENCE were an all holy deity to which we must offer sacrificial victims so it will continue to bless us with its favors. Departments, male colleagues, and administrators tend to minimize or discount abusive behavior (both sexual and just general sleaze) because the PI brings in lots of grants and money or has done important/interesting science.

I don’t buy this. Doing good science does not give you the excuse to abuse others. So what if someone pushed the boundaries of our knowledge of black holes/niche theory/protein folding? What about all the discoveries that could have been made by people pushed out of science either directly through harassment/abuse or people who saw what was happening and wanted nothing to do with it and took their talents elsewhere? How many great minds have been lost altogether to science because of this?

Great scientists are not special unicorns whose abusive behavior should be excused because their ideas are so amazing or unique. While it is easy to perpetuate the concept of the super star scientist who alone has genius ideas, collaboration, with lots of people contributing little pieces, is the foundation of advances in science. Great ideas rarely come from one mind working in isolation. That is why I am pretty sure someone else will make the advances Geoff Macy, Christian Ott, or Jason Lieb would have made if they had not been such flagrant offenders that even academia, renowned for tolerating stunning amounts of sleaze, had not kicked them out. After all, both Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace came up with the idea of evolution by way of natural selection at the same time.

I believe science will be just fine without the abusers. There are enough smart, talented, decent people who do good science without being abusive to their colleagues or students. These are the people departments should hire and promote. Our departments should not risk the health and future of their students by hiring and protecting harassers and abusers. Students should not need a whisper network of whom to avoid, we should not have to ‘put up with it’ in order to advance in science. The pervasive culture of harassment in academia (which is in no way limited to sexism. Racism, homophobia and transphobia, ableism, are just as prevalent if not more so) protects the senior male scientists at the cost of the next generation.

I love my study species, I love fieldwork, and I find research engaging and challenging. But there are times I want to give up. When I look at how problematic every single institution I’ve attended is when it comes to sexual harassment (yep, it is a solid 4/4), when I see a charismatic PI verbally abusing his students and hear stories of him sexually harassing others, when a friend brings me along to dinner with her senior male collaborators in hopes my presence will prevent one of them from propositioning her again, I want to give up. When the whisper network tells me a man on the short list for a faculty position has drugged student drinks, when I see the sexist old guard groom the next generation of male students to be like them, and especially when I realize my own inadequacy and helplessness when it comes to addressing any of these problems, I want to throw in the towel. Because if academia values abusers and harassers over students, why on earth would I want to dedicate what skills and energy I have to it?

42 thoughts on “Guest Post: The Storm Is Coming

  1. Yep, it’ll hit ecology sooner or later. Agreed about the general need to get rid of those who are abusive. But it’s a lot more complicated than just, shh let’s not say anything. As someone who is happy to make a fuss and someone who’s been confided in, as you have been, what do we tell our friends to do when filing a complaint may mean the loss of access to the resources she needs to finish her PhD? If you’ve followed the astro cases, there’s been a lot of discussion about the fates of the advisees and close collaborators of those who have been (rightly) ousted. (Ongoing papers, projects, letters of rec…) Science is not a diety, but rather a tightly woven network of people. When we rip one out of the network, we leave many dangling threads. I think perpetrators need to go, but I also think we need to give good thought to how we support those who are innocent but closely connected to them. Otherwise, the risk of reporting is going to remain too high.

    • There’s more than one way to file a complaint. Many faculty desire to protect victims, to mitigate fallout for advisees; we underestimate their protective influence precisely because these cases are not so public. There is still plenty of action. People are pushed out of institutions, have their powers stripped, are denied graduate students, acquire bad reputations, etc. I can think of several cases in my own department’s recent history that I’d bet many grad students (from the way they talk about these people) don’t know about, although the offenders have dramatically reduced opportunities to offend. I correct students’ impressions when it’s appropriate. This isn’t an ideal situation, but because the prosecution costs for a victim are undeniably huge, I think there will always have to be a spectrum of solutions.

      • Agreed that a spectrum of solutions is already available. But most students don’t know this. We need to talk more openly about what constitutes the suite of practices and what is fair. If a professor has his “powers stripped” and a lack of access to students, but it still has a job and reputation, this may be a fair way for his victims to retain access to his resources. But it may also be seen to be an unfair solution from the outside, that the professor isn’t really being punished.

  2. I am in a position of leadership (Associate Dean and Full Professor) at my small liberal arts school in the Northwest. I very much want to help beginning female scientists (we are mostly undergraduate here) but I am a white, straight, male who has most likely (ok, definitely) benefited from my inherent privileges. What can I do at my small college to help?

    • I think there are a couple of things that help. First is making it very clear that abusive behavior will not be tolerated by anyone. This should be communicated to faculty that they will face consequences if found to be behaving abusively but also to students. This is important for students who might be subject to this behavior, they need to know the channels for reporting bad behavior, but it’s also important that students are not part of this behavior. I went to an SLAC and never had an issue with faculty behaving poorly (it may have happened but I wasn’t aware of it in my science department) but I was aware of students who believed field trips were a good opportunity to harass younger students or students perceived as vulnerable. Dealing with this can be a huge challenge for students who want to fit in but also just want to get their work done. Faculty often have very little support to manage these trips and may simply be unaware of these events. Give them TAs or other support to manage these situations. I can recall having a 3 day field trip with my professor where he was the only non-student there. He cooked, drove, helped us set up tents, and tried to teach. He was too overwhelmed to notice negative interactions between students (which in that case were minor but could have been far worse) and help fix them. Some support staff would have made a huge difference.

  3. Is there any way this can be treated as a disease like any other? We have people who have no boundaries and think it is OK to misuse/mistreat/abuse others. Surely they should be put on a course of treatment (mandatory) which addresses their unhealthy attitudes and re-educated in healthier behaviour. I do think it is a disease.

    • I think treating it like a disease is the wrong mentality. It’s not a disability. It’s a crime. All we need to do is prosecute it.

      • That is what is making this so hard….prosecuting…it’s an invasion of a victim’s horror and extremely hard to prove plus the victim can be ostracised by their own friend’s as if it was their fault. I am trying to get people to think outside the box and find a resolution that stop’s the abuse.

      • …..also prosecuting requires you to have a lot of money with no guaranteed results plus the amount of time it takes to put a case together…etc,etc.

  4. Pingback: Guest Post: The Storm Is Coming — Tenure, She Wrote | cashbackphpscript

  5. It’s not just men that are doing this to women. WOMEN do this to women as well. You expect them to be more aware and understanding of the position they hold over their “juniors”. but most of the time its the women who dehumanize and verbally/physically assault because “it’s not assault if we are both women”!. It’s not just the men but humans in general.

    • Saying women do this to women is much like telling a female rape victim of a male perpetrator that men get raped by women and women get raped by women too. Your point may be valid, I’m not sure, but in the context of this post, it doesn’t seem so. Science is a male dominated field and it seems to me that the author is pointing out how this male dominance protects criminals and can sometimes erect barriers preventing women from advancement. I guess if a black person experiences discrimination in the workplace we should quickly remind them that we met a racist/self hating black person once. Maybe so, but it’s just not relevant in the situation.

      I’m not in the science field, I can’t say that I’m passionate about science, but I am interested in the psychology behind this subject matter. With that said, maybe someone will correct me if I am, in fact, wrong.

  6. Keep speaking up however you can. There is increasing support. I’m a tenure-track assistant prof in ecology, and I had to come forward to my department about harassment soon after I started my job. I was surprised how swiftly the senior profs, the vast majority men, had my back. Many of us try to be incredibly sensitive to the slightest hints from grad students or postdocs that things are not right. Many of us try to protect the victims (e.g., circumventing standard university procedures if we do not trust them). I have encountered daft responses, mostly from people who haven’t thought much about the dynamics of harassment. And yes, sometimes these people are female profs.

    My impression is that the storm is here, it’s just not always obvious. For every public case, I know of several others who have not been hired, who have been excluded from grants, who have been denied trainees, and who have been pushed out of various academic clubs because of their obnoxious behavior.

  7. How can we address this? I am in a leadership position (Associate Dean and Full Professor) at my small liberal arts school in the Northwest. What can we do as leaders in an institution to help?

    • Openly discuss this in a group environment…include everyone. It is a touchy subject but you shouldn’t be embarrassed by it, you’ll be surprised by what your other staff can bring to the discussion

    • Climate surveys help. Make sure profs know it is completely unacceptable to have relationships with their trainees and others over whom they have power. Also be suspicious of stilted relationships between profs or profs and entire departments, which can arise from precisely this sort of thing. Figure out discreetly exactly why someone’s disliked.

  8. I saw this behavior happen a lot in theatre. Male actors would harass or abuse women because it was so time-consuming and difficult to replace them in their parts. These men would often not become openly abusive until the show had opened–then there was no rehearsal time to prepare a replacement, and they felt immune. No one wanted to talk about what was happening, and the women never wanted to make a fuss. It was awful.
    I think that the solution is to get angry enough to start canceling shows and blacklisting actors. It would be (is, I’ve done it a few times) extremely expensive and inconvenient for everyone, but telling the victims that their dignity is more important than the viability of the show is a powerful message. The ideal solution is to have a backup who can replace the offending actor, but this isn’t always possible. I’m glad people are talking about this abuse more openly, and that some men are being punished for it.

  9. Nothing excuses an abuser. Doesn’t matter what they do–football player, actor, comedian, politician, teacher, or scientist–if they have ever violated someone and made them feel less than human, they should be treated like the monsters they are.

  10. Pingback: Guest Post: The Storm Is Coming – Dogwood Daydreams

  11. It looks like you maybe replied to a comment above but it was posted to the general thread? Feel free to paste a reply above if that’s what you intended, and I can delete this one.

  12. Pingback: Guest Post: The Storm Is Coming — Tenure, She Wrote – dragon9912

  13. Respect and ethical behavior needs to be a requirement in every work environment. Not only does the culture, individuals but also the work suffers in a hostile environment. Jokes can easily be misinterpreted by someone who is impulsive. There is a lot missing from the intellectual environment these days or maybe it’s just that’s there is more exposed. Regardless abuse can be done with this double edged sword. A woman got a guy moved to another department because he was slow on the production line and a clear way to insure not dealing with him at all is to claim unwarrented advances. Doubt can be a useful tool. Anything we do is subject abuse. This is counter to the culture I was raised in. Saturday night fever was the big movie when I was a horny teenager. No doubt movies and tv or any media is the influence of the day. But as an adult you learn what is acceptable and if you have no impulse control you are done. We are sexual beings. I’m baffled as to how to tackle such a thing culturally without it becoming a right wing Dominionist society basically A fascist state. Training, training, training, specific guidelines.

  14. It sickens me that that would even be entertained as an excuse. Prosecution is both a long and painful process for a victim, and the fact that a situation like this is so hard to prove absolutely plays a factor in victims coming forward. One may go through the entire process, (hiring a lawyer, being deposed and reliving the events to total strangers repeatedly, being made to look like a liar) only to lose the battle and see their perp let off the hook at the very end. Dealing with such abuse has always been a cycle, that I fear may never change.

  15. Very well said. The sad thing about the issue of harrasment is that it is everywhere, in every institution of learning, all over the world, not just in science. Like you said, when you cannot do anthing about it, it worsens how you feel about it. Indeed many are almost ‘licensed’ to abuse, on the grounds of the so called ‘contributions’ they make. It is pathetic when you see students who have refused to allow such (mostly influential) abusers to have their ways either thrown out of school or made to fail certain courses times without number!

  16. Enjoyed your thoughts and your writing. In my experience, success in life often has more to do with understanding the power and control around you. One advances faster when we see ourselves being recognized for our work, our loyalty, and a well chosen battle. Success follows those who make a difference in someone else. At least that was my key to a modestly successful career (or two).

  17. Pingback: The Storm is quite definitely here – warpedmaggot

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