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?