I am not too social with my media and I am not much for reading blogs. However, even lacking modern connectivity, I still managed to hear about the “urban whore” episode through the electronic grapevine (a list-server). The outrage of the sender and the sketchiness of the account made me immediately curious. A very brief synopsis is that an African American female scientist who writes a blog for Scientific American under the title “Urban Scientist” was asked to contribute to another science blog. When she inquired about compensation, she was asked, in an email, by the editor if she was “an urban scientist or an urban whore.” Googling “urban whore” turned out to be sufficient to get the story.
My reaction – probably typical – was a cascade of emotions. First, I went through shock: not only that the name-calling happened but, even more, that someone would demonstrate such blatant disrespect in an email! I was also outraged at the editor’s assumption of his own privilege and power. I moved on to recognition that as a Black female scientist, similar power play put-downs have certainly happened to me. Finally I settled into a feeling of helplessness that these things continue to happen at all levels of science and in many scientific fields. In the explosion of commentary since the initial episode, I’ve seen a few discussions based on the assumption that a male scientist would never be insulted for asking about compensation for his work. I also wonder if even a white woman would have been labeled “whore”... but that is an outrage for another day.
What bothered me (and others) even more than the initial show of disrespect was that the community in power (Scientific American’s blog site) circled the wagons by pulling the blogger’s next blog post. They suppressed her account of the incident as not being “science related,” in order not to expose the behavior of the other editor for what it is: harassment. In other words, the immediate reaction of the powerful in the community was to silence the victim and attempt to delegitimize her experience by suggesting that her experience had nothing to with science. In fact, outrages like this one have everything to do with being a (Black) woman in science!
While it is true that, in the end, Scientific American’s blog site made a public apology for their actions and the offending editor (a new hire) at the other blog site was eventually fired one is left to wonder how important the negative publicity was in forcing those in power to do the right thing. Would the reaction of the powerful have been more muted if there had only been a few scattered protests or if the editor had been of higher stature within his organization?
In my local astronomical circle, the incident sparked a middling amount of discussion about sexism and bias in STEM: bullying, stereotype threat, and harassment, sexual and otherwise. Some of the stories were truly horrifying. A few were first-hand accounts, but many were second- or third-hand. All were highly depressing, not only because these incidents continue to happen, but even more that they are more common than one wants to believe.
I shared a situation that I know of: those in power in a university department quietly made a harassment situation “go away” by recommending the harasser for a new job elsewhere. At that point another woman in the discussion group said, “I think I know who you mean.” I was surprised at this since I was pretty sure she was too new to the field and had not been in the area I was talking about at the time of the incident that I was referring to. After the larger meeting ended, we were chatting, and I asked who she thought I meant. She was reluctant to say so I named the person I was referring to... no not that person... I named someone else (at the same institution)... no not that person. Someone else in the group chimed in that they thought they knew who she meant. And that is how I discovered that yet another prominent astronomer is a serial harasser... this one with a covert touching MO. Probably some of you even already know who I mean... or maybe you think you do, but in fact, you are thinking of someone else!
It has gotten to the point where, about once a year, I find out that one more prominent astronomer is a serial harasser. While I am thankful not to learn these things first hand, I am dismayed at the persistence of this kind of behavior in astronomy. What is more disturbing is the number of times I have mentioned my new found knowledge to other prominent astronomers who acknowledge that they already knew about this person. The collective silence that keeps these kinds of harassing activities under wraps is one of the most troubling things about our field. It is not only the harassment that is damaging to the field but also the culture of silence that allows it to persist unabated.
Certainly I understand the difficulty that anyone who has experienced harassment would find in bringing this information to the attention of the powerful in our community. Departments and universities cover up the problem and, worse, pass it along to someone else! Active researchers give appalling and shocking excuses for sheltering these harassers, such as, “I don’t immediately see a conflict between formulating [astronomy] mentoring policies and the moral failings of any member of the advisory group... I think discretion should be a priority in this matter.” In this case, the “moral failing” was documented sexual harassment of a student. I have even heard female astronomers deny that a particular (prestigious enough) researcher could have engaged in these behaviors, in spite of hearing it directly from a colleague who has been a victim. These women are otherwise engaged in combating discrimination and bias in our field. Like implicit bias, the influence of this “culture of silence” on harassment in our community is pervasive and insidious. In this climate where harassers are protected and their behaviors are denied at so many levels within the field, there certainly seems to be little that the victims can do to find help in protecting themselves or others. The harassed are relegated to silence and denial of their experiences, if not outright blamed for the actions of others.
So what can the community of astronomers who are fed up with this culture of silence do? How can we combat the frequent occurrences of harassment in our field? We need to speak out in the ways that we can. And, let’s face it, those ways depend on our status in the profession. Unfortunately for the harassed, all evidence suggests that, in the immediate future, the only recourse that doesn’t put them in danger is to maintain the “underground” network of information about persistent harassers. Information can be powerful. At least, someone who is informed of the risks of working with a particular astronomer may be able to avoid being blindsided by behaviors that seem benign at first but then turn bad.
Is this recommendation satisfying or just? Certainly not. Unfortunately, it is the only practical thing to do at this time. Until those with power and influence in the community take action or the number of people fed up with these behaviors reaches a critical mass, the culture is not going to change.
Therefore, I challenge those with power to work towards change in our community. How? First, by not ignoring so-called “rumors” about continual problem people. Too many of us are not willing to get involved because it is “not our problem.” The truth is that the bad actions of a few are our problems because they have consequences for the growth, the reputation, and ultimately the livelihood of our field. Upcoming scientists want (and have options) to work for organizations that ensure fair treatment of their workforce and hold people accountable for harassing behavior. Ultimately a workplace where harassment is allowed to continue and a culture of silence is the norm will be less productive, creative and successful than an environment where all are treated equally with respect.
Secondly, people need to be confronted about their poor behavior. This would most effectively be done by someone of equal or greater stature than the perpetrator. Harassment is about power. Serial harassers have a problem and should be encouraged to seek help.
I am not suggesting that changing this culture will be easy. Despite years of education about the general situation of harassment in our field and the acknowledgement even by some in power, harassment continues! What we need to improve on is eliminating this culture of silence that lulls harassers into thinking that their behavior is acceptable. Although for some, dismissal may not be possible, there can be other incentives for reform. I am convinced that eventually a majority of people will be unwilling to let these behaviors go unchallenged. And I hope that for the sake of future academic daughters and sons, it will be sooner rather than later.