16 October 2013

Talking About Sexual Harassment in Science

UPDATE: In the comments Andrew Maynard replies to this post.

Several colleagues have pointed me to the unsavory episode that is presently the talk of the science communication field involving the magazine Scientific American. I actually don't read Scientific American or its blogs and my professional work only occasionally crosses paths with those who identify themselves in "science communication." So I don't know anyone involved in this issue. Yet, this is an episode about which those who care about science in society should openly discuss.

The issue involves a case of sexual harassment for which the allegations are apparently not under dispute. I won't give the full play-by-play but apparently a popular editor at Scientific American named Bora Zivkovic met with a prospective author, Monica Byrne, and had an admittedly inappropriate conversation with her, all but propositioning her on the spot. Byrne's account is here, Zivkovic's apology here.

I will assume that Scientific American is a professional organization and will respond appropriately to this situation, which obviously involves completely unacceptable behavior from one of its high-profile staff. What motivates me to write this post is a remarkable, unsolicited intervention from a high-ranking faculty member and administrator at the University of Michigan, Andrew Maynard.

Professor Maynard wrote an email to Byrne pressuring her to remove any reference to Zivkovic in her public complaint about the harassment. Maynard writes:
I have corresponded with Bora [Zivkovic] on occasion, but have never met him in person.  I have no reason to doubt your account of your meeting with him.  I do know that he has been a major factor in the rise of informal science writing and web-based science communication in the US and beyond.  And that he is highly respected within his community.  Whether these are adequate justifications for not calling him out by name I leave with you.  But I would advocate for consideration and compassion at this stage.
This is an incredible and telling request. It is incredible because it comes from a person in a position of authority (professional, not supervisory) seeking to protect a colleague's inappropriate behavior. It is telling because Professor Maynard felt compelled to publicly "out" his own interaction with Byrne (after she referenced his email on Twitter), after asking her to avoid doing much the same.

There are of course all sorts of social factors at play in science, as in any field of endeavor, which shape behavior. Some of them -- like groupthink and disciplinary cliques -- are annoying and can even be pathological. Other behaviors are just wrong and unacceptable. Among these are sexual harassment and excusing sexual harassment because an accomplished scientist (male in this case) is "highly respected within the community." Ack.

I'd guess that this case has still a denouement to play out, but however it ends it is one worth discussing with students in the classroom. The issues are uncomfortable and can be difficult to discuss, but they are obviously part of the social context of contemporary science and thus worth our attention. Kudos to Byrne for speaking out in a responsible manner.