A difficult week (and a way forward)

It’s been a difficult week (and it’s not over yet). Despite a lovely weekend away, and gorgeous autumn weather, the world of science communication is being ripped apart by two very serious, and related, situations. First this, involving D.N Lee . She was called a whore and this is never acceptable and in a professional context, unheard of. In my opinion, the reaction from Scientific America was slow, and didn’t feel right.  And now this with Bora Zivkovic. Sexual harassment of any kind is never OK, and in this context, it was done by a ‘high profile’ man in a position of power. This piece in the Huffington Post, in particular, really grabbed my attention.  It spoke to the issue that the broader scientific community must pay attention. Although some people are actively discussing this issue, most are not.  That’s a shame. It also rattled my world because I know of women who have been abused by men in position of power, and the decision of when to be silent, and when to be vocal, is extraordinarily difficult – for them, and for me.

These are not isolated incidents. The world science is fraught with tales of abuse, manipulation and intimidation. In particular, men in positions of power use and abuse this power. It sickens me, and makes me very, very sad.

It’s also very complicated. Good people sometimes do very bad things. Bad people sometimes do very good things. We appreciate the good because we have a benchmark for it. We know what is bad because there is a gradient from good to bad, and because some behaviours are, without a doubt, wrong. The problem is that behaviours cannot always be mapped easily onto people and vice versa.

It’s also complicated because knowledge about or exposure to abuse and harassment in the workplace does not always mean direct action is possible. There are sometimes unknown and long-term consequences when these situations are brought to light – they affect people’s jobs, mental and physical health, families, and friends. I remain particularly concerned about the victims – until he or she is willing to name the abuser, there is sometimes a limited number of things that a friend, colleague, Chair, or Dean can do. Additionally, a victim may wish to wait for some time before naming an abuser, as was the case with Monica Bryne.  Despite how uncomfortable, frustrating and difficult it is to remain ‘quietly supportive’ of a victim, sometimes it is necessary.

Autumn’s here. It’s OK if you want to cry.

After this reflection, and despite sometimes being quietly supportive, there are still things that I can do, and that I will try to do. There must not be a ‘deafening silence’ surrounding sexual harassment. I pledge to be a more active advocate for the rights of, notably, female scientists. They are facing a serious uphill battle in the Academic milieu.

When it is possible and in the context of abuse and harassment, I will:

a) Call out wrong-doing when I see it;

b) Listen to others who call out wrong-doing;

c) Strive to make my workplace a safe and welcoming environment;

d) Work to create openness for talking about abuse of power;

e) Learn what I can do about it (rules, policies, procedures);

f) Be proactive rather than reactive.

I want everyone to talk seriously about harassment, abuse, and abuse of power. I want all of us to speak out when we can, and be supportive. We need people like Monica Bryne  and Hannah Waters to be courageous, and to know that there is a lot of support from a broad community – from colleagues, friends, peers, family. Many of us will help in whatever way we can.

Yes, it’s a difficult week, but there are important positives that we must keep in mind. The students that I interact with every day lift my spirits. My field laboratory earlier this week confirmed that.

Some McGill students walking to their study sites during my Field Biology class.

Some McGill students walking to their study sites during my Field Biology class.

Let’s hope that when these students enter they enter the workforce and that they don’t put up with the crap we’ve heard about this week. Let’s hope they stand up and shout with a loader voice than my own. They can do it: they are intelligent, articulate, thoughtful, hard-working, and confident. I see the world as a better place when I spend time with these students.

I’m also hopeful when I interact with my children, and see they already have a maturity and sense of respect for their fellow citizens, and a very strong moral compass.  I want them to grow up in a world where stories of abuse in the workplace are virtually non-existent because they’ll be non-existent. I want the next generation to walk down pathways lined with colourful trees, leading to a village filled with people who respect each other, support each other, and work together to be in the best world possible. I don’t think that’s too much to wish for, and we can work now to help create this kind of world for them.

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(a BIG thanks to four amazing people who helped me pen this post – you know who you are)

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5 thoughts on “A difficult week (and a way forward)

  1. Sometimes this type of abusive behaviour is excused by management as “that’s the way he is” or “he comes from a cast system”. It is nice to have somebody that will support me when I stand up to this abuse. Something former supervisors did not do.

    Thank you for adding your voice.

  2. Pingback: Friday Recommended Reads #7 | Small Pond Science

  3. Your heartfelt and moving writing rings so true in every walk of working and personal life. Bullies will only consider changing their ways when they are confronted with the catastrophic effects of their unacceptable behaviour, not just once but many times over. No-one is all bad, bullies need our assistance to develop compassion towards others and themselves. Victims of bullying must be allowed speak out without fear of reprisal by going through the proper channels. I always advise people to keep written records of incidents and emails/texts as evidence.Also avoid meeting the bully alone- always take a friend or colleague along as a witness if possible.
    I hope all concerned in this horrible situation achieve a satisfactory resolution.

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