Women in Science Communication: Two Lows and One High

I’ve been spending (too much of) my day thinking and talking/tweeting with colleagues about a couple of the pathologies that have recently reasserted themselves in the popular science communication arena.  One incident was the grotesque case in which Scientific American blogger the Urban Scientist, Danielle Lee, was called a whore for the sin of inquiring whether or not someone asking her to write stuff might actually pay for her work.  Compounding that outrage, Scientific American took down Lee’s post describing this incident for a couple of days amidst murky attempts at justification.  The original guy’s been fired from his company, I’m happy to say, and Scientific American’s leadership has made some effort to right the ship.   I may/probably will have more to say about that whole story in a little bit.  (Elon posted on this, btw.)

Then, last night, I learned of playwright and writer Monica Byrne’s post on an encounter  with the editor of Scientific American’s blog network, Bora Zivkovic, that amounted (in my view, recalling that IANAL) to sexual harassment.*   I know and have great affection for Zivkovic, which has slowed my reaction to this news (I’ve also published a couple of guest posts at Scientific American under his editorship).  But there’s no doubt either about the truth of Byrne’s account — Zivkovic has confirmed it — nor about the deeper and broader reality it reminds us exists out there.  Gender discrimination and harassment is not simply about the big obvious shit.  It’s a daily burden, driven by the fact that women in America have to be always on at least yellow alert, even in spaces and circumstances that should be/appear-to-even-well-meaning-men to be totally safe.  I’ll try to come up with something a little more thoughtful and in depth on this one too, but for now I’ll leave it at that.

I’ll add that I hope to have my thoughts in order by Wednesday, October 23, when I’ll be doing my monthly host gig at Virtually Speaking Science.  My guest will be Eileen Pollack, professor of creative writing at the University of Michigan, one  of the first women to earn a BA in physics from Yale, and the author of this New York Times Magazine piece asking why there are still so few women in science.  It’ll be at an unusual time for the show — 3 p.m. ET — but it’ll be podcast too, and I hope you’ll check it out.  We’ll have a lot to talk about.

But none of that’s what prompted me to post right now.  Rather it was my chance encounter with a right proper reclamation of the place and priority of one of the great women scientists of the 20th century, Rosalind Franklin — who happens to be a rather loosely construed family connection of mine. (Franklin was my mother’s cousin’s husband’s aunt.  My English relatives form kind of a clan and we count folks like that as kin.  Call ’em all cousins and let someone else sort  them out.)  Especially at the end of a day dealing with the recognition that my particular community is no more immune to inequity and more than any other, watching the video below offered a moment of take-that joy.

So sit back, hit play, and enjoy the new wave of science communication.  Franklin, resurrected, represents:

*To be precise.  The post was a year old.  Byrnes updated it last night to identify Zivkovic by name, a decision triggered, she wrote, on reading of Danielle Lee’s troubles at Scientific American.

28 replies
  1. 1
    piratedan says:

    thread title, was it lost in the sequester?

    nvm I see it has transitioned from the ether at last :-)

  2. 2
    Just Some Fuckhead, Thought Leader says:

    Rather it was my chance encounter with a right proper reclamation of the place and priority of one of the great women scientists of the 20th century, Rosalind Franklin — who happens to be a rather loosely construed family connection of mine. (Franklin was my mother’s cousin’s husband’s aunt. My English relatives form kind of a clan and we count folks like that as kin. Call ‘em all cousins and let someone else sort them out.)

    No, you can’t do it that way.

  3. 3

    The most wonderful bit of DNLee’s original (now reinstated) post was the photo at the very end. That facial expression makes me laugh every time – the perfect, no fuss reaction to the actions of an idiot. You don’t want none of this indeed.

  4. 4
    Tommy says:

    I might only follow this topic out of the side of my eye. But I do note that in some fields there are not many women.

    This is hard for me to wrap my mind around cause the field I worked in, well it is mostly women, and not some small field (billions and billions). And maybe at the largest firms it is mostly men running things (it is), but in the five jobs I’ve had in the field four of the owners were women. Where the owner wasn’t a women, my boss, the second in charge was a women.

    Now I get advertising isn’t physics or biology. I get the whole culture of “girls are not good at math.” But this is 2013.

    But I have hope. I don’t have children myself, but my brother a four year old. Last year they drove from IL to FL to go to Disney World. Stopped at US Space & Rocket Center in AL on the way down. After a day at Disney World she asked to go back and “see the rockets.” Her mother and father couldn’t get out of Disney World fast enough to take her back there.

    So I have hope!

  5. 5
    Tom Levenson says:

    @Sarah, Proud and Tall: Thanks for the link, which I’ve put up into the post, as I should have already.

  6. 6
    mclaren says:

    Grotesque sexist misogyny in the sciences goes way back. Emmy Noether was refused admittance as a mathematics student but audited all the courses and did so well on the final example that the university was forced to give her an undergraduate degree. She went on to get a PhD but no university would hire her as a faculty member, so she wound up as a Privatdozent, sort of the equivalent of an America TA, despite the fact that world-class mathematicians like Hermann Weyl said:

    When I was called permanently to Göttingen in 1930, I earnestly tried to obtain from the Ministerium a better position for her, because I was ashamed to occupy such a preferred position beside her whom I knew to be my superior as a mathematician in many respects. I did not succeed, nor did an attempt to push through her election as a member of the Göttinger Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften [the academy Alexandrov mentioned]. Tradition, prejudice, external considerations, weighted the balance against her scientific merits and scientific greatness, by that time denied by no one. In my Göttinger years, 1930-1933, she was without doubt the strongest center of mathematical activity there.

    Maria Goepper-Mayer was denied a professorship by Johns Hopkins University, which fact did not prevent her from doing work which won her a Nobel prize in physics.

    The chairman of the Physics Department, George Pegram arranged for her to have an office, but she received no salary. She soon made good friends with Harold Urey and Enrico Fermi, who arrived at Columbia in 1939. Fermi asked her to investigate the valence shell of the undiscovered transuranic elements. Using the Thomas–Fermi model, she predicted that they would form a new series similar to the rare earth elements. This proved to be correct.

    If you’re a woman in the sciences, bend over. You’re gonna get reamed.

  7. 7
    scav says:

    Been a while since I listened, but I think this In Our Time on Crystallography mentions Franklin, and at about 25 minutes in mentions it was a field that acquired a fair number of women early on.

  8. 8
    debit says:

    @Sarah, Proud and Tall: I love the comment questioning the use of embiggen. Sadly, no one replied with, “It’s a perfectly cromulent word.”

  9. 9
    Tommy says:

    @Tom Levenson: I saw that video yesterday via one of the “geeky” web sites I follow on technology. Have to admit I had no clue who the lady was. That they called her a “whore” I found strange to say the least. That they seemed mad she asked to be paid, or if she would be paid, was even stranger.

    Look I am all about giving back to the community and my profession, but honestly my time is money. I could do nothing but give my time and expertise back and end up living out of my car. Now as I noted above my profession is different, but to assume I’d just give my time away is staggering to me …. from a publication that is in the business of MAKING MONEY!

  10. 10
    Yatsuno says:

    @Sarah, Proud and Tall: @Tom Levenson: The khanga is beautiful, as is she. I feel bad my first encounter with her is because of this kerfluffle.

    Oh and hello dear. Day 15 of unplanned vacation.

  11. 11
    Anoniminous says:

    It’s Ada Lovelace Day:

    The annual celebration of inspiring women in science and technology

  12. 12
    cat says:

    This is yet further evidence that if a married man talks to a women about his wife he’s really hitting on them and looking to have an affair.

  13. 13
    MattR says:

    @Yatsuno: You know much about Health Reimbursement Accounts (HRAs)? I was under the impression that setting up and using an HRA is the only for a small business to make pre-tax contributions to cover an employer’s premiums for insurance bought on the individual market and that this particular feature becomes illegal under Obamacare since that HRA would now be considered a plan with an unacceptable maximum benefit limit. Does that sound right? Do you know of any way for employers to make pre tax contributions for premiums of insurance bought on the individual market and/or Obamacare exchanges?

  14. 14
    Cermet says:

    Really one of the greatest mags out there; can’t be responsible for workers actions but damn well better deal with it properly!

  15. 15
    EthylEster says:

    So now several women have (anonymously) commented that they too had conversations like Monica Byrne reports with Mr. Bora “It only happened once” Zivkovic.

    And someone in those comments has linked to another SA post on harassment that was taken down.

    You just never know who is going to turn out to be a scumbag.

  16. 16
    Tim F. says:

    Thanks so much for posting that video. I made myself promise to post that as soon as I heard about it and never forget until I did it, and then I forgot.

    Did you see that Google honored Rosalind Franklin’s bday with a custom doodle? I teared up a little.

  17. 17
    sparrow says:

    Excellent post! Of course I think so, I’m a woman in astrophysics. ;) But even if you’re not, that NYT article is good reading and really does put the proper emphasis on the main problems. (1) Women are subtly, but *continually* told that science/math is not really for them throughout their lives, in the form of harsher grading/evaluation, lack of encouragement, lack of mentoring, and even active discouragement, and (2) there are still problems with systematic biases leading to women having to do more to get less, which is also perpetuated by other women as well as men. There is also a great comment on the article which mentions that motherhood is still disproportionately a hardship for the woman, and often career-ending.

  18. 18
    Interrobang says:

    I am *seriously* disappointed by this. Years ago, Bora did me a good turn and I thought he was one of the good guys.

  19. 19
    MomSense says:

    @Sarah, Proud and Tall:

    That look is perfect!

  20. 20
    polyorchnid octopunch says:

    @Tommy: Bingo. This is it in a nutshell. That’s completely bananas.

    It’s a real shame, really; it means they’re beginning to think of you guys like you’re musicians.

    What’s the difference between a musician and an extra-large pizza?

    You can feed a family of four with an extra-large pizza.

    I could give my work away every day if I felt so inclined.

  21. 21
    Nora Carrington says:

    I’m a woman who left Philosophy — another field where women haven’t made much headway — due to garden-variety sexism. It was the double standard and twice as good not being good enough sexism, not the why aren’t you putting out, putting up with my sexualizing everything you do sexism. In my graduate career and working life as a philosopher I saw and heard about sexual harassment of other women but it didn’t, by luck, happen to me.

    I did have a much-admired and much-consulted professor from my undergraduate college tell me, when I’d gone back to my alma mater to get advice about getting an advanced degree, that he’d always seen me as a “good” lesbian, the kind who didn’t hate men. There was no context for this remark. To this day I have no idea if he was hitting on me or just being wildly inappropriately supportive, but I’m notoriously clueless reading sexual subtext anywhere, so that’s not surprising. I’d taken several classes with him and done an independent study and it had been a terrific working/mentoring relationship so I’m inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. I was still upset by it enough to go to the only woman in a department of five [that there *was* a woman in a department of five was a miracle in 1980] to get her read on it and she validated my sense that it was both an odd and creepy thing to say.

    But mostly I write to say that I’m heartened by the attitude of many of the men I’ve read over the past several days writing about the Urban Scientist and women in other fields coming forward with their stories. There’s a kind of high dudgeon that good-hearted and well-meaning men can take on around these issues that’s been refreshingly absent. I’m not seeing a lot of the attitude that used to be a common response when the initial attempt to make a connection began with “but what if it were your sister?” The men I’ve been delighted by these past few days have been some flavor of annoyed or pissed or outraged without having to desexualize the women harmed. It’s a good day on the “understanding sexual harassment” front. Which is a blessed relief since the news on the “conservatives can’t quit being racist assholes and don’t even try” front is so depressing.

  22. 22
    Drexciya says:

    In the OP Tom wrote the following:

    I know and have great affection for Zivkovic, which has slowed my reaction to this news (I’ve also published a couple of guest posts at Scientific American under his editorship). But there’s no doubt either about the truth of Byrne’s account — Zivkovic has confirmed it – nor about the deeper and broader reality it reminds us exists out there. Gender discrimination and harassment is not simply about the big obvious shit. It’s a daily burden, driven by the fact that women in America have to be always on at least yellow alert, even in spaces and circumstances that should be/appear-to-even-well-meaning-men to be totally safe.

    I realize that this might not have came out as intended, but this paragraph rubs me the wrong way. If having your professional work undermined by a more powerful party using his position to sexually petition/harass you without your consent doesn’t qualify as “big” or “obvious,” what does? I think you’re understating the cumulative effect in your attempt to acknowledge it and I’m not sure you’re capturing or appreciating the disturbing power imbalances that make such a situation possible. How do you feel about the fact that he confirmed the account, was supposedly “apologetic” and didn’t immediately resign? Does the fact that he hasn’t been fired yet say anything to you? How do you think the other women that work with him and know about this feel? Do you think they’re actually positioned to raise concerns in professionally non-damaging ways? And if not, this circles right back to the first two questions.

    Also, the daily burden is driven by the men who use their professional standing to take advantage of the women they write the paychecks/offer the promotions for. It’s driven by how enforcement bodies facilitate this kind of behavior by pretending that an acknowledgment and an apology is a sufficient means of addressing it. It’s not driven by women who are forced to be aware of their predicament and the ways men abuse it. Again, I realize that it might not have come out as intended (I’m being very charitable here), but that’s a central distinction that warrants more care than I feel was given.

  23. 23
    EthylEster says:

    @Interrobang: and your gender is?

  24. 24
    Drexciya says:

    @EthylEster

    Exactly. Surely we can drop the “But he was so nice to me!” “I never could have believed it!” nonsense for someone that’s admitted to sexual harassment. It’s…inappropriate, to say the least.

  25. 25
    sm*t cl*de says:

    The original guy’s been fired from his company, I’m happy to say

    Well, someone who runs the Biology-Online forum under a pseudonym reckons that they no longer employ someone who held the “blog editor” title under a pseudonym.

  26. 26
    Cheryl Rofer says:

    Sad that SciAm editor Mariette DiChristina blames her taking down Lee’s post on the lawyers, but hasn’t bothered to consult those same lawyers on Bora. One of the other SciAm bloggers (a man, in case you can’t guess) took us all to task over our getting upset about that pulled post. No problem, just lawerly underwear in a bunch. Keep cool, kids. Dr. Rubidium has posted a LMFTFY on that post.

    I’ve read Scientific American since I was a girl, and I’m probably almost as old as Sarah, Proud And Tall. I’m even more disappointed than I was when they stopped doing their beautiful art covers and began emulating Popular Science.

  27. 27
    Lyrebird says:

    @Cheryl Rofer: Thank you SO much for the JAYFK red-pen link, MADE MY EVENING.

    -female soc. scientist in one of the mostly-male pockets

  28. 28
    northquirk says:

    Thank you for the video link! I look forward to sharing it with my mom who has taught biology for the better part of four decades. First in a catholic school in DC, then at an alternative school in Anchorage, and now a regular public school in Austin.

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