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.

33 comments:

Papa Zu said...

Byrne is a hero to be commended for taking the risk to expose inappropriate behavior. It is disturbing to read all the Twitter support for Bora Zivkovic based on the sentiment that we are all human and we all are sinners. Can we get Chris Mooney's social scientists to investigate such irrational motivated reasoning?

Stephen Fitzpatrick said...

"highly respected within the community"
Humm... maybe it is a good time for 'highly' to change to 'not'. Poor judgment is generally considered important for professional people; Professor Maynard's wholly inappropriate email suggests that he too shares a lack of judgement. I do hope the University of MIchigan calls him out on that.

lucia said...

Good for Byrne for speaking out and naming. It's ridiculous that anyone would suggest that she not name Bora Zivkovic out of "compassion" for Bora. As far as I can see, it doesn't even matter whether one views this as a "big deal", one time thing, repeated thing or whatever:

If this is a big deal, Bora Zivkovic should be named.
If it's a repeated thing, he should be named to protect others.
If it's a one time thing, he should be named so others can come forward to clear him by telling people they've had meetings with him and he's never been a jerk.
If it's not a big deal, there is no harm in naming him.

In all cases: Better to speak out. And honestly, the web and twitter is the best place. That way people like Andrew Maynard can't get in the way by lecturing the victims on what might be "appropriate" (which, evidently is trying to see to it the the person-- here Bora-- injuring others does not suffer reputational harm associated with people other than his victims knowing he injured them.)

Fred said...

very small tempest, very large teacup.

papertiger said...

Reminds me of the Roman Polanski case.

Not the specifics of his case, but how his colleges in Hollywood said the case should be dropped because the perp is "highly respected" among his peers.

Puts a whole new spin on peer review, donut?

Andrew Maynard said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
papertiger said...

There are a couple other things going on here.

1) Because Maynard didn't want to lose a golf buddy, he's acted in such a way that there is nothing left but a bad outcome for Zuckerberg.

He's called in the full Streisand effect. Why get worked up? Bora is a bagman for a second rate outfit. I'm sure the world is full people who haven't been caught yet to replace him with. Especially when if Maynard had just turtled up, this thing would have blown over with Bora keeping his job.

It's not illegal to hit on a woman you are out to lunch with in America, i hope.

2) I don't know. Guess it had something to do with Peter Gleik, but it's stuck in my mental fog.

Maybe I just had the one point..

lucia said...

Fred
very small tempest, very large teacup.
If the tempest is very small, there can be no harm in naming Bora. :)

lucia said...

Looks like Bora Z resigned from Science Online

Ruth said...

To paraphrase Maynard's excuses for Zivkovic: "I own this hospital..." (= "my good works excuse any behaviour")

http://www.itv.com/news/2013-10-15/transcript-reveals-jimmy-saviles-denials-in-his-own-words/

Unknown said...

Logically this is absurd. Sexual harassment is a guy abusing his position to talk about sex to a women who had a different idea of what the meeting was about?

You can argue it was inappropriate but the entire reason it was sexual harassment was that she had a different idea of what the meeting was than him?

This is quite ridiculous if the standard is whenever a woman decides something is sexual harassment it is.

If he was only following her because he liked her and not because of the science she was only getting an "opportunity" as distasteful as the opportunity was. It is not reasonable to assume that no any guy you meet doesn't like you if you want him to not like you.

The only reason the meeting didn't stop cold is because she was trying to still get her paper selected. This after getting the hint that the meeting was only happening because he liked her.

This is modern sexism. The only reason this "harassment" occurs is because the guy is trying to give her an inappropriate advantage via an inappropriate proposal, but that is not disadvantageous in and of itself to her. Unless he is making it extra hard for her paper to be selected unless she goes along with him it looks rather as if she is trying to get her paper selected via a contact rather than just plain submitting it to the site knowing that the contact likes her.

Obviously what I said is beyond the pale and horrible even though it is logically sound. This type of conclusion of harassment is extremely unfair to men because it assumes them guilty unless the woman decides they are not and disallows individuals to freely converse and meet without I suppose having a contract specify beforehand what exactly the nature of the meeting will be.

Ruth said...

Unknown said: "Sexual harassment is a guy abusing his position to talk about sex to a women who had a different idea of what the meeting was about?"

Yes it is, this was not a date, it was a business meeting.

Andrew Maynard said...

Hi Roger,

To start at the end, I agree with you that this is a case worth discussing openly with students in the classroom. Certainly a valuable learning experience from multiple angles.

If I have implied that I do not think sexual harassment is important - or that suppression of the harassed (sexual or otherwise) is justified, I apologize, as this could not be further from my stance. But I do believe that great care and consideration are needed in addressing any issue that has the potential to damage people, lest in the process of protecting one victim others are inadvertently formed. And while anyone suffering from the impacts of harassment has my full and complete sympathy, I baulk at the inference in some places that white males cannot be victims as well.

To my email to Monica Byrne: As you will see on my post and the comments following, I have never been fully comfortable with sending this email. But at the same time, I felt a responsibility to do something. Remember, when I read Monica's post (link btw - I don't think you have it above: http://monicacatherine.wordpress.com/2012/10/09/this-happened/) this was not hitting people's radars. Most of the science communications community had either not seen it, or had chosen to ignore it. So there was still a small window of opportunity for things to play out along different paths.

In reading her post, I was faced with (at the time) a single account of an uncomfortable encounter with a person who has - in his professional life - encouraged and supported a massive wave of public communication about science and about the challenges of being involved in science. This has included promoting minorities and minority issues within the community and beyond. The account revealed highly personal information about his life and his relationship with his wife. While anonymous it was a highly important account of the too-often harassment women receive from people who should know better. But in naming the perpetrator, it also had the potential to undermine a tremendous amount of good work (in my judgement) within the science and science communication community, as well as destroying relationships.

Are these reasons for Monica to not have named the person? That has to be her judgement call. But having read the piece, and as a member of the community affected, where does my responsibility lie? The only recourse I could see at the time was to advocate for compassion and consideration. This was not to bury the matter, but to find a way forward that supported the victim and other victims, without creating a wave of collateral damage that people, with hindsight, would deeply regret.

I couldn't do this publicly, as then I would become a positive agent in propagating the collateral damage I feared. Hence a personal email to raise my concerns - not from a position of authority (although Googling me would establish who I am) or through a desire to protect inappropriate behavior, but as an attempt to try and support a way toward effective resolution.

And my "outing" of the email - this was simply me placing my writing and thinking in the public domain, as the emails contents were being discussed.

I can understand why some - a lot of people going by the comments I see - consider this to be a highly inappropriate move that potentially led to secondary trauma. If it did, I am sorry - that was not my attempt. But I would like someone to provide a reasoned and practicable description of how online community members best respond to public allegations that have the potential to cause great damage if they go viral. It may be that picking sides early and pushing the issue is the way to go. Or remaining a spectator. I honestly don't know. But I do know that it is immensely painful to sit and watch people's lives pulled apart - and more so knowing that you could have sone something to intervene, but didn't.

(resubmitted comment with paragraph formatting corrected)

Ralph Snyder said...

Thank you for this piece. Sexual harassment is too often hidden away, minimized or made the victim's fault. Instead you have dealt with it head on calmly and sensibly and you have encouraged others to do likewise. I particularly liked, "Ack." It was informal, eloquent, concise and vivid.

Roger Pielke, Jr. said...

Housekeeping: #13 replaces #6 at the request of Andrew Maynard. Thanks!

Stephen Fitzpatrick said...

Andrew Maynard,
"It may be that picking sides early and pushing the issue is the way to go. Or remaining a spectator. I honestly don't know."
Funny, seems pretty clear to me. Unless you have substantive factual information related directly to the the incident in question ("he was in a meeting with me that afternoon, not with her"), you should remain a spectator. If the accused is not guilty, let him/her defend him/her self. It does not matter if the accused person writes beautiful music or is a gifted mathematician, surgeon, or anything else. A jerk is a jerk and ought suffer the consequences.

n.n said...

Innocent until proven guilty. An assertion cannot be admitted as evidence. It can, however, prompt an investigation. The desire to protect an alleged victim cannot take precedence over preserving the rights of an alleged offender.

That said, Zivkovic has accepted responsibility by issuing a formal apology. While this case is closed, the treatment of future conflicts must ensure that the rights of both parties are preserved and each is treated equally. We should refrain from repeating past mistakes where there was generic exploitation of males and heterosexual relationships.

lucia said...

Andrew,
But I would like someone to provide a reasoned and practicable description of how online community members best respond to public allegations that have the potential to cause great damage if they go viral.
Silence on these things currently causes great damage. If your concern is damage, maybe you should suggest what sort of "due process" should be undertaken to achieve an appropriate "resolution" when allegations against anonymous people arise. You seem to repeat the possibility that hypothetically something could be done. But the reality is that your community did not exactly jump into action a year ago when Monica first described this story, and your letter suggested nothing other than not naming Bora Z. Moreover, in your letter to Monica, your stated reasons for not naming Bora Z were to protect Bora Z. You letter suggested nothing that might be done to undo damage of Bora Z's actions and you suggest nothing even now.

I suspect you suggest nothing because notwithstanding your desire to suggest that hypothetically something might be done, doing something other than protecting Bora (or members of your 'science communication community') is very low on your list of priorities.

I realize that somehow you might think Bora Z suffering the consequences of people learning how Bora Z behaves toward women is "collateral damage". But this seems not such a problem given that to some extent people's high opinions of Bora Z is to some extent based on their ignorance of his behavior and so unjustified. In contrast, the damage or potential damage of his behavior to those around him occurs, but I guess that sort of 'collateral damage" associated with keeping people ignorant of his behavior is someone not real damage? Or something.

Anyway, over all, I think your self justification seems shallow. My impression is you reacted quickly to protect a member of your community who you knew and you prefer to over look real or hypothetical harms that might befall members who did not make it into the group you consider your community. That's about it.

Kip Hansen said...

RP Jr -- Thanks for

Housekeeping: #13 replaces #6 at the request of Andrew Maynard. Thanks!

Otherwise, I might have thought Maynard had at first submitted something that was inappropriate!

Kip Hansen said...

In reply to Maynard:

[ One of my main interests is Public Ethics -- behavior of persons that that takes place where we can all see--it includes professional ethics as well. I have done professional ethics counseling. ]

In my opinion, you would have better emailed Zivkovic with advice on how to handle his very questionable to abominable behavior -- implicitly sexual harassment. It might have been appropriate to call him and advise him to immediately contact Byrne with a full and abject apology. You might have suggested he resign from positions that tempt him to sexual harassment. But NEVER could it be justified to first attempt to ask the victim to participate in a coverup.

Your internal ethics compass is seriously out of adjustment.

Bob K said...

Monica Byrne didn’t out Bora until the 14th and I see Maynard says he emailed Monica on the morning of the 14th. I'd be interested in knowing who called Maynard’s attention to Monica’s update so quickly? It's not likely he closely follows her blog.

Andrew Maynard said...

@Bob K - Monica updated the blog post on the 13th and tweeted under the #istandwithdnlee hashtag, connecting Bora - this is how I picked it up. She updated the header on the 14th

Bob K said...

Andrew Maynard,

Thanks for clearing that up. I was mystified by the short time frame in which you able to email Monica.

The nose is one of the body parts which continues to grow until the day you die. I guess the older you get the more likely you are to stick it somewhere inappropriately.

gemberyl said...

Quote: "13. Andrew Maynard said...
Hi Roger,

"...The account revealed highly personal information about his life and his relationship with his wife. While anonymous it was a highly important account of the too-often harassment women receive from people who should know better. But in naming the perpetrator, it also had the potential to undermine a tremendous amount of good work (in my judgement) within the science and science communication community, as well as destroying relationships..." end quote.

Your description above gives the appearance that Monica wrote her sad interchange with Bora up, naming him immediately.

Monica's blog description was apparently very careful about keeping the offender anonymous. A year later and Monica filled in the missing name and unsurprisingly another victim shows up. The year may be necessary for Monica to gain some trust and confidence again, at least to banish the nightmare back to darkness.

Whatever post it is that caused Monica to realize Bora's secret is not and never should be Monica's secret, I am glad it did.

Truth should always out as lies are never beaten by silence.

gemberyl said...

Oops, I see that many covered the same concerns while I was typing and arguing with the login prompts

lucia said...

A year later and Monica filled in the missing name and unsurprisingly another victim shows up
In the original blog post, Monica suggested people who might have had similar experiences contact her. I suspect some did so and that by the time she named Bora she had strong reason to believe that his behavior was not a one time thing. Of course I could be mistaken-- but the fact that another woman stepped forward after the revelation suggests that this really was not a one time thing.

I think Andrew for some mysterious reason thought his judgement formed with little to know information other than Bora is an insider in Andrews "community" somehow must be 'better' than Monica's. And he thought this despite the obvious evidence in Monica's post and comments thread that sufficient time had passed for Monica to learn quite a bit more than Andrew who had never done anything to investigate this issue could possibly know.

Paul Matthews said...

In August, SciAm ran a blog post on sexual harassment from a victim. The organisation where the perpetrator worked wrote to SciAm asking for three 'corrections' to be made (at least one of which seems to be bogus). Rather than add the corrections, SciAm deleted the post entirely.
There's a copy of it here

Joseph O'Sullivan said...

Unknown #11
"This is quite ridiculous if the standard is whenever a woman decides something is sexual harassment it is."

The harassee to be held to a reasonable person standard, so it is not just anything a harassee might believe.

lucia said...

Unknown #11
This is modern sexism. The only reason this "harassment" occurs is because the guy is trying to give her an inappropriate advantage via an inappropriate proposal, but that is not disadvantageous in and of itself to her.
If the guy is trying to give her an inappropriate advantage at SciAm by making an inappropriate proposal, he is abusing his power at SciAm.

But you also seem to be jumping to the conclusion that Bora must have been offering inappropriate advantages to women whose talents were insufficient to merit publishing in SciAm. It's equally possible that Bora identified women who were qualified, and made contact with these qualified women (as required by his job) and then put himself in a position to "help" them -- but only if they put up with his behavior. So none of the women were getting inappropriate advantages at all: Instead, they were being forced to put up with unwanted and unwarranted behavior to obtain 'advantages' that were entirely appropriate. That is: jobs they were suited for, and which SciAm actually needs to fill with qualified people. And which SciAm pays BoraZ to identify and find.

As it happens, a year later, Monica seems to have established herself as a playwright and author-- with her plays being produced and a book contract with Little Brown under her belt with out the assistance of resorting to accepting the "inappropriate advantage" you seem to think Bora Z was offering her.

lucia said...

If Monica hadn't named Bora, we probably wouldn't have learned this

https://medium.com/the-power-of-harassment/3e809dfadd77
After a few moments of walking, Bora said to me, apropos of nothing: “I have not had sex with my wife for seven years.”
It gets worse.

stfriedman said...

Lucia, thank you for saying how I feel only more eloquently. The Good Old Boy system is alive and well, and individuals in it can't even see it. In 2012. Sigh.

Abdul Abulbul Amir said...

12. Ruth, it was a business meeting in the mind of one of the partici

lucia said...

Looks suspiciously like Maynard is unreformed

https://twitter.com/2020science/status/392028998563155968
@Sheril_ @hildabast @sethmnookin @davidmanly @BoraZ Desperately sad - well meaning but oh so destructive w/o consideration & process

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