Update: A group of us has drafted an open letter to the leadership of ScienceOnline, outlining what we think is best for the group. It may answer some of the open questions in this post, and those people have asked me.
[What follows is my opinion and mine only. I speak for nobody in the leadership or community of ScienceOnline, so what follows should be taken in that spirit.]
One of the hardest things about dealing with sexual harassment in an organization is its invisibility. If leaders harass members or support harassers over those who were harassed, or if the general culture of the organization shouts down those who speak out, then who can blame victims for keeping silent? The privacy of the victim is also important: if a harasser is reported and removed from the organization, it’s possible that people not directly involved in the incident may never know why.
Those of us who attended ScienceOnline 2014 last weekend saw this play out in every way. Three women came forward last fall, revealing that Bora Zivkovic, a former leader of the conference and community, had harassed them. I hate that this even needs saying, but I believe their testimony and honor how difficult it is to tell stories this painful and private. Between public and private conversations, other members of the community identified other harassers, both sexual harassers and a few who generally harassed those who speak out.
Men — including myself — are often unaware of harassment, either through missing the subtle signs or deliberate turning of a blind eye. I know, because I’ve been there, and it’s really painful to realize that you’re missing out on or even complicit to something that’s blatantly obvious to women who are sensitized by constant exposure to bad behavior.
Just because you don’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not real. Women sometimes share testimony and the identity of harassers with other women, to support each other, warn potential victims, or to provide solidarity in a hostile environment. However, it’s never safe to assume that people see harassment when it happens (or worse, assume others think it’s real or important), which makes it all the more important to address the issue openly and honestly.
In the case of ScienceOnline, many participants in the conference were new, and of that group many didn’t know what was going on. And how should they? ScienceOnline, unlike most professional societies, doesn’t have a regular membership newsletter; for that matter, it doesn’t have any kind of formal membership. That lack of information made many feel very left out and excluded from the community, when others talked about it (or worse, hinted about it using coded language).
So, let me state it outright: I think it was a mistake that the leadership of ScienceOnline to not make a public statement in the general session on the first day. By summarizing the situation in some way, naming the invisible elephant in the room rather than just saying “something happened”, they could make sure everyone knows what is going on, and make clear what steps are being taken to make sure any current or future harassment is taken care of. Instead, nobody said anything except in the vaguest terms, the “boundaries” session moderator had her facts wrong when she summarized the case, and we felt forced to create a special session — which not everyone knew about or was able to attend — to speak openly about the problem. (I attended both of these sessions, but as always I can speak only for myself.)
I think we all want the same thing in the end: we want to spend our time talking about science communication, not harassment. The difference lies in how we want to accomplish that, and whether we think the leadership of ScienceOnline is adequately helping the organization and wider community overcome its problems. I know some think we’ve done enough and should move on now. Many others (myself included) think we need to do better; see Jamie Vernon’s essay for one perspective.
I am also worried that the harassment responders were not given formal training by professionals; instead, they were given basic instructions and turned any reports over to the organization leadership. I don’t fault the responders themselves, who were dedicated volunteers operating in good faith. The solution is to draw on the experience of other organizations in dealing with harassment and damage control; ScienceOnline doesn’t need to reinvent anything. Taking concrete actions rather than symbolic ones seems to be necessary to maintain trust.
We have a collective duty to make what is currently invisible as visible as possible. Right now, I feel that we’re stuck as an organization, and until we can address harassment openly and visibly, it’s hard to say our conferences are safe. And I don’t mean just safe in the literal physical sense, but also in the sense that we can talk about what happened. Ironically, by not opening it up early in a large group, we had to focus on it more individually in private — expending far more time and energy on it than if we had just dealt with it first.
ScienceOnline is an odd thing: it’s a professional organization (albeit one without membership or a formal institution), a set of conferences, and a social network of sorts. It caters both to those (like me) who work from home and have very little face-to-face contact with colleagues, and those who work out of offices or labs. It encompasses those who primarily want to make professional contacts, and those who just need to know that others like themselves exist. (I’m in both of those categories.)
There are downsides to the oddity as well. We lack a formal hierarchy, yet we have unelected leadership that plans nearly every detail about our flagship conference (including who attends), and certainly some people are Big Names with louder voices than others. That means some people may feel they can’t speak up, or if they do speak up their voices won’t be heard — and unfortunately that is sometimes true, despite good intentions. We have to acknowledge the inequality in the community, especially if we want to eliminate it; pretending it doesn’t exist doesn’t help stop harassment.
Nevertheless, I’m hopeful. I believe in us, as a community if not as an organization. Based on observations (as an outsider) of the problems in the skeptics community, and the issues of sexism in the gaming and comics communities, we seem to be doing better at acknowledging what’s wrong and working to fix it. In some ways we’re still learning who we want to be, and figuring out if that’s even possible. Maybe it isn’t, but if we fail, let it not be from keeping our problems invisible.
- Friends and longtime readers of this blog know that Bora helped me personally when I was getting started in science writing, something he did for many others. That’s a major reason for feelings of hurt and betrayal (not to mention denial) among many of us in the community. It’s another reason why harassment is so difficult: the harasser may be capable of great good toward some even while hurting others. Yet, the good deeds don’t offset the damage — and the damage goes far beyond the individuals Bora targeted, since it involves a betrayal of trust across the entire community.
- One of the latter in particular has posed as a voice of reason, while bullying and swearing at women he perceives as vulnerable. Harassment is not just sexual harassment.
- I have been honored by several women who have taken me into their confidence about their own experiences. That means in a small way I’ve been able part of communications most men aren’t privy to. I mention this not to brag but because I’m not sure many men are even aware these conversations happen.
- There’s more to say on this topic, but the stories aren’t mine to tell. One hard thing is to acknowledge that, despite my personal interest in the situation, it’s not really about me.