Dr Buddhini Samarasinghe is the founder of STEM Women and is a science communicator with a background in molecular biology and cancer research. Buddhini has authored a series of articles in Scientific American, titled “The Hallmarks of Cancer.” She provides science outreach through broadcasts on YouTube. Her science writing can be found at Jargonwall. Connect with Buddhini on Google+ or on Twitter @DrHalfPintBuddy
Last Monday I had the pleasure of attending a private event organised by Digital Science. It was a round-table discussion on what inclusivity looks like in STEM, led by the lovely Amarjit Myers and Laura Wheeler. I got to meet some insightful people who had great ideas for how we can move this conversation forward. We also looked at the ever-present issue of sexual harassment in academia. With Ada Lovelace Day approaching, I wanted to write down some thoughts I had on this broad topic.
Connecting with such a broad group of women, in diverse disciplines, all passionate about the same cause made me realise how easy it is in this day and age to ‘find your tribe’ online. We have so much access to communities and support, various networks and organisations (such as this one!) that help us navigate a system that has always had structural biases that disadvantage women and people of colour. It made me consider an earlier time, and how isolated and alone a woman in STEM would have felt navigating this. Many conversations with my own mother, who is now a retired professor of Chemistry, make me appreciate how much the environment seems to have changed.
We may not have tackled all the structural biases within these systems, but we are definitely becoming more aware of them. And with that awareness we are becoming more empowered to talk about it, and as we become more vocal, we can see the effect our collective voices are starting to have. The recent legislation introduced by Congresswoman Jackie Speier in the US against sexual harassment in academia only highlights this.
The progress we have made also becomes clear when you see how well these communities function in calling out bad practice. It’s interesting to note how this happens through social media, blogs, or news organisations such as BuzzFeed, rather than traditional media outlets or even the Universities themselves. This is what we saw with cases like Geoff Marcy, Christian Ott, Michael Katze, and countless others; the ‘official’ processes (if any!) that are in place to deal with these incidents do not function as they should. We do not hear from the University of X that serial sexual harasser Professor Y has been fired—instead we have survivors banding together and coming forward with their stories about Professor Y which are reported by investigative journalists like Azeen Ghorayshi. It’s great that this happens, but by this stage, the University of X has already failed its students by not protecting them.
Even more disturbing are reports that the University of X has actively tried to cover up their investigations in order to protect Professor Y because he brings in lots of grant money. Professor Y may even end up suing the survivors for defamation, for speaking out about their experiences. This makes it obvious that University of X is continuing to fail its students.
And yet, the sheer number of people that come forward in these cases, once the gates have opened, makes it clear how widespread the harassment is, how long it has been going on for, and also how unsafe survivors feel about coming forward until there is a ‘critical mass’ that makes it socially acceptable for people to speak out. I witnessed this for myself in my experience of a serial harasser/abuser, Scott Lewis—while this did not happen in an academic setting (we were worked together in scicomms and were good friends) there are many parallels with how this happens in the astronomy/scicomm communities and in academia. I did not feel comfortable speaking publicly about what he did to me until I saw, to my shock, that there were others who were similarly affected by him.
This is why it’s so important to follow the principle of ‘if you see or hear something, say something’. Survivors of sexual harassment remain silent for so many reasons—isolation, shame, fear… all things that harassers use to continue their destructive behaviour. Coincidentally, I also read a great piece by Eve Rickert, which highlighted how complicit our society can be in providing a safe haven for these abusers to continue harassing people with impunity.
Last week I watched a documentary by Louie Theroux, about Jimmy Savile and the child rape scandal. In it, Theroux said something that struck me; “monsters don’t get close to children, nice men do”. I think the same can be said of these sexual harassment and abuse stories that we hear of so often now in STEM disciplines. The perpetrators of harassment and abuse are not monsters, they are often highly respected and inspiring figures at first. They can be our friends, colleagues, and mentors. That’s what makes it so hard if we find out that this trusted friend, colleague, or mentor has been abusing and hurting other people. The resulting cognitive dissonance keeps us from accepting that it is even possible that our trusted friend, colleague, or mentor is capable of these behaviours and therefore, we automatically ignore what we hear from survivors. We believe the excuses and explanations that the perpetrator comes up with. And I have come to realise that this is just one of the many ways that our society allows sexual harassment to go on as long as it does, and why survivors are so scared to come forward. Even when they do, we expect these survivors to shoulder the emotional labour of reaching out to other victims, talking to the media, and reliving the harassment, all while trying to hold the perpetrator accountable for what they did. And if that wasn’t enough, survivors also have to deal with those within the community who question the veracity of their experiences.
We can’t keep hiding these people—these harassers—who are also our friends, colleagues or mentors. We can’t keep living in denial about the consequences of their actions. So many talented STEM professionals have been forced to tolerate these behaviours, or worse, leave their field completely because of sexual harassment. Our silence is their weapon and our fear is their ammunition. As a community, we need to support survivors and speak out sooner. Our feminism and activism cannot end with simply sharing a BuzzFeed article once the story comes out. We need to do more before it ever gets that far.