Are women caught more often at the intersection of diversity and power?
by Shannon Palus
A large number of women are entering the world of science journalism in America, and a survey conducted by two University of Wisconsin Madison students shows that the overwhelming majority of students in master’s science writing programs are female.
But like many spaces, it remains a male-dominated one: only 38% of science articles are written by women. At the tops of the major science magazine mastheads, men outnumber women 2-to-1. Women are featured less in anthologies. Women are cited far less as sources. And nearly 40% report having been harassed. Add to this the anecdotes of last fall, in which an editor at Scientific American stepped down admist several reports involving harassment. There is a clear problem. A largely female section of the science writing community gathered for two days in Boston to discuss it, at the first Science Writing Solutions Summit.
Harassment happens at the intersection of diversity and power. Diversity, specialist Gwen Cochran Hadden tells us in a morning Saturday session, is more than just about maleness and femaleness, black and white. We are diverse in the way we talk, the way we great co-workers versus friends, the way we smile, or don’t, in job interviews, the way we dress. Some of us are “high context”: We are used to interacting with lots of people; others are “low context,” preferring to work alone. What some of us find rude — perhaps, a coworker failing to make eye contact in the hall — others might find normal. How we conduct ourselves varies across generations and regions. Hadden encouraged us to keep gender out of it, but women, it seems to me, are held to a higher standard of being “high context” and “nice.”
“Everybody is different in some way,” says Hadden. “So look inside yourself, and ask yourself the question, and say “different from what?’”
The answer became clear to me in the second session of the day: We are different from someone called the “reasonable person.”
“Very few people get up planning to harass,” explained harassment specialist Debora Bloom. Instead, harassment is the product of miscommunication, misaligned expectations — a diversity in how we expect to interact with the world. Thus, the line between harassment and not is fuzzy. It varies by city (what is appropriate office artwork in New York City might be scandalous in Mormon Utah), by age, by race, by gender. The question to ask is, “Would a reasonable person, in the context, consider this bad behavior?”
If we take Hadden’s assessment that we interact with each other in the world in a diversity of ways, then where on the map of interacting do we place Bloom’s “reasonable person”?
A famous math mathematician spent our conversation staring at my chest. An amateur comedian at the undergrad department talent show tells jokes about getting head. Someone at work calls me “sweetheart.”
In each of theses cases, and many others, I tame my reaction with the same mantra: Be reasonable. In each case that I decide to speak up, the assessment of my ability to “be reasonable” is often-to-invariably met with the same verdict: “You’re not.”
The “reasonable” sort of person is one with privilege. He is someone who does not have to worry about whether threatening remarks on the internet are empty; the sort of person who does not grow up being characterized by his body, told that his chest or lack thereof might say something deeply personal about him. A woman shares her story of being 25 and having a male colleague send an invitation to model for a foot fetish website. Privilege is being able to register that as a reasonably funny joke.
In our own community, according to the University of Wisconsin survey, “overall, men and women agreed on what [kinds of] behavior is inappropriate.” Yet, the survey comments reveal a “gray area”: “It depends,” responded a female in her 50s. “Context is key,” noted a man of the same age.
There are lots of women in science writing, as evidenced by the survey numbers and hundred or so that came to the conference. But our context, our location, is still “boys club.” I’m willing to bet that most of the Summit attendees know this. It’s something that everyone else should be vigilant about, too.
The weekend of June 14 and 15 in Cambridge, MA, members of the science writing community came together at the Women In Science Writing Solutions Summit to discuss how to go about achieving gender equity and eliminating sexual harassment within the field. Consultant Debora Bloom led the session “Sexual Harrassment: Recognizing and Addressing It,” and gave some helpful advice on what to do when one is harassed in an office environment, but ultimately left freelancers feeling unaccounted for.
Bloom began her session by asking the audience, “How many of you have experienced what you would call harassment?”
Many in the crowded room raised their hands.
This echoed the data compiled in a survey of science writers by Karen Hess and Aparna Vidyasagar, two graduate students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Out of the 315 women and 96 men who were included in the analysis, 37.5 percent of women in the survey said they had been harassed, while 8.3 percent of men said they had been harassed.
“There is a question about what the difference is between harassment and inappropriate behavior. There is no exact line; it’s a fuzzy line,” Bloom said.
This statement, too, was mirrored by Hess and Vidyasagar’s data; although many of the 422 respondents agreed that “sexual advances” constitute sexual harassment (93.8 percent of women and 91.9 percent of men), a lack of context kept made it difficult for many to decide whether physical contact, jokes, remarks and personal stories could be characterized as harassment.
During the session, Bloom gave attendees a series of seven broad situations that had to do with various harassment issues; attendees then had to decide whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement. For example, “Whether or not someone has been sexually harassed depends on what the supposed victim considers reasonable behavior.”
As people debated each situation, it became clear just how muddy the issue of sexual harassment is. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act states that sexual harassment is a form of discrimination; Bloom defined sexual harassment as being “unwelcome sexual advances, a request for sexual favors and other physical or verbal conduct of a sexual nature” that interfere with the ability of a person to do his or her job. However, Bloom said the interpretation of specific instances as “harassment” remains at the discretion of the companies themselves and is dependent upon the laws of the states the companies reside in.
Bloom offered guidelines for what a person should do if he or she believes her or she is being harassed, including assessing the situation, taking direct action, documenting the problem, reporting continued inappropriate behavior and mobilizing allies when appropriate. But these suggestions seem to mainly operate within the sphere of a company that has a human resources department; as many people in the session pointed out, freelancers may not have access to the power of the human resources department, a source could be the harasser, or the harassment could occur out of the office, such as at a conference. It was unclear the chain of command people should go through to seek help in these science journalism-specific situations.
Alexandra Branscombe, a public information intern at the American Geophysical Union, was surprised at the lack of resources science writers have to combat these situations, but believes part of the solution is identifying where the disparities lie.
“What surprised me was how much nuance there is in science writing, journalism and especially freelancing, with what your claims can be for a sexual harassment or inappropriate behavior, what kind of grounds you have to stand on and who your allies are . . .” Branscombe said. “It’s so case-dependent that it’s kind of intimidating. I was surprised about the lack of resources there are to protect people in these situations.”
Freelancer Matthew Francis echoed this sentiment, saying that because of how “professionally diverse” the community is, it may be difficult to find a blanket solution that covers everyone. However, he thought a freelancer’s union or organization might help.
“If you were a reporter and you were harassed by a professor at a conference, then having somebody with a bit of clout to call up that university’s ombudsman’s office and file a formal complaint, that can mean a lot, just to know somebody’s got your back . . . It wouldn’t solve all problems, but it seems like if we don’t have companies that are sticking up for us, we need to stick up for ourselves,” Francis said.
Some of the other suggestions for rectifying the situation included remaining vigilant as allies and advocates and calling out sexual harassment when it occurs, as well as making the sexual harassment policies of each media organization easier to find online.
“It would be helpful if, as editors, we made sure there is language in our contracts for the expectations of people who are representing us in the field, and also how we expect those people to be treated during the reporting process,” Jennifer Bogo, executive editor of Popular Science, said.
She added that she hoped staffers and freelancers would come to her, as a representative of her organization, if sexual harassment did occur, whether out in the field or within the workplace.
“It would be helpful to bring some of those policies up into the light so we know what the chain of response is and what our expectations are,” Bogo said.
Clearly, the science writing community has a long way to go in order to stamp out sexual harassment, but the Women In Science Writing Solutions Summit allowed the community to understand the gaps in protection against sexual harassment and discuss solutions that will help everyone, from freelancers to staffers, feel safe as they write about science.