Conference coverage: Opinion, diversity and harassment sessions

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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.