Scientific American Blog Editor Leaves Over Sexual Harassment Allegations

By Liz Schmitt 10-22-2013
Monica Byrne's blog
Monica Byrne's blog

Last week I found out about the unfolding cases of sexual harassment by a respected science blogger and the head of Scientific American’s blog, Bora Zivkovic. It shocked me because I’ve met the man, though I don’t know him well. And so I read the accounts of the three women science bloggers who exposed him. Thefirst one shocked me and made me angry. And the second one shocked me further, because she wrote of the harassment continuing at a conference I attended. It happened right under my nose.

Women are an important part of the science community, but there’s a group of powerful men who are gatekeepers, and some of them use this power as a tool to be overtly sexual with female bloggers looking to advance their writing careers in the science community. The allegations regarding Bora Zivkovic seem to be hard for many in the science community to swallow because he has been a vocal supporter of women’s importance in the field and has actively nurtured the careers of many bloggers.

About a year ago, Monica Byrne wrote a post on her blog about her experience being sexually harassed by a prominent man in the science community, but kept his identity a secret. After several commenters led her to believe that she was not alone, she released his name last week. Bora responded by acknowledging the harassment and apologizing, and on his blog he said, “It is not behavior that I have engaged in before or since.” Yet two other women came forward in the days that followed.

As the stories go, at science conferences, he’d find an excuse to spend time alone, during which he would continually bring the conversation toward sex, complaining about his disappointing sex life with his wife. According to the women, he would sometimes kiss them women on the forehead, slap them on the ass, hug them just a little too long. The concept is not a far-fetched one – that a man would use his position of power to get women talking to him, and to use the circumstances to get away with inappropriate comments, kisses, etc. This is a concern wherever men tend to have more leadership positions, although it’s not confined to men – another woman in the science community wrote on her blog of a mortifying instance of sexual harassment from a woman.

In these women’s blog posts, which I encourage you to read, and in the discussion happening among the science community over Twitter and blogs and I’m sure in emails and meetings, there’s a common theme: the problem was they weren’t sure they were being harassed. And that uncertainty led to a hesitancy to speak up, as well as self-doubt, as expressed by one of the bloggers who called his behavior “ not-quite-harassment:”

“Did I imagine that? Was he trying to sleep with me? And then: Am I actually any good at writing, or was he just supporting me because he was sexually interested in me?”

The more I think about it, the more upset I get. Twitter makes me even more upset, as many in the community rush to Zivkovic’s defense, saying things like “Overkill & inflammatory. His 10K good things are not washed away by a judgment error.” Many others declared Zivkovic’s behavior unacceptable, and there were a lot of thoughtful responses. But with a man dearly loved and well known in his field, the quickness of so many to display their loyalty – in some cases saying, yes, this is wrong, but it should not ruin his career – is astonishing. What of the careers of all the women like Monica Byrne? What of the careers of the women who wanted to write for Scientific American, but had a feeling that the gatekeeper was a creep, so they never took their shot? There are a lot of missed opportunities here – opportunities for Zivkovic to be a real, effective, honest advocate for gender parity in the science community; opportunities for unknown numbers of women to hit their stride in science blogging; opportunities for women like Byrne to tell their stories without backlash, without victim blaming, without unconscious and conscious sexism affecting their daily lives and careers.

There are a lot of problems at work here. First is the legitimate fear of backlash that keeps many people who are subjected to sexual harassment from ever speaking out. A woman in the science blog community posted this cartoon that sums things up nicely, so I won’t try to compete with that.

The second problem is how easy it is for harassers to get away with bad behavior for so long. As blogger Christie Wilcox points out, she always had her suspicions about Zivkovic, but simply avoided him. I wonder how many times we see questionable behavior and just think, “he’s a creep,” and avoid him without thinking about reporting suspicious behavior. But it can be so hard to prove that something substantial did happen, and the risks involved in outing a potential harasser, especially a popular one like Zivkovic, are great (see the cartoon linked above).

And finally, many of these women talk about how they weren’t sure if it was harassment. I’m struck on two fronts. First, I can relate, because I have been out with men who offered me a networking opportunity or career advice and, without my permission or desire, used that meeting as a pretense for a date. It’s incredibly difficult to network in your field and communicate to men (and women, for that matter) that you are interested in a professional connection, but not a sexual one. But on the other hand, reading these women’s stories, it’s so clear that their reported experiences equaled harassment. From their own accounts, he was kissing them, touching them inappropriately, making sexual advances and talking about sex, all of it unwelcomed. Maybe when everyone hears “sexual harassment,” they think “sexual assault” – one of the women said he hadn’t touched her inappropriately, but there’s a difference between touch and assault or rape. Maybe the problem is that we’re so used to being seen as sexual objects first and professionals second that we think it’s acceptable. We don’t cry foul when men equate “here’s my card” with “I want to go home with you.” It seems to me we are in dire need of education that better informs us about sexual harassment so that we don’t second-guess ourselves when we see it or experience it. We also need to start supporting those on the receiving end when they speak up, because, as with rape, the consequences facing the accuser are often worse than those facing the accused. This power imbalance needs to change: not only do men have more high-level positions, but they also have more safety to use their positions to sexually harass women.

It’s going to take a lot more courage and truth telling if we are to keep advancing women in fields where their input is so needed. But the truth-telling must come from the men in the room, too. Bora Zivkovic was dismissed from the board of ScienceOnline, the community he helped build, and on Friday, he resigned fromScientific American. Byrne and other women bloggers like her face backlash, but they also have received praise, and personally I am thankful that they took such risks. The blogging world may be the perfect place for giving one’s testimony as someone targeted with sexual harassment, because although the Internet can be a cruel place, a blogger can set her own rules. I particularly like how Byrne closed her blog post:

“As for the incident itself, I’m not interested in discussing the topic beyond this post. This is my account. It’s enough. As for the court of public opinion, if responses to this post run along the lines of questioning my character, integrity, motives, history, body, looks, or making blacklist threats or death threats or rape threats, well, have fun. I won’t be reading or responding, because I have a truly wonderful life to get back to. Truth hath a quiet breast.”

Liz Schmitt is Creation Care Campaign Associate for Sojourners.

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