Monday, October 14, 2013

We're Better Than This.

Finally, we hear from Biology Online regarding the editor who called a scientist an "urban whore" when she politely declined an unpaid blogging position. An apology was posted by a site administrator this morning (read the full apology here):

"We would like to express our sincerest apologies to Danielle N. Lee (DNLee) and anyone else who may have been offended by the way our recently hired employee, Ofek, handled the conversation with her. Ofek's behaviour was completely out of line and after gathering the facts we immediately terminated his employment. Ofek failed to show the respect and prudent behavior expected of him as a contributor to Biology Online."

THIS. This is how to apologize and rectify a situation. You apologize without conditions or excuses. You deal with the inappropriate behavior in such a manner so there is no doubt of your organization's stance on an issue. You don't push ANY of the blame back onto the victim.

Kate Clancy at Scientific American delves deeper into the issue as to why so much "Twitter-rage" erupted over Scientific American's decision to pull Dr. Lee's response to the abuse by the ex-employee of Biology Online. Read it here: if you read nothing else about this incident, read this.

Dr. Clancy summarizes the situation perfectly:

"It’s a rare thing to speak up in the face of victimization. But the secondary trauma from not being believed and being silenced (pulling a post first for the reason that it is not “discovering science,” then pivoting and claiming it was for “fact-checking”) is far too common. It’s that secondary trauma from Scientific American’s actions that crush a person. Going somewhere you trust – a blog network that prides itself on inclusivity in terms of the way it has fought intolerance in the past, in the identities of its bloggers and in its allowable content – and then being shut down? It’s like going to someone you trust and being called a liar."

Why do these issues of race and gender discrimination continue to persist in academia, which one would assume is populated by people intelligent enough to avoid these pitfalls? Dr. Clancy offers this insight:

"This is why fake gender and race blindness is so problematic, it’s why not talking about whiteness and privilege is problematic. Avoiding these things is silencing to the people who need to talk about it to reset boundaries. And if we consider ourselves allies, it’s time to start talking about this stuff."

Where I live and work I am not a minority, but I will always be a woman no matter where I am in academia. I can pretend all I want that gender discrimination or gender stereotypes do not exist. I can chant "It doesn't matter, it doesn't matter" until I pass out (it may be time to break out a post or two of my experiences). I can think that my colleagues and I are intelligent enough not to let discrimination and stereotypes be an influencing factor.

Gender and race discrimination are not like the Ravenous Bugbladder Beast of Traal who believes if you can't see it, it can't see you. Ignoring the problem won't make it go away. Ignoring the problem allows it to accumulate in the dark corners like society's unsightly dust-bunnies, only to be discovered when they roll out from under the couch in front of your dinner guests. We leave ourselves in the uncomfortable position of reacting rather than acting. We sweep away the accumulated dust of the ages and pretend it was never there.

By admitting there is a problem with race and gender discrimination in academia, we are essentially admitting to ourselves that we are not intelligent enough as a community to passively weed out discrimination. Fortunately for us, we are intelligent enough to identify when a strategy is not working. If this recent incident highlights nothing else, it is that our current strategy for dealing with gender and racial discrimination in academia with fake blindness is not working.

This is not news to people like Dr. Lee, who does tremendous outreach work in STEM to engage under-represented youth. This is not news to anyone who has ever blogged about sexism or racism in academia. This is not news to all those people who provide outreach and mentorship to counteract racial and gender discrimination. However, it is still to easy for those having not experienced this kind of discrimination to dismiss these voices as being "over-sensitive", "over-emotional", or "over-reactionary", all of which are dismissive attitudes that lead to secondary victimization. They are dismissed because we believe that as scientists we are above this behavior.

We are above this behavior. So let us actively be better. As Dr. Clancy explains in her post, this will require some self reflection. Asking a question as simple as "Is there a correlation between how I behave around a colleague and the race/gender of that colleague?" is a key beginning. We examine phenomena all the time: that's what we do as scientists. Sometimes the phenomena are aesthetically unappealing. We just have to gonad up and do the work. An intelligent person doesn't want to discover that they may have behavioral traits they would attribute to the 1950s.

I want to be very clear on this next point, mostly because the most common argument I hear against focusing attention on racial and gender discrimination is that "it perpetuates an inferiority complex." Those are two different issues. A person belonging to an under-represented group in STEM does not need this attention because they lack the ability. That is ludicrous. What is lacking are support and encouragement: support and encouragement for kids everywhere to enter STEM careers, support and encouragement from role models with whom kids can identify personally, and support and encouragement for those who report discrimination are growing, but there is still a long way to go.

We can all do more. We can mentor. We can visit public schools and connect with kids. We can be vocal about our experiences in academia, no matter how uncomfortable or seemingly personal, because if it happens to a scientist it is part of life in the sciences. Our goal should be to talk gender and race discrimination to death because that is all it deserves. If we truly want to clean academia's house we'll have to air out the musty corners and deal with the dust-bunnies, because ignoring them won't make them go away.


No comments:

Post a Comment