Science, social media and sexual harassment

By Peter Griffin 17/10/2013

Like myself, many who work in and around science will have been shocked and dismayed at the controversy that has engulfed Scientific American and its blogs editor Bora Zivkovic in the last week.

If you aren’t up to date, this cringeworthy incident started here with the deplorable treatment of science writer Dr. Danielle N. Lee by an editor at the website and quickly unravelled to engulf the managing editor of Scientific American and more significantly, Zivkovic, a scientist and leading science blogger and proponent of social media’s role in communicating science.

The Biology Online debacle, in which an online editor referred to Dr Lee as an “urban whore” has been dealt with – the editor was fired and the management unreservedly apologised to Dr. Lee.

Scientific American‘s role in the affair – its editors pulled Dr. Lee’s blog outlining the bizarre Biology Online exchange from their site, has also been resolved, albeit messily with Scientific American having learnt some painful lessons in the process.

What hasn’t been resolved is an issue that the DNLee incident brought to light – a year-old allegation of sexual harassment levelled at Zivkovic by writer and playwright Monica Byrne. Dismayed by the DNLee affair, Byrne this week outed Zivkovic as the man making the creepy and inappropriate advances during a business meeting she had with him last year. Zivkovic has confirmed the incident took place and apologised, offering by way of explanation:

It was a difficult time for me personally and I made a mistake – I should not have shared my personal issues with her. It is not behavior that I have engaged in before or since.

However, the issue has ballooned online as two related narratives emerge – comments left on Byrne’s blog and elsewhere suggest Zivkovic has a track record of this type of inappropriate behaviour and the science community has been accused of closing ranks to protect Zivkovic, who is known for  supporting emerging science writers and bloggers all over the world.

I know Bora – as he is universally known, only peripherally – I had a long Skype call with him a couple of years ago in which he generously gave me valuable advice about a science book project I was working on. But some of our Scibloggers know him personally and count him as a friend. He is the co-founder of Science Online, a leading annual conference that attracts a who’s-who of scientists and science communicators.

Today Science Online announced his resignation from the board of directors.

This is a major fall for a prominent member of the science community.

It may well get worse for Bora – his position at Scientific American is looking increasingly tenuous as the tone of online commentary grows increasingly hostile towards him.

Some friends and colleagues have publicly expressed their support for Bora while at the same time deploring his actions, a position others see as incongruous.

This chain of events seems to have opened a festering sore and emboldened people to discuss the sexual harassment and misogyny some see as being widespread in science.

Recently, the US scientist Dr Pamela Gay visited New Zealand for the New Zealand Skeptics’ conference and during a panel discussion I chaired, expressed her dismay at the sexual harassment of women in the US skeptics community.

Social media and the web in both these cases have become a safe channel to air grievances, recount experiences and, yes, point the finger.

Women who have been sexually harassed are reluctant to out the offender to their superiors for fear of repercussions. That’s understandable. I wonder whether this is an even bigger issue in a small scientific community like New Zealand, where options for career progression are more limited than in the US.

But nevertheless, what I find quite alarming is the unsubstantiated rumours and allegations now being levelled at Zivkovic widely across the web:

Byrne’s post – and Zivkovic’s admission, seem to have given people license to dish the dirt in the comments sections of blogs and in tweets and Google+ updates.

Another science blogger has since outlined a “not quite harassment” incident involving Zivkovic that made her uncomfortable. Was it truly inappropriate behaviour? Read and judge for yourself – that’s what the writer seems to be encouraging us to do.

A man whose reputation has largely been built online (Zivkovic has around 25,000 Twitter followers) now has a reputation, warranted or not, as a serial sexual harasser.

Some will say he deserves everything he gets, he’s already owned up to inappropriate behaviour in relation to Monica Byrne.

But the right thing for those making allegations from the safety of cyberspace is to now formalise it – go to his superiors, make a formal complaint.

This whole chain of recent events forms the inciting incident, but it needs to end with a decent examination of the other allegations if its to be anything other than trial by social media with the scientific community eating one of its own.

0 Responses to “Science, social media and sexual harassment”

  • A good piece, Peter, thanks! As someone who’s had dealings with Bora, I’ve always found him to be unfailingly pleasant. I’m also glad to see he’s unapologised unreservedly for the incident with Byrnes, rather than attempting to deflect.

    Given how inflamed emotions are at present, I’ll probably refrain from saying much further at this juncture, except to point out that social media does have a habit of, as you say, eating its own. While I am absolutely against the gaslighting of women in any way (as someone who’s gone through it myself a bunch), I also hope that, when things cool down, Bora’s significant contribution to the science community, and science communication, will not be forgotten.

  • totally agree Aimee, things will cool down and sense will prevail (I hope).