Brain States

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Sexism and sexual harassment rock the science writing world

A bizarre internet drama has been playing out in science writing circles recently. A Scientific American blogger posted about a sexist and super unprofessional email she received from an editor at Biology Online after she refused to write for them (for free). The name of her blog is The Urban Scientist. The offending editor suggested that she was, in fact, an “Urban whore”.

Scientific American pulled the blog post within an hour, but later put it back up and offered both an apology and an unsatisfying explanation that they’d pulled it because the post was not about science. They verified the e-mail and the offending editor was fired by Biology Online. Case closed.

Nah, just kidding.  When things like this happen in a professional community, there is always a backlash.  In this case, the backlash has overwhelmed the original story. Another blogger, after reading the revelation on The Urban Scientist, was reminded of her own encounters with sexual harassment in the science writing community and decided it was time to point the finger. Turns out her harasser was the Scientific American blog editor Bora Zivkovic, author of A Blog Around The Clock.  Mr. Zivkovic has many friends in the community, and many of them were shocked by the allegation and thought that Mr. Zivkovic should not have been publicly called out on his behavior because of the impact that it has on his career.

Mr. Zivkovic apologized immediately and stated that it was an isolated incident. But then at least two more women decided to state publicly that the incident was not isolated, and that. Mr. Zivkovic had harassed them as well at professional conferences. The abuse was predominately verbal – he talked at length about the unhappiness of his marriage and its lack of sexual activity, about how he was a very sexual person and was considering affairs (hint, hint).  These are fine topics to discuss with a close friend or a therapist, but they are not appropriate to hash out with someone who you’ve just met, or someone who is seeking your help in advancing their career. Which is what Mr. Zivkovic did.

Mr. Zivkovic is no longer employed by Scientific American, and he has resigned from the board of a conference that he helped to create. An editorial was published in Nature condemning Mr. Zivkovic’s behavior and stating that science cannot afford to lose women to such “boorishness.”  The Nature editorial makes the issue so simple- but in comments all around the internet, there are still fights going on, with some still doubting that what Mr. Zivkovic did was wrong.

Mr. Zivkovic’s defenders make me certain that this type of harassment will happen again, because for those people, his behavior is not perceived as being out of line. Certainly, we must acknowledge that we humans are sexual by nature.  The goal is not to rid people in power of their sexuality, but to constrain it to appropriate times and relationships. Boundaries are an important part of life, and they are indispensable in having a healthy community.