Why I did not report

Hello, my lovely readers. It has been a while since my last blog post. My resolution for the New Year is to me more consistent in my blogging, but also (at least a bit) more fearless. So, here is a blog post which is difficult for me to write. I recently had a few interesting conversations on Me Too STEM  and related issues. One of the questions that came up repeatedly was, why was this kind of behaviour not reported (or not reported earlier)?

I cannot speak for others. But I can tell you why I have not reported past instances of sexual misconduct or sexual harassment in academia that I have either experienced or witnessed. So, here is a list of all that I can think of:

  1. I was in a junior position and was afraid of retaliation.
  2. I was afraid I might not be able to stay at the institution.
  3. I was afraid of being seen as a troublemaker.
  4. I was afraid of being seen as the person “who cannot take a joke”.
  5. I was afraid of being shunned by others.
  6. I was afraid of not being believed.
  7. I was afraid of being laughed at.
  8. I thought I was overreacting.
  9. I felt guilty and ashamed for not stopping it as I was experiencing or witnessing it.
  10. I did not know at the time that the behaviour constituted sexual misconduct or harassment.
  11. I did not know whether the behaviour was seen as constituting sexual misconduct or harassment by the institution.
  12. I did not know who to report to.
  13. Since it was someone from a different institution, I did not know whether I could report to their institution as an outsider.
  14. I thought their behaviour was really harmless, and they were just a hapless idiot (which to be fair, in some cases, they were).
  15. I thought their behaviour could be explained by them being drunk, and when sober they were actually OK.
  16. I was close to the perpetrator’s family, and did not want to cause them hurt.
  17. I was close to the perpetrator, and did not want them to lose a friend.
  18. I thought that it was a one-off incident, not a consistent pattern of behaviour, and that therefore there was no risk for other people.
  19. I saw or heard about it happening to someone else and felt that it was not my incident to report.
  20. I saw or heard about it happening, but the victim did not want it talked about or reported.
  21. I saw or heard about it happening, but did not know whether the victim wanted it talked about or reported.
  22. I heard about it happening to someone else and did not want to spread a rumor that might turn out to be unfounded.
  23. I heard about it happening to someone else and did not want to be accused of spreading a rumor that might turn out to be unfounded.
  24. I did not have any tangible proof and thought it would be just my word against theirs.
  25. It was a long time ago.

I don’t know whether this list is complete. For any incident I have witnessed or experienced, a combination of reasons applied. I am not proud of any of this. I talk a lot about being open about our failures in academia. This is my biggest failure yet. To everyone I may have put in harm’s way by this, I sincerely apologise.

The purpose of this list is not some universal apology for my past moral failure. It is also not meant as a menu of apologies for anyone else. But what I hope you see from it is this: That reporting is difficult. That even when we know that it is morally the right choice, it can be extremely hard to do. And that therefore, we should not be too hard on those who don’t report, including our past selves. Especially if they are in vulnerable positions, which, in academia, is a lot of people. Forgive yourself. Move on. Do better when you can.

Remember, remember

This weekend was Guy Fawkes Night, which is a yearly UK holiday. It commemorates a guy (named Guy) who tried to blow up parliament in 1605. To show that cruel acts of terror like this have no place in our civilised and peaceful society, we burn Guy Fawkes at the stake. Well, an effigy of him these days. Plus, there are fireworks. It’s one of the British holidays that I find it harder to relate to (as opposed to, say, Early May Bank Holiday, which is my favourite). Therefore I keep forgetting the date.

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Communicating science: where is the evidence?

I went to an interesting panel discussion about science communication the other day. The panelists were all accomplished scientists who did a lot of outreach and science communication and were talking about how important and rewarding it is, and how we should all do more of it.

To  which I agree, but more and more, I am also wondering: How do we know it’s working? And are there things that work better than others? And are we really spending our time and resources where they are most needed?

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My worst exam

It is a nightmare: I am at university, and I have to pass a difficult exam. It is an oral examination, for which I have prepared, but probably not enough. I am nervous. The Professor’s office is in an old building, down a long corridor. Outside the room, a few students are waiting their turn. I go sit with them. I don’t know any of them. One of the girls greets me and says something.  I don’t understand her. It sounds like what she is saying is “So, how many times have you tried this one?” I mumble something about this being my first time. (And hopefully my last! But I don’t even have the courage to say that. This, I feel, is no time for being over-confident.) I go through my notes, like everybody else does. After a few minutes, the door opens and out comes The Professor. I have never seen this man before.

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Living machines

So, we stared at each other for a moment, each of us thinking that the other was really stupid. But let me start from the beginning …

I have been thinking some more about interdisciplinarity. I have written before about how different disciplines have different ways of thinking, and sometimes this gets in the way of mutual understanding. I have a story about how this panned out early on in my career, when I was working on my MSc project in a developmental genetics lab.

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The narrative of the “Bitchy Sisterhood”

Last month, the Guardian’s “Academics Anonymous” column talked about the “trouble with the sisterhood in academia”. The underlying narrative is a familiar one, I have heard it often: Women, according to it, complain about gender discrimination, but the shocking truth is women are mean to each other, which makes them their own worst enemy. I call this the “bitchy sisterhood narrative”. Sometimes – as in said column – it goes even further: Because women are so mean and judgy, you can’t even speak out about the problem, because who knows what would happen? “Luckily,” the anonymous author writes, “I’m currently on a flight, 12km above the ground, where I feel safe from the judgments that would confront me were I to exorcise this academic grievance at the coffee station.” This is a rather clever device, at the same time reinforcing the “bitchy sisterhood” image and elegantly pre-empting any critical response.

I’ll respond anyway. Continue reading