Early in the day yesterday I had two very interesting interactions with two older women that made an impression on me. The first was a woman who has been teaching, but never pursued a research or tenure track career. She remarked to me about how “..if she had it all to do over again..” but she came “..from a time when a career in nursing or teaching or administration was expected.” The other visit was from a tenure track woman who came by to gush about how happy she was that I had come and how she felt a responsibility to make sure I get tenure at my new MRU. Both experiences were humbling.
Then last night I, like many, read Hope Jahren’s piece in the New York Times about her assault while scoping out a site to do field work. My heart breaks for her and for anyone that suffers that sort of trauma. It’s a damned tragedy and I wish her nothing but all thee healing and support that she needs. It saddens me that these types of events can dictate and redirect the way a woman pursues her scientific interests
But, in the piece she makes reference to a recent study from Kate Clancy’s group documenting the incidence of sexual harassment and assault in scientists doing field work. It’s people’s reactions to this that have made me salty as fuck.
My fellow tweeps, people that have been reading the science feminist internet for as long as I have been around (aka, a long time) describe her story as “eye opening” and “stunning” and “shocking”. In my eyes, the results of Clancy’s study are completely and entirely predictable. and I can only hope that having actual data to present to people in positions of authority will empower the SAFE movement as they work to make changes to how women are treated in science.
Still, this doesn’t change the fact that the notion that “Science Has a Sexual Assault Problem” makes me salty. Life has a sexual assault problem. 26% of women scientists are assaulted in the field, but about that many women in general report sexual assault. A large portion of the attacks against scientists are perpetrated by someone the victim knew, but many women in general know their attackers. So, at the crux of the stunning and shocking and eye opening is something that I find more insidious – it is the belief that science is somehow different than society at large.
After all, surely rape and assault and violence are acts committed by poor people, and brown folks, NFL players and the occasional misguided frat boy. Certainly our logical, skeptical, professional and enlightened scientific brethren aren’t capable of the type of violence that Hope describes. Surely, tenured white women aren’t at risk for that type of violence. If Hope’s story shocked you, or you found Kate’s study shocking, where the fuck have you been? I will cosign the notion that we should strive to create a place where people are mutually respected and protected and cared for, but it you’re surprised by any of this, it’s worth reevaluating your preconceived notions about who can be a rapist and who can be a victim. If you’re shocked, I’m willing to wage money that your preconceived notions are fucked.
How many of these stories do we need to hear to stop being shocked?
The only portion of Hope’s essay that I take exception with is her statement about young women that “[t]hey need to know that daring to act upon their dreams of science can be both a beautiful and a dangerous thing.” Choosing to do anything in the context of having a vagina can be both beautiful and dangerous. Choosing to sit around and eat Cheetos can be dangerous. Hope describes how she did “everything right” by covering her head and averting her eyes and she was still a victim, but there is nothing a victim does that makes her any more or less a target. The issue is with them men that perpetrate these crimes. Being a woman is the single greatest risk factor for experiencing all the horrible shit that happens to women.
What we need to do is knock down the narrative that academia is an enlightened, safe place that is somehow immune from the discrimination and prejudices that afflict the rest of society.