Megaphones and Broken Records

The problem with institutional amplification of sexism and racism

The past week in the science communication world has been a broken record, playing over yet again a suite of unappealing sounds designed to remind people of color and women that they are not seen as equal members of the scientific community. The record tells us that we are not viewed as equal in caliber, that when we are included it is done for tokenism and done with distaste, and that are our voices are not respected.

The week started with Dr. Kate Clancy sharing her story of the back-handed invitation she received to participate in a “cool science thing” by a “dude” acting under “marching orders” from a prominent female scientist, who urged him to include more women in the cool science thing. After Dr. Clancy submitted her essay to the cool science thing, her invitation was rescinded because her essay was deemed inappropriate — that it was “extremely interesting but doesn’t work for this year’s [cool science thing].” Eventually, the essay was accepted at the urging of the prominent female scientist, but done so with some of the most condescending language I have ever read. While Dr. Clancy is careful not to name names, I will note that she had an essay published by the Edge Foundation this week in its Annual Question series. Her essay on the way we produce and advance science is among the most broadly relevant and important essays published in this year’s Edge collection — i.e., you should go read it.

Yesterday, the journal Nature saw fit to publish a letter about why women *should be* under-represented in the pool of authors and reviewers for Nature. The letter is full of logical gaps and lacks consistency with the large body of literature on why women are underrepresented in the science glamor magazines and research careers. It was submitted by someone who has neither taken the time to familiarize himself with what is known about the biases against women (and people of color) in the sciences, nor had any personal experience with them (i.e., white, male, non-scientist). It’s misogynistic and it’s worthless. Yet, Nature chose to publish it. Kelly Hills and Hope Jahren have excellent takedowns.

Here’s where the broken record comes in. In 2011, Nature published an appalling piece of fiction titled Womanspace, knowing full well it was full of sexist crap. They got called out on it. As I wrote back then:

Dear Nature, you got a sexist story. But when you published it, you gave it your stamp of approval and became sexist too. … It’s one thing to write a not-very-funny witty story full of sexism and gender stereotypes, but it’s a completely different thing to publish it with the stamp of approval of one of the world’s leading scientific publications.

In 2013, Scientific American (a part of Nature Publishing Group) took the side of a troll who called their black female blogger an “urban whore” by taking down Dr. Danielle Lee’s defense of herself in response to that slur. They got called out on it. As I wrote back then:

More broadly, conversation about Danielle’s treatment, first by biology-online and then by Scientific American, has reminded me of the wider issues in our treatment of women and minorities in science and leadership. For all those wondering why we still lack diversity in STEM, Scientific American’s actions illustrate the problem quite nicely. First, we have to put up with harassment from jerks like the editor of biology-online. Then, we call out that bad behavior, respected institutions ignore, or worse censor us. It sends a pretty clear message: “We don’t want you here.” Or as Khadijah M. Britton refined my thoughts: “We only want you as a token to make us look good until you “cause drama” or “get emotional,” then you are out.” That sentiment matches perfectly with what Danielle said in her video: “For far too long, the presumption has been that if you are a woman, or a person of color, or from a lower socio-economic status that folks think that they can get you, your talent, your expertise, and your energy for free.” As Lara Deruisseau said “This perpetuates fear of women standing up for themselves when wronged. Unknown rules come out of the woodwork.

And then there was Bora, and we know that Scientific American knew about at least one of his actions before the rest became public.

There are countless more examples of this sort of bad behavior that I could cite. It is a broken record continually repeating, after all. But back to this week. It wasn’t just major scientific publishers and “cool science things” acting badly.

Photo by tarale (via Flickr CC)

DrugMonkey picked up on and then picked apart a National Institutes of Health report about the discrepancy between scientific grant funding rates for African Americans and whites. If grant reviewers simply tried to discuss applications by African Americans at a higher rate—the same rate as they discuss applications from whites—the difference in funding rates would go down. To my read, it appears that implicit or explicit biases are reducing the number of African-American applications that get scores that make the discussion cutoff, but that once an application is discussed it has equal likelihood of getting funded regardless of the color of the applicant’s skin. The suggestion DrugMonkey makes is that NIH should ensure that equitable numbers of African-American applications get discussed during the review process. Instead, it appears that NIH is focused exclusively on blaming the victims for getting poor mentoring rather than doing what is under their direct control in reforming their review process.

As a geoscientist, I don’t speak NIH, so I can’t follow all the details of the discussion at DrugMonkey’s blog, but there’s a striking parallel here. At Nature, they note an underrepresentation of women in their reviewer and author pools, and blame the victims by publishing an article that alleges that women are having too many babies to be equitably represented. At NIH, they note an underrepresentation of African-American PIs getting funded and focus the blame on mentoring.

Here’s the thing: There are sexist and racist people out there in the scientific community. They are bad actors and they are toxic to the people around them. There are few women and people of color in the sciences (or any field) who haven’t had to deal with quite a number of these toxic people. We hear from their words and their actions that they don’t respect us and they don’t want us here. We know what they think. We don’t need our prominent scientific publishers, funding agencies, and think tanks to pass the megaphone to the bad actors and amplify their messages. We don’t need the broken record blared over a loudspeaker. When our publishers, funders, and think tanks amplify these sexist and racist messages, they are accomplishing three things. First, they implicitly apply an institutional stamp of approval on the racist and sexist messages and taint their own reputation. Second, they give the sexists and racists a sense of legitimacy that only makes them more noisy and insistent. Third, they advertise to people of color, women, and allies which organizations “don’t get it” when it comes to diversity and respect. (Have you noticed how many times Nature Publishing Group has been guilty of these amplifications? I have.)

So here’s a few simple tips for publishers, funders, and other institutions that have megaphones and amplifiers in the scientific community. If you are part of an organization that’s been caught out on issues of sexism and racism in the past, or you think there’s a possibility it could happen in the future, you might consider printing these tips out and pinning them to your colleague’s cubicles.

1) If you receive racist or sexist material for publication, DON’T PUBLISH IT. Throw it out. Shake your head, laugh about the backwardness of the writer with your colleagues, but DON’T PUBLISH IT. It doesn’t deserve your printed or virtual space, and it’s not “contributing to the conversation.”

2) If a woman and/or person of color is describing problems with racism, sexism, or harassment, assume that what they are saying is true and do not attempt to silence or gaslight them. This is a general rule, but apparently it needs to be said. Even if, especially if, the women and/or people of color are part of your organization or are accusing your organization of racism, sexism, or harassment, you should let their voices be heard.

3) If your organization is responsible in any way for selecting which voices get heard in science (you know, like publishers, funders, and think tanks do), make sure that women and people of color get representation, and that when you do, that you don’t do with a side helping of victim blaming or condescension.

See, they are pretty simple tips. Easy to follow. But maybe some are wondering why those tips are necessary. Shouldn’t individuals and organizations be allowed to weigh the merits of racist and sexist material and exert their own editorial judgement about whether to pass the megaphone? Nope, and here’s why.

It’s 2014. You will get caught. You will get called out on it. The memory of the internet is long. It will not be good for your brand. It will not be good for your bottom line.

But really, it’s 2014: this sexist and racist junk should have withered a long time ago because it’s outdated and wrong. Only the megaphones playing broken records let people thinks it’s still part of acceptable discourse today. It’s not. Don’t be part of the problem.

Originally published at Highly Allochthonous