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Oct 17 2013

I Have No #RipplesOfDoubt

There’s a hashtag being used on Twitter right now, and plenty of discussion off the hashtag, for people to discuss the fallout of Bora Zivkovic inappropriately combining personal and professional interactions, up to and including sexual harassment in more than one case. They’re talking about doubt in their own work, in the reasons why their work was promoted, in the reasons their work wasn’t promoted, in how this will affect gender relations in the science writing community going forward.

Reading those, I feel I have to tell a story. I don’t tell this to minimize their doubt. It is entirely reasonable to feel those doubts under these circumstances. That’s a large part of what makes behavior like Bora’s damaging.

Nor am I telling this story to make any comment on Bora or how his behavior should be dealt with. I’ve been very careful up to this point to only mention this to my own emotional support network, in large part because I don’t want to influence how this is handled. I am in no position to be anything but biased in all sorts of competing directions on this. I have no perspective. I am not a reliable resource on any of those questions.

However, I have no doubt that Bora’s commitment to promoting the work of women in science writing was real and motivated by far more than any personal consideration of his. I have no doubt that he promoted my work for reasons related to that work (and didn’t when it didn’t suit his editorial needs). That is a comfortable place to be in the middle of all this. I want to share any of that comfort I can.

At the end of ScienceOnline 2011, the year of the #IhuggedBora hashtag, I ran into Bora at the end of the last day, over by the entirely overwhelmed coat racks. I thanked him for another excellent conference. He was in his usual chatty mood, but he signaled that he had something interesting to confide.

What was Bora excited about? He was tickled because this was the first year ScienceOnline had a majority of female participants. I don’t remember whether that referred to the presenters or overall attendance, but Bora let me know that this meant ScienceOnline was getting close to his goal. What he actually wanted was a conference with 60% female attendance. His goal was 60% because that is the point at which a traditionally silenced group participates equally in discussions, and he wanted those voices heard.

The only other time I’ve heard about that sort of research was earlier this year, when Secular Woman released recommendations for secular organizations. They cited research that was released in mid-2012, a year and a half after Bora and I had that discussion. No doubt there is prior research pointing to the same conclusions, but the interaction still demonstrates that Bora was serious about these principles. He has promoted women’s voices, and a diversity of women’s voices, because he believes those voices are valuable, necessary.

He succeeded too, though nothing like single-handedly. He also ended up succeeding at the goal he confided in me almost three years ago. I don’t know what the gender breakdown of the last few ScienceOnline meetings have been, but women in this science writing community speak up when they have something to say. Most of them do it with the firm expectation of being heard. I’ll save my observations on how that’s changed the dialogue in this situation as opposed to one where people don’t feel they’re heard for another time, but I think a difference has been noted.

None of that makes dealing with this situation any easier. Easy is writing someone off as loss with very little cost. Hard is facing up to the fact that someone who did good things also did bad things and letting both of those be equally true.

But reassuring each other and ourselves that our work has value and was valued should not be hard, even as the doubts are inevitable. A group like Scientific American Blogs doesn’t get the reputation and influence it has by being full of choices made for reasons other than writing. The Open Lab books don’t end up with a publisher because of what the writers look like. Hopefully this story makes some small difference too. Otherwise, all I have is tears that someone who was instrumental in getting me over my impostor syndrome has contributed to the impostor syndrome of so many others.

8 comments

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  1. 1
    iGrrrl

    “Otherwise, all I have is tears that someone who was instrumental in getting me over my impostor syndrome has contributed to the impostor syndrome of so many others.”

    As I understand it, #RipplesOfDoubt is not about one person’s behavior. It’s about *every* time casual misogyny contributes to imposter syndrome. And that’s what’s so tough, isn’t it? That even someone who intended and acted in many ways to counter these problems on a larger scale so thoughtlessly (truly without thought) perpetrated them.

  2. 2
    Stephanie Zvan

    Yes.

  3. 3
    Great American Satan

    I never heard of impostor syndrome in those words, but I have heard the exact sad words said by many many people, including my guy. Even when he overcomes the artistic self-doubts and such enough to actually like a work of art he created, he can’t associate himself mentally with his art – gets no self-esteem boost out of it. The art is a thing he does, not who he is, supposedly. Blech.

    We need a real cure for bad self esteem. As far as I can tell, such a thing has never been found and may be impossible.

  4. 4
    ludicrous

    iGrrrl @1 “(truly without thought)”

    I think an important question is why was a feminist man, a working ally to women, unaware of the import of his actions? As we often hear women say ‘how could he not know’? Why did Bora not pick up on her disinterest in the sex talk? I think because he did not know enough about female experience.

    What we men need to be more aware of is that we have no direct knowledge of female experience, none, zip. We have only hearsay. Since we are limited to hearsay, we need to be alert to opportunities to get more of it. So we read books. And we try to read the women we interact with….or do we?

    When Bora mentioned sex, did he see the shadow that passed across her face? Or any nonverbal reaction at all.? He needed to notice and he needed to ask himself, oh, how might what is going on right now be different for a woman, this woman?

    What follows are notes to myself I think I will send off to Bora.

    There are opportunities galore to find out about female experience. I don’t mean asking on women, what’s it like to be female etc, because that can be just another burden,(although some women are sometimes willing to educate and they do write books) but i can be alert to opportunities to ask myself how might a specific situation appear to a woman. Do not second guess at all, at most ask for clarification if by doing that I do not suggest my own opinion. Remember I am seeking information about female experience, not my own I already have that and she may or may not be interested.

    I think women are, by necessity, trained from infancy to pay attention to what is going on for we men, it’s one way we benefit from partriarchy, but we can learn by watching how women do this with men and with each other.

    I would like to see a panel at one of these cons on ways of improving hearing the other gender and the ways we pay attention and inattention. Things that are hard for us to hear are hard for us to hear. Perhaps a topic could be “Let’s hear what’s hard to hear from the other gender?”

  5. 5
    ludicrous

    Bora apparently is ignorant of or oblivious to the burden of male validation imposed on women by sexism. Male validation is insidious and versatile. We men do suffer female validation but it is minor in comparison, so we cannot really understand its power, and are intellectually puzzled when a woman is demoralized when it is withdrawn or disclosed to be fake. The only way we can get a feeling for it is to pay close attention to it’s results when it goes bad. And when it does not go bad it is mostly invisible to us. It accounts for a good deal of the gender differences in behavior in the classroom and other meetings. Women go to great lengths to disempower it and that is another place where female energy is consummed that is not available for productive use. Put it on your list of things that makes living as female hard work.

  6. 6
    ludicrous

    Ludicrous (sorry about the name) @ 5 above.

    Last sentence would better be “harder work than need be. Add to second sentence….the emphasis on appearance only tends to obscure less visible sanctions.

  7. 7
  8. 8
    Stephanie Zvan

    Yeah, anyone who wants to suggest Bora didn’t know what he was doing needs to read that link.

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