I haven’t watched it in years — decades, even — and that’s my excuse for not knowing about its sexist culture.
Shark Week, a celebration of sharks on the Discovery Channel that attracts millions of viewers, is marine science’s premiere annual television event—and it rarely features women scientists or scientists of color in leading roles. Many women I’ve spoken to were passionate viewers as children, but when they became scientists, found “it wasn’t what it used to be, or what I remembered it to be,” said Carlee Jackson, a co-founder of Minorities in Shark Sciences (MISS). Another scientist told me that Shark Week stopped feeling “pure,” to her, because she increasingly “saw it through a lens tainted by sexism … and I wonder what would be different if I’d had a positive, inclusive experience in science from the start.”
To call shark science a “boy’s club” is an understatement—although more than 60 percent of graduate students in my field are women, the vast majority of senior scientists are white men. During my research talk at my first shark science conference, a senior male scientist was so rude and aggressive during the question period that another male scientist apologized for him afterward, telling me “he does that to a female graduate student every year or two”. I have seen it happen to others since; at least one woman he targeted left the podium in tears.
For years, the annual conference “officially” ended at the beginning of the closing banquet so organizers wouldn’t be responsible for what came next. “Next” included a fundraiser in which scantily clad female graduate students were expected to parade auction items around the room, a dinner at which one senior scientist demanded to sit with only the “prettiest” students, and an alcohol-fueled mixer where women needed to be on constant guard against roaming hands. The first male Ph.D. student who volunteered to display auction items to help his female colleagues had his rear laughingly slapped by a male senior scientist “for old time’s sake.” A photograph from a past meeting shows a senior scientist with his hands between the legs of two women graduate students, lifting them off the ground—one of them smiling, the other appearing on the verge of tears.
I’ve been to post-conference shindigs in my fields of study, and they’ve been relatively benign (given that as a man, there may have been undercurrents to which I was stupidly oblivious), but they’ve never this ridiculously sexist. It helps that most of those fields, developmental biology and now spider biology, have been filled with a woman majority, but then marine biology is similarly popular with women. I guess one difference is that we’ve never had a wealthy influencer, like a whole cable TV channel, tilting the playing field and fueling bias with unwarranted favoritism for male presenters.
Read the whole article and be appalled. One disappointment, though, is that none of the assholes (the best term for the men described in that quote) get named, and that’s a shame, but understandable. They’ve still got the power. Nothing has changed to make the power differential shift, so a woman calling them out is going to get an absurd amount of shit showered down on her. But jesus, shark researchers of any gender: next time you see a senior man browbeating a woman graduate student, or fondling her, or asking her to parade around in skimpy clothing, say something. Make it unacceptable to behave that way. If you want to be an ally, don’t acquiesce.
And yet another reason!
“He is obsessed with sharks. Terrified of sharks,” Daniels told In Touch Weekly, again recounting Trump watching “Shark Week.” “He was like, ‘I donate to all these charities, and I would never donate to any charity that helps sharks. I hope all the sharks die.’ He was, like, riveted. He was, like, obsessed.”