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Context and Variation

Context and Variation

Human behavior, evolutionary medicine… and ladybusiness.

What Does it Mean to Do the Right Thing? Time to #OccupyNPG

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Some of the anthropologists you would have found at the 2005 Yale strike.

Some of the anthropologists you would have found at the 2005 Yale strike.

I have spent a lot of time in my life being employed or educated by an organization that I find problematic in some way. At Harvard, my main gripe involved the way in which the dissolution of Radcliffe College and the women’s spaces there occurred with little engagement with undergraduates: two deans met with me and two other women who were on the board of the Radcliffe Union of Students. That’s it. In response, we created a tent Women’s Center outside of the Science Center and a list of demands of what we would want out of a real Women’s Center; years later when they finally did form a real Women’s Center they did so in the basement of Canaday, which happens to be only a hundred feet or so from our temporary structure. (I say this without taking any actual credit, as I doubt our action had much of an effect.)

At Yale, my issues centered around the condescending attitude that characterized labor relations with both graduate students and the largely African-American population surrounding the gentrified center of New Haven. I committed and was arrested for civil disobedience two times in my six years there. I also went on strike twice. The graduate students do have a union, but it is still unrecognized by Yale.

At the University of Illinois where I now work, I cancelled my 750-student class during a GEO strike, despite a phone call to my home to dissuade me from such a decision. I walked the picket lines instead, and as it happens an agreement was reached when my class would have been taught, and we celebrated on the steps of Foellinger Auditorium, where I taught my class. (Again, I doubt my own decision made a difference, but you wouldn’t have known it from the tears streaming down my face as grad students sang and danced because they got the raises and benefits they needed to support themselves and their family.)

My actions had impact for me and many other people: I radicalized many female friends in college, many more colleagues in grad school, and know I served as an example for other faculty when I decided not to cross picket lines here at Illinois. These were moving, important experiences in my development as a scholar and activist. But in each of these cases, my actions as an individual had little impact in a way the institution would understand. If anything, these actions were derided by those in power, except, and this is important, when our numbers were great. If there were thousands of us picketing, that had meaning. If 700 of us got arrested, that had meaning (this happened long enough ago that I can't find any of the longer pieces on it online). And I will return to this later in this post.

This time, my anger is with Nature Publishing Group (NPG), who owns Scientific American. My experience at Scientific American suggests that most folks here understand social media and blogs, and are respectful, thoughtful and kind. These are people who want to make the world a better place through science and science communication. And so I do my best to forgive the fact that some improvements to our network (*cough* commenting) have been under-resourced.

But NPG is a totally different lot. We’ve seen how their blog network stalled, how archaic and ridiculous their commenting policy is. We’ve seen who they employ. To be honest, I don’t read Nature unless someone pushes something to me. Instead, I enjoy my SciAm bubble and network of bright, fun thinkers.

I can’t do that now, because Henry Gee has seen fit to publish a rather limp attempt at humor that relies on fundamental stereotypes about male and female interests, desire and behavior. You can read the intelligent commentary by countless others: Anne Jefferson, who first brought this post to my attention, Emily Willingham, Christie Wilcox, Janet Stemwedel, Dr. Isis, Alex Wild, Drugmonkey, and I am probably missing several others. The only reason this article even turned up on anyone’s radar is because Nature just published two pieces of correspondence against the piece, by Ylaine Gerardin & Tami Lieberman, and Pieter van Dokkum.

I will not add to that commentary here, because frankly they said it better than I could. Instead, I want to talk about what the right thing to do is, and how to have impact, because I am struggling with answers to this myself.

When I read Womanspace, my first reaction was nausea. I felt completely sick to my stomach because I couldn’t believe that NPG would knowingly publish overt sexism. I felt completely alienated and abandoned by a journal that is supposed to publish science, not fiction that represents offensive cultural biases. Further, I am employed, however marginally or distantly, by NPG. What does this say about me and my blog? What does it mean that NPG employs someone like me who writes on feminism and science if they also publish that? Is my blog just a joke then, or a way to improve their appearance without actually changing who they are or how they think about science and scientists?

So then my next reaction was to consider the steps I needed to take to leave SciAm, since it meant being associated with NPG. I discussed it on our backforums and asked for advice. I talked a few friends about it. Would leaving have an impact? What would have an impact?

Leaving would diminish my impact, as my readership would probably not stay quite as high were I to return to my old blog. Yet, leaving would make a statement that I am not complicit with NPG and their actions. I’m not sure I know the correct choice.

Here is what I do know: leaving would allow me to feel better about myself and save face. It would allow me to walk away from the problem, back to my safe corner of the blogosphere where all my commenters were women and they were always kind and encouraging. I desperately want to do this because I am so tired of sexism and bothered by the uptick in sexist comments since moving to SciAm. There have been a lot of public attacks on women lately and calls to discuss those attacks. I haven’t contributed anything yet, first because the attacks I’ve received have been so mild compared to the death and rape threats experienced by others, and second because writing personally takes so much out of me. Being a leader, even an imperfect one alongside many other fantastic women and men, is exhausting. And every now and then even the bringer of Ladybusiness Justice needs to nap and cuddle while her daughter watches Sesame Street.

I didn’t get that nap yesterday, but I did go to bed early. And seven hours of sleep made it easier to think than five.

Maybe I would feel better if I left, at least at first. But my impact would not be the same. For now, I am not leaving, but instead am using this space to speak up against NPG policies when necessary, an #occupynpg movement, if you will. That means that, in essence, NPG is paying me to criticize them. And I can live with that, because this isn’t going to be the first time I do it. In fact, if you spot racism, sexism, heteronormativity, homophobia, or any other oppressive behavior happening at anything associated with NPG, I would like you to tell me, dear readers, so that I may write about it. If NPG doesn’t like it, they can shut down my blog or they can stop hiring and enabling sexists.

Remember when I mentioned that institutions listen when there are enough people shouting? In grad school when I spoke I reached one person at a time, across the table in a coffee shop, at the door of their home, beside them at the lab bench. Here, I can reach thousands, maybe more, and if you have a blog you can too. Write about why you find Womanspace, or anything else about NPG oppressive, and share it with a link in the comments.* Tell me about existing posts I’ve missed. Tweet about it with the hashtag #occupynpg. And share with me what you think it will take to produce a scientific community that holds itself more accountable around issues of inclusivity and scientific rigor (and yes, this might mean you disagree with my decision, and yes, I want you to be able to express that too).

*Comments that contain links often get held for moderation, so don’t double post; just give me a little time to approve it.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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