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The danger of pointing out bad behavior: retribution (and the community’s role in preventing it).

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


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There has been a lot of discussion of Dario Maestripieri’s disappointment at the unattractiveness of his female colleagues in the neuroscience community. Indeed, it’s notable how much of this discussion has been in public channels, not just private emails or conversations conducted with sound waves which then dissipate into the aether. No doubt, this is related to Maestripieri’s decision to share his hot-or-not assessment of the women in his profession in a semi-public space where it could achieve more permanence — and amplification — than it would have as an utterance at the hotel bar.

His behavior became something that any member of his scientific community with an internet connection (and a whole lot of people outside his scientific community) could inspect. The impacts of an actual, rather than hypothetical, piece of behavior, could be brought into the conversation about the climate of professional and learning communities, especially for the members of these communities who are women.

It’s worth pointing out that there is nothing especially surprising about such sexist behavior* within these communities. The people in the communities who have been paying attention have seen them before (and besides have good empirical grounds for expecting that gender biases may be a problem). But many sexist behaviors go unreported and unremarked, sometimes because of the very real fear of retribution.

What kind of retribution could there be for pointing out a piece of behavior that has sexist effects, or arguing that it is an inappropriate way for a member of the professional community to behave?

Let’s say you are an early career scientist, applying for a faculty post. As it happens, Dario Maestripieri‘s department, the University of Chicago Department of Comparative Human Development, currently has an open search for a tenure-track assistant professor. There is a non-zero chance that Dario Maestripieri is a faculty member on that search committee, or that he has the ear of a colleague that is.

It is not a tremendous stretch to hypothesize that Dario Maestripieri may not be thrilled at the public criticism he’s gotten in response to his Facebook post (including some quite close to home). Possibly he’s looking through the throngs of his Facebook friends and trying to guess which of them is the one who took the screenshot of his ill advised post and shared it more widely. Or looking through his Facebook friends’ Facebook friends. Or considering which early career neuroscientists might be in-real-life friends or associates with his Facebook friends or their Facebook friends.

Now suppose you’re applying for that faculty position in his department and you happen to be one of his Facebook friends,** or one of their Facebook friends, or one of the in-real-life friends of either of those.

Of course, shooting down an applicant for a faculty position for the explicit reason that you think he or she may have cast unwanted attention on your behavior towards your professional community would be a problem. But there are probably enough applicants for the position, enough variation in the details of their CVs, and enough subjective judgment on the part of the members of the search committee in evaluating all those materials that it would be possible to cut all applicants who are Dario Maestripieri’s Facebook friends (or their Facebook friends, or in-real-life friends of either of those) from consideration while providing some other plausible reason for their elimination. Indeed, the circle could be broadened to eliminate candidates with letters of recommendation from Dario Maestripieri’s Facebook friends (or their Facebook friends, or in-real-life friends of either of those), candidates who have coauthored papers with Dario Maestripieri’s Facebook friends (or their Facebook friends, or in-real-life friends of either of those), etc.)

And, since candidates who don’t get the job generally aren’t told why they were found wanting — only that some other candidate was judged to be better — these other plausible reasons for shooting down a candidate would only even matter in the discussions of the search committee.

In other words, real retaliation (rejection from consideration for a faculty job) could fall on people who are merely suspected of sharing information that led to Dario Maestripieri becoming the focus of a public discussion of sexist behavior — not just on the people who have publicly spoken about his behavior. And, the retaliation would be practically impossible to prove.

If you don’t think this kind of possibility has a chilling effect on the willingness of members of a professional community to speak up when they see a relatively powerful colleague behave in they think is harmful, you just don’t understand power dynamics.

And even if Dario Maestripieri has no part at all in his department’s ongoing faculty search, there are other interactions within his professional community in which his suspicions about who might have exposed his behavior could come into play. Senior scientists are routinely asked to referee papers submitted to scientific journals and to serve on panels and study sections that rank applications for grants. In some of these circumstances, the identities of the scientists one is judging (e.g., for grants) are known to the scientists making the evaluations. In others, they are masked, but the scientists making the evaluations have hunches about whose work they are evaluating. If those hunches are mingled with hunches about who could have shared evidence of behavior that is now making the evaluator’s life difficult, it’s hard to imagine the grant applicant or the manuscript author getting a completely fair shake.

Let’s pause here to note that the attitude Dario Maestripieri’s Facebook posting reveals, that it’s appropriate to evaluate women in the field on their physical beauty rather than their scientific achievements, could itself be a source of bias as he does things that are part of a normal professional life, like serving on search committees, reviewing journal submissions and grant applications, evaluating students, and so forth. A bias like this could manifest itself in a preference for hiring job candidates one finds aesthetically pleasing. (Sure, academic job application packets usually don’t include a headshot, but even senior scientists have probably heard of Google Image search.) Or it could manifest itself in a preference against hiring more women (since too high a concentration of female colleagues might be perceived as increasing the likelihood that one would be taken to task for freely expressing one’s aesthetic preferences about women in the field). Again, it would be extraordinarily hard to prove the operation of such a bias in any particular case — but that doesn’t rule out the possibility that it is having an effect in activities where members of the professional community are supposed to be as objective as possible.

Objectivity, as we’ve noted before, is hard.

We should remember, though, that faculty searches are conducted by committees, rather than by a single individual with the power to make all the decisions. And, the University of Chicago Department of Comparative Human Development (as well as the University of Chicago more generally) may recognize that it is likely to be getting more public scrutiny as a result of the public scrutiny Dario Maestripieri has been getting.

Among other things, this means that the department and the university have a real interest in conducting a squeaky-clean search that avoids even the appearance of retaliation. In any search, members of the search committee have a responsibility to identify, disclose, and manage their own biases. In this search, discharging that responsibility is even more vital. In any search, members of the hiring department have a responsibility to discuss their shared needs and interests, and how these should inform the selection of the new faculty member. In this search, that discussion of needs and interests must include a discussion of the climate within the department and the larger scientific community — what it is now, and what members of the department think it should be.

In any search, members of the hiring department have an interest in sharing their opinions on who the best candidate might be, and to having a dialogue around the disagreements. In this search, if it turns out one of the disagreements about a candidate comes down to “I suspect he may have been involved in exposing my Facebook post and making me feel bad,” well, arguably there’s a responsibility to have a discussion about that.

Ask academics what it’s like to hire a colleague and it’s not uncommon to hear them describe the experience as akin to entering a marriage. You’re looking for someone with whom you might spend the next 30 years, someone who will grow with you, who will become an integral part of your department and its culture, even to the point of helping that departmental culture grow and change. This is a good reason not to choose the new hire based on the most superficial assessment of what each candidate might bring to the relationship — and to recognize that helping one faculty member avoid discomfort might not be the most important thing.

Indeed, Dario Maestripieri’s colleagues may have all kinds of reasons to engage him in uncomfortable discussions about his behavior that have nothing to do with conducting a squeaky-clean faculty search. Their reputations are intertwined, and leaving things alone rather than challenging Dario Maestripieri’s behavior may impact their own ability to attract graduate students or maintain the respect of undergraduates. These are things that matter to academic scientists — which means that Dario Maestripieri’s colleagues have an interest in pushing back for their own good and the good of the community.

The pushback, if it happens, is likely to be just as invisible publicly as any retaliation against job candidates for possibly sharing the screenshot of Dario Maestripieri’s Facebook posting. If positive effects are visible, it might make it seem less dangerous for members of the professional community to speak up about bad behavior when they see it. But if the outward appearance is that nothing has changed for Dario Maestripieri and his department, expect that there will be plenty of bad behavior that is not discussed in public because the career costs of doing so are just too high.

______
* This is not at all an issue about whether Dario Maestripieri is a sexist. This is an issue about the effects of the behavior, which have a disproportionate negative impact on women in the community. I do not know, or care, what is in the heart of the person who displays these behaviors, and it is not at all relevant to a discussion of how the behaviors affect the community.

** Given the number of his Facebook friends and their range of ages, career stages, etc., this doesn’t strike me as improbable. (At last check, I have 11 Facebook friends in common with Dario Maestripieri.)

Janet D. Stemwedel About the Author: Janet D. Stemwedel is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at San José State University. Her explorations of ethics, scientific knowledge-building, and how they are intertwined are informed by her misspent scientific youth as a physical chemist. Follow on Twitter @docfreeride.

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





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  1. 1. MrDrT 7:27 pm 10/22/2012

    So people behave like people. On matters of attractiveness women as well as men behave in this manner. Thank you for the noble attempt to change human behavior but I’ll pass on your social experiment.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Mythusmage 8:51 pm 10/23/2012

    Sounds like Dario has a phobia to being ignored.

    Small Boy: How do you say “hello” to a girl?

    Old Man: You say, “Hello.”

    Link to this

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