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Addressing (unintended) disrespect in your professional community.

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


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I am a believer in the power of the professional conference. Getting people in the same room to share ideas, experiences, and challenges is one of the best ways to build a sense of community, to break down geographical and generational barriers, to energize people and remind them what they love about what they’re doing.

Sometimes, though, interactions flowing from a professional conference have a way of reinforcing barriers. Sometimes a member of the community makes an attempt to express appreciation of colleagues that actually has the effect of treating those colleagues like they’re not really part of the community after all.

Last week, the 8th World Conference of Science Journalists met in Helsinki, Finland. Upon his return from the conference, journalist Nicolás Luco posted a column reflecting on his experience there. (Here’s an English translation of the column by Wladimir Labeikovsky.) Luco’s piece suggests some of the excitement of finding connections with science journalists from other countries, as well as finding common ground with journalists entering the profession in a very different decade with a panoply of different technological tools:

If I hadn’t come, I wouldn’t have had that experience. I have submerged into an atmosphere where what I had seen as the future is already taken for granted. And yet, the fundamentals [e.g., that the story is what matters] remain.

It is, without a doubt, a description of a very positive personal experience.

However, Luco’s column is also a description of his experience of female colleagues at this conference framed primarily in terms of their physical attributes: shining blonde hair, limpid blue eyes, translucent complexions, apparent youth. His description of the panel of journalists using the tools of new media to practice the fundamentals of good journalism describes them as

four Americans: Rose, Lena, Kathleen and Erin (blonde), none older than 25

All of the other conference-goers who are identified by name are identified with surnames as well as given names. We do learn of the two women identified by their full names in the column that they are not blonde. It is left to the reader to imagine the hair color of Philip J. Hilts, the only male attendee mentioned by name.

I understand that Nicolás Luco was aiming to give a vivid visual description to draw his readers into his experience of being in Helsinki for this conference, and that this description was meant to convey a positive, optimistic mood about the future of science journalism.

But I also understand that these stylistic choices carry baggage that make it harder for Rose Eveleth, and Lena Groeger, and Kathleen Raven, and Erin Podolak, the journalists on the panel, to be taken seriously within this international community of science journalists.

Their surnames matter. In a field where they want their work to be recognized, disconnecting their bylines from the valuable insights they shared as part of a conference panel is not helpful.

Moreover, I am told that the journalistic convention is to identify adults by full name, and to identify people by first name alone only when those people are children.

Eveleth, Groeger, Raven, and Podolak are not children. They may seem relatively young to a journalist who came into the profession in the age of linotype (indeed, to the extent that he underestimated their ages, which range from 25 to 30), but they are professionals. Their ages should not be a barrier to treating them as if they are full members of the professional community of science journalists, but focusing unduly on their ages could well present such a barrier.

And, needless to say, their hair color should have no relevance at all in assessing whether they are skilled journalists with valuable insights to share.

As it happens, only days before the 8th World Conference of Science Journalists, Podolak wrote a blog post describing why she needs feminism. In that post, she wrote:

I’m a feminist for myself because yes, I want a fair shake, I want to be recognized for the value of my work and not whether or not my hair looks shiny that day. But, adding my voice to the other feminist voices out there is about more than just me. I’ve got it pretty good. I’m not trying to argue that I don’t. But I can support the women out there who are dealing with overt sexism, who are being attacked. I can try to be an ally. That to me is the real value of feminism, of standing together.

It is profoundly disheartening to take yourself to be accepted by your professional community, valued for the skills and ideas you bring to the table, only to discover that this is not how your presumptive colleagues actually see you. You would think that other journalists should be the ones most likely to appreciate the value of using new technologies to tell compelling stories. What a disappointment to find that their focus gets stuck on the surface. Who can tell whether the work has value if the hair of the journalist is shiny?

You will likely not be surprised that Eveleth, Groeger, Raven, and Podolak were frustrated at Nicolás Luco’s description of their panel, despite understanding that Luco was trying to be flattering. In an email to Luco the four sent in response to the column, they wrote:

Leading your story with a note about your attraction to blondes and then noting Erin’s hair color, is both inappropriate and, frankly, sexist. We were not there for anyone to ogle, and our physical appearance is completely irrelevant to the point of our panel. It is important for you to understand why were are upset about your tone in this piece. Women are constantly appraised for their looks, rather than their thoughts and skills, and in writing your story the way you did you are contributing to that sexism.

And, in a postscript to that email, Kathleen Raven noted:

I was under the impression that you wrote your article using hair color as a narrative tool to tie together your meetings with journalists. I appreciate this creativity, but I am worried that American women can perceive — as we have — the article as not fully respecting us as journalists in our own right.

What Eveleth, Groeger, Raven, and Podolak are up against is a larger society that values women more for their aesthetic appeal than their professional skills. That their own professional community repeats this pattern — presenting them as first young and pretty and only secondarily as good journalists — is a source of frustration. As Eveleth wrote to me:

Last I checked, being pretty has nothing to do with your skills at any kind of journalism. Having long blonde hair is not going to get Erin the story. Erin is going to get the story because she’s good at her job, because she’s got experience and passion, because she’s talented and tough and hard working. The same goes for Kathleen and Lena. 

The idea that it is not just okay, but actually complimentary to focus on a young woman’s (or really any aged woman’s) looks as leading part of her professional identity is wrong. The idea that it’s flattering to call out Erin’s hair and age before her skills is wrong. The idea that a woman’s professional skill set is made better if she is blonde and pretty is wrong. And the idea that someone who writes something like this should just be able to pass it off as “tongue in cheek” or “a cultural difference” is also wrong.

I should pause here to take note of another dimension of professional communities in this story. There is a strong pressure to get along with one’s professional colleagues, to get along rather than raising a fuss. Arguably this pressure is stronger on newer members of a professional community, and on members of that community with characteristics (e.g., of gender, race, disability, etc.) that are not well represented in the more established members of that professional community.

Practically, this pressure manifests itself as an inclination to let things go, to refrain from pointing out the little instances which devalue one’s professional identity or status as a valued member of the community. Most of the time it seems easier to sigh and say to oneself, “Well, he meant well,” or, “What can you expect from someone of that generation/cultural background?” than to point out the ways that the comments hurt. It feels like a tradeoff where you should swallow some individual hurt for the good of the community.

But accepting this tradeoff is accepting that your full membership in the community (and that of others like you) is less important. To the extent that you believe that you make a real contribution to the community, swallowing your individual hurt is dancing on the edge of accepting what is arguably a harm to the professional community as a whole by letting the hurtful behaviors pass unexamined.

Eveleth, Groeger, Raven, and Podolak had more respect than that for their professional community, and for Nicolás Luco as a professional colleague. They did not just sigh and roll their eyes. Rather, they emailed Luco to explain what the problem was.

In his reply to them (which I quote with his permission), Luco makes it clear that he did not intend to do harm to anyone, especially not to Eveleth, Groeger, Raven, and Podolak, with his column. Still, he also makes it clear that he may not fully grasp just what the problem is:

I write as a known voice who can write tongue in cheek and get away with it because I am willing to laugh at myself. 

I strive to make what I write entertaining. And maybe sneak in the more serious arguments.

Sorry about my misjudgment on your ages.  But the point is: you are generations apart.

I did not include your last names because they would interrupt the flow of reading and clog the line with surnames, an obstacle.

Finally, it is so much in U.S. culture to discard the looks vis a vis the brains when the looks, as President Clinton knows so well, can be a good hook into the brains.  And since this is a personal column, in the first person singular, I can tell how I personally react at good looks.  For example, Ms. Anne Glover, was extraordinarily beautiful and charming besides being bright and political, which helps, in front of the probable mean thoughts of envious uglier looking colleagues.

Thank you, I still prize the panel as the best and most important in the Conference.

Is there a way Nicolás Luco could have described his personal experience of the conference, and of this panel within the conference that he found particular valuable, in a way that was entertaining, even tongue-in-cheek, while avoiding the pitfalls of describing his female colleagues in terms that undercut their status in the professional community? I think so.

He might, for example, have talked about his own expectations that journalists who are generations apart would agree upon what makes good journalism good journalism. The way that these expectations were thwarted would surely be a good opportunity to laugh at oneself.

He might even have written about his own surprise that a young women he finds attractive contributed a valuable insight — using this as an opportunity to examine this expectation and whether it’s one he ought to be carrying around with him in his professional interactions. There’s even a line in his column that seems like it might provide a hook for this bit of self-examination:

Erin, the youngest and a cancer specialist, insists that decorations don’t matter: good journalism is good journalism, period. Makes me happy.

(Bold emphasis added.)

Extending the lesson about the content of the story mattering more than the packaging to a further lesson about the professional capabilities of the storyteller mattering more than one’s reaction to her superficial appearance — that could drive home some of the value of a conference like this.

Nicolás Luco wrote the column he wrote. Eveleth, Groeger, Raven, and Podolak took him seriously as a professional colleague who is presumptively concerned to strengthen their shared community. They asked him to consider the effect of his description on members of the professional community who stand where they do, to take responsibility as a writer for even the effects of his words that he had not intended or foreseen.

Engaging with colleagues when they hurt us without meaning to is not easy work, but it’s absolutely essential to the health of a professional community. I am hopeful that this engagement will continue productively.

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. rkipling 7:33 am 07/4/2013

    It is possible that Mr. Luco’s view of the power (and main attraction) of the professional conference may have a slightly different emphasis than yours.

    Link to this

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