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Another Sexual Harassment Case in Science: The Deafening Silence That Surrounds It Condones It

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Writer and playwright Monica Byrne's blog yesterday about her experience last year of sexual harassment by a well-known male science journalist triggered a nausea-inducing sense of deja vu. As a science writer for 15 years, this is just another variation on a story I've heard countless times from female scientists or science writers, and have experienced myself too. But Byrne did something that's almost unheard of. Yesterday, a full year after her original post, she identified the journalist as Bora Zivkovic (@BoraZ), Blogs Editor for Scientific American, a leading US scientific publication. Other than in whispered conversations in coffee shops or quiet meeting rooms, I've never known any woman to name the man involved, for the same reason that most women don't speak up about sexual harassment in the workplace in general - science and journalism are both fields in which funding and job opportunities are increasingly precarious, and women stay silent for fear that their careers will suffer.

What is crushingly disappointing is how unfazed the science community seem to be by Byrne's revelation. Zivkovic offered a brief apology online today and seems to have washed his hands of the whole thing. Only a handful of Zivkovic's more than 26,000 Twitter followers seemed to be bothered by any of this, and even then, the few voices of criticism seem to be drowned out by support from his wife and other science writers whose rationale is essentially that he's a good man who had a brief lapse of judgement. I've not met or spoken to Zivkovic personally, and have no reason to doubt that he's a "a good guy" nor do I doubt that he has tried to give female scientists more of a voice, but given Zivkovic's professional standing, there are many reasons why his behaviour should not just be forgiven and forgotten as a minor slip-up.

To briefly recap: Byrne says that Zivkovic first contacted her on Facebook, apparently to talk about science blogging, but when they met in person, he barely listened to what she had to say about her science writing, repeatedly bringing the conversation around to sex- talking about how strip clubs, how he was dissatisfied with his sexual life with his wife, and emphasizing the fact that he is "a very sexual person". Byrne later wrote to him to express her discomfort with his behaviour, at which point Zivkovic apologised.

So why did Byrne wait a whole year to out Zivkovic? In her blog update yesterday, she says she decided to go public because of another 'sexism in science' storm that Scientific American was at the heart of this week. Dr Danielle Lee who has a blog on Scientific American's site called 'Urban Scientist' was called an "urban whore" by an editor at Biology-Online.com because she declined to blog for free. Scientific American came under huge criticism for deleting Lee's outraged response to the editor, but as Zivkovic himself tweeted, they later re-instated it. Seemingly, the irony of Zivkovic being so outraged at the sexism Lee faced, given his own behaviour a year previously, was too much for Byrne.

Zivkovic has now apologized both privately to Byrne and publicly on his blog. Perhaps he feels he has nothing more to do now but to remain contrite. But what about his fellow science writers who are normally a highly articulate and outspoken bunch? What explains either the deafening silence or the bizarre closing of ranks? Zivkovic and many other science journalists were up in arms in protest against the Biology-Online.com editor who called Lee an "urban whore" (and who has now been fired). When Scientific American deleted her response, they were outraged at the treatment of a Black female scientist, hounding Zivkovic and his colleagues to reinstate the post. But while Lee had every right to be upset, ultimately, the fired editor worked for a little-known blog site, and wasn't even well-known himself - he may have been offensive but he wielded little power. Zivkovic on the other hand is highly influential and is friends with many in the science communication world. Many of these friends are now, on social media like Twitter at least, essentially telling Zivkovic that while he messed up, they still loved him. So one, small-fry editor gets fired for a single misjudged word, while another highly influential man keeps his job at a prestigious organisation and also earns virtual hugs from his peers.

Zivkovic's wife and another science writer sarcastically accused critics on Twitter of acting as if they were "so perfect" themselves. This is an utterly ludicrous response. Anyone should be able to reasonably criticise unethical and unprofessional behaviour without eliciting Biblical retorts of "let he who is without sin throw the first stone". Another science writer (@HankCampbell) described criticism of Zivkovic, which has been fairly mild by any standards, as "Overkill & inflammatory. His 10K good things are not washed away by a judgment error."

But calling this a "judgment error" trivialises this far too much. This was not a single throwaway comment in the course of an otherwise-normal discussion. This was an entire conversation in which Zivkovic, by his own admission, repeatedly tried to draw Byrne on the subject of sex despite not knowing her in any context other than professional. After they met, he then followed up by sending her a message to say "no idea how the convo veered into sex, but heck, why not".

That's not all. In the comments section of Byrne's blog update today, two more people say they experienced the same harassment from Zivkovic as Byrne did. It's true that these are unverified online comments that could be false - it could be that the people commenting on Byrne's blog are lying because of a personal vendetta against Zivkovic, or for some other reason. But it's worth noting that a third commentator on Byrne's blog says "I'm a writer and I'm posting anonymously because Zivkovic could well keep his job and his position of power in the scicomm community. If I'm on the record against him, what kind of backlash could I face? I don't want to find out." Crucially, Byrne concludes her post saying "Career-wise, I'm all right, as science journalism isn't my principal interest by far."

And this is what is so horrifying about the events of the past couple of days. They perfectly encapsulate why victims of sexual harassment - in any field - stay silent. Because even when they speak up, which takes enormous courage, and even when the man admits what he has done, his friends and colleagues either stay silent or defend him. Hell, even other women around him defend him.

Like other female journalists, I've often stayed silent at what seemed like inappropriate comments or behaviour from male colleagues. Partly because none of it seemed severe enough to warrant a formal complaint, but also because of fears of recrimination as a junior journalist. That worry isn't entirely in the past. Criticising the silence of Zivkovic's colleagues may cost me. Zivkovic is still in a position of power, and I'm still a freelance science writer, albeit an established one; it's not unthinkable that our paths will cross one day. I may also court vitriol from my fellow journalists too. But I feel obliged to say something. Journalists are supposed to make uncomfortable truths public, not brush them under the carpet. What Zivkovic did was unacceptable. The fact that he wrote a brief apology - a year late - and has had very little in the way of punitive action by Scientific American or from his peers sickens me both as a journalist and as a woman.