There’s a hashtag being used on Twitter right now, and plenty of discussion off the hashtag, for people to discuss the fallout of Bora Zivkovic inappropriately combining personal and professional interactions, up to and including sexual harassment in more than one case. They’re talking about doubt in their own work, in the reasons why their work was promoted, in the reasons their work wasn’t promoted, in how this will affect gender relations in the science writing community going forward.
Reading those, I feel I have to tell a story. I don’t tell this to minimize their doubt. It is entirely reasonable to feel those doubts under these circumstances. That’s a large part of what makes behavior like Bora’s damaging.
Nor am I telling this story to make any comment on Bora or how his behavior should be dealt with. I’ve been very careful up to this point to only mention this to my own emotional support network, in large part because I don’t want to influence how this is handled. I am in no position to be anything but biased in all sorts of competing directions on this. I have no perspective. I am not a reliable resource on any of those questions.
However, I have no doubt that Bora’s commitment to promoting the work of women in science writing was real and motivated by far more than any personal consideration of his. I have no doubt that he promoted my work for reasons related to that work (and didn’t when it didn’t suit his editorial needs). That is a comfortable place to be in the middle of all this. I want to share any of that comfort I can.
At the end of ScienceOnline 2011, the year of the #IhuggedBora hashtag, I ran into Bora at the end of the last day, over by the entirely overwhelmed coat racks. I thanked him for another excellent conference. He was in his usual chatty mood, but he signaled that he had something interesting to confide.
What was Bora excited about? He was tickled because this was the first year ScienceOnline had a majority of female participants. I don’t remember whether that referred to the presenters or overall attendance, but Bora let me know that this meant ScienceOnline was getting close to his goal. What he actually wanted was a conference with 60% female attendance. His goal was 60% because that is the point at which a traditionally silenced group participates equally in discussions, and he wanted those voices heard.
The only other time I’ve heard about that sort of research was earlier this year, when Secular Woman released recommendations for secular organizations. They cited research that was released in mid-2012, a year and a half after Bora and I had that discussion. No doubt there is prior research pointing to the same conclusions, but the interaction still demonstrates that Bora was serious about these principles. He has promoted women’s voices, and a diversity of women’s voices, because he believes those voices are valuable, necessary.
He succeeded too, though nothing like single-handedly. He also ended up succeeding at the goal he confided in me almost three years ago. I don’t know what the gender breakdown of the last few ScienceOnline meetings have been, but women in this science writing community speak up when they have something to say. Most of them do it with the firm expectation of being heard. I’ll save my observations on how that’s changed the dialogue in this situation as opposed to one where people don’t feel they’re heard for another time, but I think a difference has been noted.
None of that makes dealing with this situation any easier. Easy is writing someone off as loss with very little cost. Hard is facing up to the fact that someone who did good things also did bad things and letting both of those be equally true.
But reassuring each other and ourselves that our work has value and was valued should not be hard, even as the doubts are inevitable. A group like Scientific American Blogs doesn’t get the reputation and influence it has by being full of choices made for reasons other than writing. The Open Lab books don’t end up with a publisher because of what the writers look like. Hopefully this story makes some small difference too. Otherwise, all I have is tears that someone who was instrumental in getting me over my impostor syndrome has contributed to the impostor syndrome of so many others.