Everyday sexual harrassment in science

I posted a piece at the Guardian a few days ago on some sexual harassment allegations which had been effecting communities of science blogging. A lot of the debate on this has been done in public, and this is significant. Bloggers are supporting each other to feel strong enough to speak out but also simply make sense of a lot of it. There’s a lot of learning going on.

One of the things that has been amazing to watch is people calling out things that they’d previously labelled “a bit creepy” as THIS IS NOT OK.

We should be able to give a lecture without a colleague eyeing-up our legs. We should be able to bend down and tie our bloody shoelace on campus without someone making a comment about our bum. The gateways to particular people, jobs, ideas and spaces should not be guarded by questions of whether or not we are willing to entertain the idea of screwing someone in a position of power. We should be able to talk about stuff like this and call it out without being made to feel like some sort of sour killjoy.

To multiple men who stare at my breasts while I’m talking to them about work: Yes I can tell you are doing it, no it isn’t normal and yes it does really creep me out. It means I pretty much instantly lose a huge amount of respect for you but, no matter how strong I am and how much of an arse I know you to be, it always makes me doubt my own worth too. And the memory of quite how horrible it is – especially when it is someone who you have previously respected – can last for months. So stop. Other men manage not to so why the hell can’t you?

An American journalist who had spent time working in the UK remarked that a similar level of public discussion about specific perpetrators and more serious harassment couldn’t happen in the UK because of libel laws. He’s right, but we also have other networks of communication. Emails, meetings, networks of information and support.

It made me realise how long that sort of hidden support has been going on.

The threads of informal conversation at conferences where female academics share experiences or warn each other off. The way we so routinely go “oh, you have a meeting with [insert important man] that’s so exciting for you! Watch his wandering hands though, eh?” How, when a friend has suffered a particular “incident”, you instinctively check networks to see whether he has a reputation, because these networks exist. They are normal.

The way young female students are kept away from particular members of staff or work experience placements. The emails that quietly go round an institution warning women about getting in the lift with a particular invited speaker (who everyone knows is “problematic” but is oh so eminent). The way a postdoc or junior lecturer might be tasked with “keeping an eye” on someone at parties especially if there might be students there (because “professor x or y, he’s ok you know, unless he’s had a drink”).

There’s also the gossip which runs through male and mixed discussions too. This can trivialise issues, at worst blaming women but often just making it a joke so it’s harder to stand up to. These bits of gossip can be useful though, they give you warning.

I feel like we need to be better at recognising these systems. Because their very existence implicitly acknowledges the problem, and also sustains them. We support each other in these ways, but in doing so support the oppressors too.

I’ve often noticed men in science communication refer to students doing work experience placements or British Science Association Media Fellows as a “perk” of the summer months. I’ve never personally heard anyone in positions of responsibility say this, it’s normally just those around them, and it’s largely in terms of “eye candy” (though we all here stories and anyway such objectification is bad in itself). I also often think the men saying so do so largely from expectations about “banter”, they don’t necessarily mean it. And it’s a lot better than it used to be.

We all – men and women – know these sorts of attitudes exist and we act to protect each other accordingly. We rarely, however, call such behaviour out. Indeed when I have complained I’ve been laughed at for being a bit too serious/ misreading situations. I’m not sure how we get to the point where we can challenge bad behaviour more effectively, I don’t think simply talking about it will be the answer, but I think it will help.

Finally – and without diminishing the gendered nature of a lot of this – it is important because it’s not just something men do to women. It’s about power. There’s a lot of misuse of power that goes on in academia because it doesn’t get called out. Female academics and administrators who bully, including in some cases sexual harassment. Forms of racist, ableist, classist, bi/trans/homophobic oppression. The cases of sexual harassment are important in their own right, but they are also indicative of broader pathology which we need to address.

This post was edited slightly on Monday PM to better articulate the point about BSA fellows. I’m not entirely convinced it warranted it, but the last thing I want is more people’s sense of professionalism unnecessarily put into question.

120 thoughts on “Everyday sexual harrassment in science

  1. Jonathan Leake (Science Editor, The Sunday Times, London)

    HI Alice

    What do you mean by this bit?

    “It’s pretty well known that many men in science journalism, museums and documentary-making see British Science Association Media Fellows or Imperial Sci Com students doing placements as a “perk” of the summer (just for a bit of “eye candy” most of the time, though we’ve all heard stories of worse).”

    This is quite a serious allegation. There are not that many people, or men, in science journalism. So you’ve managed to defame us all by not being specific. If its true then you should give more details – including what exactly you are alleging? Harassment is obviously unacceptable but you seem to be accusing people mainly of looking at other people with intent – but how do you know? What is your evidence? To whom is it ‘pretty well known’?

    I don’t know much about the British Science Assn media fellowships – no fellows have been here to my knowledge. But if that’s the kind of allegation (vague, no dates, no names, no details, downright nasty) that’s going to get thrown in the general direction of anyone who agrees to accept female fellows then you’re not doing the scheme much good.

    Jonathan Leake
    Science Editor
    The Sunday Times

    1. alice Post author

      I said “many” not all.

      I appreciate you want specifics and evidence but equally what I am talking about it gossip, and I’m trying to call out this as having power in its slipperiness. So whilst I understand why you feel the need to say this, equally in asking this question you are perpetuating the problem.

      Because really is it me who’s “not doing the scheme much good” really?

      I don’t think I’m being “downright nasty” and resent you saying so. I’d be interested to hear what others think though. Because I think comments like this are a HUGE part of the problem.

    2. Barry Woods

      Looks to me that Jonathan is channelling Maynard. Why can he not see his comment might be perceived as just the same.

      Note he felt that putting his credentials and who he worked for, Somehow added something to his comment.

      Good of Alice to bring out the power issues that effect younger academics/writers, male/female as well vs the ‘important’ people as well.

      1. alice Post author

        Thanks, though I think this is slightly different from Andrew. I can see why Jonathan feels like this but I also think he needs to get a bit of perspective and also realise that limiting expression with lines like “a serious allegation” (which it’s not) is precisely the problem I’m talking about.

        1. Barry Woods

          Agree not quite the same..
          But definitly not a ‘serious allegation’.. just a sad reflection of how things are.

          Lots of people suffer from low level grinding not quite sure if it is bullying, unpleasantness..

          Wasn’t Tom Chivers that called out ‘banter’ and ‘can’t take a joke’ culture, which is part of the spectrum being duscussed

      2. Andrew Maynard (@2020science)

        Ah, I guess I should get involved as my name has been invoked. I’m still working through the motivations, consequences and learnings from my email and post, and so won’t comment specifically on that. What I can confirm is that Alice’s account of being a woman in academia corresponds almost word for word with what I have heard from female colleagues – to a degree that is frightening to me. Were I work we have a strong culture, together with robust processes, to prevent and to deal with sexual harassment. But still – I am increasingly discovering – there are serious problems with subtle and insidious behaviours. This has to be acknowledged and dealt with.

        Where you have people who are trying to do the right thing through channels they think are appropriate, it’s tough to see flaws in the system and to change. One good thing from this week though is that conversations are starting that will make change easier.

    3. anarchic_teapot (@anarchic_teapot)

      “I don’t know much about the British Science Assn media fellowships”

      Then perhaps, my lad, you should have kept your mouth shut instead of going off at half cock. The rest of your comment is, quite frankly, hysteria.You’re obviously looking to be offended. If you’re hoping to be accepted as a non-sexist then you’re not doing the scheme much good.

    4. Elizabeth Moon

      Hi, Jonathan (assuming, since you take the informal route with Bell, you prefer informal address)

      Have a problem with open discussion of a problem that most women face? Insisting that you need all the gory details so that you (exalted judge that you are) can decide if concern is warranted? Look in the mirror, sir: what you see is part of the problem. Yes, you–Science Editor of the Sunday Times, which apparently you think gives you Authority–YOU are part of the problem.

      This insistence by men such as yourself that they–not the women in daily contact with the problem–are the ones to decide if it is a problem–is part of the problem itself. Your reflex defensive attack–claiming that the report of a problem is a wholesale “serious allegation” and “defames us all” and is “downright nasty” looks more like an attempt to deflect attention from the real problem than a considered response to Bell’s article.

      What “defames” men in general and science in particular is the behavior of men who treat women first and foremost as objects of sexual desire. It’s not all men. It’s those men–the breast-starers, the upskirters, the ones who cop a feel, the ones who look for naive students to seduce, the ones who force their sexual interest on unwilling women…and it’s those men who support, excuse, and cover up for them.

      In which group, by your comment, you have located yourself. Mirror: see problem. You might consider not explaining it away with a wet-wipe of wounded dignity, but eliminating it by changing your own behavior.

    5. lucia liljegren (@lucialiljegren)

      Jonathan Leake

      If you really think people have been smeared, maybe you should consider a thorough investigation to clear all the men you think have been smeared. Make sure you put the investigation in the hands of someone who will be trusted to do a thorough job and not thought to be someone who would just sweep findings under a rug. Seems to me this is the sort of investigative reporting a news paper might think worth doing.

        1. lucia liljegren (@lucialiljegren)

          Jonathan Leake (Science Editor, The Sunday Times, London) says:

          I can invoke the stupendous rhetorical power of ‘Er… too’: Er…. A deeper investigation into the programs and people doing placements ( i.e. “British Science Association Media Fellows or Imperial Sci Com students doing placements as a “perk” of the summer”) . Clearly, if you were to initiate and investigation, one of the first things you would try to do is discover names in private rather than in blog comments.

          I could escalate your ‘er ..’ by add the eloquent reasoned argument “duh” to amplify on the fact that not having names does not preclude investigations, and that everyone knows this even if someone who suggests this supports the notion it is impossible by using the irrefutable argument ‘er …’ but I will refrain. (Or not. :) )

          As it happens: I think absolutely no one has been smeared. But I tend to suspect that if you really believe anyone working in the named programs had been smeared, you would wish to clear them and you would do so even if all you’d read of was rumors. I tend to think you would do this rather than chastising Alice with the accusation that anyone had been smeared. Of course, I could be wrong on this.

          I will not be at all surprised if you elect to do no investigation for any number of reasons ranging from budgetary, to believing the rumors have no basis, to lack of interest in learning if there is a foundation, to concern in alienating people who you consider allies. I don’t know you nor your news service and can’t begin to guess which. But you have a perfect right not to not investigate the rumors discussed in blog comments if you don’t wish and to not do so even if I suggest that such an investigation would be possible.

          Given the thread in general, I will note that I find it interesting that Andrew Maynard’s objection to Monica naming Bora was that naming would smear Bora and cause professional damage. And now you are objecting to Alice discussing something thought to occur without naming names. Though, of course, there is nothing wrong with the two of you having different views on naming vs. not naming. But it seems that evidently, some thing this can’t be discussed without nameing and others think it can’t be discussed with naming.

          I would also note another thing both you you seem to have in common: When Andrew wrote his letter suggesting Monica not name Bora, he did not suggest any method for remedying any situation that might be of concern. And though, in his post, he wrote rather vauge statement that these things could be dealt with through proper channels, and using the magic-to-American ears term “due process”, even his post explaining his view suggested no concrete mechanism for addressing any of the sort of wrongs in Bora’s behavior, particularly in the circumstances surrounding Bora’s behavior.

          Meanwhile: you seem to be very quickly suggesting that somehow investigations are not possible using nothing more than the snarky “er” as your argument.

            1. Barry Woods

              So you know nothing about how the issues being discussed came to everybodies attention. Ie maynard, bora monica.. or hannah, etc. The urban whore sci am incident, . but none the less, you felt able to wade into the debate waving your credentials. Class

            2. lucia liljegren (@lucialiljegren)

              Wow – that’s long!


              As for the circumstances where your papers does investigations. First, as I think no one was smeared, obviously, I don’t think you need to clear anyone. But you seemed to think some sort of defamation was going on– which would imply some harm to someone.

              On the other point: American papers do investigations into issues and programs all the time. And that was what I suggested. These stories appear in US papers all the time; I know because I read them. I wasn’t aware that programs can’t be investigated in the UK and you are restricted to investigations into already named people, I’ll take your word for that. Seems unfortunate, but I guess we’re lucky that US papers aren’t limited in this way.

              I know nothing about Maynard and next to nothing about Bora or Monica so can’t comment on that.

              Sorry if you thought I meant you to respond to that. Knowing that comments are read by many, my intention was merely to point out how different people react to these sorts of stories. Yours is to complain if people are not named. Maynard’s is to complain if people are named. Pleasing both of you would put us an interesting Catch-22.

              That said at the risk of another “Wow– that’s long”, I will continue.

              I am surprised to hear you are unfamiliar with the recent stories involving all three. Alice discussed all three her post at the guardian the guardian which she linked in the first paragraph of her post above. Also: Maynard himself commented here (” Andrew Maynard (@2020science) says: October 19, 2013 at 1:16 pm ” ). But perhaps you have not read Alice’s piece at The Guardian and have not followed the “Bora” saga.

            3. m000sh

              “Investigations are usually done to catch or incriminate named people – not clear unnamed ones.”

              Not always. Investigations of this nature often start with a concern that there is a problem. Take the Saville case. There was a concern that famous men in positions of power, working with children and women, were abusing that power. So an investigation was started to see whether any other, as yet unnamed, people were involved. An independent investigator asked BBC staff and the public to come forward with allegations, then when there was sufficient evidence, they were named.

              But it started with concerns, not names.

          1. Arthur Dent

            Perhaps a little bit of perspective is needed. Alice made an allegation specifically about the reprehensible behavior of “men in science journalism”. As Jonathan says that is a rather small group of people and since Alice wasn’t specific about which particular men, it’s an implication that he is one of the accused. That is what he is objecting to, being smeared by association.

            1. lucia liljegren (@lucialiljegren)

              Arthur Dent,

              Thanks for putting Jonathan Leake’s reluctance to consider investigation into the rumors, the clearly ridiculous reasons he suggests why it could not be done and his support of his insinuation that such investigations could not be done with rhetorical ploys like “er….” and “Wow – that’s long!” into perspective.

        2. amy

          She specifically did not name anyone; *you* were the one who decided all men had been smeared. (And, I see below, you actually hadn’t, but decided to play it as a rhetorical point, which is childish.) Are you perhaps feeling a bit defensive because your own behavior’s questionable?

          People aren’t entirely stupid, you know; your first comment reeks of “all this talk of sexual harassment has gone too far!” In other words, shut it down.

          If you would open your bloody ears, instead of deciding that it’s Now Impossible to Deal with Women At All In Journalism If They’re Going to Behave This Way, you’d hear women saying that the situation’s endemic, and that the effects are pervasive at levels of harassment far below the actionable level. Did you actually read Hannah’s piece?

          Stop *fighting* for ten goddamned minutes and try to learn something. Not acquire rhetoric to fight on with, but learn something.

          1. Lee Wood

            This has been fascinating to watch from the sidelines, seriously. What amazes me is that anyone is shocked, shocked I tells ya, that sexual harassment still goes on, everywhere, all the time, not just in academia or science. Some is minor and happens more out of ignorance than intent. Some is very much intentional and so bad it crosses the line from harassment to assault. I’ve experienced it for decades, the first time it happened to me I hadn’t even hit puberty, and the latest was just last week, half a century later. It’s endemic, and women everywhere, at every social stratum of society have evolved informal ways of protecting each other from the more egregious type who just don’t give a flying… damn… not just in journalism or science or academia.

            I know it exists, and all the back and forth dissection here about who was pointing fingers at whom, or who might be misconstruing what sort of deflects from what should be patently obvious to any of us living in the real world: women still get harassed, it’s not right, it should stop, probably not going to for awhile yet what with the society we still live in, but everyone could just try to be more aware of it, at the very least. Really, it’s such a simple point, can’t quite understand why everyone is trying to make it more complicated than it is.

    6. NA1

      Everyone is whining about everything they deem offensive these days. Get over yourselves. Men have been “staring” at females for more than 10,000 years now. This is nature. Deal with it. The world you envision is one where we are all so reserved that we might as well be enclosed in our cocoons scared to be ourselves and not try to establish any sort of communication with others. It could, after all, be deemed “offensive” or “politically incorrect”. This thing has gone too far…If I am to be punished for simply liking and being naturally attracted to the opposite sex then so be it. Peace!

  2. Chris Hicks

    >> We should be able to give a lecture without a colleague eyeing-up our legs.

    To me that reduced the credibility of the rest of the article. My first thought was: wear trousers. If I gave a talk wearing my cycling shorts (I’m a man, btw) I’d be disappointed not to be stared at and receive comments from both male and female colleagues. Same if I bent over to tie a shoelace. I call this normal life, banter, and not sexual harrassment.

    For more serious issues like being fondled in a lift, these days there are things like phones with video cameras. It’s hard to believe this sort of thing can’t be stopped instantly by posting a video on Facebook or uni website.

      1. lucia liljegren (@lucialiljegren)

        Besides which, what makes Chris Hicks think guys don’t eye women’s trouser clad asses? They do.

        If I gave a talk wearing my cycling shorts (I’m a man, btw) I’d be disappointed not to be stared at and receive comments from both male and female colleagues I assume the comment would be ‘oh ick’, could you conceal the outline of your junk? But how does that translate into women receiving lewd comments or ogling for dressing like Nancy Pelosi in this image

    1. Jade

      >> If I gave a talk wearing my cycling shorts (I’m a man, btw) I’d be disappointed not to be stared at and receive comments from both male and female colleagues.

      And, for me, that really reduced the credibility of your comment. I imagine from this comment that your cycling shorts analogy is to reflect perhaps more revealing(?) clothes women might wear – skirts, presumably? – I really couldn’t guess because women generally do not attend work in full Lycra from the waist down, but anyway… The implication here is that women wear these clothes because they are trying to display themselves – they are wishing for comments and compliments – which is a pretty offensive assumption. Women do not dress themselves with a desire to be stared at and to have their appearance commented on – we are not these broadly shallow, attention-starved creatures.

      “Banter” is certainly part of the problematic commenting Alice is referring to here – the idea that these comments people make on female bodies and appearances is just a bit of fun, a joke. It trivialises the genuine feelings of inferiority and uncomfortableness that come with feeling as though your physical appearance (which is largely irrelevant) is being judged by those around you, especially when your intentions are to engage with your peers on academic or professional matters.

      It is a shame it is so hard for you to believe that a woman filming her physical, sexual harassment (and I will not begin to address here the offense I take at the withering “more serious issues” distinction you are making – as though you will generously allow that this is “more serious” than the normal life, fun banter of the first scenario you paint) on her phone as it happens would solve the problem. You clearly do not grasp at all the idea that it would be a shocking, deeply unpleasant experience that may not allow the victim a chance to grab her phone and take a quick Vine of it. Neither do you grasp the idea that there may be more complex, conflicting feelings blocking this public outing – the idea that it would negatively reflect on you as a victim and affect your career or professional relationships, the fear that your harassment will be trivialised, even the guilt that comes with being responsible for publicly shaming the person who harassed you.

      There is a lot you have not even begun to consider, and your glib dismissal of what is a very real problem is a very disheartening and insulting thing to read.

      1. Chris Hicks

        I am in awe of your claim to speak for all women (though from my personal experience of having discussions like this over the years with females at universities, hospitals, factories, and offices, I reckon most of them agree with my comments — I wouldn’t have dared post them here otherwise). So I think really you are only speaking for a small minority of women.

        However, since I’ve just realised this forum is tagged as Feminism, I’m understanding that I am unlikely to win any argument.

    2. Dawn Foster

      I love it when old white men trot along to talk on high about experiences they know nothing about. Firstly, people should be allowed to wear whatever they want. Whether you’d be “pleased” to be objectified is besides the point, and ignores power dynamics you’re apparently wilfully blind to. Everyone should be treated with professional courtesy in professional contexts.

      Secondly, the fact that you conflate “fondling” with groping raises serious concerns about your understanding of consent and sexual assault. You “find it difficult to imagine” filming someone who is assaulting you won’t stop them, when as every woman knows, in many cases, this could escalate matters. Assault and harassment is about power – when people feel their power challenged, it’s difficult to tell how to react.

      In telling women to change their behaviour, *you* are the problem.

      1. The Doktor

        but you *are* allowed to wear whatever you want. Constrained dresscodes are much more common for men than women!

        Try as I might I couldn’t see any conflating of physical contact levels: in fact he said in plain english “more serious, like fondling”. Do you funny spotty neurotic feminist chicks have special definitions for words like “fondle” that us creaky old spunk-encrusted nasty men don’t share?

        Just keeping the emotional basis of the commentary nicely balanced, you understand, as part of the banter…

        1. Chris Hicks

          It ISN’T banter (unless it’s between friends). Of course the definition of friends might include a group of consenting adults who continue to have a discussion for several hours even when it’s clear nothing is going to be agreed or resolved. (like most dinner parties really)

      1. Chris Hicks

        I’ve just read the “banter” article you pointed to, AND all the reader comments which mostly are intelligent, insightful, often funny, mostly disagreeing with the article (but taken in good humour by the author). A decent discussion.

        We are all agreed though: “Banter” is gentle teasing and insults AMONGST FRIENDS. It should never upset anyone.
        Between strangers it is not banter, it is rude, maybe offensive, an unfunny joke that is defended by calling it “banter”.

    3. soozaphone

      When I heard about this comment on facebook I assumed it was a joke. Reading it here I’m not so sure.

      This argument that women should change their behaviour because men can’t control theirs utterly infuriates me. for a number of reasons.

      Firstly why on earth should we?!

      But secondly and more importantly, it makes not a jot of difference. ‘Advice’ like this is often trotted out when a women gets attacked (I know because it happened in Bristol where I live in the last week or so). ‘Don’t walk home late at night alone, don’t get drunk’ etc etc. It limits the freedom of women due to the behaviour of men, it doesn’t do anything about the actual problem, and it DOESN’T WORK. Do sober women never get attacked? Do women never get assaulted during the day? Well, they do. I know because I got assaulted on a sober Sunday afternoon.

      And to say ‘wear trousers’, do you think women don’t get abuse when they wear hoodies and jogging bottoms? I can assure you they do.

      The issue is discussed better than I can do here: http://sianandcrookedrib.blogspot.co.uk/2013/10/police-respond-to-evening-post.html and, for info, look at the abuse Sian got for saying it.

      1. Chris Hicks

        . I said if a woman feels uncomfortable wearing a skirt while lecturing (presumably a short skirt, since a long skirt = trousers for the purposes of leg exposure) then a simple solution is wear trousers. I doubt the students would care either way.

        Your escalation of the above into “abuse”, “getting attacked”, “getting assaulted”, “men can’t control their behaviour”, etc is all from your own imagination.

        I still think that calling it “Sexual Harassment” is foolish.

          1. Chris Hicks

            Actually …. that’s pretty much your article summed up. Cartoons are excellent shorthand. They make people smile, especially if there’s some truth there.

            But I assume you are not finding anything to disagree with in my comment.

      2. The Doktor

        fascinating. So is an *eye movement* (the thing the OP was clearly describing) now “an attack”? I can see why this conflation thing is so appealing, it’s really neat!

    4. amy

      Bzzt. Women should not have to hide from men. You’ll have us all in burqas next, or perhaps staying home from this career business if we don’t want feeling-up via eyeballs.

      It’s the fella’s responsibility not to harass women.

  3. Jonathan Leake (Science Editor, The Sunday Times, London)

    HI Alice
    Thanks for that change. Just to be clear, I support all the points you are making but don’t much ike the levelling of generalised accusations against groups defined only by their profession.
    I guess it’s always going to be a difficult issue to raise because, on the one hand your anecdotes ring true but on the other, perhaps by definition, it’s hard to gather or cite real evidence.
    Sometimes that changes – I guess you’ve followed what’s been happening at SciAm? http://www.scientificamerican.com/pressroom/pr/corporate-press-releases/2013/bora-zivkovic-resigns-from-scientific-american/

    1. alice Post author

      I didn’t think this needed clarifying but apparently it does – I’m not leveling a claim at a whole profession, I was saying many in that field do.

      Also, if this is some how news to you, considering your long standing seniority in the field, then I suggest you keep a better ear out. Because I’m shocked by your shock.

      Yes, the post is off the back of the Sci Am stuff. Again, I thought that was obvious but apparently not.

        1. alice Post author

          Ok fair enough I shouldn’t have assumed shock. Still, I would invite you to think about why your initial comment would be seen as unhelpful by many.

          1. Jonathan Leake (Science Editor, The Sunday Times, London)

            Hardly unhelpful – it’s provoked rather a good discussion!
            My comment was because you made some very good points but then phrased the ‘evidence’ so loosely you undermined them again.

            For example you said: “I’ve often noticed men in science journalism, museums and documentary-making see British Science Association Media Fellows or Imperial Sci Com students doing placements as a “perk” of the summer.”

            So that implies you have first-hand evidence – not anecdotes from others. When have you ‘noticed’ this? What did you notice? Did these people say something about their prospective interns to give this impression?

            It sounds nit-picking in a way but for a reader a statement like ‘I’ve often noticed …’ begs all those questions. If you answer it that’s a powerful boost to your arguments. If you leave it unanswered it undermines them.

            1. alice Post author

              Again, to repeat my initial point what I am talking about *is* gossip and it’s power. So for all that I do appreciate the desire to nit pick, it doesn’t undermine the points. It’s the basis of them.

              If you can’t see this I think the only advice I have is that you go away and have a think, maybe re-read the post next week to see if you missed something. Because I don’t think I have some magic phrase or fact or picture I can give you to instantaneously help you change your mind.

              I should also add that a reason for not naming people specifically is that it’s often said in jest and also, I think, by men who don’t necessarily feel this way about women – it’s part of a culture of “banter” they themselves suffer from. So for all that I could say “x said to me, in y about x” (and there are multiple examples…) I would feel really bad doing that. Especially as I’m not trying to make direct allegations, I’m asking people to recognise a problem. I hope that posts like this one might help people who’ve previously been a bit lost on this make headway into talking more openly about it and then, gradually, more specifics – where appropriate – will come out. These things don’t happen straight away.

              Again to repeat myself, if you don’t already recognise this you should wonder if that’s a problem of your perception and have a look at yourself. And again, I think you should probably just go away and have a think rather than expect me to enlighten you in a blog comment or assume you are right all along.

              Or, Jonathan, you’re not nearly as clueless as you come across here but you have heard lots of gossip about various people over the years and you want me to name some names so you can write about it. In which case you can do your own dirty work elsewhere.

              1. Jonathan Leake (Science Editor, The Sunday Times, London)

                So, you didn’t actually ‘notice’ anything, but were referring to anecdotes? Nice to get that clear.
                Also to clarify, just because I disagree with the loose wording in your essay doesn’t mean I disagree with the issues you’ve raised.
                There’s all kinds of misbehaviour, bullying and worse in work places of which harassment is one of the nastiest. I used to be a union rep for staff so saw the consequences of that plenty of times.
                And no (sigh), I’m not interested in picking up gossip for articles on a forum like this. Again, why even suggest something like that in a public place when we’ve never even spoken?
                Feel free to call me direct if you ever want to talk directly.

                1. alice Post author

                  I am referring to many years of hearing men casually referring to “pretty” media fellows and imperial students being a perk of the summer. I worked in the field since 1999-ish. I don’t hear it so much now, maybe because it’s not so bad, maybe because I’m older, maybe because I’m more senior and have worked as a teacher, maybe because I just spend less time in the field. But I have heard multiple people say this.

                  It might help to clarify things if I underline that (a) the bulk of men don’t have that attitude and (b) these were almost entirely junior staff who had no role in picking which students/ media fellows would be involved or managing them.

                  I’ve heard stories of things involving higher up. Those are just stories, and although I think they are still significant as stories, I really can’t claim to know more than that. The other thing I’m talking about is women acting to protect each other from sexual harassment. It might be that their fears are unfounded, but they still do take these actions. And we should talk about that.

                  I think one of the problems here is you attempting to critique this as an “essay” as opposed to some notes I typed up on my phone on the bus on Friday night. I could have posted this at the Guardian or the New Left Project, but didn’t feel it warranted the attention. I also saw someone on twitter call it lazy journalism. It doesn’t pretend to be journalism. It’s notes. To help speak to an on-going conversation.

                  And as for why suggested you were picking up gossip (“sigh” if you want to play that sort of emo game) I wondered it, so expressed that. The defensive “why are you suggesting this in public when we have never even spoken” can equally be applied to your first comment too. I don’t really want to talk to you about this. You – like many other men – chose to comment on this post to inform me I’m wrong about the way I’ve chosen to talk about sexual discrimination.

            2. The Doktor

              If the word “many” doesn’t level a claim at a whole profession then I’m gonna have to go back and re-jig my conflation hoojamaflip.

              1. lucia liljegren (@lucialiljegren)

                The Doktor,
                Go re-jig. Because “I have many friends in the Chicago” doesn’t mean I am friends with everyone in Chicago. It doesn’t even mean I am friends with most people in Chicago, nor even that as many as 0.001% of the population in Chicago are my friends.

  4. The Doktor

    Thinking about the layout of most lecture spaces, distance to audience etc, I am quite impressed that you can *verifiably be sure* that eyeing-up is taking place. From what you say elsewhere in the piece, the simpler and less huffy explanation is that your horrid sexist colleagues know your shoelaces come undone a lot and are alert to the possibility you may go base-over-apex in mid lecture at any moment.

    It would be very unfortunate to find that this is an emotional, unscientific and unresearched rant springing from a pecking-order misperception, performance anxiety from lecturing and fantasies including but not limited to controlling the uncontrollable. *Scientific* studies of where both men *and* women look shows that it’s not a conscious mechanism.

    Personally, my off-colour jokes about bums when people bend over are gender-neutral – but of course, each recipient is of only one gender, which causes audience bias. For an actually *scientific* angle on the issues which cause you to interpret everything men do around you as inappropriately sexual, I recommend reading the Eric Berne Transactional Analysis books. He’d have a number of things to say about people who assert objective superiority by way of qualification, and then think that “LOL Troll” is an adult response…

    Or; alternatively; make your lectures more interesting, at least for you, so you stop eyeball-checking the front row.

      1. Chris Hicks

        I’d expect The Doktor to not feel abused, but take your rude remark as banter (while you research a more scientific reply). I was going to point out that this is a scientific forum, but have just noticed the main tag is Feminism, followed by Science.
        I feel a bit qualified to talk about facts and logic and science, but now understand why those things are of secondary importance here.

      2. The Doktor

        ares, arse man, or highly advanced inner-city metrosexual post-ironic piss-taker? Not having too high an opinion of oneself is quite useful to avoid the maintenance of fantasies about everyone being out to abuse you, fondle you, look at your legs…

  5. tallbloke

    Louise, there are a lot of valid points in your post, but you need to be careful not to over-interpret:

    “To multiple men who stare at my breasts while I’m talking to them about work: Yes I can tell you are doing it, no it isn’t normal and yes it does really creep me out.”

    A lot of people don’t like to maintain direct eye contact when they are listening to someone speaking, they tend to drop their gaze a bit. The reasons are several:

    1) Privacy – some people feel they give away their inner private reactions to something being said if they are maintaining direct eye contact, and prefer to look somewhere else, usually downwards, because there’s less to distract them there than gazing over the shoulder of their interlocutor and because it masks their reaction better.

    2) Deference – some people don’t make eye contact out of deference. Chimps and gorillas do this in the presence of the alpha male too. It’s less challenging of someone they regard as higher in a pecking order. Kings used to insist on heads being bowed while they spoke too.

    3) Deafness – some people need to look at your mouth to assist them in making out what you are saying. You may be able to tell the difference between that and them looking at your ladybumps, but are you sure you can differentiate the geometry?

    The other point is this. When you said “it isn’t normal”, I think what you mean is:
    “I find it offensive and unacceptable”. Men looking at ladybumps is completely normal. Humans are driven by their urges. Modern polite society trains people to suppress those urges, but they’re still there. Men don’t complain about women gawking at their bums for two reasons:

    1)They don’t see them doing it
    2) They like the attention anyway.

    Cheers – TB

    1. alice Post author

      No. I know the difference between someone staring at my tits and someone just not looking at my eyes. And I am talking about the former. You may not be able to discern the different, but like most women I can.

      And it’s Alice. Not Louise (who is Louise?). Or Dr Bell.

      1. tallbloke

        Sorry for mixing up your name Alice, or Dr Bell, whichever you prefer.
        Any comment on my second point about normality, and who gets to define it?

        Personally, I prefer a world where people are irrepressably human, and eyeing each other up is a happy part of day to day life. In my experience, it’s the repressed and consequently screwed up people who tend to make inappropriate physical contact, or worse, commit sexual assaults.

          1. tallbloke

            I think there are two conflations here. Firstly, I was addressing this generality:
            “multiple men who stare at my breasts while I’m talking to them about work:”

            This is a different scenario to: “being eyed up by a senior colleague while you are teaching”, which I would agree is inappropriate behaviour for several reasons. I doubt the students notice though, and even if they did, I don’t think it undermines you. After all, you’re not the one behaving badly.

            The second conflation is between people who appreciatively eye you up because they like the look of you but have no wish to impact your sunyata or trying to get off with you, and people who catcall in the street with the intention of creating feelings of embarrassment or worse.

            That’s not a class thing, it’s an intent thing.

            Any comment on the point about repression and it’s links with uncontrolled behaviour and sexual assault?

            1. alice Post author

              (a) I don’t want to discuss your repression theory. Sounds a bit weird to me, but I’m not really qualified to discuss this topic. Moreover, I don’t think saying people should treat women with the same respect as they they treat men is repression so I’m not sure how it is relevant.

              (b) conflation – I was grouping that particular example with others, yes, but I don’t have a problem with that grouping. Indeed part of point is that whatever the context, there isn’t an excuse. Each time the power dynamics are different, but the overall point is that most men don’t do this, so they don’t have to either. And yes, within that grouping is also a range of people looking for more appreciative reasons and those who do it to deliberately demean me. But both are wrong. Because you shouldn’t be looking at someone’s breasts even if it’s because you like them when they are talking to you about work, any more than it’s appropriate to ask women specific questions about whether they want to have children, etc.

              (c) I didn’t say it was a class thing, I said the context the Guardian piece had different class context to it.

              (d) on the normality – well most men manage not to letch. Or at least most of the ones I know manage it, by a long, long way. You may feel that I am trying to exert some matriarchal idea of normality where men aren’t distracted by “ladybumbs” but I would argue that the opposite it true.

              Additionally, it is sad to see this comment thread dominated by men trying to tell me I’m wrong about this – the few women only really coming into to argue against what they perceive as sexist comments. It could have been a space where men and women could productively discuss similar examples of normally under-discussed discrimination and networks for supporting this, and/ or ways to change things.

              Do men commenting on stuff like this not realise what stupendous arseholes they look like? Because I’ve had a steady stream of personal messages from men and women all day appalled by this comment thread.

              1. Chris Hicks

                Just to rephrase your last two paragraphs. Men have told you your article is wrong. Women have not disagreed, but argue against the way men said it. And the stream of messages from men and women are not supporting your article, but are appalled by….. an attempt at a discussion about a serious issue? They’d all prefer nobody said anything, or that we all agreed with every word?

                This IS a space where men and women could productively discuss…..
                but any attempts to do this in a serious and scientific manner are answered with angry personal insults. A type of answer that usually means “That’s a good point you’ve made and I don’t have a response; but I’m not going to admit it”.

                I would never embarrass myself (for all of eternity, or as long as the internet lasts) with a penultimate sentence like yours. Though I’m not shocked or insulted or belittled by it — just saddened.

                1. alice Post author

                  I think I can cope with the fact that you are disappointed in me. I don’t want or need your approval. Which is the point. You’re earlier (ignorant) comments on feminism really suggest there is no point trying to reason with you here. I can just hope that one day you open your mind to a bit more nuance.

                2. lucia liljegren (@lucialiljegren)


                  I would never embarrass myself (for all of eternity, or as long as the internet lasts) with a penultimate sentence like yours. Though I’m not shocked or insulted or belittled by it — just saddened.

                  To clarify, do you object to alice’s

                  Do men commenting on stuff like this not realise what stupendous arseholes they look like?

                  I don’t think she should be embarrassed by that. I agree with her. Or are you objecting not to the substance but her using the foul word ‘arsehole”. If so, maybe you can suggest a more appropriate word for what these men sound like.

                  Also, as it happens, Alice knows women agree with her– it’s just they’ve been discussing at Twitter, while over here, the conversation seems to be dominated by guys criticizing her. I don’t know why the splintering occurred. But many women agree with Alice.

              2. lucia liljegren (@lucialiljegren)

                First: you are right about this. I didn’t initially engage Rog’s comment here because he managed to say so many wrong things it’s hard to know where to start.

                I will comment on the breast issue. Roger’s idea seems to either be that
                (a) the concern is the man’s eyes might wander across breasts for some millisecond in the normal sort of way that occurs when people simply look at each other,
                (b) that somehow, it’s ok for a man to stand there with his eyes rivitted to a woman’s breasts while she is making a technical work presentation provided the only reason he is ignoring looking at her technical work in favor of looking at her breasts is that he likes her breasts but he’s not actually contemplating asking her to have sex with him or– in his mind– he isn’t really intending to make her feel uncomfortable or
                (c) something else, I’m not sure what.

                I would point out that (a) is not what you are complaining about. Anyone who thinks it is does not understand what you are saying. Prohibiting (b) does not mean anyone is telling guys they need to tip-toe around or constantly cover their eyes.

                And with respect to (b), I’ve definitely seem guys do this to women. I’ve seen them do the “slow sweep” with eyes traveling from the top of the head to the floor, back up and often about 3 times often accompanied with a certain unmistakable look which certainly does not communicate “What an interesting talk. That’s great technical work!” And no, it’s not ok if the ‘only’ reason the guy is doing this is he like breasts (evidently more than he likes listening to the technical content of technical presentations.)

                The fact is: normal adult men can avoid doing (b). Most do. In fact, even guys who really, really like breasts can avoid doing (b) in work or professional settings. Most do. If this is ‘repression’, then that sort of repression is a good thing. With respect to Tallblokes suggestion that somehow this sort of repression might result in sexual assaults: Bunk.

                1. tallbloke

                  Lucia, you could have eliminated (b) simply by reading what I wrote in response to Alice, rather than going off on one…

                  “This [the generality I originally commented on] is a different scenario to: “being eyed up by a senior colleague while you are teaching”, which I would agree is inappropriate behaviour for several reasons. “

                2. lucia liljegren (@lucialiljegren)


                  Lucia, you could have eliminated (b) simply by reading what I wrote in response to Alice, rather than going off on one…
                  Oh? I read what you wrote. Let me show the words you think clear you in a fuller context:

                  This is you the quote you think shows you are cleared of (b) in the context with other words surrounding it:

                  I think there are two conflations here. Firstly, I was addressing this generality:
                  “multiple men who stare at my breasts while I’m talking to them about work:”

                  This is a different scenario to: “being eyed up by a senior colleague while you are teaching”, which I would agree is inappropriate behaviour for several reasons. I doubt the students notice though, and even if they did, I don’t think it undermines you.

                  And, moreover, you were “explaining” this:

                  Personally, I prefer a world where people are irrepressably human, and eyeing each other up is a happy part of day to day life. In my experience, it’s the repressed and consequently screwed up people who tend to make inappropriate physical contact, or worse, commit sexual assaults.

                  So, it sure as heck looks like you were referring to and minimizing “multiple men who stare at my breasts while I’m talking to them about work:” and suggesting that you “prefer a world where people are irrepressably human, and eyeing each other up is a happy part of day to day life”.

                  Maybe you would “prefer” that. And maybe you think the word “eyeing” refers to (a) and not (b). But it’s generally referrers to (b), and you are — for some reason– deciding to explain how you would “prefer” people to happily do this in response to Alice complaining that coworkers do it in a business setting while she is trying to talk about work.

                  Even if you would love a world in which people are all happily eyeing each other, that’s no reason reason to ignore the fact that people presenting their work might prefer to have the audience paying attention to their work rather than eyeing their breasts. And the preferences of those professional people presenting their work might count at least as much as your preference about how everyone happily go around “eyeing” each other.

  6. WT

    Here’s what I don’t get, at a meta-level:

    Science has told us quite definitively that the entire history of life on earth (at least since reproduction became sexual rather than asexual) has been overwhelmingly driven by one of the most powerful urges. For males, this is the urge to reproduce with just about anything that is nearby. When we look at how other animals behave, there isn’t a single species (that I know of) that respects all of the niceties of mutual consent at every stage.

    Why should we be shocked that human males show an interest in reproduction and do so with about a thousandth of the ill manners that characterize the typical lion or bull or alpha male gorilla?

    1. Laboratory Unicorn

      Because ‘Science’ doesn’t actually say that. Mammals have many varying ways that they reproduce and you cannot compare them to humans in an honest fashion.

      Also, this line of thinking encourages sexism and racism, dismisses lgbt roles in humanity.

    2. The Doktor

      because it may not even be that as the cause! (and I never bought that whole “it’s a hole, what’s the problem” view anyway). When I am listening very hard to a technical discussion – which I do about ten times a month, at lecture levels and more besides – my brain definitely drops some side processing stuff; my eyes will wander all over the place. I doodle. I get very ratty about interfering noises if I have to listen to what people say. Someone – of a scientific bent – who concluded that I was “looking at her legs” while I am like this, and went off in a stupendous huff without validating the hypothesis – would be a prize idiot.

      While I’m being branded “an arse” by yet more anonymous mates of the OP, I feel bound to point out that the most commonplace criticism of ivory-tower scientists is that they are so far into their books that they do a spectacularily poor job of recognising, controlling or directing their own humanity. Which, were anyone to ponder for a moment, would explain *both* the perving *and* the reactions.

      1. Barry Woods

        Can’t take a joke.!! In response to your description of gender neutral bottom jokes. And I wasn’t anonymous… and I think the OP would laugh at your description of me and Alice as ‘mates’

  7. ntropyalwayswins

    I also learnt from a 16 year old girl that if a guy wants you to take your top off so he can ogle you there are 2 responses:

    1. if he is regarded as cool then it is cool

    2. if he is not regarded as cool then he is a pervert

    it s a cruel world but I did not make the rules

    1. Laboratory Unicorn

      Has it occurred to you that the 16 year old you were talking to has her sexuality defined by other people in a crappy culture for girls to express their sexuality? I mean, your comment is really really creepy.

  8. manonclaphamomnibus (@DopeyJim)

    Dear Dr. Bell,
    I’m not sure if this adds anything to the debate – it’s not especially scientific. I don’t actually think your post is “nasty” but it is lacking in detail.

    From an early age, boys and girls are given boundaries. My sisters had to avoid punching me in the groin or the hated pink specs and I couldn’t punch them at all. As we grew older, other boundaries were introduced, like ‘not taking sweets from strangers’. These are designed to give us an innate sense of avoiding danger. Both sexes in adulthood still have them. As an elderly white male, I am wary about walking in unlit areas at night. My sisters wore laceless shoes, and perfectly stylish clothes that avoided revealing cleavages or thighs in certain circumstances. This is forethought.

    But a more complicated situation. As a news editor of a scientific publication, I was faced with a young female writer who was being molested by a senior editor during the ‘cocktail hour’ between the weekly editorial meeting and lunch. She dreaded these times and told me it gave her sleepless nights. My less-than-perfect answer was to try and keep the two apart at these meetings, often by sending her off on some pretext.

    But she was missing a key social networking opportunity, so she agreed to suffer if I couldn’t protect her. Needless to say, this didn’t work, and, sadly, she left. This deprived her of a job she loved and was very good at, and us of an imaginative and knowledgeable colleague.

    I’m sure you would think that, in such an extreme case – there was nothing “slippery” about it – I and/or she should have confronted the man and shamed him before his colleagues. Firstly, I doubt if it would have been much of a shame since I our colleagues wouldn’t have been much moved, and it would certainly have blighted her career, and possibly mine.

    So I was a wimp, and though it happened many years ago, I still regret it. There is no happy ending. The girl went through some, frankly, lesser jobs then ended up in what I believe was an unhappy marriage.

    1. Barry Woods

      and maybe most of your colleagues felt he was an arse as well…
      you will never know, if one of you had spoken up, the peer pressure may have sorted it out..

      or of course you and the young female writer would have been out of that job as well.. coward..

      if you had spoken up at some ‘slight’ risk to yourself, she would have known, principles matter, and might have stuck it out (ie given some help)

    2. The Doktor

      Bad form. You *have* to bring those things to the accused persons attention. I’ve both been accused, and arbitrated over accusations. One such turned out to pivot crucially on a weekly meeting when the accuser’s metabolism was at the bottom of the MDMA trough from the weekend’s excesses. Suddenly, that day, everyone was an utter bastard… but this was back in ’96. We moved the meeting by a day and the problem magically vanished, that being a far easier option than finding the dealer and getting him to sell fake pills.

      It may be that you were being played, by either person: I’ve seen the same kind of eyelash-batting from young gay men, and had both parties in a room to make a porno … no hang on that wasn’t while I was actually awake. What I really did was yell at both of them to grow the f*ck up and stop puppydogging me. One respect in which Dr UpTight is totally correct is that professional exchanges simply *work* better when people use professional rules to govern their behaviour. The problem is, she’s (on the evidence) well short of Emotional Intelligence, and a bit of a revenge player with her troll comments to people whose intentions are neutral, verging on good. Her boss should nip in the broom cupboard and bang one out, so he can sit calmly and support her in a professional way.

      What, you mean I’m the only one who’s done that? I’m only trying to be good!

  9. feimineach

    Reblogged this on feimineach.com and commented:
    “We should be able to give a lecture without a colleague eyeing-up our legs. We should be able to bend down and tie our bloody shoelace on campus without someone making a comment about our bum. The gateways to particular people, jobs, ideas and spaces should not be guarded by questions of whether or not we are willing to entertain the idea of screwing someone in a position of power. We should be able to talk about stuff like this and call it out without being made to feel like some sort of sour killjoy.”

  10. vicbriggs

    Thank you for an interesting post. It is a great pity that, whilst most men and women manage to work effectively together in an academic setting, have fruitful professional relationships, and collaborate in tackling gender inequality in their respective fields, there are still those who through their [insert pejorative-descriptive adjective of choice here] behaviour create a poisonous atmosphere that is ultimately counterproductive for gender relations in particular and to academia as a profession itself.
    TenureSheWrote posted a behaviour guideline that I think overlaps with and reinforces many of the arguments you make in this article: http://shardsofsilence.wordpress.com/2013/10/08/dont-be-that-dude-handy-tips-for-the-male-whether-academic-or-not/

  11. Tom Whipple (@whippletom)

    I would just like to add to Jonathan’s post. I realise it might not be your intention, but when you say “men in science journalism…see British Science Association Media Fellows or Imperial Sci Com students doing placements as a ‘perk’ of the summer”, you are actually referring to about half a dozen identifiable individuals, of whom I am one.

    Contrary to what you say in one of your replies, we do indeed get to choose who gets the placement – and I would hate the media fellow we get next summer to think that the way she looks (if it is a she) affects our choice. It would be terrible if they think that the reason they got a prestigious posting was because they were totty around the office.

    Both summers I have been covering science for The Times I have had excellent media fellows – one a man, one a woman. They were both writing page leads daily – and it is their ability to do that that we value. Trust me, with staffing levels the way they are we cannot take people into our office for six weeks unless they can pull their weight.

    So in that sense I suppose I do view them as a perk of the summer – because they have proved extremely useful.

    Tom Whipple
    Science Correspondent, The Times (I add my job title for the same reason Jonathan did. Not, as some extremely unfairly accused him of doing, to claim “authority”, but because as the holder of that job these allegations are about me)

    1. alice Post author

      My reply isn’t meant to suggest these half-dozen men don’t pick fellows, it was that the men I’ve heard saying it’s a perk aren’t the ones who pick.

      To repeat a note above (as it may have got lost): It might help to clarify things if I underline that (a) the bulk of men in the field really don’t have that attitude AT ALL and (b) those I have heard expressing themselves so were almost entirely junior staff who had no role in picking which students/ media fellows would be involved or managing them. They just worked with them. I’ve heard stories of things involving higher up. Those are just stories, and although I think they are still significant as stories, I really can’t claim to know more than that.

      As I tried to say to Jonathan yesterday, but I maybe need to spell it out more clearly, much as I appreciate your concern here, it isn’t about *you*.

      1. Tom Whipple (@whippletom)

        Alice, it is about me. There’s no such thing as junior staff on newspaper science desks. The science desks consist of one or two people. The only person junior to me is the work experience. I don’t know who the men you are talking about are? But if you talk about “men in science journalism” who come into contact with media fellows, then there are about six of us. There are no other men in science journalism I know of.

        1. alice Post author

          I said “men in science journalism, museums and documentary-making” – you are both reading something into this that isn’t there and also oblivious to something that is.

          But please yes, let’s continue to make conversations about women being sexually harassed about men who weren’t even implicated in the first place…

  12. Tom Whipple (@whippletom)

    What am I oblivious to? I am not talking about the substance of your post, which I don’t disagree with.

    I am talking about a very specific allegation. If you say men in science journalism engage in this behaviour, even when grouped with other categories, you imply that at least one man in science journalism who has had a BSA media fellow is involved. Is there anything I’m missing?

    This is not nitpicking, it is important. This is an extremely serious accusation that affects me, and that affects people applying to work with me.

    1. alice Post author

      I am saying that men who work alongside BSA fellows and Imperial Sci Com students (and other work experience people – it’s the summer) have made sexist comments about eye candy etc.

      I have re-iterated that point several times. Any “specific” or “serious” allegation which affects you is one you are reading in yourself.

      1. alice Post author

        and seriously, can you not see how ridiculous this makes you look? The initial thing wasn’t about you and didn’t make you look bad. This does (NB: not because as some implied above it looks like your a perpetrator of such actions, just that you are crap at dealing with these debates).

      2. Tom Whipple (@whippletom)

        First of all, that’s not at all what you said in the post. Second, there are no such men who you refer to who would fit the title of being in science journalism who would not also be me. I don’t know how you imagine papers work, but there really aren’t that many staff.

      3. Jonathan Leake (Science Editor, The Sunday Times)

        HI Alice
        You are clearly writing with good intentions about an important topic of which we should all be more aware..
        The issue is a technical and legal one related to accidental attacks on other people’s reputation. Here’s my non-lawyer’s attempt to explain.
        If you criticise someone particular then the issue is very clear – did they do what’s alleged or not?
        But if you criticise or accuse without specifically identifying someone then you risk defaming a group of people, most of whom may be perfectly innocent.
        This is a well known problem in journalism where a perpetrator cannot be identified for some reason. An example would be if one wrote: “A Brixton milkman was convicted of rape ….” without naming him, then all other Brixton milkmen could rightly sue for libel.This kind of action has happened.
        The same goes for science writers collectively accused of sexual harassment.
        Don’t get me wrong – i’m not threatening you with ANY kind of legal action.
        But you should be aware that others might see things differently.
        The problem here is a technical one – its not about the issues you are highlighting. Instead its about the precision with which you are writing about them. And given the backdrop of what we all do is science then precision is what we should at least aim for.

        There is some good legal guidance on this pasted below. See the section on Group Libel, which you can find in a longer version at

        SPLC Legal Brief
        Libel Law

        © 2001 Student Press Law Center

        Libel is the publication – in words, photos, pictures or symbols – of false statements of fact that harm another’s reputation. (Libel is a form of defamation. Slander is the spoken version of defamation.) Reprinting or re-broadcasting a libelous statement made by someone else (such as a quote or a letter to the editor) can also subject a publication to a libel lawsuit. However, if a statement is true, it cannot be the basis of a successful libel claim.


        There are four elements a person must establish in order to prove he or she has been defamed: (1) Publication, (2) Identification, (3) Harm and (4) Fault. Each of the four elements must be proven. For example, even if a story you have written meets the publication, harm and fault elements, a libel claim will still fail if you have not identified the claimant.

        I. Publication

        A statement is “published” if it is communicated to someone other than the person whom the statement is about.
        Publication can take many forms and does not simply mean that the statement has been printed in a newspaper or other document. For example, a defamatory statement’s presence on a computer screen in the newsroom where it is read by other students could constitute publication.
        II. Identification

        A statement “identifies” a person if it is shown that it is “of and concerning” that person.

        Disguising a Subject’s Identity
        Where you successfully omit or alter a subject’s identity, they cannot successfully sue you for libel. Care should be taken that: (1) the subject’s identity has been disguised enough so that no one can reasonably make an identification and (2) the disguised subject does not resemble some third party who would then have cause for complaint. Every story should clearly state what facts have been altered.

        Group Libel
        Individuals can be defamed; groups of people cannot be. The key question is whether a statement about a group can reasonably be interpreted to refer to a specific individual in the group. While there is no hard rule, several courts have indicated that individual members of a group larger than 25 will have a difficult time proving that they have suffered individual harm. On the other hand, individuals in a smaller group may be able to claim that their reputation has been damaged. For example, the generic statement, “the tennis team is being investigated for substance abuse” could subject a publication to a libel suit if the team consists of just 12 members.

        1. alice Post author

          Yes, but I still don’t think it is “reasonable” – and although you may not intend to, you do come over as a MASSIVE concern troll.

          I’ve edited to make it clearer. As I said when I posted it, I didn’t think it was very clearly articulated. Part of the problem with this issue is that we are all learning how to articulate these things more effectively. (and I do very much include myself in this need to engage in learning process, if that’s not clear).

          1. Tom Whipple (@whippletom)

            Both myself and Jonathan felt you were speaking about a very small group of people that included ourselves. I still don’t see how there was any other interpretation. We both politely pointed this out. You made a small mistake that inadvertently was very serious to us.

            I am very grateful that you changed it – doing so makes no difference to your overall post but does make a difference to us. It would be nice though if you had done it with good grace: without putting a caveat saying you didn’t see the point, without calling Jonathan names, and without calling me “ridiculous” and a “crap debater”.

            1. alice Post author

              I don’t think I called you a “crap debater” – are you sure that was me? I apologise if you found my frustration at this impolite, but if you can’t see why this is an issue (and the long history of women being scolded for being rude…) then you really do have a lot to learn about this sort of discussion.

              This isn’t me calling you a crap debater, it’s saying you’d do well to stop, listen and learn a bit. Just as I try to continue to with similar debates on race, class and other areas where I hold the privilege and not used to it being disrupted in any way.

              1. Tom Whipple (@whippletom)

                You said “you are crap at dealing with these debates”.

                I wasn’t debating any points about women in science. I was talking about one very specific thing, which I (and other people I have spoken to in the same jobs in science journalism – not just jonathan) interpreted as being, perhaps inadvertently, targeted at me.

                I have no idea at all how that relates to privilege, but then maybe that’s because I don’t spend much time on twitter.

                1. alice Post author

                  You are right, I’m sorry about the “crap at dealing with debates” – it was glib way of saying I think you are misguided.

                  The privilege thing is nothing to do with “twitter” is it a long standing thread of black feminist scholarship. To dismiss is as “twitter” is well, problematic in itself and reflects the ways in which such scholarship has been undervalued. That’s not an individual accusation of you undervaluing it, more that I think you have (like many) missed out on such scholarship due to the very forces of opression it discusses.

                  If you want to read a book on the subject, Angela Davis’ “women, race and class” is brilliant. She’s speaking at Birkbeck’s Annual Law Lecture on Friday. I think it’s sold out but you might be able to blag a press comp. Or have a google. It’s not hard at all.

          2. Jonathan Leake (Science Editor, The Sunday Times)

            ‘Reasonable’ is not whatever you want it to be. It’s a legal term and quite well defined.
            I’m not quite sure what a ‘massive concern troll’ is. But isn’t dishing out personal insults in a public forum, rather than dealing with the actual topic, just another kind of abuse?
            I’m going to leave this issue now. It’s been interesting!

            1. m000sh

              Having been an Imperial SciComm student myself many moons ago, and now working in the BBC Science Radio Unit, I know first hand that the departments that accept work placements cover a much larger group than ‘half a dozen’ individuals.

              It extends beyond newspapers into TV (BBC, Channel 4, ITV and various indies), radio, magazines, online, museums, journals, press offices… The cumulative number of employees the work placement students could come into contact with would reach into the 100s easily.

              So I think the defamation aspect is being a bit overplayed here.

              1. Tom Whipple (@whippletom)

                Ah maybe, I didn’t consider TV journalists. Channel 4 has one in news, ITV has two I think. BBC probably has a fair few more…we don’t all have their billions! Not sure they’d have more than a dozen doing website, radio and tv science news though?

                1. m000sh

                  Well we’re certainly not in the billions! But it depends on what you class as science journalism.

                  As well as small science and health news teams inside the BBC working across TV, radio and online, there is also the TV Science Unit who make long-form programmes like Horizon, Stargazing Live etc and the Radio Science Unit (where I am) producing almost all the the weekly sci/health/tech programmes for Radio 4 and World Service and some ad-hoc documentaries. We take around 6 interns a year from Imperial, a few from from City Uni, and a couple of BA fellows.

                  Plus the independent TV production companies who make science programmes, like Pioneer, Diverse, Wall to Wall, I know some of them take interns. As do the Science Museum and I think NHM.

                  I think it’s quite a big pool outside news.

                  Anyway, back to @alokshair…

  13. thomas kirk

    The men you think arent staring at your breasts are just being more clever about it. And many of your female friends and colleagues are looking too. Were humans. Were horny. Get over it.

  14. amy

    Tom and Jonathan: I’m not on your side of the Atlantic. But Alice is entirely correct: the two of you look like defensive and possibly misogynistic maroons who are deaf to the serious issues surrounding how women are treated in sci comm. Issues which are having a thorough and lively airing at the moment. Again: cut out the defensive shit, and *listen*. Then examine your behavior and the culture in your offices. Not defensively, not with a list of things to tick off so that you can give yourself an “all clear, see I told you” ticket, but thoughtfully, and with a willingness to see things in yourself that are not, perhaps, flattering.

    In the meantime, my opinion of science coverage in the Sunday Times is dropping like a rock. If you can’t listen carefully here, and you can’t be genuinely curious here, how well can you possibly be listening to and thinking about your sources?

      1. Questing

        it is rather unreasonable to interject your personal concern about libel (which I fail to see how it possibly harm your career or reputation in any material way) into a discussion of the systematic hostility towards women of many aspects of several related professional and scholarly fields. A hostility which has numerous, measurable, demonstrable effects. Meanwhile the negative effects of being identified as sexist are, even as testified by the original post, very slight indeed. So even if you were guilty of it you wouldn’t have much to worry about. If you weren’t guilty of being sexist in that way, then you are some of the other men that the author has repeatedly said are NOT sexist so I’m not sure why you are so concerned.

        So why are you so obsessed with the idea that you MUST be the person talked about when she is talking about sexists? it looks unreasonable to me.

        It is also unreasonable to demand the original author, over and over again, reassure you and your colleague that she meant no hard feelings and soothe your troubled brow when the post is about a systemic problem that she and many others face that she wants to be remedied.

  15. elodieunderglass

    I do have my deeply exciting story (not particularly) about how I was once turned down for a position in a lab because I was too pretty (and would waste my training by leaving upon receiving my first marriage proposal). When Reddit found the image, they obviously decided that it “never happened” because that doesn’t happen, and also pointed out that I’m not pretty enough for it to be true. Which was actually deeply funny. But it’s a beautifully crystallized response that summarizes the reception that ladyscientists receive when they talk about what it’s like to be a ladyscientist.

    Woman points out that she’s personally experienced specific, sexism-based pushback in the STEM fields; men fling themselves down their throat in order to explain that her experiences never happened to her, and also that she isn’t pretty, and also can she please tell them that they’re really good men and she didn’t mean for her experiences to hurt their feelings, because that’s the important thing to take away here.

    SCIENCE! … or something.

  16. Pingback: Human Evolution at Dmanisi, plus More Scandal and Gossip in Science Blogging | On Science Blogs

  17. ...

    “We should be able to give a lecture without a colleague eyeing-up our legs.”

    So wear pants. You know, like men do?

    “To multiple men who stare at my breasts while I’m talking to them about work:”

    Oh, spare us the humblebragging. If you didn’t want them stared at (at least by a subset of the population), you’d cover them, too.

    1. cabridelle

      You have a point, though this is leading into a different (but still related) topic. However, there are for example women well endowed in the chest area. I have seen and heard allusions about these women’s “assets” even when they are well covered up. Those men (and heck, women too) who *want* to pass such comments, or stare, will find a way to do so no matter how covered up the woman is.

  18. Michelle Kelly-Irving

    Hi Alice,
    Yes, it’s all about power, and also clinging to ideologies about academia from the dark ages. We are not sufficiently honest and open about the state of things – ‘calling it’ as you say. Please see what you think of my blogpost on this, I am a blogging newbie, but would appreciate your view:

    Also, the impact of casual sexism is massive. It is beautifully articulated here (as you have probably read already given your Guardian affiliations):

    Best, Michelle

  19. Pingback: Open-access harassment: science, technology and women | TECH IN AMERICA

  20. Pingback: Occasional Link Roundup » Brute Reason

  21. Pingback: Open-access harassment: science, technology and women - DIGIZZLE

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