Follow-up To My Op-Ed in the New York Times

Since I contributed this Op-Ed to an issue of last month’s New York Times, I have received a massive amount of reaction to it. For the most part, I have been listening but not talking. Now after thinking carefully, I find that I have a few more things to say.

Follow-up To My Op-Ed in the New York Times

Commenters have raised several issues: foremost among them is that my story, as well as my very self, are not representative of all women. This is a valid criticism. I have told my story with accuracy and honesty after long contemplation, but it is my story only. I will not presume to tell another woman’s story.

The study by Kathryn Clancy, Robin Nelson, Julienne Rutherford and Katie Hinde reports data gained from hundreds of women. My experience differed from the majority of respondents in Clancy et al. 2014 in some critical ways. Most importantly, my assault involved a stranger who was not a fellow scientist. In contrast, women respondents within Clancy et al. 2014 reported that “their perpetrators were predominantly senior to them professionally within the research team.”  This makes the following a crucial piece of information: The threat of assault is most likely to arise from within the cohort of travelling scientists.

Commenters have noted that my piece does not treat the multiple issues of race and class that intersect with violence against women. This valid criticism is a part of a much larger ongoing discussion examining the exclusionary history of mainstream feminism. I recommend this post by Ambika Kamath as particularly insightful about my piece; her follow up is also important.

Many commenters also noted that violence against women is hardly a problem unique to Science. As I wrote, I believe violence against women arises from the “fundamental and culturally-learned power imbalance between men and women” (my words), a pre-existing condition within virtually every sphere of our lives. It is equally valid to specifically question whether women are safe while practicing Science as it is to question whether they are safe anywhere while doing anything.

Commenters have critiqued the Colonizer mentality that drove the reconnaissance that I attempted. This is absolutely valid. The idea that an establishing scientist must go into an unstudied locality and claim it as one’s own was a model in common use twenty years ago. Since then things have changed for the better, and my grantsmanship demonstrates how my own approach has evolved. The best international field programs are now shared ventures with extensive local participation. Scientific funding agencies actively promote and often require the prior establishment of international collaboration to support foreign fieldwork. The rise of the internet after Y2K made the process of opening correspondence with international colleagues immeasurably easier, and smartphones have made travel easier, and safer, as well.

I would like to address the emails that I have received, because I will not be able to answer them individually.

To the college students who have written to ask me if they should pursue Science given the realities that I have named: I have experienced great joy while working as a Scientist, and I cannot imagine my life any other way. I have also experienced great fear and I have tried to describe its effect on me to the best of my ability. In the end, I would not trade my career for any other calling. I have given all my efforts to Science and it has rewarded my imagination with riches beyond description. Observations that I have made will live on in libraries long after I am dead. I will always believe that being a Scientist is the best job in the world.

To the administrators who have sent me drafts of new policy guidelines for fieldwork: I regret to tell you that I will not be able to evaluate them or give you input. There are women and men at your institution who have valuable insight into what is needed. But before you ask them to pour effort into creating new policy, you must find a way to free them from some of their other duties.

To the people who have written to ask me how to prepare their daughters for a career in Science: Prepare her the same way you prepare her for Life. Tell your daughter that she is more than her body. Tell her that she has a precious heart and mind and soul that cannot be degraded by the events of this world. My parents and I have not always seen eye to eye, but I have never doubted that they believe this about me. This is what got me through. You must tell this to your daughter often, so that it builds with interest like savings that she can count upon if she is ever in need of a very large withdrawal.

To the people who have written to tell me their own stories of pain and anguish: What happened to us was wrong and evil and not our fault. Hear me: you are more than a body. You have a precious heart and a mind and a soul that cannot be degraded by the events of this world. I believe that about me, and I believe that about you.

To my colleagues near and far: Everything I learned during my scientific training tells me that Clancy et al. 2014 represents quality research that should be used to change the world. When I read it, I encountered the data of hundreds of broken hearts and it broke mine open also. Please do not harden yours against its findings, even if they make you uncomfortable. We can still make Science into the noble institution that we hoped it would be. Print it out, take it to your Chair or Dean, and start the conversation.

Scientists all over the United States are already planning for their next field season. I cannot see a way to make these endeavors safer that does not involve all of us starting to talk openly about these issues. This year, as during every other, our universities, colleges and research institutes will send thousands of women into the field in order to study our natural world. I spoke out because I know that their safety is more important than my discomfort, and yours.


Here’s one more link to Clancy et al., 2014.  Please read it and distribute (it’s Open Access).