Last week many of us were at the Ecology Across Borders meeting in Ghent, catching up with friends, making new friends, and listening to talks about the latest ecological science. Many of us, of course, were also following social media. On the statistics social media scene a lot of attention was being paid to a post on Medium by Kristian Lum: Statistics, we have a problem. In it she recounts being harassed by two senior statisticians (both of whom have subsequently been publicly identified). The events she describes are appalling, and she has my sympathy, and my admiration for having the courage to speak out.
Kristian’s story is not an isolated incident in science. Over the last few years there has been a drip, drip, drip of stories of bad behaviour and abuse in academia (some of which are summarised here, for example), in the office, when doing field work, and at conferences. But it seems likely that this is only the tip of the iceberg: a lot of women do not report having been harassed, for a variety of reasons. Much of the harassment and bad behavior that is reported is by men towards more junior women, which exacerbates the emotional pressures by adding a fear of retaliation. Even when a report is taken seriously and a perpetrator found guilty, the punishment is often wrapped in a flurry of non-disclosure agreements.
All these stories make me worry about ecology, as a discipline. Whilst I am not aware of any accusations of harassment at our meetings, I can’t see why ecology should be different from other disciplines. My own experience of ecology meetings has been positive, but I have been lucky, and to a large extent this is probably a result of me being male. It seems unlikely that all ecologists are saints. What worries me is that there stories of harassment in ecology, but they haven’t been made public yet. Does this mean that there are issues that we, as a community, will have to face when we find out that some of our biggest names shouldn’t be a part of a scientific discipline that wants to encourage diversity?
At the end of her post, Kristian has a call to arms:
We need to start holding prominent individuals accountable for how their inappropriate behavior negatively impacts the careers of their junior colleagues. I’m saying this publicly because whenever I have shared these stories privately with my colleagues, both men and women, they are appalled. It is time for us to be publicly and openly appalled, not just attempting to tactfully deflect inappropriate advances and privately warning other women. We need to remove the power of the “open secret” that these people use to take advantage of their respected positions in our field. We know who these people are, and we should stop tolerating this culture of harassment, or else we become complicit in it.
I agree: we should be publicly and openly appalled. But we also need to go beyond being appalled. We have to make it clear that this sort of behaviour should not be tolerated. We have to actively support people who come forward with allegations of harassment and make sure that they are heard and taken seriously. We also have to make it clear to people when they have crossed the line.
Now, though, ecological societies are starting to act. The British Ecological Society does have a Code of Conduct for events, and if anyone wants to report harassment or other unacceptable behaviour, they can report it to Amy Everard. The ESA has their own Code of Conduct, and an email address to report misconduct during or following an ESA event. I am confident that both organisations will take any complaints seriously (I know the BES will, having discussed this with them).
So here we are – I feel that we need people to speak out. But the whole problem is one where it is difficult to do this – there are feelings of guilt, shame and fear, and many of the people who need to be talked about have power. But it cannot be the fault of the person who has been harassed, and most people will be supportive.