Ecology, do we have a problem?

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.

6 thoughts on “Ecology, do we have a problem?

  1. Sadly ecology does have a problem, it just hasn’t come to the surface just yet. I say this from the perspective of knowing several people who have been subjected to some appalling behaviour. Not, I must emphasise, at any BES-related meeting, but at other events, or while in the field. I’m also not in a position to name those responsible, nor detail the incidents, because doing so would inevitably expose the people affected, very much against their wishes. Rather than demanding that victims speak out, we need to work hard to create a climate in which they feel able and willing to do so. This storm will break in ecology and it’s essential that we as a community clearly signal that we are ready to act in their support.

    • Thanks for your comment: I agree entirely. I certainly wasn’t “demanding” that victims speak out, and my apologies if that’s the way this post comes across.

      • Sorry, I didn’t mean to imply that you were. In writing that I was merely pre-empting the way that this scenario has played out in other fields, where there has been an expectation that those affected have a moral responsibility to speak out, and those who do so ‘late’ are criticised for not having done so at the time. This is usually a mechanism for people in the community to diminish their own sense of responsibility (“No-one told us so we couldn’t have done anything”). Instead we need to state that we know there’s a problem, and create the conditions which will allow people to feel confident about coming forwards. That responsibility falls on us. The people I have spoken to have made difficult personal decisions that I respect; it’s hard to stand up and criticise senior people in your field when the repercussions are potentially so damaging. Thanks for your post; I hope that, when the time comes, we as a community will not be found wanting.

  2. Pingback: Ecology has a harrassment problem | Trees In Space

  3. Really great blog and one that is certainly both timely and necessary. It reminded me of a similar issue we have in ecology which over the past year I have developed concerns over – how woefully ill-prepared many institutions are for instances of sexual assault in the field. Many institutions do not have protocols in place with regards to what happens if you are sexually assaulted in the field, and in some cases students and staff may not be covered by insurance to leave the site unless they report the incident to police. Now we all know that in many parts of the world reporting sexual assault or rape will most likely land you in prison (or worse).

    I thankfully discovered this as part of research for an Athena swan award, and not because I was in this position myself, but it seemed that many organisations had simply never considered this as an issue – a slightly terrifying indicator of the level of thought put into protecting people from harassment and assault during fieldwork. Until we establish basic safeguards such as protocols, insurance cover and emergency funds for fieldworkers who need to leave the field due to sexual assault I fear we will make little progress in stamping out sexual harassment within the field of ecology.

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