Any woman who shares her experiences of sexual assault is brave beyond words. Anyone who does so as publicly and eloquently as Hope Jahren in her recent Op-Ed for the New York Times is truly inspirational. Yes, Hope Jahren sure can write. But I don’t think Jahren’s piece actually deals with the issue of sexual assault or harassment in science. By juxtaposing her story—a saddening, angering story, no doubt—against the issues of STEM’s inhospitability to women, Jahren does not shine a coherent light on issues that are specific to STEM. And this is a shame because there are plenty of issues surrounding sexism, sexual harassment, and sexual assault that we can begin to address within STEM. By drawing attention to “otherized” perpetrators, we risk letting perpetrators in our midst escape without self-reflection or consequence.
What happened to Jahren could happen to any woman travelling anywhere. It could have happened to a woman on holiday in Turkey, or to a woman walking back to her apartment in New York City. It happened to happen while she was doing fieldwork, but it was not specific to doing fieldwork. The blame for this assault lies with the perpetrator, with the patriarchy, with a depressingly pervasive mindset that the world does not belong as much to women as it does to men. Science is not immune to this mindset; scientists can be as patriarchal as anyone else, as some of Jahren’s other brave writing illustrates. But the solution to this particular case of assault cannot be found within the scientific establishment.
What disappoints me about this Op-Ed is that there are so many problems of sexism, sexual harassment, and sexual assault that demand change from the people who make up the scientific establishment. Many women have told their own stories of experiences of sexism, sexual harassment, and sexual assault in which the perpetrators are well-entrenched, well-respected members of the scientific establishment (like here, and here, and here). Drawing attention, especially on a platform as visible as the New York Times, to one of these many stories would help to build an airtight case for action within the scientific community. As it stands, a sexist, patriarchal scientist could respond to Jahren’s story by saying that her experience has nothing to do with him, because the perpetrator was just some Turkish Bastard who couldn’t keep his hands off a Foreign Woman. (Intersectional feminists will note that even when put in scare quotes, using the word “safe” to describe the attitude of majority white countries towards women and placing them in implicit contrast with an “unsafe,” majority non-white country, is problematic. And no, a half-hearted caveat to remind readers that “similar things still happen” in the majority-white countries is not enough.) There are many more stories we can be telling, stories that will not allow sexist, patriarchal scientists such an easy out. The stories we tell should force these scientists to confront their own role in perpetuating an environment in STEM fields that is unwelcoming to women. But if the anonymous Turkish Bastard is the bad guy in the story, the story will not cause the sexists sitting in our universities, labs, and field stations any discomfort, or prompt in them any real self-reflection. Jahren’s story is valid and important and heart-breaking, but it is not an example of how “science has a sexual assault problem.”
Referring to the Clancy et al. (2014) study does bring other women’s stories into the picture. As Jahren says (emphasis mine), “I know several women with stories like mine, but more often it is the men of one’s own field team, one’s co-workers, who violate their female colleagues. The women surveyed by Dr. Clancy’s team stated that their “perpetrators were predominantly senior to them professionally within the research team.”” But two sentences written in the language of a scientific journal are not as powerful as a story. Jahren’s story will cause sadness and outrage in anyone with a shred of empathy, including all of the sexist, patriarchal scientists we interact with right here in our universities. And these scientists will congratulate themselves for recognizing their own anger, will consider themselves allies of the women scientists against the anonymous, “otherized”, Turkish Bastard, and will continue to inflict micro-aggressions and macro-aggressions upon women and minorities in science with a complete lack of self-awareness.
Jahren ends her pieces with this paragraph (emphasis mine):
“In August, Lego began selling a set called “Research Institute” that features three female scientist minifigures: a paleontologist, an astronomer and a chemist. I am well qualified in two of those fields, and I am here to say that playing with a different set of dolls will not adequately prepare your daughters for a career in science. You must teach them, rather, to manage their dreams. They need to know that daring to act upon their dreams of science can be both a beautiful and a dangerous thing.”
This is beautifully written, but how is this not (pre-emptive) victim blaming? Yes, even in 2014, we women scientists must manage our dreams, weigh them against our lives and our physical and mental well-being, and this sickens me. But that does not have to be the case for our daughters, and we should not be teaching them to manage their dreams. Indeed, the only way we can begin to make STEM fields more welcoming of our daughters is if all of us, and especially those of us with voices as powerful as Jahren’s, actually challenge the sexism and patriarchy in our midst. Change must begin at home.