Growing Pains: Addressing the Fallout from Recent Sexism in #SciComm

21 November 2013 by Matt Shipman, posted in Uncategorized

Editor's Note: This is a guest post by Jacquelyn Gill, a paleoecologist and biogeographer at the University of Maine. She blogs at The Contemplative Mammoth.

The science communication community is in the middle of a major shakeup, after a series of incidents in recent weeks that highlight that we are not immune from sexism and misogyny. Flies have been left down. Mistakes were made. Feelings are hurt, and tensions are high. Many people are feeling fatigue, both as activists and as bystanders, and a lot of the attention has started to turn away from the perpetrators of the original acts to one another, as we argue and disagree and accuse and defend.

Collectively, these are the growing pains of a community grappling with some serious diversity and identity issues. For many people, this may be the first time they’ve thought seriously about ideas like privilege, gender inequality, or racism. Others are seeing the #scicomm world go through the same kinds of incidents – and reactions – that we’ve seen in other arenas (academia, science fiction and fantasy fandom, the skeptic community, the gaming industry, to name a few). As we each react to recent events, we bring different contexts to the table, whether we’re thinking about our own privilege for the first time, or dropping a snarky tweet as we explain the Tone Argument for the 5000th time.

It’s easy to feel as though the table is getting so cluttered with all of this baggage that it’s becoming a wall, preventing real communication. Trust has been broken, lives have been changed, and people have lost faith in our community. As someone who has spent some time engaging on diversity issues in other contexts, I wanted to share some thoughts that I hope will be helpful as we move forward.

1) These feelings of violation, betrayal, anger, discomfort, and mistrust are scary, and have undeniably shaken us up as individuals and as a whole. But: They are also part of how we grow. We can come out on the other side of this, if we listen and give one another the space to feel what we’re feeling. That means being extra patient with people who tell you they don’t trust you, or that you’re derailing, or that you’re silencing them. It means acknowledging that anger and sarcasm and humor and even silence are coping mechanisms, and they’re natural reactions. It means learning how to hear, and how to apologize. Let’s strive to remember the listening and communication skills we’ve acquired as professionals. I’m not talking about being nice – not everyone is going to be nice, and that’s acceptable, too. I’m talking about being honest, productive, and effective in our dialogue.

Jacquelyn Gill

2) Many folks in #scicomm are dealing with sexsim and racism up front for the first time, but for other folks, this is old wine in a new bottle. Because of that, some of us may come across as tired, angry, snarky, and jaded. For some, social justice is literally a life or death battle, and it’s important to keep that in perspective (especially if someone just called you out for saying something harmful).

3) None of this is likely to go away soon, because the deeper problems of sexism and racism are deeply embedded in our institutions, our brains, and our society. The growing pains will continue, which means we need to be committed to the long haul. Lines will be drawn as people pick sides, folks will out themselves with opinions or behaviors that shock and disappoint, and it will happen again and again. There will be disappointments.  Because we are a community of human beings, we will continue to make mistakes – even if we think of ourselves as allies. Having a mother, daughter, sister, wife, black friend, gay friend, or friend in a wheelchair won't make you immune to blunders. That doesn’t mean that we’re broken as a community; it just means we have more work to do.

4) Much of this work will happen at the community level, but we also have to do it as individuals. The fact that none of this is new (in the grand scheme of things) is helpful. We have folks in the community who are resources on social justice, but there are a lot of resources out there: be proactive, and educate yourselves! You may be tired of these conversations, but they are important. Without them, we don't become any better than we were. We will still disagree on things in the future, just like folks in social justice communities do – feminism isn’t a monolith, after all. Some issues are straightforward – we can all agree that rape isn't funny. Other examples may be less clear, like science cheerleaders, or whether it's okay to have an annual list of the most fashionable scientists. We’ll discuss, disagree, and get better.

5) The good news is, many, many people are learning! Let’s remember that the entire point of all of this is to be a better, stronger, healthier community. Ultimately, the goal is to make science and science communication as diverse as the populations we seek to reach. With that in mind, we need to hold ourselves and each other accountable, to accept that we'll make mistakes, to listen to those who call us out, to learn from our mistakes, and learn to apologize gracefully and honestly.

The goal is to be better. We know what we need to do to be better. Let's do it.

Here are some other resources I’ve found helpful. Feel free to add more in the comments!

How to tell someone they sound racist by Ill Doctrine

Feminism 101 on Geek Feminism Blog

FAQ’s on Finally, A Feminism 101 Blog

Social Justice Link RoundUp on Pharyngula Wiki

Racism 101: Intro to Racism

On being an ally and being called out on your privilege, at Southern Fried Science

The problem when sexism sounds so darn friendly, at PsySociety

Mansplaining 101: how to discuss politics and feminism without sounding like a jackass, at PolicyMic


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