The Cold Reaction to Sexual Harassment in Journalism

On Friday, Scientific American announced that the editor of their blogs Bora Zivkovic had resigned. This wasn't related to that snafu they'd encountered a week prior, when they'd chosen to delete a post written by Danielle N. Lee, a black female contributor, after she'd called out an editor at a separate publication for referring to her as an "urban whore." Well, it wasn't directly related, but inadvertently, in that it prompted one woman – and then others – to speak out about Zivkovic's history of sexually harassing co-workers.

In October of 2012, playwright and writer Monica Byrne wrote a detailed post on her blog accusing Zivkovic of sexually harassing her and giving her a somewhat lackluster apology when she asked for it (twice). Byrne and Zivkovic had met for a “business meeting” to talk about her interest in the intersection of science and theater. During their conversation, Zivkovic brought up sex repeatedly, mentioning his prior attendance at a strip club, his unhappiness with his sex life with his wife, an affair he once had...it goes on:

None of these topics were invited by me. I tried to listen politely and nod when he paused, but otherwise not engage or encourage him. He seemed not to notice how uncomfortable I was. I was trying to mitigate the situation as it was unfolding—which I later read is a common immediate response to trauma, trying to minimize it or pretend it didn’t happen. In my head, I told myself that I could still write for him, as long as I didn’t meet with him in person ever again. At the end of the meeting, I hugged him, which may seem bizarre; but earlier he’d identified himself as a “hugging person” and so do I, generally, and I was still in shock and trying to smooth over the incident.

At first, Byrne did not name Zivkovic, but after reading about Lee’s experience with Scientific American and the scientific community in general this month, she decided to add his name. After she did so, Zivkovic published a piece on his own site:

I am very ashamed of this incident which happened more than a year ago. Staff at Scientific American spoke to me and Ms. Byrne about our interaction at that time. I asked that my sincere apologies be conveyed to Ms. Byrne for the distress she suffered as a result of my inappropriate remarks and emails to her, and I also expressed my deep regret to the company about acting unprofessionally. The company offered her an apology as well. It was a difficult time for me personally and I made a mistake – I should not have shared my personal issues with her. It is not behavior that I have engaged in before or since. I hope to be known for my continued professional and appropriate support of science writers rather than for this singular, regrettable event for which I am deeply sorry. My behavior before and after this incident reflects my true respect for women, and I deeply regret the distress I caused to my wife and Ms.Byrne. I appreciate the messages of support I have received and understand the views of those who have been critical but I intend to let Ms. Byrne’s post and this statement end the discussion from my side.

He also tweeted posts like this one from professor and scientist Andrew Maynard’s website, which Maynard has now apologized for in a lengthy disclaimer that tops the piece. Maynard’s original piece is centered around questioning why Byrne would name Zivkovic, a sentiment which he expressed towards her in an email:

Naming Bora has a reasonable likelihood of destroying his marriage, his friendships and his professional standing in this case. You may feel that this is justified. But I can’t help wondering where the bar lies for wielding a private exchange (which admittedly led to serious distress) to causing serious and widespread damage.

I have corresponded with Bora on occasion, but nave [sic] never met him in person. I have no reason to doubt your account of your meeting with him. I do know that he has been a major factor in the rise of informal science writing and web-based science communication in the US and beyond. And that he is highly respected within his community. Whether these are adequate justifications for not calling him out by name I leave with you. But I would advocate for consideration and compassion at this stage.

Following Byrne’s naming Zivkovic in her piece, two of Zivkovic’s co-workers at Scientific American added their stories in: Hannah Waters and Kathleen Raven each published pieces of their own detailing similar instances of sexual harassment from Zivkovic on Medium. Both detailed inappropriate remarks and come-ons from Zivkovic, and there are some half-apologies that he'd given Raven in there as well. Both describe their confusion over what, if anything, they should have done about it.

On Friday, Scientific American said in a statement that Byrne had contacted them a year ago and that they had “investigated” her report:

The Scientific American Blog Network is a vibrant group of voices who challenge, educate and widen the discussion about science and science communication, and Bora played an important part in that. The bloggers who write on the Scientific American Blog Network are important to us, as is the science online community. We will be in regular contact with members of the Scientific American Blog Network over the coming days. Learning from recent events, we are also looking at how we support our bloggers in future.

Scientific American has an anti-harassment policy. We offer live and online anti-harassment training to those who manage employees. We’ve recently begun providing such training to individuals who work with freelancers and contractors as well. We take allegations, such as those that have appeared online this week, very seriously. When Monica Byrne contacted Scientific American a year ago, we investigated her report, offered the Company's apologies and Ms. Byrne acknowledged in her blog that she was satisfied with our response. We were unaware of any additional allegations until this week. Our investigation of those is continuing and we will investigate any additional allegations that are reported to us.

Zivkovic's Twitter feed from the last week reads like its from two entirely different people. Early in the week it was entirely devoted to supporting Lee in her search for answers about why her Scientific American post has been deleted. Later in the week it included tweets like this:

These several bad weeks for Scientific American have prompted a lot of thinking, for Zivkovic but equally importantly, for the women around him. Science writer Christie Wilcox, who describes Zivkovic as a “mentor," wrote that the experience left her feeling “cold,” despite or perhaps because she’d heard rumors about Zivkovic’s behavior for years:

But also, my inaction was because even now, when I read through the stories pouring out on twitter and all of the raw emotions that go with them, part of me shuts down. Though I am quick to anger when it comes to institutional sexism or outright injustice, I find it hard to respond to personal stories of harassment because I have too many of my own that I cannot process. To truly feel the humiliation of them all would crush me, so I’ve learned to be numb, callous, and cold.

It’s not a reaction I am proud of. I, as a woman who experiences this shit every day, need to do better. I have to be a better ally. We all do.

Wilcox’s comments and reflection on her lack of reaction or action (at first) have been echoed by other women in the scientific and journalistic communities. They're of course not the only way women have reacted: many have been outraged by Zivkovic's behavior and have said so outright. But they do depict a sort of exhaustion that even Byrne, Waters and Raven all touch on in their explanations of what happened to them. It seems to stem from the isolation that women who have been sexually harassed feel, especially when it comes from someone that they work with, who could decide their career fate. So you tell us: are you angry or cold – or both?

Images via Marc & John Rees/Flickr