New Orleans Reading a couple of fascinating books last summer on my wor-cation in Montana by geologist and history of science author, Naomi Oreskes, I was struck by her indirect arguments far from the main theses of her books that to keep up with science I had to treat it like “news” with its own shifting bulletins and controversies. I had tried to keep up as much as the average-bear through the daily papers and news magazines, but, what the heck, I thought, it’s time to shift to a another gear, so I figured that I would try something different this year, and I started subscribing to the weekly magazine, Science, and the monthly, Scientific American, just like all of them do. I can report so far, so good. Some of it is way, way over my head of course, but other pieces are more accessible and have enriched my understanding and yours, since some I’ve shared.
The biggest surprise in my months of reading Science has been the editorials and steady reporting on a huge culture shift around how women scientists are viewed and advanced. Of course there was the famous controversy that undid the former president of Harvard University and controversial economists and government official, Lawrence Summers, when he was busted for claiming that men were more apt as scientists than women. At the least those that thought it, learned from Summers to shut their pie hole, but the cultural shift being documented in issue after issue of Science now is one of those “welcome to the 21st century, better late than never” moments as they take on sexual misconduct and abuse of women scientists in field after field, some of which has also broken big in the mainstream press as well.
The latest scandal involves a renowned paleoanthropologist who was the curator of human origins at the American Museum of Natural History. The Museum, as I have shared in the past, is one of my personal favorites because I am a huge fan of its amazing dioramas, but it is also one of the world’s largest, ensconced on a privileged location abutting Central Park in New York City. Seems a research assistant made no bones about the fact that her boss had invited her to attend a conference in Florence, Italy with him and after a party where there was much drinking, she woke to find him manhandling her inappropriately. It’s all he-say-she-say now of course, but it launched an investigation, more charges, and is roiling the field with demands for change in how women, especially less senior and subordinate women both in field assignments and advancement are too often potentially sexual prey.
This incident follows the suspension of an astronomer at Cal Tech for allegedly harassing graduate students and the forced resignation of another astronomer at the University of California at Berkeley for harassing women over a decade until other astronomers in a rage forced him to resign. An anonymous survey of anthropologists and other field scientists called the SAFE study reported that 64% of 666 respondents had experienced some sort of sexual harassment, either verbal or physical, while doing fieldwork. Of the 139 who experienced physical contact only 37 reported it for fear of permanent career damage because of the disproportionate power relationships between men and women scientists. In a separate matter but undoubtedly related to the lack of clear and firm policies in this area of sexual misconduct, Harvard and several other universities are finally creating policies that would ban sexual relationships between professors and students making only exceptions for graduate students outside of the field of the professor.
All of this may seem little and late, but hats off to the young women standing up and the senior women scientists who are now using these cases as platforms for change and their professional journals and some of their colleagues who are coming down hard on the miscreants, admitting that they may be numerous, and demanding change. Welcoming scientists finally to the real world, will allow women to flourish and the real work to be done, helping all of us in the future.