Silence and Friendship

We’re all expected to be quiet.

That’s the trade-off we make for careers.

We know that the moment we speak out, we trade our futures for the chance of torpedoing our careers.

Every time we publicly mention the things that happen to us, we cut the number of people willing to hire us by another slice. We wonder about the moment when a future employer googles us, finds out we’re a “troublemaker” and doesn’t give us the interview. Or we envision the nicely worded letter that tells us that we’re not really a good fit for the office “culture”.

We stay silent while our bosses touch our legs and our back. While they make jokes they would never make in front of their mothers. While the other bosses shrug and brush it away.

And we know that the moment we speak up, we stand a good chance of losing everything we’ve ever fought for professionally, socially, financially.

Even worse, the men who have the ability to speak up… often don’t. We have to remain silent because the man who refuses to stop kissing us at greeting could fire us if we complain. The other men and women on his level remain silent because… well, I don’t really know. But they do.

I stayed silent at the beginning, because I thought I must be crazy. I thought these things can’t be a problem because no one else says anything about them. I felt alone and isolated and scared. It doesn’t feel good when you have to make a 5 minute trip through the building into a 10 minute cat and mouse chase of avoiding walking by someone’s office, breakroom or usual hunting grounds. It doesn’t feel good to know you have to sit still and let someone touch you on your head, your back, your legs, because if you make a scene, you no longer have a job.

I can’t do that to other women. I can’t allow them feel like they’re alone and crazy. I can’t make them doubt their own experiences. Bora Zivkovic is a dear friend of mine. He helped me get into science communication in the world outside of museums and nature centers. I’ve always considered him an ally.

But he did something that hurt someone. Possibly other someones as well. And my support has to go to the person who was hurt first. Because the men who hurt me were also friends of other people. Friends who stayed silent. They looked over their drinking buddy’s indiscretions because he was a good guy. They turned a blind eye so that the man’s wife wouldn’t be hurt by the controversy.

It was all done to minimize harm… to him. To extend benefit of the doubt… to him.

But what about me? I was not given that benefit of the doubt. I was told “well, it’s the way you dress”, or “why don’t you just avoid him?” or “Oh, he’s a good guy. He doesn’t mean it.”

The men who do these things are given the chance to shape up and fly right. They get to make their tearful apologies. And then they get to make the same tearful apology in another six months. (Well, if they’re ever called on it in the first place.) The women who are the targets are told to smile and forgive. The fact that they have options closed off to them by this is completely ignored. They now don’t just have to worry about doing a good job. They now need to worry about negotiating a minefield of a whole bunch of other questions.

“If I do work for this man, is he going to treat me inappropriately?”

“If I am put on a project with this other man, how will I make sure I’m not in the same room alone with him?”

“Can my career even afford to take the chance?”

“Can my mental health even afford to take the chance?”

I’m sorry, Bora. Because I can’t accept your apology at face value. You mean a lot to me, and if nothing else comes out, I will happily geek out with you about science at future events. I want to believe that this was a temporally-limited thing and that you have changed and that it won’t happen again. I want that to be true. I want that to be true more than anything. It is actively hurting me to know that I can’t extend that trust immediately. This is truly one of the hardest posts I’ve ever had to write.

But I need to know that the next time someone’s friend hurts me, I’ll be able to stand up and demand justice and not feel like a hypocrite, demanding something from other people, that I wouldn’t give when they needed me. Fighting for equality means fighting for equality for everyone and at all times. Not just when it’s personally convenient.


An addendum for this whole piece before the MRAs inevitably attack me: This is a personal experience piece. I am a woman. I work for men. I have always been harassed by straight men with more power than me, within a culture that says that men with power get to have women as they desire. Men do experience workplace harassment as well, and have some special barriers to reporting, since they aren’t allowed to be victims in the sexual arena in our culture. Those experiences should not be denigrated. I do not ignore them, and I will stand up for them too, but I can’t personally speak to them.

Highly Recommended Related Reading:

Mixed Up by Kathleen Raven

This is not a post I want to write by Janet Stemwedel

Why you Should Always Confront Prejudice

The Insidious Power of Not-Quite-Harassment by Hannah Waters

8 thoughts on “Silence and Friendship

  1. I haven’t seen a lot of Bora Z-type behavior, ‘cept for once or twice. I’m a dude. And I generally think people in science are a little more civilized.

    So fuck that guy. Fuck that guy and the behavioral standards he’s dragged here from the ’70s. Science writers are at the bottom of the totem pole, and guys who exploit that imbalance for a long shot at some nookie are pathetic toads with no game and no prospects. And these are never one-off circumstances, ever.

    What the hell is keeping Bora afloat? Why do science writers like Tom Levenson shy from full condemnation? (Actually, in his case, he’s promised to revisit the topic.) He should be out of a job.

    Also, since this about Bora’s ill-conceived seduction, consider mentioning it in the first sentence or two. It’s your nut, after all. You’ll figure out how to fit the stuff about your experiences in there, with just a little finagling.

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