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Speaking out about sexual harassment in shark science

Dr. Lisa Whitenack is an Associate Professor of Biology of Allegheny College. She is a shark paleobiologist, studying modern and fossil shark teeth over their 400 million year history. While she is also a member of the Board of Directors and acting chair of the Equity and Diversity committee of the American Elasmobranch Society (AES), this piece is not written under the umbrella of AES. Follow her on twitter at @WhitenackLab.

Author’s note: italicized quotations in this piece come from many different female shark researchers who gave Lisa permission to share their stories in this post.


“Funny that all of this Harvey Weinstein nonsense triggers feelings of AES in me…”

Back in mid-October, a colleague of mine sent the above to me in a private message on social media.

Over the last few years, there has been an increase in stories of sexual harassment and assault coming out of the scientific community. There have been papers and commentary published on the prevalence of harassment and assault in STEM fields such as anthropologyastronomy, and geology. There have been some high profile cases that have made it into the popular media as well. It’s easy to point to the fact that some of these fields are male-dominated as an excuse or a reason. Despite the fact that women are well represented in the biosciences, earning approximately 58% of the Bachelors degrees, 57% of the Masters degrees, and 53% of the Doctorates in 2014, the field of biology is not immune from these issues (see these articles about allegations against Ebola researcher Michael Katzemammalogist Miguel Pinto, and molecular biologist Jason Lieb.)

I arranged my desk so he couldn’t sneak up and rub my shoulders anymore.”

Even before the Weinstein news broke, harassment and assault have been at the forefront of my mind, and have been for the last 3 years or so. Until July 2017, part of my committee work at the institution I work at was to evaluate our student code of conduct and to serve on panels for student misconduct cases, including Title IX related cases. As is typical for many female faculty, students tend to visit my office looking for a sympathetic ear or help. Most recently, I have been helping American Elasmobranch Society (AES) write a Code of Conduct for its meetings and am serving as chair of the Equity & Diversity committee. It’s hard to escape these topics when it’s your job. But, it’s really more than just my job. These are issues that infiltrate most aspects of my life, and have for a long time.

“I’ve been told that women can’t do fieldwork.”

I began my scientific career in geology departments, which are typically heavily male-dominated. We had 50 students at our field camp when I was an undergrad, and only nine were women. We spent six days a week, eight hours a day, mapping rocks in mountainous Utah. My favorite comment from a male student, who was supposed to be my safety partner? “All of this hiking is giving you sexy legs!” It wasn’t much better during my Masters (also in geology). I was the only female in a cubicle-filled grad student office of 10 people. I was party to a lot of horrible comments made about other female grad students, as they often forgot I was even there. Any attempt to speak out against this was met with eye-rolls and “Oh, it’s all in good fun. Don’t be so sensitive!”

“It’s so impossible to see how horrible things are when you’re in it (and young and desperate to be accepted). It makes me so angry now.”

I moved to biology for my Ph.D., incorporating living sharks into my fossil shark research. I joined the American Elasmobranch Society (AES) at the urging of my Ph.D. advisor. Being brand new to biology and the shark world, I mostly hung out with the members of my lab and their friends at my first annual meeting, and felt very welcomed. I remember being surprised at the number of women in attendance – this was something new for me, and my previous exposure to shark scientists had been on the very male-heavy Shark Week (a topic for another blog post, I suppose). And I remember being a bit star-struck, seeing those big names in person, and seeing them interact with students. I kept attending AES, and eventually became more involved – first with the Student Activities Committee (SAC), and later as a member of the host committee when the meeting came to Tampa in 2005.

“You eventually think that the only reason anyone is talking to you about your research is so that they can get to the inappropriate part. My confidence in my science was below zero. I won a research award, but it felt like a sham.”

Being that my research is a bit unique for AES, my posters were often passed by while my fellow grad students’ posters were usually quite busy. Still, I got to know more people as time went on and as my involvement with AES. Eventually I became chair of the SAC, I won an award for my research, and felt that I had somehow “made it”. At the same time, there was the mostly self-imposed crushing responsibility of making sure we raised plenty of money for student travel – if I failed, then it would be my fault.

“Parading around during auctions (especially when no guys were asked to do it).”

It’s hard to pinpoint when things started to not feel so great. Was it when I passed on the information that had been passed on to me, to wear a lower-cut dress because I’d sell more raffle tickets to fund student travel? Was it when I acquiesced to the request of the senior scientist who insisted that I hug him before he would buy any raffle tickets from me?

“I have definitely experienced being huddled up for the group picture and having a male colleagues hand slide a little too low for comfort on my back.”

The last straw for me was definitely when another senior scientist felt it was appropriate to make a joke about having sex with me while my husband watched and drew our encounter. He said that into the microphone at our annual banquet. My husband was there to hear that. It drew a big laugh from the audience. People with whom I had hoped to have a professional relationship as I finished my Ph.D. and moved to the next stage of my career. People that I might be looking to for a post-doctoral fellowship, or might be on a hiring committee for a job I applied for, or might review a manuscript I had written.

“I’ve also heard several men in AES talk about our conferences as though they are meat markets. I’ve heard them objectify young women (mostly graduate students).”

While some things have changed for the better (I finished grad school nine years ago), we still have a long way to go. Just two years ago, a senior colleague felt it was appropriate to describe a stripper’s assets during a board meeting. So, this behavior is not limited to post-presentation situations where alcohol is present. And while it’s easy to chalk these events up to a few people and a conference that they attend, it’s more than that.

“I was also bumped from a research cruise because ‘they need big guys on the boat’. Nevermind that I had tons of experience and had proven that I work my butt off and the ‘big guy’ they proposed to replace me with had zero experience.”

“I’ve been asked not to go out on fishing trips because a woman couldn’t possibly be comfortable on a boat without a head.”

“My PI would take odd, artsy photos of me without me knowing, while taking ‘field work’ photos.”

“Senior male colleague seduces [female grad student] on the top level of a boat where we were all trying to escape from the feelings of sea sickness…then get scolded by same male colleague for leaving and making him wonder about my safety.”

“It was our first trip with my new female intern. He was chatting with her about the trip, and he told her that I’m a bitch. Right in front of me.”

I am not a field scientist. I enjoy it, but my research happens in the lab and in museum collections. Many of the stories in the media have been about sexual harassment and assault in the field, and there was a landmark study conducted in 2014 that confirms that this can be a dangerous place for women. It can be isolated, and there are fewer people around. However, it happens in the lab or at work too.

“I’ve had a senior scientist come up behind me while I was working at the computer and start massaging my shoulders.”

“A PI that I worked for more or less accused me of doing sexual favors for the maintenance guys at the lab because they fixed things for me pretty quickly when his work request went ignored. In actuality, I just asked them for help rather than… ordering them around.”

“I’ve had my ideas not just ignored but openly mocked in meetings. Same ideas praised minutes later when put forward by a man.”

“A male grad student who started after I did tried to push me out of projects and meetings shortly after I became the senior grad student in the lab.”

“Referring to all of the men on the project as Dr. and me as Miss.”

“Once [my boss] introduced me in an email to an incoming employee as a ‘cheap date’.”

“Being told by a male mentor to not even consider having kids until after getting tenure.”

“Anytime I mentioned my boyfriend, [my PI] would get angry, would mock him.”

I have had some of these same experiences. I have had a colleague address all of his questions about research I am leading to my male collaborator. I have had a male colleague assume that male collaborator is the lead investigator on a project that I am first author on. I have had students comment on my hair, my dress, and my appearance on my teaching evaluations. I have had colleagues question whether harassment was really happening, because they were only hearing it second hand from me, not directly from those who were harassed.

“I’ve had one or two really bad moments, but honestly, these ‘smaller’ ones are more destructive. I can chalk up the really bad behavior to just a couple of people being awful; this constant dull attack from many is worse.”

“It’s the little stuff that mostly destroyed me…like the little things that eat away at you and make you think that people are only interested in you[r] research because they wanna sleep with you, even if they don’t, even if there is no full on violation.”

“I guess in my case, it was a million micro-aggressions…”

Here’s the thing about the little things…they add up. When we’re asked to smile, it communicates to us that our appearance defines us. When a male colleague goes in for a hug when greeting a female colleague, when he’s just shaken the hands of the men in your group, it communicates to us that you see as objects, not colleagues. When we are called Miss, not Doctor or Professor, it is communicated to us that it is unlikely for someone of our gender to pursue an advanced degree. Microaggressions, when added up through time, have consequences: anxiety, depression, imposter syndrome, physical health problems, lower work productivity, and more. It’s death by a million paper cuts.

“For every story I think of, I keep telling myself it was my fault for making stupid choices…I can see it so clearly with other people’s stories, but with my own, I feel like I should have known better.”

Assault and harassment are about power and control, and there have been a number of studies that show this (see an example here). We can take away some of the power by speaking out. But the reality is that there are repercussions. We rely on our colleagues as gatekeepers – to graduation, to publication, to funding, to promotion, to employment. When we speak out, there is the risk of retaliation. This is why the quotes for my colleagues are anonymous and do not name names. They are students, they are untenured faculty, and they are women whose livelihoods could be threatened.

As for me, I have some power. I am recently tenured, and I have little chance of being awarded a grant in the current financial climate. I chose not to name names in my stories because I see little to gain in this fight from doing so, and in some cases, colleagues have made right with me. But I am speaking up by telling these stories, and I am saying that this is not acceptable. Your colleagues are saying it’s not acceptable, and they’re saying it loudly if you stop and listen to their words. Heck, even the media is saying it’s not acceptable, as allegations of sexual harassment and assault have been at the top of the news cycle daily for the past month.

It’s time for a change. It’s time to start saying “we don’t do that here.” Say it in the classroom. Say it in the lab. Say it in the workplace. Say it at the conference. And mean it.