Ripples of doubt.
This phrase has been trending on Twitter for the past few days, ever since science writer Monica Byrne named Bora Zivkovic, blog editor of Scientific American and influential science writer called by many "The Blogfather," as the before-anonymous man in her account of sexual harassment.
She made the decision to name him after Dr. Danielle Lee, biologist and writer of The Urban Scientist, posted an exchange between herself and BiologyOnline science blog editor, named only as "Ofek." He reached out to her with an invitation to guest blog. She inquired about compensation. When he indicated there was none, she politely refused. His response started a firestorm: "Are you an urban scientist or an urban whore?"
Of all the places where women are underrepresented, science has always been significant — perhaps because it is so visible, perhaps because for many, scientific thought represents a kind of rational calculation traditionally attributed only to men. Though this has certainly improved throughout the decades, the divide persists.
Even as the numbers of women and men getting science degrees inch closer together, the number of women in positions of authority has remained stubbornly low. In what has become known as the "leaky pipeline," the number of women in the academic science career path drops at every stage.
In my own field of neuroscience, generally considered to be one of the more female-friendly sciences, a nice, even 52 percent of graduate students are women. At the post-doctoral fellow level, this drops to 38 percent. By the time we reach tenure-track faculty, women comprise a mere 29 percent.
There are many reasons for this. There are still implicit biases — a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences last year showed that when research groups across the U.S. were sent resumes identical in all aspects but name — Jennifer or John — and asked to rank them, both male and female professors ranked John as significantly more competent and more hire-able.
They indicated, too, that they would be willing to spend more time mentoring John, and despite Jennifer being rated significantly more likable, paid John an average of $30,238.10 compared to Jennifer's $26,507.94.There is still a stereotype that threatens women – though men supposedly sound equally competent when discussing their research with men or women, women in science are reportedly more likely to sound less competent when discussing their research with men as compared to women.
Then there's this ripple.
When Zivkovic met with Byrne for what she thought was a professional meeting and instead started discussing his sex life, her immediate response was not one of anger, but of self-doubt. When others started coming forward with similar allegations, their words were ones of unequivocal indictment, emphasizing his power to trigger an overwhelming cascade of inner uncertainty.
As the Internet responded to first Lee's and then Byrne's harassment, as scientist after scientist came forward with stories of harassment in their careers, dozens with their own posts and hundreds on Twitter with the hashtag #RipplesOfDoubt, a trend became intensely clear — two questions, posed to the self: Am I good enough without my sex? And then, quieter, am I even good enough with it?
Such is the cost of the thriving persistence of sexual harassment in still male-dominated fields like the sciences — the continued production of whole cohorts of women convinced they are imposters, persuaded they are only as good as they can make themselves seem, that their success is unsustainable, that all anyone need do is look past the surface to find a scientist incomplete, unprepared, unworthy.
It's no wonder so few women stay the course.
Search #RipplesOfDoubt on Twitter, and you will find hundreds of stories that seem archaic — things of the past, anecdotal relics of the Mad Men era.
They are not. These are tales of today.
But the first step to change is to talk about it, and with Lee's bold first post, with Byrne's public accusations and with the scientific online community embracing and supporting those sharing their stories and tweets, we're talking about it.
We might not have change yet, but there are ripples.
Melissa Lee is a senior in College Scholars. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.