Don’t Be a Creep

Lessons from the latest terrible, sad, fascinating scandal in the science blogging world.

Older man approaching younger woman engaged in microscopic study.
No mentor necessary.

Photo by Fuse/Thinkstock

I take back every bad thing I have ever said about Twitter. It’s fast, responsive, and efficient, and it’s the medium of record when gossip breaks. Like pretty much every other science journalist in the world, I’ve been glued to Twitter for the past several days. It all started when a biologist named Danielle Lee, who writes a blog called the Urban Scientist, tweeted that some minor-league editor had called her an “urban whore.”* Really, that is what he called her. To show support for her, people started renaming their own blogs with the word whore using a #WhoreItUp hashtag. The insult was infuriating and the response heartening, but things got more serious when Scientific American removed Lee’s blog post about the exchange. The magazine issued a misleading explanation, then an apology, then it finally reposted her story with a not entirely satisfying update.

Then it got better. I mean, sorry, it got worse—what follows is all terrible and sad. But it’s also fascinating and useful to examine. A writer named Monica Byrne wrote on her blog about being harassed by one of the most influential people in the science blogging world, Bora Zivkovic. He founded an extremely popular conference for science bloggers, established science blog networks at various publications, and now (at least as I write) runs the well-respected collection of blogs at Scientific American. His nickname is the Blogfather. One common route into a science writing career in the past several years has been through Zivkovic: He routinely publishes young writers and promotes their stories with his large social media audience. Zivkovic has always been extremely solicitous of young journalists, generous with his time, charming, enthusiastic, gregarious. A Twitter meme popped up at science blogging conferences: #IHuggedBora.

Zivkovic has a lot of friends, and after Byrne’s story went public, many of them expressed support for him, and others questioned Byrne’s decision to name him.

Zivkovic admitted to the incident, apologized, and said it was not “behavior that I have engaged in before or since.”

Only apparently it was. Another science writer, Hannah Waters, then described similar experiences:

I saw him at various events and he began flirting a little. It didn’t ring any alarm bells; he is flirtatious by nature. But sometimes talk would veer into more uncomfortable territory, but only vaguely uncomfortable, which made it hard to call out. He would talk about how he gets to hang out with so many smart, beautiful women for his job (as if we should be flattered), make offhand comments about his own sex life, and occasionally tell me that he loved me. Once, while the two of us were outside Ninth Ward in New York City at a science tweetup, he bought a flower for his wife, who was inside. The seller gave him an extra for free, which he gave to me, joking that I was his “concubine.” I didn’t even know how to respond, awkwardly laughing it off, but fled the scene without goodbyes soon after. “I just want to call him out when he makes any kind of offhand comment,” I wrote to my best friend later. “But what I could lose by doing so is too great, so it’s really just degrading.”

Waters and Byrne were careful to be precise and not exaggerate what happened to them, which is that they felt very uncomfortable when their conversations with one of the most powerful people in their profession turned sexual. They weren’t raped or groped, and they suffered no obvious career setbacks by failing to take Zivkovic up on what they perceived as the implicit request for sex. But they felt lousy and confused. Here’s what I found most distressing in Waters’ post: “At my most insecure moments, I still come back to this: Have I made it this far, not based on my work and worth, but on my value as a sexual object? When am I going to be found out?”

I told Waters directly and repeat here that she and Byrne are talented writers who are not faking it. But of course they wonder about how their career trajectories will be perceived, and I’m sure many other people who have gotten a break or a boost from Zivkovic have the same nagging worries.

Here’s how the score stands after several days of turmoil. The racist and sexist blog editor who called Lee an urban whore has been fired. Lee is blogging away and working on a feature story related to the ordeal. Zivkovic has apologized on Twitter to Byrne and Waters and resigned from the board of the conference he helped found. Byrne and Waters are getting a deluge of positive responses. Scores of science bloggers are writing powerful stories (many of them published by Scientific American) about harassment, microaggression, sexism, and racism. The whole extended episode has made the community more aware of the problems of harassment and more welcoming to people who call out inappropriate behavior. It’s been an amazing consciousness-raising session, and the science writing world is stronger for it.

What lessons can the rest of the world learn from the small corner of creation that participates in science blogging? I mean, what the hell just happened?

Zivkovic clearly creeped out at least two and probably more women, so he is by definition creepy. At the most reprehensible end of the spectrum of possible explanations, Zivkovic is a predator who surrounded himself with inexperienced women because he considered them easy prey. Or perhaps he has some mental health problems with impulse control. But there’s a chance he was just extremely optimistic about his chances, blind to the power differential, and unaware of why so many young women wanted to have coffee with him in the first place. If so, he is still entirely at fault. These explanations aren’t exhaustive or even mutually exclusive, but the last scenario is something we can potentially learn from.

Before this week, the word I often heard people use to describe Zivkovic was mentor. And the mentor-mentee relationship is one of the most fraught of adulthood. We glibly advise people starting out in business to find a mentor, to identify a successful, established, generous person in your field and somehow get her to help you become her.

This is terrible advice. It perpetuates old-boy networks, wastes time that early career people could spend actually doing their work, and tells them they are only as good as their contacts and charm. Young people, don’t look for a mentor. Listen to and learn from people who have more experience, but don’t hitch your wagon to their star. Just do your job well.

Now, you established people, listen up. You will occasionally meet younger people who go out of their way to speak with you at professional events, ask you interesting and sometimes personal questions, and hang on your every word. Those are not puppy-dog, crushed-out eyes staring up at you. These are eyes hungry for a professional break. These people are not trying to sleep with you. They are trying to get hired by you.

I’m an editor, which means I have a certain amount of power because I assign stories to freelance writers. Several years ago I noticed that handsome young male freelancers tended to gather around me at journalism conferences and laugh at all my jokes. And I’m not that funny.

It can be hard to tell the difference between flirtation and exuberance. The men and the women who approach me are doing exactly what they should do at a professional meeting: introducing themselves, expressing enthusiasm for what I do, asking questions, making clever conversation. They are looking for guidance, not lechery. It’s my job to interpret their behavior correctly. (The gender roles are usually reversed, which often adds to the problem, but plenty of men, including a dear younger friend of mine, have been harassed by women.)

If you are established in your career and in a position to help others, congratulations. Be as generous as you can be, and while you’re at it, remember to thank the people who helped you. But recognize that you have a tremendous responsibility to take your mentees seriously. It’s easy to forget how insecure and uninformed someone can be starting out, and it’s hard to remember that you have a lot of power in comparison, even if you have just a few years more experience or feel like a cog yourself. Be respectful, be appropriate, be professional. Above all else, do not be a creep.

*Correction, Oct. 17, 2013: This article originally misstated Danielle Lee’s scientific specialty. (Return to the corrected sentence.)