Revoking Power in the Face of Harassment

Like many people, my head is swirling. It’s been a heady, deep, painful, traumatic, confusing week–and my inclination is to make a joke here about the debt ceiling crisis that was resolved last night. Joking creates space, a distance.

But chances are, you know that what I’m talking about is actually the revelation of harassment in the science blogging community; it, after all, has made it to mainstream media. In very short sum, two young women have named Bora Zivkovic, the Scientific American “blogfather” and editor, as harasser. Zivkovic did not deny Monica Byrne’s accusation or account, and has (as of this writing) been silent regarding Hannah Waters’ account, other than to say there is no need to defend him. Zivkovic has also stepped down from the Science Online board of directors while further involvement in Science Online is being determined, and has apparently taken a temporary leave from Scientific American.

Which leaves everyone–and the conversation–mired in “now what?”

Two answers are already very clear: Twitter has become a clearinghouse for people to discuss harassment and support one another, and Ladybits (on Medium) has issued a call for stories on harassment, with what seems to be the idea of shining a light on what harassment is so that everyone is better at recognizing it, and at shutting it down.

But there’s an elephant in the room, one that people (at least on Twitter) are running up to briefly to tackle before retreating. And that is this: what should happen to Zivkovic? Should he lose his job?

To those of you on the edges or outside of this particular science online writing/blogging community, the answer might seem simple. But in reality, we are talking about a community where many consider Zivkovic a friend and credit him with their career. It’s a lot harder when it’s someone you know; I understand this (really, I do). But the problem is simple: Zivkovic used the influence and power from his position as the Scientific American blogs editor to harass at least two women.

A lot of people have questioned if he actually used his position as blogs editor to ill gain, but this seems pretty clear: the meeting with Byrne was supposed to be regarding freelancing/blogging work, and while contact with Waters spanned SciAm to SciOnline and general science community events, it certainly included his role as editor and mentor on Scientific American.

But it’s about more than just his actions against these two women, as this long, sad, and powerful thread on Twitter shows. Waters questions her talent in her post; is she where she is because she’s talented, or because she’s cute? The flip side is also true: many people are now talking about their doubt; how they wonder if they weren’t nurtured and didn’t get blog posts and exposure because Zivkovic didn’t think they were pretty enough.

This won’t go away with a slap on the wrist.

If Zivkovic remains in his role as Scientific American blogs editor, there will always be the question, people will always wonder: am I getting this because I’m talented or because I’m cute? Was I turned down because I am not pretty enough? Am I too old? Do I not smile enough? Did I earn this?

140_with_great_powerThis isn’t about Zivkovic damaging the Scientific American brand, this is about the trust people have in Zivkovic-as-blogs-editor being broken. And as such, Zivkovic must no longer function in that role; he has shown that he is incapable of properly wielding the great power and responsibility of that position, and should be held accountable. Part of that accountability is removing his power and influence.

When someone abuses a privilege, that privilege is taken away. In this case, that privilege is the power of his position as blogs editor; without the reach and influence that position holds, he would have much less sway over people, many of whom are young and vulnerable based on their junior status and positions.

Does this mean that Zivkovic should lose his job completely? That he is beyond redemption and should be shamed and shunned for eternity by the community at large? This might surprise some people, but no, not necessarily. Zivkovic can be commended for not dragging this out, for stepping down and removing himself, for asking people not to defend him, and showing contrition. Is the contrition genuine? Does he mean the gestures or is he just acting out the proper script, seeking absolution without change? Only time will tell.

And that’s why, in the time until things are told, the following must happen. Zivkovic must:

    • step down from the Science Online board permanently (done, as I understand it);
    • have no further involvement with Science Online, until voted back with full support of the board and/or member resolution;
    • be banned from attending any Science Online-related event, including the flagship conference, for a minimum of one year;
    • step down from or be reassigned to a position other than Scientific American blogs editor. The new position should not be allowed unsupervised contact with freelancers for a minimum period of one year.

This achieves several things:

    • the Science Online community will have a chance to define itself without Zivkovic’s presence/influence;
    • people will be able to use the flagship conference to discuss sexism and harassment without worrying about a direct confrontation with Zivkovic;
    • there will be no concern or worry from anyone that they’ve been excluded from presenting at Science Online or blogging at Scientific American because of retaliation;
    • freelancers can be assured that their work is being judged based on what it is, not what they look like;
    • there is the possibility for Zivkovic to demonstrate his contrition and improvement;
    • everyone enough time to process, digest, and decide how they as individuals want to engage with Science Online, Scientific American, and Zivkovic himself.

And, most importantly, other victims of harassment will see that there is genuine support to be found in the online science writing and blogging community when speaking out against harassment, against someone beloved and with power; to show that there will be swift and severe consequences for bad behaviour.

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