National Geographic Daily News

Jane J. Lee

National Geographic

Published October 17, 2013

Sexual harassment accusations against prominent science blogger and editor Bora Zivkovic have sent ripples through the science writing community and has resulted in the "Blogfather's" resignation.

Zivkovic, 47, is perhaps most well known for his work building up the blogging network at Scientific American. He has widely encouraged budding science writers by featuring them on his blogs, helped found a popular annual science writer's meeting called ScienceOnline, and has been seen by many young science writers as a mentor.

On October 14, however, writer Monica Byrne accused Zivkovic of sexual harassment in a blog post. She first wrote about the incident about a year ago, but declined to name the man who made her feel uncomfortable during a coffeehouse meeting to talk about her writing.

Byrne says she made the decision to name Zivkovic after a separate incident arose this month involving another Scientific American blogger, Danielle Lee. Lee posted about an incident where an editor at a separate publication called her a "whore."

Byrne's piece was followed by another blog post on October 17, this time at the Medium, by science blogger Hannah Waters—also a Scientific American blogger—who described an incident in which she claimed Zivkovic had also harassed her.

A third woman came forward on October 18 with a post describing a string of instances involving Zivkovic. "If you have read the pieces by Monica and Hannah, then you have read what Bora did to me," writes Kathleen Raven—a researcher who blogs for Scientific American and contributes to Reuters Health. "But I have more to add."

Raven goes on to detail nearly three years of interactions with Zivkovic. "But it's time that you see this side of Bora that I have seen. I want you to understand. This must stop," she writes.

Zivkovic has admitted to and apologized for the incident with Byrne. And in addition to stepping down from his blog editing duties at Scientific American, he has also stepped down from ScienceOnline's board of directors.

A Social Conversation

The charges, and Zivkovic's resignation, have since set off a firestorm of conversation on news sites and social media about conditions for women, and sexual harassment, in the science writing community. The hashtag #ripplesofdoubt encapsulates a lot of the reaction on twitter:

@JakeYeston writes: "The #ripplesofdoubt drove home how powerfully the sexist undercurrents in society impact women in ways men may barely contemplate."

@rachelannyes tweets: "Culture that creates #ripplesofdoubt is *why* I'm not in academia. I distrust entrenched institutions to treat women well. I play outside."

And @docfreeride asks: "Will other men in sci comm/sci blogging recoil from promoting our work (or even getting to know us) ... #ripplesofdoubt 4/n."

Laura Helmuth, Slate's science and health editor, writes in an article that the most distressing thing in Waters's post is the blogger's doubts that she has only made it as far as she has because of her "value as a sexual object."

"I told Waters directly and repeat here that she and Byrne are talented writers who are not faking it. But of course they wonder 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," Helmuth writes.

The blog LadyBits has asked for submissions from people on the power of harassment.

"Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to forget about the very real, very tragic effects of the myriad manifestations of sexual harassment because, most of the time, the recipients remain silent. That’s why we, the purveyors of LadyBits on Medium, have created a place on the web to discuss this psychological manipulation tactic that ruins so much and is acknowledged so little."

LadyBits will curate the best essays and post them online.

A Subtle Thing

Sexual harassment against women, and men, is nothing new. Nor is it confined to certain fields.

"[But] a lot of what we've seen in terms of sexism is less overt now," said Anne Lincoln, a sociologist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, who has studied sexism in the scientific research community, in an interview earlier this year.

Lincoln says because we are all socialized in the same society, we can all pick up subtle biases for or against certain things.

The incidents Byrne and Waters write about involved conversations with Zivkovic that made them uncomfortable.

"What makes this so hard to talk about—my experience and Monica's—is that it may not look like sexual harassment. There was no actual sex or inappropriate touching," Waters writes. "Bora wasn't vulgar toward me, nor did he even directly announce his interest. It was all reading between the lines, which made it easy for me to discount my own experience."

20 comments
Nikita Bernstein
Nikita Bernstein

I feel like the situation has been turned on its head.  It's important to understand what actually happened and that there was no sexual harassment. I wrote about this here: http://nikitab.wordpress.com/2013/10/28/the-bora-controversy-and-american-values/


This is not the same as to say that people felt uncomfortable, but the form that this conversation took I feel completely distorts reality - it has been effectively a one-sided attack based on limited information conveniently ignoring or showing interest in a balanced analysis.  Why haven't journalists reached out to Bora for his side of the story?

Siri Nadler
Siri Nadler

I would like to say that sexual harassment is not unique to the scientific community. As a faculty at Towson University where I loved teaching, I was sidelined by a senior faculty. Here is my blog about my experience there. 

http://openingwindow2013.blogspot.com/

Roger Harris
Roger Harris

Kudos to NatGeo for speaking out on this difficult subject.

Kira Winter
Kira Winter

To all the misogynists posting here, and their fragile egos, SIT DOWN AND SHUT UP. 

You and your uninformed, retrograde opinions are not welcome here.  You might have taken that point from the article. Instead, you are only illustrating the problem for the rest of us. Post about something you know about instead - the joys of male privilege, perhaps?

sj holcombe
sj holcombe

I am glad that National Geographic decided to commission and post this piece.

Brianne Villano
Brianne Villano

Hey, "gentlemen" who've commented: go look at the women in your lives - if there are any - and thank them for deigning to include you in anything they do or are. 

You are all disgusting.

Victor Hodson
Victor Hodson

What drivel and what whining.  Have these women no self confidence as to grizzle about nothing.  The final paragraph says it all:

""What makes this so hard to talk about—my experience and Monica's—is that it may not look like sexual harassment. There was no actual sex or inappropriate touching," Waters writes. "Bora wasn't vulgar toward me, nor did he even directly announce his interest. It was all reading between the lines, which made it easy for me to discount my own experience."

If you can't take the heat, then get out of the kitchen.  And stop looking for sympathy!

Oscar Goldman
Oscar Goldman

"pound ripplesofdoubt"?  Come on, don't bring your cause down with douchetags.

Let's see how Scientific American handles all this.

Roger Dickinson
Roger Dickinson

"Bora wasn't vulgar toward me, nor did he even directly announce his interest. It was all reading between the lines"

Wait wait wait, so there was absolutely nothing inappropriate whatsoever about his actions, yet he was being sexist? Are you f****** kidding me?

Lets try this again

"I was given an opportunity to write for this science journal, but I used my women's intuition to magically deduce this guy was making sexual advances despite there not being any."

Looks like Mr. Zivkovic should only offer his help to other men, lest he be accused of sexism. Oh, wait.

A J
A J

I left academia after grad school for personal reasons (because I think it kind of sucks) and I will say that my experience thus far working for a large, multi-national corporation is that there is far less misogyny (I would not say zero) than in academia.

There are many other reasons why I think large, multi-national corporations are more progressive than most universities, not the least of which is that I have trouble imagining I would have ever seen women, and women of color, with as much power in my career as an academician as I already see today in my career in a corporation.

Gwendolyn Mugliston
Gwendolyn Mugliston

As a former researcher, academician I think we are beating around the bush. Our country is covertly so misogynist we women don't even trust our own instincts when it comes to understanding we are being harassed or discriminated against. I remember being shocked to my core when the head of my department explained I was being paid $10,000 less than a male coworker because he, my coworker,  was head of his household.  I came to that job with far better credentials than my so-called "co"worker. It didn't matter. Now, years later, I realize I should have taken every case of discrimination I faced to court because as a social security recipient now my ss is inadequate to survive. 

   And for every dollar a woman didn't get, her next job will not make up for it either.... 

Roger Bird
Roger Bird

Gee, first there was the harassment of the Wright Bros.  Then there is the harassment of cold fusion/LENR.  Now there is the harassment of females.

I guess things never change.

Bryony Taylor
Bryony Taylor

@Kira Winter I know you want to be heard but seriously don't feed the trolls

David Leeds
David Leeds

@Victor Hodson He brought up his sex life and spoke extensively about his sexual desires and his wife's sexual habits for most of the meeting. Harassment doesn't have to be physical or direct. The man is a creep. Stop defending him.

David Leeds
David Leeds

@Roger Dickinson So you don't think talking extensively about his sex life and sexual desires and his wife's sexual inadequacy instead of the job at hand is inappropriate? I pity the women who have to work with you. Your standards of acceptable behavior are as creepy as Zivkovik's.

Irate G
Irate G

@Gwendolyn Mugliston I was very directly told that I was too young, and a woman, and therefore could not be promoted above my unethical, incompetent boss. And, yes, every other male peer - competent or otherwise got paid at least 9-10k more than I did. Shocking.

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