Who Knew Science Writing was Such a Hotbed of Intrigue?

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Light Bulb (Photo credit: CraftyGoat)

I recently returned from a National Association of Science Writers (NASW) Conference. I’m not sure of the exact count, but my guess is that it drew about 300 writers from across the country, and even a few from overseas.

An example of the kind of people who attend these annual conferences: on the short leg of my trip from Orlando to Gainesville, FL, there were only three of us on the plane. The flight attendant made us sit in the tail section, “to balance things out,” since the crew was in the front. We all sat together and got to talking. I was in the company of a co-founder of the online science magazine, “Matter,” who was flying in from London, and an editor for a new magazine in New York City called “Nautilus.” Myself, I write about Wisconsin water science for my day job. In the evenings, I write eco-mystic romance novels that are science-inspired.

The conference was great and informative, but it was overshadowed by a scandal, of which I was blissfully ignorant until the final session, which was entitled, “The XX Question.” The description made it sound like the session was about the role of women in science writing – how influential are they even though they are a prominent part of the profession compared to the past, how does their pay and recognition compare to that of male science writers?

While the standing-room-only session touched on those things, it was really about sexual harassment of women in the profession by sources and editors, and it offered an opportunity for discussion of the aforementioned “scandal.”

The scandal was that the blog editor for “Scientific American” magazine, and a prominent speaker at past NASW conferences, was accused of harassing several women who wrote for him. No overt details were given during the presentation, but from later research, I learned the accusations consisted of sexual conversations and unsolicited touching. Basically, his shtick was that he was in an asexual marriage and he wanted these women to take pity on him and have sex with him — never mind that he was in a position to publish or decline their work.

The ironic thing was that the issue came to light indirectly, when a woman biologist claimed harassment by an editor of another publication on Scientific American’s blog. The magazine’s treatment of the blog post prompted some women writers to name people involved in other instances of perceived harassment.

Now I realize the following might sound really insensitive and crass, but I found myself wondering why the Scientific American blog editor targeted science writers instead of prostitutes. I suppose the draw was that the science writers were legal and cheaper, plus maybe he knew he had some power over them, whether he consciously acknowledged it or not.

The discussion panel featured four female writers and editors, most of whom described experiences they’ve had with sexual harassment on the job. Their experiences ranged from men being mean and dismissive of them, presumably because of their gender, to men being WAY too friendly and imaginative. Most of the harassment seemed aimed at freelance writers, since they are in the vulnerable position of begging for work from multiple (often male) sources. The panelists and audience members did a good job of venting and not ranting, and it was heartening to see some metaphorical light bulbs turning on over many male heads in the audience.

After hearing the panelists’ experiences, I felt fortunate that I have not been harassed in my work as a science writer. However, I’ve mainly worked for organizations that are funding researchers, and, if I am to think crassly again, the researchers didn’t want to piss off the organization that is funding them. But I have experienced harassment as a member of a Forest Service trail crew and as a wildland fire fighter. So it is not unknown to me, and I found some creative (and highly effective) ways to deal with it, that I will perhaps get into in a different post.

But those were situations where I was basically outnumbered and living with men, out in the wilderness where civilized modes of conduct often seem distant and a bit silly. That harassment occurred was not that surprising to me. But these were women working in cities and offices, meeting with men in suits and ties. I guess it goes to show that respectful modes of conduct can disintegrate anywhere, and also that science writing has many more challenges than simply figuring out the right word to use in a story.

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