I have never been sexually harassed in my science writing career. My college summer jobs? Yes. My graduate school days? Certainly. Walking down the street? Plenty. But in my capacity as a freelance science writer? No, thankfully.
So when I became aware of the breaking sexual harassment scandal in the science writing and blogging communities just before the NASW annual meeting in late October, it absorbed me. And not just in the rubber-necking-watching-the-fallout kind of way, either.
Even though I did not personally know any of the parties involved, I felt a strange mix of betrayal and vulnerability with a side of solidarity for the victims. I also had this insistent, nagging voice in my head that I should have done something to prevent such ugliness from happening in our profession. For a week, I struggled with why I was taking the events so personally. Then I realized that my feelings stemmed from the fact that I’m a passionate advocate for the freelance lifestyle, and yet here was a very icky, dark side of freelancing on display.
As conversations, official and not, began brewing between NASW members, I felt compelled to draft a letter to the Board for their discussion about the issue. I highlighted why freelance science writers are particularly vulnerable to harassment. I circulated the letter amongst my freelance and editorial colleagues and in two days I had 62 signatures under my own. Here is an excerpt:
Perhaps it goes without saying, but freelancers may never have the opportunity to receive sexual harassment training, nor do they have HR departments to rely on should they encounter sexual harassment. Freelancers’ ability to get work relies almost exclusively on personal relationships with editors and clients. These relationships often straddle the fine lines of collegiality and friendship, but also by their very nature have a power imbalance. That imbalance and the largely private nature of these relationships, make freelancers easy targets for sexual harassers…
The fact that it took a young woman from outside the field of science writing to break a scandal in our midst is not lost on us. Freelancers live with self-doubt and we second-guess our interactions with editors on a daily, maybe even hourly basis. It is a career choice that needs no extra opportunities for degradation, humiliation, and fear of offending someone with power. At the same time, “Never burn a bridge,” is a freelancer credo. So when we learned of the nature of these incidents between a commissioning editor of extremely high influence in our field and young, ambitious, freelance writers, we were beyond dismayed that we as a community had done nothing to prevent things like this from happening. And over the past couple of weeks, we are learning that these incidents are not isolated to one harasser…
Those of us with more experience and more solid connections to publishers and editors, want to help younger, more vulnerable freelancers stand up against such behavior. As an organization we should be providing the less experienced freelancers in our ranks with a voice and with recourse, so they will not flee our profession in disgust, but rather remain and flourish as strong contributors to our science writing community.
The letter went on to recommend that NASW have a formal policy against sexual harassment and some form of a grievance committee to help members navigate sexual harassment complaints. NASW vice president Robin Marantz Henig presented the letter at the Board meeting in Gainesville on November 1.
The next day, as I sat in the standing-room-only ballroom listening to The XX Question plenary session, my feelings were turned inside-out. Listening to the accomplished writers on the panel describe the barriers, degradations, and struggles they faced simply because of their gender was wrenching. The descriptions of harassment were downright nauseating (though not, sadly, surprising). But as the room filled with people coming to the microphone to voice their own experiences and reactions, my community’s willingness to talk openly and directly about a distasteful topic made me swell with pride. As another colleague mentioned later, “It was a watershed moment for our field.”
If you weren’t able to attend that gathering, NASW has now posted the video of it. I urge you to find an hour to watch. If you care about the field of science writing, it will be worth your time and you will learn something.
The NASW Board is still mulling how best to tackle this thorny issue. But the discussion generated by the XX Question plenary session continues in both constructive and disturbing ways that still leave me stirred, and shaken. I guess it’s good when something throws you off-balance, leaves you outraged, and prompts you into action. It’s the way social progress gets made.