Gender and Digital Culture

Blog for the Gender and Digital Culture project, a study exploring the impact of digital media and communications on (gendered) relationships and interactions

Sexual Harassment, Blogging and Scientific American

Last week a series of events surrounding one of the world’s most popular science blogs began to unfold, resulting in resignations, red faces and plenty of digital vitriol. For Sara, Jim and I, as researchers working to untangle the issues surrounding gender specific behaviour and harassment in online contexts, these recent incidents contained a number of features which were familiar from our primary research, and from the experiences of our survey respondents. They also raise questions about responding to such incidents, and the role of digital media and institutions in supporting victims of abuse.  


The first incident was a classic example of several issues that our respondents repeatedly described as happening to them. An early career scholar, Danielle Lee, was asked to contribute for free to Biology Online. When she refused, the editor who had approached her responded in the lowest possible language, calling her “an urban whore.” Dr Lee blogged about her experience, and then posted it as part of her regular blog series on Scientific American. The editors of that blog removed the post, with editor-in-chief Mariette DiChristina stating that the blog was “for science” and hence “not appropriate.” The post was later re-instated after public support for Lee swelled via a Twitter hashtag, accompanied by an apology. This event contained several key features that we have noted as occurring repeatedly in incidents of abuse described by our respondents, namely:


1)      An overture was made from the abuser in a professional capacity, using online media to facilitate communication.


2)      After polite rejection, the abuser used sexually degrading (and in this instance racially offensive) language to assault Dr Lee, using the same digital medium.


3)      The institution for which the victim was working (in this case Scientific American, for whom Dr Lee was writing), actively refused to support her exposure of the abuse in the first instance.


The second incident was equally relevant to our research, in particular the way that the online world responds to accusations of abuse. A young female blogger at Scientific American, Monica Byrne, was inspired by Dr Lee’s decision to speak out and name an abuser she had previously described using an online platform, documenting the harassment she had experienced. The abuser was revealed as one of Scientific American’s editors, Bora Zivkovic[SP1] . He had originally used Facebook to contact her, but the incidents of inappropriate behaviour she described took place face-to-face. Byrne used the powers of digital media to chronicle and publicise her reaction to repeated sexualised encounters that had made her deeply uncomfortable. Zivkovic issued an apology, but in the face of growing pressure from a very vocal online audience (and the emergence of further allegations), he has recently resigned.


While less obviously connected to online harassment (as far as I know, Zivkovic did not send Byrne any inappropriate emails or harass her using social media), Monica Byrne’s experience is as deeply bound up in the digital world as Danielle Lee’s. It was the ability to personally reveal the identity of her abuser to a large audience that resulted in Zivkovic being forced to resign- and the ability of that audience to pour pressure on his employers. Similarly, the individual who abused Danielle Lee has since been dismissed by Biology Online. Both women chose to speak out about what had happened to them- and the internet provided a place where their protests could be heard and responded to, resulting in action. When institutions failed to support victims of abuse, the online community vocally responded to the claims.


It is ironic and simultaneously fascinating that the digital world provided the platform for abusers to contact victims, a forum for these victims to document their abuse, and a courtroom where the abusers have been judged and found guilty by public opinion. In the process, both Monica Byrne and Danielle Lee have been transformed from ordinary researchers to quasi-celebrities in the world of science blogging. As an unfortunate side effect, both women have been exposed to even more abuse- whether from anonymous trolls or friends of their abusers. In the meantime, Zivkovic and the unnamed editor of Biology Online will probably never recover from the last week- these accusations will affect their careers and personal lives for years to come.


In the face of these repercussions- the destruction of careers and the terrifying publicity of exposure- it is unsurprising that the majority of respondents to our survey stated that they took no action to reveal or punish their abuser. Two anonymous commenters on Byrne’s blog, who had also been harassed by Zivkovic, summed up their reasons for keeping quiet:


I am not personally convinced yet that he needs to be publicly ruined.”


“If I’m on the record against him, what kind of backlash could I face?”


When the choice is between staying quiet and internalising the distress caused by harassment, and risking one’s own reputation, potentially destroying a once-respected colleague’s career (and/or relationship) and becoming a target for abuse, there is no good option for victims. Institutions must develop safeguarding practices to provide an alternative source of support for victims of sexual harassment while simultaneously encouraging appropriate mediation and, if necessary, repercussions, for abusers.


The first event of the Gender and Digital Culture project, held between the University of York and University of Southampton on Friday 8th of November, seeks to discuss the development of such practices. Please do come along from 2pm at York or Southampton, or online at  to help us in our search for appropriate action in the face of a growing problem. 


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This entry was posted on October 23, 2013 by .
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