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No Means No

Please join me in giving a standing ovation to Danielle N. Lee, writer of the Urban Scientist blog for Scientific American. In case you’ve been under a rock (or pile of urgent work) for the past week or so, an anonymous editor at Biology Online asked if Ms. Lee would become a regular blogger for his organization. When Ms. Lee inquired about the details, including compensation, and then declined to become a contributor, the editor asked her, “Are you an urban scientist or an urban whore?” Ms. Lee posted a response on YouTube that was more kind and compassionate than the editor deserved, and she clearly pointed out that it was the editor’s assumption that the lack of financial compensation was the reason she declined. She wisely uses the video to counsel members of minority groups to value their own contributions, and to require consideration, whether in dollars or another form, that aligns with their goals.

Her words went straight to my heart. I write with the assumption that any woman in a highly technical field is a minority. Two of my most important science mentors were members of minority groups: one an African-American male, and the other a Caucasian female. Both warned me that unpaid work like serving on committees can easily become a time suck, and that women and minority academics are often asked to do more uncompensated work because institutions want committees to have diversity or balance. Think about it. Let’s assume that a department with 55 professors, of whom five are not white males, needs to staff 10 committees per year of six participants each. Let’s assume that each committee needs one member of a minority group, either a racial or gender minority. That’s a call for 10 minority committee participants, and 50 nonminority members. Each minority faculty member will have to serve on two committees on average, while each nonminority faculty member will have to serve on one committee on average. That’s asking the minority faculty to do twice the unpaid work load! That’s also time when they aren’t teaching, researching, writing grants, or spending time with their families. Given that diversity is more common in tenure-track than in tenured positions, the balance is even more skewed against young, diverse faculty members at a time when they most need to be able to focus on building their research programs.

Even now that I’m out of the ivory tower, I still see the same pattern in industry and  economic-development circles. Successful minorities are asked to do more work for the good of the community but not necessarily in their personal best interest. And back to Ms. Lee, who simply politely declined an offer to provide free work that did not align with her career goals: Allow me to pile one more helping of shame on that editor for not only trying to humiliate her for saying no, but also making his remarks sexually explicit and ugly. Would anyone call a man who declines (uncompensated or nonessential) work a whore? No. This is a special hell reserved for women, who as hard as they might try to be recognized for their abilities, are often subjected to rejection retaliations wrapped in sexually innuendoed condemnation, as if they had rejected real suitors instead of thankless tasks.

This incident needs to serve as a wake-up call to the scientific community to examine how we handle our expectations and our disappointments; how we can train our ranks to receive rejection gracefully instead of hatefully, especially when a power differential is involved; and how we can encourage diversity without crushing under piles of inessential tasks the very people who can bring diverse perspectives. I hope leaders in the top ranks of academe and industry will examine the cultures within their institutions and find ways to support the lone voices instead of draining them dry.

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