Women in Science and Abuse of Power

Following our launch of the #DiversityInEcology blog post series last week, here is our first contributed post! The series allows people to share their personal perspectives on the theme of diversity in ecology, and this particular post was received after putting out a call for submissions on Twitter.

There are many articles out there that discuss the problem of power differentials. From a women in science perspective, many of these focus on men abusing a position of power. But what if the abuser is another woman? Mel Cosentino is a conservation biologist who has been involved in projects related to human impact for almost 20 years. In this post, she shares her experiences of women in science and abuse of power.

Abusers can be very charming in public. They help you publicly, but make sure you know they think it’s a favour you don’t deserve. If you try to speak up, they may bully you in private as well as in public, or may instead actually help you so you start thinking you might have been wrong about them. The result is you start doubting yourself and what is a clear case of emotional abuse starts feeling normal to you: “That’s how it is”. Abusers are everywhere. They could be your partner, your friend, your co-worker.

Abusers of power can be two faced – apparently helpful in one context, whilst undermining you in another

A bit about me? I live in Europe since 2003, but I’m from Argentina and of interracial background: Natives and Europeans. I’m shy. I’m very shy. I used to hide behind trees or pretend I was asleep not to say hello to people I knew! The idea of one day becoming a marine mammal researcher, however, motivated me to work to get over my shyness (still working on it!). Over the years, about 20 now, I’ve worked with many people from all over the world, in projects of very different nature. And I learned that disagreements in the workplace are only natural, but situations that might look like a disagreement at first might be something much more serious, and we need to be prepared to recognise it and to fight it when it happens. When someone uses their position of power to prevent you to succeed, you are affected professionally, but also emotionally. If you try to expose them you hear things like: “can’t you just work on something else?”, or “are you sure you are not overreacting?”. While they are probably trying to help you, what it ultimately does is protect the abuser who gets away with it.

And what if the abuser is another woman? In my experience, it’s even more difficult to expose them. I had several experiences with abusive women in science-related jobs, which I’ll tell a bit about here. The situation was pretty different in all cases, as some were co-workers while others were above me, but I’ll refer to them all as “a boss” to protect their anonymity (Yeah, I know!). These women did many unethical things, ranging  from constant bully and discussing my sex life with me at the table (!) to proposing a new (retrospective) rule by which people could not stay in the “company” for longer than 2 years, which would have meant my and other colleagues’ immediate dismissal.

But the worst experience I had was with a boss who liked an idea of mine so much, that she decided she would be the one carrying out the project. For years, she has used her position of power to prevent me from carrying out the project in very creative ways. She manipulated reports to look like the idea was hers, or that she was the one in charge of the project. She wrote reports where she criticised my idea while praised hers. She tried to intimidate me publicly and in private. She blatantly lied in emails, meetings, and public settings. She would not allow my participation either by not allowing me to speak in meetings, or by not inviting me to meetings where the idea would be discussed. Even further, she made decisions that affected the entire company, influencing the behaviour of another company, lying to both and not allowing any discussion on the matter. And then she’d hug me and buy me a glass of wine in front of everyone!

These women are charismatic and despite the evidence it becomes “your word against hers”, and when you lose, we all lose. It is very frustrating and I regularly consider quitting science altogether, but, hey, if I do, if we quit because of what abusers do, then they really get away with it all. Being shy doesn’t help in these situations as you are forced to seek help from people you feel don’t know you well enough. Fortunately there are nice people out there willing to help!

Why is now the time to talk about it?

Because… is there another choice? I had a boss once who did not like two co-workers (both men) and so she decided to make decisions to hinder their work and performance, indirectly affecting everyone. As usual, she made a lot unilateral decisions and bullied them and others (me included) for months. One day she went further, though, accusing these two men of harassment and unwanted sexual advancements. She cried convincingly and quit. These accusations had a big impact in other women in the company who, still to this day, believe her despite the evidence showing the accusations were unfounded.

Women have been abused in many ways, everywhere, and the #MeToo movement has told the world we won’t have it anymore. I applaud that and stand behind the movement. But there’s a (not so) hidden attempt to imply that only (and all) men are abusers, while women are just victims (even when they abuse!). That’s simply not true and it puts the entire movement at risk. This is not a witch hunt. This is not men vs women. This is about making the world a better place. This is about becoming a society that doesn’t protect abusers of any gender, race, or religious beliefs.

you are not alone

What can you do?

It is true, there are abusers everywhere and if you are shy you are an easier target. However, take this advice I’ve been given: “If this is your thing, if this is what motivates you, do not give up. Eventually your work will speak for you.

Yes, that. Very much that.

But don’t settle for “it happens everywhere”. Seek advice when you think there is abuse and clearly explain the behaviour you think is abusive. The behaviour is what matters and not who the person is when that behaviour has to be stopped.

Imagine what the world would be like if instead of saying “it’s always been like this” we say ‘”how can I help you?”

group hand fist bump
Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

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