The Price of Silence

Juggling life as a woman and a scientist and a professional is hard. I’m currently flailing at it pretty badly. But that’s life, right? Live and learn. Well there’s an extra dimension of crap that weighs one down, increases the “impostor syndrome,” makes it harder to move through professional circles simply because of gender. When I see the trials of women who came before me, it’s discouraging. But it’s important that we all pay attention.

A little while ago I wrote about watching my friend and boss, Pamela Gay, deal with harassment in our profession. Today, I’m reading about it again as she comes forward with more details about her story, her “mistake of silence.” I encourage you all to read it carefully.

In it, she describes a particular instance of sexual harassment that many of us just deal with and brush off. I’ve been fortunate enough not to have dealt with it as often, or in as many professional situations, but my ass is a target, too, and it happens and you move on. The problem escalates when Man of Power and Influence™ has the potential to deter the woman from participating in further projects, or even intimidate the woman into being silent. This is the kind of situation she describes.

Now, as someone who has seen some of this crap unfold, I wish she could name persons A, B, X, Y, Z, or whatever letters get used. But again, there is the fear that some degree of silence will be protective. That’s the power of influence. That’s the power of silence. We have enough crap to deal with in our professional lives. We work our butts off to bring science to everyone. Who needs to waste time on this?

CC Martina Rigoli
CC Martina Rigoli

Well, apparently, we do. It’s not a waste of time. Unfortunately, it took for someone to go on a KILLING SPREE for the daily misogyny all women face to suddenly make headlines. That’s the ultimate price of apathy. Of silence.

I have no idea how this is going to play out, whether the guilty parties will be named or our university (the relevant employer) brought into the fray. I don’t know how I’d handle it if I was in her position.

But I do know that enough of us are sick and tired of this, and we won’t go away. Did #YesAllWomen make you uncomfortable? Good. Because we won’t stop now. We’re arming ourselves with education and there is no going back.

UPDATE (15:48 EDT): I highly recommend you also read Dan’s take on this situation at School of Doubt titled “Tenure and the Culture of Silence.”

Featured image: “The sound of silence” by Martina Rigoli – CC BY-ND 2.0 


Nicole is a professor, astronomer, educator, geek, dog mom, occasional fitness nerd, and maker of tiny comets. She is also very loud under the right circumstances. Like what you read? Buy me a coffee: https://ko-fi.com/noisyastronomer

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  1. Your employer keeps bugging us for money and contributions. Shall I tell them the next time I ask that I’m not interested in giving money to an institution that coddles sexual harassers?

    1. None of the people in this particular narrative work for our employer, except for Pamela and myself. We have yet to see if and how they react to this situation.

      But yeah, sorry they are bugging you. I wish people could donate to specific projects without ending up on such lists.

  2. Pamela should tell her story but we have to be careful how we out these things. By omitting the name of the man who attempted to assault her while he was drunk, many prominent men in the skeptical community are under suspicion. I don’t get around to socializing in the skeptical community as often as I’d like, so I haven’t heard any rumors or gossip regarding this. I am not the only one, I’m sure.

    As I read Pamela’s post I started rattling off names of men in my head. Is this about Michael Shermer? Neil deGrasse Tysson? the saintly Phil Plait? It was a sci fi con…maybe even Wil Wheaton? All these people with families and others fit the vague description of Famous Person A.

    1. So you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t? Don’t name these people and you are putting many people under suspicion. DO name these people and potentially face threats of legal action. I guess the only answer is to sit down and shut up?

      1. BUT WHAT ABOUT TEH MENZ!!! They might be suspected of harassment. Not necessarily harassed themselves or anything, but just suspected of harassment, possibly. But not taken to court. It’s so horrible for them. #sarcasm

    2. You’re OH SO CONCERNED about the ~reputation~ of these men (many of whom aren’t standing up and speaking out against this sort of abuse, even if they aren’t directly involved), but you seem to not give one little shit about the women who are harassed and abused.

      “We have to be careful.”

      You don’t mean “WE” — you mean the abused and the harassed. They have to be careful.

      Just like we have to take care not to be so mean! And why are we so angry? Tsk tsk. Be careful! Tell your story, but careful now…don’t tell it too loudly.

      So we have to be careful. But guess who gets to choose when we’re careful enough? Or not careful enough? The oppressors and the abusers. Isn’t that fucking convenient? The harassed and abused don’t get to decide what stories to tell, and how loudly; their abusers and oppressors do. And YOU ARE PART OF THAT PROBLEM.

      Fuck that silencing, tone-trolling bullshit, and fuck you for advocating for that shit.

      Maybe instead of telling women to be careful, you should speak out against this sort of abuse.

    3. I don’t understand why it would be the victim’s fault that other people are putting suspicion on men who are not named by the victim. If the victim doesn’t name the person, then it’s not her fault if people start “suspecting” random people just because they are prominent. The narrative isn’t put out there so that everyone can try to figure out who did it. It’s out there to tell her story and what happened to her so that people can understand what she’s going through.

      1. Right. If the lesson we learn from Dr. Gay’s post is “speculate on who she is referring to,” then WE didn’t read the post very carefully.

    4. I hate to break it to you but “many prominent men” in the skeptical community have already been under “suspicion” for a long time. With plenty of good reason and evidence to support that suspicion. It’s just as well that people be wary and not assume their favorite Dude With Power And Influence is guiltless of this sort of malfeasance. Remember, even Pamela Gay’s Person B was someone she thought could be trusted, until he obviously couldn’t. A little suspicion is for the best–we need to stop protecting people who act shitty and don’t own up to their mistakes.

    5. Don’t you think that making this comment over on Pamela’s blog was good enough? Or will we be seeing it again on Dan’s post as well? I’m sure you want to make sure everyone is “careful;” how would you suggest this could have been talked about more “careful”ly?

    6. I’m not seeing how “many prominent men in skepticism” are being harmed by whatever speculation is going on. We have at least one skeptic big-shot who has been explicitly named as a rapist by multiple women and it has not cost him speaking engagements, positions in atheist organizations, influence, or even any loss of respect except among people he doesn’t like anyway. Until “mere suspicion” of being one of the anonymous MCPs in one of these stories starts causing concrete harm to those suspected, I’m not going to lose any sleep over it.

      Moreover, if people are seriously wondering whether a particular demigod of atheism is the unnamed groper or rapist in one of these reports, it’s probably because he has already earned a reputation for bad behavior, even if he wasn’t actually one of the villains in _this_ story. (Cf.: the back channels by which women warn other women of who to watch out for.) Another reason not to lose any sleep over supposedly “innocent” people getting suspected.

    7. > By omitting the name of the man who attempted to assault her while he was drunk, many prominent men in the skeptical community are under suspicion.

      Bull. There’s only one person who’s “under suspicion”. It took me all of five minutes of web searching to find other, past descriptions of this particular incident. (From times when person B was speaking about it)

      It’s one guy, and you’ve already named him. Throwing other names in there to cloud it is either disingenuous or lazy. Anyone who cares to do so can easily find references that give away who A and B are. And at this point, though I of course can’t verify the original incident directly nor whether any women talked to Dr. Gay about other harassment by A or not, I’m barely even surprised by any bits of her story. “A” has a reputation completely consistent with both litigious behavior and gross sexual harassment among people who pay attention to such reputations.

  3. One way people can help is by donating to CosmoQuest. They have excellent outreach and educational programs, plus have a number of citizen science projects on the go, yet were hit fairly hard by recent cuts to government funding. None of your donations will go to Gay directly, but it’ll help one of her projects stay afloat and act as a show of support.


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