Director's Blog - Respect Now Always - 17 August 2020

I am a late adopter when it comes to “Twitter” and generally try to limit social media involvement due to competing demands on my time. However, some of you may have noticed some occasional tweets sent via my ‘@Bio21Director’ Twitter account. As an observer I have noticed how active the science community is on Twitter and that news travels quickly on the Twitter-vine.

A few weeks back, whilst I was scrutinising my feed, one post caught my eye and I clicked on it. It contained a 10-minute video and I watched, transfixed.

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez ‘AOC’, US congresswoman for the 14th congressional district in New York was responding to the encounter she’d had with another US congressman, Representative Ted Yoho.

Ocasio-Cortez was delivering a powerful speech; a well-structured, calm account of how Representative Yoho had verbally abused her and why she would not stand for it. There was power in her voice; as she delivered her sentences, in a litany fuelled by anger, making it impossible not to hear her message. Her oratory was impressive and moving.

A journalist from The Hill had overheard and reported on the confrontation between Yoho and Ocasio-Cortez on the 21 July 2020. Representative Ted Yoho, who had rudely accosted her, later stepped down in disgrace, after a weak apology.

As Ocasio-Cortez said, dehumanising language is not new. It’s also not new to Australians. It was only in 2012 that Australians saw the then leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott, stand with protesters flourishing placards “Ditch the Witch” and worse, that intended to dehumanise our then Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

At the time, she also responded with strong words in parliament, in her now famous ‘Misogyny Speech’, that also ‘went viral’ across the globe.

The transcript of her speech was recently performed by the Australian Voices Choir, that you can listen to on the ABC website. It begins with the repetition of the powerful statement: “I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man.”

It is also shocking to be reminded that a year ago, 14 August 2019, Australian radio broadcaster Alan Jones said Mr Morrison should "shove a sock down her throat" during his tirade on 2GB radio against Jacinda Ardern, the New Zealand Prime Minister. It is shockingly common for women in positions of power to be the target of misogynistic verbal abuse.

In her speech, Ocasio-Cortez goes on to say ‘This is not new. And that is the problem. Mr Yoho was not alone. He was walking shoulder to shoulder with Representative Roger Williams and that’s when we start to see that this issue is not about one incident. It is cultural. It is a culture of lack of impunity, of accepting, of violence and violent language against women in an entire structure of power that supports that.’

It’s not new in public life, where it is laid bare for all to see. Unfortunately, it’s not new in academic life either.

The most famous example in science has to be Nobel Prize winner James Watson, who was stripped on all his honours in 2019 for his continuous and unrepentant sexist, racist and homophobic remarks. As reported in the Washington Post article by Meagan Flynn, 14 January 2019, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in Long Island issued the announcement with a searing rebuke of Watson, calling his beliefs “reprehensible” and “unsupported by science.”

In recent years, at the University of Melbourne as in other institutions, there has been a growing realisation that indeed these problems are cultural.

The University, like many other organisations, requires us all to undertake a regular online ‘Appropriate Workplace Behaviour’ training where we are reminded of the laws and the policies that exist to protect us from discrimination and harassment and the behaviours that fall into that category. No one can say they don’t know. However, according to a study by Chang et. al, published in PNAS in 2019, taking an online course is not enough to create an environment or culture of mutual respect, with tangible effects of greater diversity in the workforce. Making our unconscious biases conscious is a step in the right direction, but online mandatory ‘diversity training’ can backfire, making people feel coerced into changing their behaviour and becoming defensive. We may find they have little effect on the likes of Yoho, Abbott, Jones and Watson, apart from making them feel unfairly silenced.

In a Harvard Business Review piece commenting on the PNAS publication “Does Diversity Training Work the Way It’s Supposed To?”, the authors recommend a slightly different approach, that might resonate with scientists:

  1. A multi-pronged diversity and inclusion program, using a range of approaches, that that encourages underrepresented talent to join, stay, succeed, and lead within your organisation. 
  2. Experiment. Use training to gain insight into what is effective and what’s not.
  3. Get data. Regularly collecting and reviewing data to learn how your programs and policies are performing, so you can make adjustments. Data can be collected to track diversity metrics around recruitment, selection, and retention, but also on attitudes and behaviours of current employees. 

Bio21, in addition to the programs offered at the University of Melbourne, has a Committee tasked with making recommendations on improving equity, diversity and inclusion at Bio21. It is wonderful to see Guy Jameson step into the role of chair and I thank Matt Dixon for his role as Acting Chair over the past year. Speaking of data and metrics, I encourage you to take the survey designed by Matt Dixon as part of the Bio21’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee, to assess the impact of Covid-19 on researchers within our community. Evidence is emerging that women researchers are particularly disadvantaged as a result of the pandemic.

I would like to finally end off by highlighting another aspect of Ocasio-Cortez’s speech that I found particularly powerful and is spelt out to us in the University’s Workplace Behaviours training:

‘What I do have issue with is using women; our wives and daughters, as shields and excuses for poor behaviour…. And so, what I believe is that having a daughter does not make a man decent. Having a wife does not make a decent man. Treating people with dignity and respect makes a decent man, and when a decent man messes up as we all are bound to do, he tries his best and does apologise’.

So disrespectful behaviour, whether it is misogyny or racism for example, is not about the company you keep but how others perceive your actions and words.

Michael Parker
Director, Bio21 Institute