EDITOR'S NOTE: This post has been updated at the bottom with a comment from Cliff Mass.
Feminist rage has burned through my days and nights this last week, leaving me exhausted and anger-hangover every morning. Harvey Weinstein, Louis CK, Roy Moore, Al Franken–take them all down. I have fiery images in my mind’s eye of the careers of powerful men toppling like Saddam’s statue. BURN THEM ALL DOWN. I rage silently in my lipstick and heels, dressing as powerfully and sexually I can–as if to say, “try it on me motherfuckers”. I rage-walk from the bus to day care to work to the grocery store and I stare down every man on the street, silently shaming him with my eyes. It is a game I play through these rage-soaked days.
This reckoning—it must extend to science, too. It must extend to our public institutions like the University of Washington.
As a student and then a professional scientist, I have been assaulted, raped, harassed, demeaned, belittled, and threatened on the job. That is right. Every single professional gig that you might read on my CV comes with a litany of backstories of abuse and violence. I am not unique. I am the norm, and I have persevered in science exactly because of the rage that has transported me recently through the streets of Seattle. The rage protects as much as it exhausts and depletes.
For example, as an undergraduate student at Western Washington University, I did research in Caribbean Costa Rica, in a small village named Manzanillo. At 22-years old, I spent hundreds of SCUBA hours, over a period of four months, underwater studying coastal fringing coral reefs. One night in the bar in the village, after working in a wetsuit all day, I was approached by a man with a plaintive: “Hey baby, what is your name, talk to me.” Exhausted, I walked away from him and sat down in the bar tables away. Moments later, his hand was on the back of my head, lifting me out of my chair by my hair, throwing me on the ground. I fell to my knees and quickly got back to my feet to stand and face this man. As I faced him, he spat in my face–in my open eye. Instead of involuntarily wiping the spit, I defiantly blinked away his mucus and looked at him. He said to me, “If I ever see you again, I will kill you.” And then he walked away. Eight months later, I published that first scientific paper from my research on coral reefs, and it launched my career.
These are the stories behind the shiny baubles on our CVs. Even worse, our harassers are often our scientific “colleagues” and coauthors–they are powerful men who gatekeep our careers or publications. Indeed, my own CV contains the names of multiple men who have harassed or demeaned me.
This shit is systemic. In our university culture, men scientists often feel that it's just fine to demean women scientists. This was my indeed my experience with the now infamous local Seattle weather guy. In January of 2016, the Monday after the Women’s March, I gave invited scientific testimony to the Washington State House Environment Committee on greenhouse gas emission reduction. After the testimony, Representative Shelly Short asked a panel of us a question about Dr. Cliff Mass’s views on climate change. I choose to answer that question honestly, saying “Many of us at the University of Washington do view his views as coming from a denialist or contrarian place.” On my drive home from Olympia, I received the first of many angry emails (clearly howls from a narcissistic wound) from Dr. Mass, emails that would later go to my boss, my boss’s boss, and my boss’s boss’s boss. Frankly, I was terrified–I was completely out of my depths, and I didn’t want to be a lightning rod. On the (terrible) recommendation of a colleague that I respect, I had coffee with Dr. Mass in a public place. He stuck his finger in my face and threatened me: “if you don’t retract your public testimony, I will retract it for you.” Obviously, public testimony doesn’t work like that, but Dr. Mass certainly thought that I could be demeaned and harassed to the point that it wouldn't be worth it for me–an untenured single mom academic scraping by and trying to survive–to fight him. He was wrong.
UPDATE: In the comments of this piece, Cliff Mass disputes Sarah Myhre's version of events that took place when they had coffee. Here is his response:
"He stuck his finger in my face and threatened me: “If you don’t retract your public testimony, I will retract it for you.”
This is a total lie. I never said that and never stuck any fingers in anyone's face. Sarah Myhre choose to defame me and call me names in her testimony. I had never heard of her before that. Several folks emailed me after her testimony telling me that she was "throwing me under the bus." Her efforts to paint me as an extremist was both wrong and unnecessary, particularly as I not only am concerned about climate change, but was a major supporter of the carbon tax initiative. Now instead of calling her on her unprofessional name-calling in public, I asked her to have coffee with me. I asked her whether she could point out any technical errors in my published research, blogs, or public communication. She could not. Then she starting revving up on how I was aiding "deniers" by admitting uncertainty in climate projections and in interpreting current extreme events. She told me it was ok to exaggerate and deceive the public, to get them to do the right thing. Stunningly, she said she was willing to admit I was ok if I agreed to do an op-ed piece with her for the Seattle Times. I could not believe it. I believe Sarah Myhre is doing a substantial disservice to the effort to deal with climate change, reducing the chance of bipartisan action, and calling folks names she does not agree with.
UPDATE: When asked to respond to Mass' comment, Myhre said, "I stand by everything in my piece."