There are times in one’s life when it is important to stand up and be counted. This is a view expressed neatly in a recent blogpost by Hilda Bastian about 7 Tips for Women at Science Conferences with her sub-heading ‘Holding back for yourself is fine – but solidarity for others is non-negotiable.‘ In other words, if you don’t want to make a fuss when someone talks over or otherwise ignores you, that’s fine; nevertheless you shouldn’t let other people suffer that same fate without drawing attention to it. This isn’t just about women, many people are treated badly for one reason or another, although it is in the context of gender that Hilda writes. But, as she says, ‘We all need to complain – at the very least on the conference evaluation form – when we see, hear, or experience unfairness.‘ And most of us aren’t very good at it. It is, after all, so much easier to look the other way rather than play the role of the Good Samaritan.
This applies far more broadly than simply to shenanigans at conferences. As the Thesis Whisperer wrote memorably, there are far too many academic assholes around. The trouble is not simply that these people exist, but our structures make it too easy for these people to thrive at the expense of the less unpleasant. Yet it really doesn’t need to be so since there is no law that says being an asshole leads to better science. Indeed the only way I think that might be true is if nastiness leads to more resources which in turn enables more to be done; but that still doesn’t necessarily mean that a lot of not-very-good science outweighs less science done by thoughtful, quiet and brilliant people.
If you are a young researcher just setting out, you may think that these words do not apply to you. But you’d be wrong. Within a research group there may be a fellow student whose behaviour to a third party seems out of line. Say so. If someone is hogging the apparatus or talking over a new student, point it out. It isn’t only professors who behave badly, and if no one tells the miscreants to pull their socks up they will only feel that bad behaviour comes with advantages but no penalties. As one goes up the ladder - be it in academia or any other profession – the scope one has to draw attention to unreasonable behaviour increases. Additionally, as one’s influence grows there are more people who are likely to be sensitive to your criticism if used wisely.
Criticism should of course be used sparingly, in which case it is likely to have all the more impact. But of course, this isn’t just about explicit criticism. It may be that what is required is setting a good example to encourage younger researchers to copy your own way of doing things. If those setting out on their research careers can see that being a good departmental citizen and treating your students like humans not as bench monkeys creates a productive environment from which top-class papers emanate, then they are more likely to follow suit. If the only PIs they see around them are arrogant and selfish it may not occur to them that any other type of behaviour is likely to lead to success. Role models matter.
In all of this departmental – and university – leadership matters hugely. And only too often it may be less than perfect. Those of us who’ve reached such heady heights have yet more responsibility for leading by example. But sometimes the influence one has can also be much more subtle. It may be more along the lines of a word of advice behind the scenes, or pointing out to others what they need to do. I well recall one time some years ago when I was aware someone – not in my department– was being hung out to dry with no support being offered to them when they found themselves negotiating tricky waters. Mulling things over on a Sunday morning run, I realised that I was not prepared not to do anything and I fired off a series of emails to those I thought were key people, ranging from the relevant PVC down (this was much more complicated than a line-management issue; in many ways I had no business sticking my nose into the matter although, as it happened to be a woman in this case, I could dress it up wearing my Gender Equality hat as a legitimate concern). I had replies from several of them within a couple of hours, replies signifying chest-beating along the lines of ‘I should have thought of this myself‘. One of them even arranged to ring me from the USA. (All of this on a Sunday, but I’ll leave aside the question of whether any of us should have been reading emails at the time.) Decent people all of them; people who hadn’t been consciously turning their backs on the problem, they had nevertheless failed to spot they had an implicit duty of care.
That made me realise just how powerful a word in someone’s ear can be and that sometimes there are situations where any of us can step in to help someone else. As Hilda Bastian said, you can choose not to stand up for yourself but you should always stand up for others being put through a hard time. Indeed, it may be easier to stand up for someone other than yourself because it is easier to be objective. You can see much more clearly whether the person on the receiving end has in fact brought vitriol on themselves because they’ve taken a wrong course of action when it’s not you as the person in question.
I believe the Thesis Whisperer’s Circle of Niceness that she discusses in her blogpost on academic assholes can start at the most junior level. The situations you can deal with will vary with your degree of seniority and corresponding sphere of influence, but if those at the start of their careers practice challenging bad behaviour in their own small way, maybe by the time they and their peers reach the heady heights they will both have more confidence about speaking out regarding the big problems and also have eradicated/undermined those who would play the bully. If that makes me sound an optimistic, well sometimes I can be one!