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Entomologists Say Harassment and Bullying in Science are “#NeverOK”

NeverOK table at Entomology 2017

At Entomology 2017 in November, entomologists including Michelle Duennes, Ph.D. (left) and Helen Spafford, Ph.D., gathered signatures and handed out buttons “to facilitate a conversation among ESA members and conference participants about the issues of bullying and harassment in our workplaces and at ESA conferences.” (Photo credit: Helen Spafford, Ph.D.)

By Helen Spafford, Ph.D., and Michelle Duennes, Ph.D.

Entomologists work in various spaces. We research, teach, and communicate in offices, classrooms, laboratories, and field settings as well as at meetings and conferences. In each of these spaces we interface with others in a diverse array of relationships and degrees of collaboration, in person and through technology. As in any field of work, sometimes those interactions can become conflictual, ranging from uncivil to abusive.

Meanwhile, recent highly publicized cases of workplace sexual harassment and assault in the entertainment industry and government have raised the profile on one aspect of inappropriate workplace behavior. And, whether we are eager to admit it or not, the scientific community is not free of these conflicts.

In 2014, a research team led by the University of Illinois’s Kathryn Clancy, Ph.D., published the results of a survey examining the experiences of scientists while working in the field. Of the participants surveyed, 72.4 percent “reported that they had directly observed or been told about the occurrence of other field site researchers and/or colleagues making inappropriate or sexual remarks at their most recent or most notable field site.” Sixty-four percent of participants reported experiencing sexual harassment, and 20 percent reported being sexually assaulted. Cases of bullying in academia and other research institutions are all too common, and numerous studies indicate that consequences of abusive work environments impact not only the individual but are costly to the organization (see Amienne 2017, Keashly and Neuman 2010, and McKay et al 2008).

Within the entomology community, bullying, harassment, and discrimination in all forms do occur. So, recent high-profile events, studies, and our own personal experiences motivated us to run a campaign, dubbed “#NeverOK” at Entomology 2017, the annual meeting of the Entomological Society of America (ESA), in November in Denver, Colorado.

We are not the first to raise or to respond to this issue within the entomological community. Several years ago, a group of women started working together to highlight the issues faced by women in entomology and have maintained and created a series of meetings, events, and networking opportunities. The group EntoAllies began work at ESA conferences to help reduce sexual harassment and provide a support network for targets. In 2015, a Diversity and Inclusion Committee was formed by the ESA Governing Board to promote a profession where everyone feels welcome. And a Code of Conduct was created to formalize a standard of behavior expected at ESA meetings.

Our campaign was intended to complement these efforts and promoted the message “Bullying and harassment in all forms are #NeverOK.” At a table in the exhibition hall, we had a banner where passers-by were invited to sign and support this message, and we gave away buttons with the messages #NeverOK, #IHearYou, and #MeToo. The #IHearYou hashtag began on Twitter as a response to the all too common situation where targets of harassment are either not believed or blamed when they come forward. We gave #IHearYou buttons to conference attendees who wanted to identify themselves as allies to those who have been targeted. The #MeToo buttons were for people willing and able to self-identify as someone who has been targeted by bullying and harassment. “Me Too” was a phrase created in 2006 by activist Tarana Burke to share empathy with women of color who have been targeted. It was also meant to publicize how widespread harassment is, and this year millions of people worldwide have used this hashtag on Twitter and other social media to share their own experiences with harassment.

We sought to facilitate a conversation among ESA members and conference participants about the issues of bullying and harassment in our workplaces and at ESA conferences. From our conversations at the table, we learned that many members of ESA from diverse backgrounds in academia, industry, and government have experienced some form of bullying and harassment. There was almost unanimous support for our message, often with expressions of gratitude for the campaign and the opportunity to show their support. We heard so many stories in which people who had a passion for entomology had been harassed, marginalized, or even pushed out of their workplaces. The effects on these people personally and professionally are profound.

How many entomologists have not spoken up, not been heard, or might have left entomology because of bullying, harassment, or discrimination? What have we lost to our science and society as a consequence? Even as ESA continues to endeavor to recruit new members and as we work and research to address these questions, problems, and challenges, there are those in our workplaces and even ESA membership who behave in ways that counter those efforts.

We envision entomologists as agents of change, promoting healthy workspaces where all are treated with respect. As part of our campaign, everyone was encouraged adopt the following behaviors:

  1. Listen with respect and empathy.
  2. Believe and offer support.
  3. Know resources and help people access them.
  4. Speak up when someone is harassed or marginalized.
  5. Examine and challenge your own bias.
  6. Push for change in policy and culture.

At the end of the conference, we presented the banner with the hundreds of signatures to ESA’s volunteer leadership. They heard us, and the #NeverOK conversation will continue within the Society. Let us work together toward respectful, safe, and inclusive workspaces.


Michelle Duennes, Ph.D.

Michelle Duennes, Ph.D.

Helen Spafford, Ph.D.

Helen Spafford, Ph.D.

Helen Spafford, Ph.D., is associate professor and chair of the Department of Plant and Environmental Protection Sciences at the University of Hawaii, Manoa, and Michelle Duennes, Ph.D., is a USDA NIFA ELI postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, Riverside. Spafford is member of the 2015 Class of ESA Science Policy Fellows, and Duennes is a member of the 2016 Class.

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