Power and Responsibility
I have to admit I’m a superhero movie junkie. In particular, we watch the Avengers movie a lot in our household. I mean… a lot. Sometimes I really wish I was Natasha Romanoff (aka the Black Widow) from the Avengers. That would be rad. I could use my tricky spy interrogation skills to get program officers to tell me how to alter my proposal to get funded. I could use my wicked fighting skills to take down anyone acting inappropriately towards my students. Yeah, it would be awesome.
Except that every superhero story has the following message: with great power comes great responsibility.
We don’t think about that duality much in the professoriate. I think because typically we spend so many years with so little power as graduate students and postdocs. Even as an untenured faculty member, we often focus on being at the mercy of senior faculty and administrators upon whom our job prospects depend. Even once we’re tenured, we often don’t think in terms of ‘power’ beyond the interfaculty dynamics within a department because faculty increasingly have less say in the governance of universities.
But the truth is, even though we don’t think we have power, we do. We have a lot of it. Over the undergrads in our courses whose futures depend on what they learn (and the grades they earn) in our classes. Over the graduate students and postdocs in our labs whose futures and everyday experiences depend directly on how we treat them. On the graduate students in our graduate programs who need us on their committees or need to take a specific course from us to be successful in their research or career path. Over the students and postdocs who are networking at meetings to connect with potential collaborators, mentors, etc. Over anyone whose papers and grants we are reviewing. We have a lot of power over the fates of a lot of people. And with great power comes great responsibility.
If you read a lot of blogs or participate in Twitter, you will have seen the growing number of posts on gender discrimination and sexual harassment that people (including people in ecology & evolution) have experienced**. Some of those experiences are sheer predatory behavior by people purposefully abusing their power. Some of it seems like people who don’t recognize that they have power that can be abused. And sometimes these incidents arise because someone is having a bad day – at home, at work, whatever – and in that unhappy space people put down others thoughtlessly or even purposefully to feel better about themselves. But the truth, so eloquently stated by one of my favorite bloggers Odyssey is that “Power doesn’t give a shit about your personal life”. It also doesn’t care if you don’t realize you have that power. Just because you don’t realize you have power over others doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. You still have the responsibility that goes with it. These horrifying stories of gender discrimination and sexual harassment are clear abuses of power and it is important as a community that we deal with this. We also need to remember that they are not the only way to abuse power. Stories about abuses of power should serve as an important moment for all of us, men and women, junior and senior, to reflect on the power we do have and ponder using it wisely. I promise you someone out there will be grateful you did.
**If you don’t know what I’m referring to, I would strongly recommend going to read these key posts/articles: DNLee a postdoc, and prominent blogger, called a whore for saying no to a guest blog request, A writer approached a prominent scientific blogger about work and received a creepifying interaction for her troubles, a scientist from the ecology/evolution neck of the woods talks poignantly about her experiences with sexual harrassment, and the twitter outpouring of women expressing how sexual harassment has made them doubt themselves and their abilities.