Civility in Science Is Not a Luxury. It’s a Necessity.

by Amy Cuddy, originally posted to Twitter on October 22, 2017

I’m glad that today’s New York Times Magazine article has shed light on some of the dynamics that are playing out in my field and likely in other sciences. The article exposes the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the intensity, frequency and nastiness of the treatment that I’ve experienced. And I’m not alone. I may be the “poster child,” but there are scores of others who’ve been subjected to this same, special brand of scholarly harassment that silences and humiliates, shutting down scientists and science.

It’s a bit maddening to see debates about whether it is, indeed, really all that bad. Worse yet are the dehumanizing debates about whether I “deserved it,” which feel eerily similar to discussions about other kinds of harassment. I know what has happened. The people close to me know what has happened. And many of the actors know what they did.

Do I want you to know all of the ugly facts? Do I want to do a document dump so that you can actually see the scope and horror of this? Yeah, of course I do. Because I’m human. And I’m angry. And I want to be seen.

But here’s why I’m not going to drag all of it out for everyone to inspect: because I’d be engaging in the exact kind of incivility that needs to end.

We don’t need a new target or villain or punching bag. The only way to elevate the civility and quality of scientific debate is to radically depart from personal attacks and public shamings. We have to replace fear and indignation with excitement and curiosity. If there’s a genuine interest in understanding any complicated scientific phenomenon, there is a way forward. It requires openness, listening, trust, and collaboration. And if there’s a genuine interest in getting scientists to adopt newer, more rigorous methods, then the people with the most knowledge to contribute to that effort must lead with dignity and compassion. Be good hosts. Invite people in. Get to know them. Show them around. The vast majority of people are trying their best to do good work. Leverage that.

And, as someone who people have been afraid to speak up for, I need to say this: When you see something happen that you know is wrong, do something. Don’t be a bystander. It would mean a hell of a lot to that person who is being targeted.

Civility does not come at the expense of open, honest, robust debate. In fact, it’s the other way around: incivility comes at the expense of those things, which is not only obvious through observation but is also strongly supported by several lines of research (Christine Porath’s book Mastering Civility and Bob Sutton’s book The No Asshole Rule review a lot of this research.)

For example, research shows that in workplaces with incivility problems, people

  • Decrease work effort and commitment
  • Are more distracted and less creative
  • Avoid seeking feedback
  • Refrain from speaking up about errors or potential problems
  • Stop helping others
  • Experience health costs
  • And are less likely to share

It doesn’t take a scientist to notice that none of these things can be good for making science more open and rigorous.

Civility in science is not a luxury. It’s a necessity.


(Photo credit: Animal Welfare Institute)


2 Comments on “Civility in Science Is Not a Luxury. It’s a Necessity.”

  1. Thank you for finally talking about how women can be intellectually bullied, I experienced this and did nothing for four years.

    Your piece resonated with me as a women who experienced professional bullying because she had experienced growth in certain areas of her career that some men could not wrap their heads around. For me, it was the “soft skills” of people management and organizational development. These skills believe it or not, scare the hell out of professionals who can’t understand their value, quantify their relationship to business results and pattern them. In other words, I was a business person who also had a keen sense of understanding people and behavior and I was discredited as a professional for being soft, stupid and not business savvy enough. To top it off, I am a diminutive blonde – not the best stature for the business world!

    A few years ago, I left the professional services world to take on a lead role in the financial sector in Chicago. I understood that was taking on a role in a male dominated industry but I was not put off by that and the opportunity to lead and create a new team was very interesting to me.

    I basically walked into the twilight zone for four years and experienced the most intense intellectual bullying I hope to never see again. As one of a few women in the firm, I would take meetings with the CEO. This particular CEO would have his back to me while he looked at his computer or typed emails the entire length of meeting. I would go into meetings trying to get large contracts signed for technology implementations and the COO would have both feet on the table, rocking is chair back while his shirt slowly hiked up so I could see his bare stomach and his hands outstretch over his head. I had to deal with this while he stopped our meeting several times to take calls (about 3-5 times in a 1 hour meeting) from his wife that were not serious or urgent in nature. She just wanted to chat with him and talk about the kids. Okay, I have four children, my husband works too, we love our kids dearly but if I called him and interrupted him during his meetings to chat it up about the kids, he would be admitting me to special hospital stay for a while. I get it, I am a mom and I love my kids but when I am at work, I actually do my job.

    I thought to myself, is this normal? I just need to get used to this and get over it, get past it. Wrong! This is not normal and we need to stop pretending it is.

    My favorite to this day is when I had to meet with the CTO who had to deal with an unpleasant employee relations issue and wanted me to advise him on the matter. He professed his pain in dealing with this employee while clipping his toe nails in front of me at his desk. Yep, this was a professional firm that made millions of dollars per day. I remember leaving thinking I hope to God one day my daughter never has to deal with this totally disturbing and unprofessional behavior. This was a position I voluntarily took because it was an executive role where I made considerable compensation and made critical decisions on my own. I was beside myself in terms of the behavior and lack of respect and outright rudeness smart women experienced in this firm every day.

    Why do we keep doing this? Because we are leaders, we make considerable financial contributions to our families and we enjoyed having big jobs. We just need to keep our heads above water and avoid the bullies in the hallways.

    I struggle with those that intellectually bully because I am often one to acquiesce to the feelings of not feeling good enough. I am the daughter of a polish immigrants, the first to go to college and while I learned to speak English in first grade, I have a perfect command of the English language and no one would know I have strong ethnic roots and speak a foreign language as I have painstakingly assimilated quite nicely to American culture. I even married a nice American man and took his very American last name.

    When I took this senior role leading a large internal team for a trading firm in Chicago, I had to write a very short communication to the staff. The topic was sensitive so I wanted to make sure the tone was right but also get pertinent information across. After a short meeting with the same COO who was a master of owning his space and not ashamed of showing body parts in the process, he turned to me and quipped that perhaps the memo was better read in Polish than English – referring to a grammar issue that I did not agree with – nor did anyone else. I couldn’t believe it, was I being made fun of for speaking another language or worse, being Polish? In Chicago, really? The irony in this account, is not long after the COO resigned, he took a CEO role for a top foreign language education software companies and to this day doesn’t speak a foreign language himself. Interesting huh?

    Amy, I share these stories because I think that what you experienced was awful. While I think that perhaps what could have been an intellectual debate about your research and data that could have been an asset to the world of psychology, ended up being a personal, unprofessional 5th grade attack that didn’t advance the conversation further.

    I continue to invest my time teaching young women not only to practice being confidence but the importance of grit and bouncing back fast and moving on. You have done this with grace and style and I am looking forward to your next book.

    Thank you for continuing to share your stories, being brave and showing us that we all can be powerful, confident and smart and we can do it with integrity and class.


    • Yvette, thank you for taking the time to share you story and your reflections. So many people are quietly enduring this, for the very reasons you describe here.


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