Science writing harassment underscores freelancer instability

Freelancers shouldn't have to worry that there might be pressure to sleep with an editor or that she will need to laugh off his sexual passes in order to get work

“This happened,” wrote science writer Monica Byrne, who went on to detail an account of sexual harassment by an editor at Scientific American whom she was trying to impress.

Byrne, a freelancer, had thought she was attending a work coffee and had brought clips in the hopes she might procure an assignment. But the editor instead talked to her about sex.

When she named him as Bora Zivkovic, SciAm blogs editor, many who knew him didn’t want to believe it. Incredibly influential in the science blogging world, Zivkovic had mentored many young women writers; he was beloved. One man even wrote to Byrne asking her to redact Zivkovic’s name so that she wouldn’t destroy “his marriage, his friendships and his professional standing.” But then, another woman, Hannah Waters, stepped forward. It had happened to her, too. The twitterverse-blogosphere—which initially reacted with disbelief that such a nice guy could have done such a thing—finally rallied behind the women. Zivkovic apologized and resigned from the board of a conference he helped found.

And it’s a good thing he did this, because it’s likely that, as freelance journalists, Byrne and Waters would have had no legal recourse.

As the progressive publication Truthout writes about a different case:

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects legal employees against discrimination based on sex, but this law extends to clearly defined legal employees, not independent contractors, consultants or freelance workers. For workers exempt from Title VII, there is no human resources department, no union to protect them. And speaking up could mean forfeiting a much-needed job, drowning in legal fees by seeking civil action and even becoming re-traumatized by a complex legal system.

This shouldn’t be a surprise; we learned this week that unpaid interns at journalism organizations (or any organization) aren’t protected, either.

Though it’s not surprising, it is frightening, because more and more journalists are freelance or contract workers. Women freelancers shouldn’t have to worry that there might be pressure to sleep with an editor or that she will need to laugh off his sexual passes in order to get or to keep work. And a female freelancer (or a male one, for that matter) shouldn’t have to fear that introducing herself to an editor might be seen as a sexual invitation instead of a networking attempt. It’s tough enough to deal with harassment from sources.

Also, if there’s any industry that should deal forthrightly with sexual harassment, it’s journalism. Journalism at its most idealistic is all about transparency, truth, and giving voice to the voiceless. So journalists are the last people who should react with scorn or disbelief when women like Byrne and Waters are brave enough to tell their stories. Instead, we should work to figure out the facts of what happened, just as we would if any source revealed something similar.

Newsrooms need to check that they have policies in place protecting contract workers and freelancers from sexual harassment. Editors should remember that charming young writers who contact them are likely looking for work, not a date. And we all need to be sure that, the next time someone writes or speaks about the harassment they received at the hands of a journalist or editor in power, we listen carefully and start with the assumption that they are telling the truth.

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Jennifer Vanasco is a is a news editor at WNYC and the former editor in chief of MTV Network's LGBT news site She writes about social minorities, national politics, and culture. Her award-winning newspaper column on gay and women's issues ran for 15 years.