Helping the Minoritized Achieve in Academic Science

Bullying Backfire

bullyFor the past several years, the topic of bullying has been hot in the media. Most people, especially nerds, realize that bullies have always been there. Although academia is supposedly some liberal bastion of cushy touchy-feely softies who “can’t do,” so they teach, it is actually full of bullies. Those nerds who were bullied most as young people are the most likely to bully others in the future. It is a cycle of abuse that is disturbing. It doesn’t help that many of the people in academia are not good communicators and can often be stubborn and unyielding in their emotional ideas. All of these circumstances lead to a high amount of workplace bullying. In addition to sexual harassment that is still pervasive, the more subtle workplace bullying by chairmen, peers, or even students can make women and minorities feel bad about their job and abilities.

Currently, UState is requiring a workshop on Workplace Bullying. Based on what I discussed above, this would seem like a great idea, right? Ironically, these workshops appear to have a backfire effect. What I mean by this is that known bullies are coming out of the workshop convinced that they are being bullied themselves. Mostly, they are claiming to be bullied by the very people they are bullying! Why is this happening? Because the bullies and the bullied are in fact having a disagreement. Unfortunately, the inept abilities of most scientists to communicate mean that the more aggressive person comes across as a bully. The less aggressive person seeks relief, help, or just a chance to gripe, and they are branded as talking behind someone’s back, forging alliances against the other person, or just a troublemaker. In the new definitions of bullying, these defense mechanisms are also a form of bullying.

In talking to my female peer-mentors, it seems like most women coming out of the workshop think to themselves, “Oh no, I have been inadvertently bullying someone. I need to try to adjust my way of acting.” On the other hand, many men have come out saying, “OMG, I am being bullied by everyone.” I think it would be interesting to perform a follow up survey to see if it the reaction to the workshop aligns with gender. There are always exceptions, I am sure, but my hypothesis would be that women are more likely to be introspective about the workshop. This is what I mean by a “Bullying Backfire.” The bigger a bully someone is the less likely they are going to see themselves as the bully, and the more likely they are to see how everyone else is bullying them. In my opinion, this is part of the mentality of a bully – to blame others for your problems.

So, how do we respond to bullying? Once we identify it occurring, we can only change our own actions toward others. Is it possible to change the actions of others who are bullying us? It is worse when you are a graduate student being bullied by your advisor, or an assistant professor being bullied by a senior faculty member? Do you act like the “bigger man,” and just pretend it doesn’t affect you? That can backfire, too. Especially if your bully is trying to tear you down and make you feel bad on purpose.

Popular culture tells me to stand up to bullies, and I have been accused of being brave. I am not sure if I am brave or just really stupid, but surviving can be a sort of standing up for yourself. I certainly did stand up to bullies in high school, and I fought back. I was protected by my honor-student status against being sent to detention or being suspended. I was able to fight back immediately at the time, and move past my bullies.

Now, revenge may need to be placed on the back burner and served cold. Much like my honor-student status, one can always overcome and get back at your science bullies through your science-cred. See, in science, she who has the best publication track-record laughs last. At the end of the day, if you have better, more publications, you will get more respect than your bully. I have done this with several of my science bullies. It takes having a long-view, because it is not a quick solution. So, sometimes I just keep my head down and move my science forward and try to ignore my bullies. Obviously, this only works if your bully isn’t seeking you out to suck up your time.

All this being said, it is absolutely essential that you have a support network to help you handle these situations. You need a good partner to listen and offer sympathy. You need a peer network, or group, to offer advice, consolation, and cheer-leading about how great you are. Most people will not admit this, but you probably also need a therapist. In all the times when I had to deal with a bully, I sought out a therapist to talk to on a weekly, or every-other weekly basis. These people are not in science, necessarily, but they can give you can outlet to gripe, a confidential confidant, and someone to help with people-solutions.  I am not ashamed to say I have been in therapy numerous years over my life, and I am a more well-adjusted, and better person for having done it. Younger generations of people do not see it as a stigma, but as a means to help to deal with difficult people. Older generations often see it as a signal that you are “crazy,” but the only crazy thing is to not use every option in your reach to deal with these problems.

So, what do yo think? Are you being bullied? Is it persistent? Or sporadic? Comment or post. You can follow the blog by pushing the +Follow button.

Comments on: "Bullying Backfire" (4)

  1. Your avoidance strategy works well for people in your department, but not if these bullies are present in your field (who review your papers/grants). A friend of mine is actually changing her science to be in a field where there is less bullying. I know I’ve chosen my research interests to be in a comunity that is compatible with my personality. But yet, I still experience hazing every time I try to publish in a new direction that is not within my established “turf”.

  2. Agreed. I, too, changed my subfield or main topic at some point because the people working on said topic were just mean, and it was getting more crowded with better-funded, better-resourced persons who were more competitive than myself. Sometimes you have to jump, and that jump can be into waters that are still shark-infested. Sometimes, I just wish people could be critical, but nice. Is that so wrong?

  3. Well done. Everything is so saturated with bullies. Every line of work, every social outlet, even passersby on the sidewalk.
    teagan (aiming for that tiny spot with no shark in the toothily infested water far below)

  4. rathernotsay said:

    This really made me stop and think about bullying because I just think of the classic kid who beats up the runt of the class for his lunch money, but this article really helped me put some wording on some areas in my lab work that I just couldn’t identify…competitive…yes…but it felt nastier…and afterall, when you’re in a lab, aren’t you supposed to be on the same team?

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