Being great at your job does not give you license to be an idiot at the workplace

This week, a renowned scientific journal took down an image that came with a paper it published, because of the outrage that it provoked on social media. The Journal of Proteomics is not someplace you’d expect to find a photo of a woman holding two coconuts in front of her breasts, visibly clad in nothing much else; but there it was, on a paper describing the protein content of coconut milk (intriguingly and unconventionally titled “Harry Belafonte and the secret proteome of coconut milk” under the section “graphical abstract”).

Needless to say, Twitter did not take this revelation lying down. Dr. Rajini Rao, a Johns Hopkins University professor, tweeted the author’s response to an email she sent him regarding the matter. He had replied asking her if she had been “trained in the Vatican”. An Italian researcher, Pier Giorgio Reghetti, went on to write: “As you [Dr. Rao, that is] claim to be professor of Physiology, let me alert you that this image is physiology at its best!”

Interestingly, and not surprisingly, Reghetti is also the Executive Editor of the journal, which could partly explain how this managed to get published at all. Nevertheless, a not-so-much-an-apology from the editor Juan Calvete followed (“Although I, personally, so not think that the alluded images are sexist as well as I would not consider it sexist if a man were represented, at least this was neither the intention of the authors nor of the editor”) and the images were taken down.

The whole manner in which the editorial board of Journal of Proteomics seems to have managed the issue is disheartening and makes you wonder – is everyday sexism taken as seriously as it should be?

That a person like Reghetti was able to rise to a pretty respectable position in his field suggests that his being a blatant sexist has nothing to do with his capability. Reghetti’s habit (turns out he has a history of incorporating tacky images in his papers. Check them out here) involves no physical harm, but a severely regressive mindset. He may be a a great scientist, even a “fun” person to the people who know him, but he is also an unabashed sexist if he believes he there is nothing wrong with his decision to use an image that seems to derive its humour from adolescent innuendo (seemingly a copyrighted image #79 from a list of “sexiest bartenders”), even if it was (arguably) for the nobler purpose of popularisation of hard science. More disturbing is his casual patronisation of the fellow woman scientist who wrote to him with her complaint; clearly, he must think her rather airheaded if he expected her to believe he chose the image for its physiological relevance.

How is it that people like this (and any woman in a workspace will attest to the fact that there are people like this) are able to gain the respect of enough people to climb up the professional ladder? Is the person’s proficiency at his job what gives him impunity?

It shouldn’t be. Because respecting the women they work with and the women they write for, was just as much a part of their job as doing science and editing a journal. The same applies to recently defamed former Scientific American blogs editor Bora Zivkovic. Those who argue that the fact that he is a serial sexual harasser cannot take away from the fact that he had an unmatched keen eye for new talent are sorely mistaken. Like Reghetti, Zivkovic owed it to the public who he served not just to keep giving us good science blogs but also to treat his co-workers and admirers with respect. In short, being great at your job does not give you license to be an idiot.

So really, all that justifying women sometimes do in the face of office misogyny – the inappropriate jokes, comments, condescension – is quite needless. Shrugging it off is not as harmless as you may be tempted to believe. It’s the kind of thing that results in people like Prof. Dr. Pier Giorgio Reghetti holding powerful positions and slowing us in the fight for equality at the workplace.