In an economy increasingly built on freelance work, independent contractors are routinely told to have thick skins; stay upbeat, career experts advise, even if your proposal is rejected or your calls and e-mails aren’t promptly returned. Yet far worse indignities can come into play. A recent harassment scandal in the seemingly sedate world of science blogging showed that even in new media women may confront retrograde behavior. But the episode also highlighted how vulnerable freelancers are to abuses — and how the obligation to network at all costs may keep them from speaking up.
Last month, an editor named Bora Zivkovic resigned from Scientific American magazine after blogger Monica Byrne publicly identified him as the initiator of an uncomfortable exchange: Byrne had gone to what she assumed was a business meeting with Zivkovic, a prominent science journalist, only to have him drop innuendoes about his own love life. After the meeting, he apologized — sort of — and Byrne recalled trying to rationalize working for him despite her discomfort because she hoped he would promote her work. A colleague of Zivkovic’s, Hannah Waters, came forward to describe similar incidents with him — which she, too, initially tried to minimize. Zivkovic has indicated that he doesn’t disputeeither woman’s account.
Notably, these incidents only came to light in connection with another dust-up: Biologist Danielle Lee, who writes a Scientific American blog called “The Urban Scientist,” cordially turned down a request to contribute to another blog because she didn’t want to write for free. She received a bizarre, heated response from the editor involved: “Are you an urban scientist or an urban whore?” Taken aback, Lee posted about the incident for her Scientific American blog. But the magazine’s editors took it down because, they said, they couldn’t immediately verify the facts in it. The furor over that decision is what led Byrne to go public. (Lee’s post was eventually restored.)
These incidents are disturbing on their own terms; the women involved write movingly of how feeling flattered by outside attention to their work decays into a sense of humiliation.
To prevent these situations, many companies have anti-harassment policies to protect outside contractors and contributors, but they only go so far; indeed, Scientific American had such a policy.
Moreover, these incidents also shine a light on the delicate position of independent contractors more generally. Across a variety of industries — academia, media, and many more — employment relationships are taking on a less permanent, more transactional quality. Workers who never go into any office become highly dependent on individual managers, editors, and other supervisors. When these gatekeepers behave inappropriately, freelancers may decide to put up with it to avoid hurting their reputations or their prospects for getting future work.
Which makes people who draw attention to their own mistreatment all the more courageous. Ironically, Zivkovic put it most succinctly: “Kudos to [Byrne] and [Waters],” he wrote on Twitter, “for having the courage to speak up.”