A turtle scientist’s crude behavior has sparked a #metoo moment in herpetology

Herpetology, as a field, has had a sexual harassment problem for years.
Herpetology, as a field, has had a sexual harassment problem for years.
Image: Reuters/Fredy Builes
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Richard Vogt, a prominent herpetologist who studies turtles, used photos of scantily clad women doing field work in his slides during an acceptance presentation last week for a major award. An audiovisual organizer at the conference put blue censorship boxes over parts of the women’s bodies. The Herpetologists’ League rescinded the award Friday (July 13) after outcry over the presentation.

“Many members of all genders took strong offense to the images that were presented and to the awarding of this distinction to someone whose extremely inappropriate behavior toward other attendees has been long known,” the league said in a statement on Sunday, according to the New York Times. “We acknowledge that scientific achievement does not excuse misconduct in the profession at any level.”

Scientists in the field pointed out that Vogt’s reputation for sexually inappropriate comments and behavior was well known, including women who said they had been warned to avoid him:

In a past talk, Vogt used a photo of a woman lying in the sand in a bikini with baby turtles “nestled near her breasts,” Lori Neuman-Lee, who leads the Herpetologists’ League’s new diversity and inclusion committee, told the Times. “It wasn’t explicit,” she said, “but it was not professional.”

Amid the outcry, several noted that herpetology, as a field, has had a sexual harassment problem for years.

Vogt defended his presentation in an email to the Times on Monday, saying that there was “nothing sexual or indecent about the photos,” and that he is “very sad that this has happened,” adding that he has “been a part of this community for 54 years.”

Sexual harassment in the sciences has been in the spotlight in recent years, and has picked up steam as the #MeToo movement has spread, highlighting inappropriate or demeaning behavior endured by women and men across all sectors of public and professional life.

In the sciences, women are harassed with striking regularity. Nearly half of female medical students in one 2018 survey said they had been harassed by faculty or staff. A report from 2015 found that one in three women science professors surveyed reported sexual harassment. In another, from 2014, 64% of field scientists who responded reported sexual harassment while doing fieldwork—that is, collecting data for research outside the lab.

An astronomer, a physicist, an astrophysicist, a molecular biologist, a cancer biologist, and other male scientists were removed from their posts or resigned in recent years after allegations of sexual harassment. In some cases, they rose to prominence despite women voicing disturbing experiences with them, until the accusations were finally taken seriously or gained press attention.