Toxic Research Environments: Dysfunctional Families?
Toxic, abusive culture in research environments can be very hard to pin down — whether you’re an early career researcher who is new to long-term research projects, a first-generation (first-gen) academic who doesn’t necessarily know the rules and landscape of academia, or a URM (under-represented minority) who tends to put your head down for all sorts of complex reasons, a lot of us don’t notice toxicity or have the vocabulary to describe it.
I was in high school when I learned about the classic roles of dysfunctional families, especially those shaped by addiction. Originally defined in Wegscheider-Cruse (1989), these roles describe some of the typical tropes, personalities, and codependent relationships into which members of dysfunctional families fall. Out of the Storm, a blog about C-PTSD, gives an outline of these roles.
As I’ve witnessed toxic work environments — either intimately or afar, through friends and an extended network of largely women of color in STEM —in the past ~10 years in planetary science, I’ve started to wonder about the parallels between toxic research groups and dysfunctional families. What happens when we apply Wegscheider-Cruse’s roles to the research group? How do these roles importantly intersect with things like race, gender, overseas/citizenship status, sexuality, disability/neurodiversity, and more?
Some, none, or combinations of these roles can appear in dysfunctional families, so this isn’t meant to be exhaustive or exact.
Despite the name, the Enabler isn’t necessarily a villain, and the role is not as clear-cut as being purely heroic or purely villainous. In a dysfunctional family, the Enabler is typically the spouse or eldest child of the abuser, taking care of the family in the absence of the abuser but also sticking by their side out of safety (or loyalty). This relationship itself can replicate abuse because the Enabler may defend the abuser or allow them to continue to abuse — it’s a complex relationship and role.
In academia, the Enabler might be someone aware of a toxic situation but who is unable or unwilling to help, whether because they feel they lack power, don’t want to change the status quo, or because they depend on the perpetrator (e.g. for a salary or for grants and prestige towards the name of the institution). K.A. Amienne makes this important connection in this fantastic piece:
Senior colleagues…often reason that they have to keep working with the abuser, while grad students and untenured faculty members are just passing through. This is not unlike what spouses sometimes do in abusive families: They allow their children to bear the brunt because it keeps the person in power happy and maintains a status quo, however dysfunctional it might be.
A department or the institution: An institution may look the other way in the case of famous or tenured perpetrators (they may just consider them friends). Institutions may also foist responsibility for dealing with student affairs and wellbeing onto academics who don’t have the time or power to change much, or on perpetrators themselves. A strong example is #AstroSH.
Senior roles in the group or other colleagues: For example, senior postdocs or other faculty in the group may mirror enabling. They may take care of the group, offering advice and comfort, but still defend the perpetrator in the case of complaints, or let things slide. This may be because of dependency for grants, recommendations, and reputation.
An ECR: Students, particularly female students, may step up and take charge in the absence of meaningful emotional support from the perpetrator. They may be in charge of the “housework” — acting as a secretary, willing or not, to the perpetrator, to carry out administrative or mentoring tasks that aren’t in their job description and to fill the space of a responsible, caring figure of authority.
Combine this with: gender and race/ethnicity. Women are more likely to be pushed into or take on housework roles in academia (Mcfarlane and Burg, 2019); minorities will take on more mentorship responsibilities. Amienne writes:
Several avoid their own work while devoting themselves to teaching and administration — tasks at which they feel more in control and their achievements more recognized.
The Hero is the member that keeps everyone together, protects, and also potentially hides the impact of the dysfunctionality on their wellbeing. In families, The Hero may be the eldest child who negotiates with the dysfunctional members and protects the others, while also embodying many of the pressures of taking on these responsibilities. This might look like the most senior student or postdoc who has learned the ropes of the system as well as the dysfunction and looks out for others, emotionally supports those more junior, and directly negotiates with a department, PI, or others in power.
Combine this with: anyone who takes on above-mentioned mentorship responsibilities (women and/or people of color); members of the group who might be the only person of their identity in the group, or who might take on an allyship role.
The Scapegoat (Problem Child)
The Scapegoat is the child who acts out — who may make the actions of the perpetrator explicit, and express anger and outrage in a variety of ways (what may be called “risky behavior” in psych). The “acting out” may seem unrelated — petty crime, for example — but is the Scapegoat trying to express their pain and the unfairness of their situation.
I think, when we think of The Scapegoat in academia, it’s hard to consider this role without thinking of who thinks The Scapegoat has a problem. Who is considered aggressive, errant, loud, and reckless when talking about inequity and abuse? People who complain quickly become an antagonist in the eyes of the disbelieving majority.
Sara Ahmed writes about being worn down from trying to complain: “We might end up expressing our complaints in less usual ways because of what happens when we make complaints in more usual ways” (Ahmed 2020). I think of ECRs going to Twitter and forming unconventional networks of support across the world, of bearing trauma on social media and in, as Ahmed points out, poetry. ECRs may also “act out” by keeping their work secret or confiding in other mentors, or taking their work with them elsewhere.
Combine this with: where to start? Anyone marked as Other. Think about “Angry Black Lady” or “Cr*zy Disabled Person” or “Cr*zy Woman” tropes; anyone who makes a complaint (cf. Sara Ahmed — e.g. “In The Thick of It”).
The Lost Child
The especially sinister thing about thinking and placing The Lost Child in academia (or society, generally) is that the precarious, the Other, will often be rewarded for silence, and “perseverance” will be lionized. If you don’t “make it,” you disappear; if you do make it, you are proving the rule of meritocracy in violence against your own people, and without your consent.
Take a look at grit — which doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Bettina L. Love writes:
But what if your long-term goal is fighting to live, fighting racism? Is 400 years long enough? You cannot measure this type of grit, nor should you ignore it. African-Americans are resilient and gritty because we have to be to survive, but it is misleading, naive, and dangerous to remove our history on both sides of the water from the conversation about grit.
Charles D. Brown II asks in this phenomenal piece:
Having grit is important, but should Black physicists be required to have much more grit than others? No, we should not.
On the similar concept of resilience, Bee Quammie writes:
There are two big problems with the way society has championed resilience. One is that it helps to maintain oppression by cementing it as normal, expected and unavoidable. Racism? Ableism? Misogyny? Transphobia? The reliance on resilience tells us that these are threaded into the fabric of our society, and there’s nothing we can really do to extract them.
The other problem is that leaning on resilience puts additional pressure on the oppressed. Not only do they experience that dehumanization, but then they’re required to do additional work to build up their armour against it.
Then there is the inverse — the insinuations that achievements are because of your race, or your discomfort is your own fault in lacking grit. Namandjé Bumpus writes in her important piece in Nature:
I have been counselled to “develop a thick skin about these incidents” and told that if I speak up, I will jeopardize my career. Every time I have received a scientific award or grant since my graduate studies, I have been told by members of faculty that my achievements are bestowed on me merely because I am Black.
Combine this with: precarity. First-gen, working class, immigrant/overseas, mature, disabled, and Black/brown people are typically conditioned to put their heads down and “take it” without complaining, shamed about making complaints, just want to get through the experience, or have experienced worse. Disabled people may be exhausted from trying to get their basic needs fulfilled. LGBTQ people feeling isolated and unsafe may turn inwards. Narratives around success are still dehumanizing.
But it’s not just these general tropes — there are a lot of parallels that can be drawn between toxic tactics in research and in the family.
After the 1938 stage play and 1944 film, gaslighting is the process of repeatedly telling or showing someone to be “crazy” until they start to believe it themselves, and even begin to act irrationally. This requires reframing someone as fundamentally irrational.
The perpetrator may lie about you to authority or in public meetings; consistently mistreat you in subtle ways and then deny it or reframe it as seemingly well-meaning, so the bad behavior is “all in your head”; or weaponize witnesses, pointing out that you are irrationally reacting to bad behavior that, in just the one instance, could be seen as well-meaning. An example of the last case is if you have faced a load of microaggressions, or if there is a sore subject over which you have been mistreated by the perpetrator, that doesn’t make sense as bad behavior without the context of this history. Truth is out of your control.
Part of the centring of whiteness in academia is that white faculty members are deemed the arbiters of the existence, validity and impact of racism: racism exists when white people say it does. As a result, racism is often disregarded and excused in academic institutions, at the expense of Black people.
And I particularly like this point from Bridgitte Fielder’s piece on racism in academic institutions:
while the white people of these organizations gaslight their colleagues into believing everything is as it should be — either through their endorsement or through their silence — they have also gaslit themselves into believing this is true. They pretend it is true in order to pretend also that they are less racist than other white people and other predominantly white organizations.
Combine this with: the “Angry Black Lady” or “Cr*zy Disabled Person” or “Cr*zy Woman” tropes — any avenue through which people already paint others as overly aggressive, sensitive, or irrational and pathologize that imagined behavior will be further affected by gaslighting.
The perpetrator knows their audience and how to play it. If they are reported or otherwise get in trouble with authority, they know how to weasel their way out using lies, manipulation, and sweet-talking. They may insist that you are exaggerating, or say that they were generous, kind, and understanding and remain so about your “difficulties.” They may, on the spot, pretend that they offered you extensions or fully agree with you, or invent some complex but seemingly well-meaning excuse for why it appeared that they did what they did. This undermines your credibility.
The Shifting Goalposts TM (a.k.a. extortion)
First, you have to do this menial task to get this basic iota of support that I’m actually obliged to give you, no-questions-asked, based on my job description. Oh, but wait, did you try this? Well, now you have to do this. And this. And contact that person. And email me about this in two weeks. Why didn’t you remind me to do this? It’s all your fault.
Threats and retribution
Some tactics are more explicitly abusive than others. Perpetrators may withhold things like letters of recommendation until you perform a task. They may threaten you if you report them. They may threaten to withdraw certain types of support. They may be physically aggressive. They may throw tantrums that they quickly snap out of and pretend didn’t happen, all because you defended yourself.
That was actually my idea
Plagiarizing your work, theft/scooping your ideas, disappearing your contributions. The perpetrator may avoid referring to your work, including your successes, when speaking or presenting to others. The perpetrator might have a grant proposal that sounds a lot like your female colleague’s. The perpetrator might team up with an enabler and publish your work.
Disabled students know this one well — being volleyed between different people with authority (like professors and a disability office, each one telling you to consult the other about accommodations), and slowly realizing that no one wants to take the responsibility of making changes for your benefit. Enablers may do this; they may tell you to consult someone about reporting the perpetrator, and that person may continue to pass you along. This might not be anyone’s fault, but the mire of academic hierarchies means that you often don’t see the end of this maze.
The perpetrator may also volley you between enablers or other mentors when you have research questions, generating “side quests” on a whim — for their own benefit, or out of incompetence (thinking that you will benefit as a researcher), or because they don’t want to deal with you right now.
Rewards: The perpetrator may give you well-timed rewards — compliments, praise, opportunities, gigs, nominations. This may be out of sincere kindness, or guilt; it may also be a method to manipulate. Take, for example, praising your work in front of others; what happens if you try to report this perpetrator to those same people? Opportunities, like being named on grants, may also be a means to get cheap labor out of you or take credit for your work. And if the perpetrator is behaving so nicely this week, are you just imagining the rest?
Sauron’s eye: Is the eye on you? The perpetrator may rotate the target of their ire, laying into someone for weeks or months but giving else a break. A “reward” could therefore be the relief when you’re not the target. This could be an opportunity, though, for building resentment between you and your colleagues, or, again, to make all of you feel that sometimes it isn’t so bad.
One aspect of C-PTSD is hypervigilance — the ever-constant wariness of drawing the ire of an abuser or other person of authority. You may find yourself engaging in behaviors, like avoiding meetings or social gatherings (Clancy et al. 2017 report that nearly 1/5 of women of color in planetary science avoid certain professional spaces due to harassment), to avoid the gaze, or laughing with and saying kind things to the perpetrator to mollify them.
Dividing and conquering
Unity and solidarity endangers toxic bosses, supervisors, institutions; a perpetrator may use lies and blame to pit you against your colleagues. They may take advantage of physical distance between you — different offices, buildings, sites — knowing that you won’t consult each other to check facts. They may also take advantage of your relationship with junior “mentors” (such as enablers) and exacerbate that relationship — having you lean on mentors who don’t have the time or shouldn’t have that responsibility, and who may come to resent you for your neediness or further suffer in their own work.
Combine this with: There are many examples — like taking advantage of complex race/gender relations and hierarchies or even secondary perpetrators in your group/institution. Have a lot of international researchers who may have trouble communicating together in a common language? Are most of your colleagues homophobic or wouldn’t believe or understand you even if you tried to disclose what you’ve experienced?
After all of this, aren’t you tired? And what modes of replenishment do you have? Ahmed writes on “feeling depleted”:
The relations we develop to restore, to replete, are world making. With each other we find ways of becoming re-energised in the face of the ongoing reality of what causes our sense of depletion (I am willing to use the language of causality here, causality as contact zone). We can recognize each other, find each other, create spaces of relief, spaces that might be breathing spaces, spaces in which we can be inventive.
So what next?
These roles and dynamics are not unique to families, and the likely reason is that societal hierarchies of power and control — patriarchy, white supremacy — combined with institutional hierarchies — universities — will always give us problems with abuse. Institutional hierarchies will always accelerate the power relations that exist in broader society, and have been built within those power relations and are protected because of those power relations; when it comes to harassment, Ahmed writes that “Hierarchies can make handling harassment hard, which is how hierarchies enable harassment” (Ahmed 2020).
Anytime you have a highly competitive system in which a single person has the power to make or break someone else’s career — whether it’s the crowded, greasy pole of Hollywood or a flooded Ph.D. pipeline — you will have abuse.
Ahmed, S. “Complaint and survival,” March 23, 2020. Feminist Killjoys. https://feministkilljoys.com/2020/03/23/complaint-and-survival/
Ahmed, S. “In the thick of it,” March 20, 2020. Feminist Killjoys. https://feministkilljoys.com/2020/03/20/in-the-thick-of-it/
Ahmed, S. “In the thick of it,” Nov. 17, 2013. Feminist Killjoys. https://feministkilljoys.com/2013/11/17/feeling-depleted/
Amienne, K.A., “Abusers and Enablers in Faculty Culture,” Nov. 2, 2017. The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/abusers-and-enablers-in-faculty-culture/
Brown II, Charles D., “Commentary: Disentangling anti-Blackness from physics,” July 20, 2020. Physics Today. https://physicstoday.scitation.org/do/10.1063/PT.6.3.20200720a/full/
Bumpus, N. Too many senior white academics still resist recognizing racism, Nature 583, 661 (2020).
Fielder, B., “Your Predominantly White Academic Organization (Yes, Even Yours) Is Exactly One Live-Tweeted Racist Event Away from Public Disgrace,” July 22, 2020, Avidly, The Los Angeles Review of Books. http://avidly.lareviewofbooks.org/2020/07/22/your-predominantly-white-academic-organization-yes-even-yours-is-exactly-one-live-tweeted-racist-event-away-from-public-disgrace/
Hussain, K. and Buzbee, E., “Aiming to bridge resource gap for students of color, minority faculty shoulder unofficial advising roles,” Feb. 15, 2018. Columbia Daily Spectator. https://www.columbiaspectator.com/news/2018/02/15/aiming-to-bridge-resource-gap-for-students-of-color-minority-faculty-shoulder-unofficial-advising-roles/
Love, B.L., “‘Grit Is in Our DNA’: Why Teaching Grit Is Inherently Anti-Black,” February 12, 2019. Education Week. https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2019/02/13/grit-is-in-our-dna-why-teaching.html
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