Stop using “silverback” to describe scientists. It’s sexist.


Some people have taken to referring to influential senior scientists as “silverbacks.”

This practice should stop.

I’m writing this at a scientific conference, and I’ve heard it several times in independent contexts, in a non-ironic use. I also heard this term at the last three conferences I’ve attended in the last few years by both European and North American researchers. I’ve learned that at least one university has a lecture series called the “silverback” sessions.

I don’t know the specific origin of the term, or when it emerged as a regular term of use. Regardless, I don’t like it.

For those unaware of the behavioral ecology of non-human apes, a “silverback” is an older, large-bodied and behaviorally dominant male gorilla, characterized by silver fur on its back. With respect to at least certain aspects of a social group of gorillas, silverbacks are in charge. Their dominant status emerges from their age, size, interactions with others, experience and ability to advance in the social network of their group.

What’s the problem with the use of the term “silverback?” I don’t have a problem with the practice of using analogies from the behavior of other species to be applied to our own, as long as they’re appropriate.

Labeling influential senior scientists as “silverbacks” is a bad idea for one big reason:

It is sexist.

Female gorillas are never silverbacks. By using the term “silverback” to as a synonym for “influential senior scientist,” one is implying that women are not, or cannot become, influential senior scientists.

This objection isn’t about political correctness. It’s about recognizing the influential women in our midst, and showing respect for them. (Most people with issues about so-called political correctness are those who have trouble showing respect for others.)

What can we do? Join me in calling out the sexism of this word when it gets used. If you hear it in conversation, perhaps you could mention that you don’t think it’s a good use of the term because it excludes women?

(Most of my contemporary scientific heroes are women, after all.)

I’m a less-influential not-that-senior scientist, so I’m not in the best position to bring this issue to the forefront. Maybe we can bring this up with some big-time men and women to take up this issue?

Have you heard this term or is it a new one to you? Any additional observations, ideas, or suggestions?

16 thoughts on “Stop using “silverback” to describe scientists. It’s sexist.

  1. I think Silverback is a term for the behavior of “influential” (read aggresive, pushy) male scientists, short hand for “horse’s ass”.

    • There are a few other commenters who also have said that they’ve typically heard the term used as an insult or a negative dig at bad behavior. I think I heard it that way a while ago, but in my recent observations use seems to have evolved.

      When I first heard it as a non-insult but a mere recognition of status, I was surprised, and and am even more surprised to see it stick. I remember the first time I heard it used that way was just under two years ago.

  2. In addition to being sexist, “older, large-bodied and behaviorally dominant male,” does not accurately describe a majority of the male scientists I have ever interacted with, older or younger. In terms of their actual physical size ,and using an over-generalized interpretation of physical dominance, (if we take this in the literal sense and are using behavioral ecology or evolutionary terminology), I would think many of them would fit more comfortably into the “sneaker” male category rather than the “silverback” category, actually.

  3. I agree, except for this troubling line: “Women gorillas are never silverbacks. ”
    Women cannot be gorillas. Men can’t either, really. They can only dress like them sometimes.

  4. And while we’re at it, I would also like it if people stopped using the acronym BSD (“big swinging dicks”) to describe senior scientists, for much the same reasons.

    • Silly me. I thought it meant Big Science Dudes. And I grew up with a foot in surfer culture, so dude can be female. So naive.

      I use silverback in a very specific circumstances and for somewhat feminist reasons. I use it only to refer to males of a certain age, with a certain, well, top gorilla demeanor. It’s not a compliment.

  5. Although I take your point regarding its sexist overtones, Terry, I agree with Anonymous Consultant that I’ve always seen the term silverback as referring to a particular type of character, who is over-bearing, arrogant, and full of their own self importance, rather than to senior male scientists generally. Certainly that’s the way I’ve traditionally seen it used. If the usage is changing then that needs to be resisted. Regards, Jeff (48, with more than a little grey in his hair!)

  6. Thanks for this post! I’ve also been noticing with a mix of fascination and horror that terms “silverback,” “greybeard,” and similar epithets have shifted from being pejoratives, criticizing outmoded attitudes and lack of diversity, to being expressions of outright respect. It’s weird!

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