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?