KISSIMMEE, Fla.—Frustrated astronomers gathered at the discipline’s largest meeting of the year on Tuesday to discuss the problem of sexual harassment in the field—an issue that came to stark prominence in October when University of California, Berkeley, planet hunter Geoff Marcy was found to have violated the university’s sexual harassment policies in interactions with several women. Scientists and leaders in the community spoke here at the 227th Meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) about the prevalence of harassment and discrimination and the need to support women and minorities in astronomy. But whether good intentions and current efforts are enough to make significant change remains to be seen.
Christina Richey, chair of the AAS Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy, presented sobering statistics from a survey the committee conducted recently on workplace climate. Although she cautioned that the results were preliminary and came from a relatively small sample of self-selected respondents (426 scientists who chose to take the survey via social media and astronomy newsletters), the findings painted a harsh picture of fairly widespread harassment. Eighty-two percent of respondents said they had heard sexist remarks from their peers, 57 percent said they had been verbally harassed because of their gender and 9 percent reported physical harassment due to their gender. Race or ethnicity and religion were also common reasons for harassment, respondents reported. Richey pointed out that the hierarchical nature of fields like astronomy, in which junior researchers depend on more senior scientists for opportunities and recommendations, and in which work often takes place in nontraditional settings such as conferences and remote observatories, creates more opportunities for bad behavior.
After spending 10 years of advocating against harassment in science, Richey said it was both heartening and frustrating that many in the field were finally waking up to the scope of the issue now. “For me to hear that it’s time to make change—I totally agree but I’m a little bit sad and tired,” she said. “I love that so many people are here right now. I really hope and challenge everyone in this room to embrace that and try to move forward. Let’s actually make change. Let’s freaking do it already.”
Jim Ulvestad, director of the National Science Foundation’s Division of Astronomical Sciences, spoke about the agency’s sexual harassment policies, pointing out that all scientists and institutions who receive research funding from the NSF and other federal agencies are required to conform with laws such as Title IX and the Civil Rights Act that require equal opportunities based on gender and race.
Some in the audience, however, charged that these existing policies were not enough—they have been in place, after all, for decades while harassment still goes on. Hunter College astronomer Kelle Cruz asked why the low numbers of women and minorities in the field did not already violate those laws—just 19 percent of astronomy faculty in 2010 were women and 3 percent in 2012 were African-American or Hispanic. “That’s way beyond my area of expertise,” Ulvestad responded. AAS president Meg Urry of Yale University said the statistics proved the extent of the problem. “I think we’ve made a lot of progress but we’ve got a long way to go.”
Too many researchers are apt to support colleagues accused of harassment by defending their work and pointing out the loss to the field if the accused were to lose their jobs, Urry said. “I would like to have people think about what we’ve lost in science because of the students who’ve been pushed out of the field. It’s an extraordinary amount of damage, far more than the individual who did the damage.”
Scientists discussed strategies for combating harassment such as making the process of reporting incidents easier, and a new program called Astronomy Allies that identifies scientists willing to assist victims of harassment at conferences. But researchers also admitted a difficult and significant cultural change is necessary to really end harassment in the field. “There is a problem, we all know it’s there, and we need to wake up to it,” said David Silva, director of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory. “I do think the solution from the [AAS] society and us working as individuals is to really focus on how do we give our students a better environment where they can thrive and grow?”