Last week news broke that astronomer Geoff Marcy had sexually harassed students, according to a Title IX investigation by his institution, the University of California, Berkeley. Last month the Association of American Universities reported an alarmingly high number of students experiencing sexual assault on college campuses. Last year a study found that a majority of graduate students and postdocs doing fieldwork in anthropology and archaeology reported being harassed.
As a professional astronomer, I have seen this behavior push women out of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). I am angry that so many bright, ambitious, eager young scientists have had their dreams crushed, and I am sad that the world will not benefit from the discoveries and innovations those women (and it is most often women who are targeted) would have given us.
Here is a typical example of sexual harassment: A woman attending a scientific conference explains her research to colleagues with similar interests. A male scientist, usually more senior, pays a lot of attention to her and she is thrilled at this expression of interest in her work by an accomplished senior colleague. But then it starts getting creepy. Maybe there are flirtatious remarks, invitations to private meetings, perhaps a discussion that for some reason needs to happen in his hotel room or there is mention of his sex life or how his wife is inadequate in one way or another.
She spends the rest of the conference avoiding this man. Her attention is not on science, it’s on surviving the encounter. Needless to say, she doesn’t spend time talking to other senior astronomers in her field—most of whom are men—she doesn’t network much, and she thinks twice about attending a meeting like that next time.
Ask yourself, would she have dated this guy if they met in a bar and she had no knowledge of his professional stature? And the next time a colleague asks about her work, is she wondering whether he’s really interested in something else? Is it any wonder women don’t always act as if they are confident in their work? It might be because they get a lot of feedback that it’s not as important as their appearance or their sexual availability. How many women decide not to put up with this nonsense and leave STEM?
I have been a scientist for over 30 years. In that time I have seen professors have affairs with students, sometimes marrying them, other times dumping them (or being dumped) and moving on, usually with no consequences. The women are almost always younger, the men almost always leveraging their academic authority to make the social connection—and the women are far more likely to leave the field. Twenty years ago, people would say, “We shouldn’t interfere in people’s private lives.” Nowadays most institutions rightly have policies that recognize the power imbalance in these relationships. Professors should be forbidden from dating any undergraduate, full stop. Good policies concerning graduate students and postdocs reflect the growing maturity of young people but still aim to protect their careers from retaliation if things don’t work out. In particular, the relationships have to be acknowledged publicly. No dating on the sly and then, after a breakup, saying that her work “just wasn't that good.”
Institutions like universities and scientific societies also need to have well-defined processes in place for reacting to complaints and evidence of sexual misconduct. Consequences should be clear well ahead of a crisis. At my institution, Yale University, faculty and students receive semiannual reports of complaints and outcomes, stripped of names and identifiable features but indicating the positions of the complainants and respondents. This goes a long way toward informing the broader community about standards and consequences.
As president of the American Astronomical Society (AAS), I am responsible for ensuring that participants in AAS activities follow our antiharassment policy, which states that “the AAS must provide an environment that encourages the free expression and exchange of scientific ideas.” In addition, our Code of Ethics requires that “All people encountered in one’s professional life should be treated with respect” and furthermore that “More-senior members of the profession, especially research supervisors, have a special responsibility to facilitate the research, educational and professional development of students and subordinates.”
I applaud a group of young astronomers who have created a program called “Astronomy Allies” to provide support at AAS conferences. Vetted allies are available by phone, text or e-mail to any participant who feels they are being bothered by another participant. The interventions can be subtle or up-front, but the target gets support and breaks free of the problem.
It is also important for men, particularly senior scientists, to speak out on the issue of sexual harassment. Quite a few have. At Yale, the chair of the Astronomy Department, Pieter van Dokkum, circulated an e-mail in response to the Marcy case that said, in part, “We must face up to the reality that predatory behavior is widespread [and] we must all be on the lookout for signs.” I completely agree.
Ultimately all members of our community need to work together to make our field more equitable and welcoming to women. The culture of astronomy departments should favor the well-being of students as much or more than faculty. Every allegation of sexual misconduct should be investigated, not shunted aside. Consequences for harassers must be serious and consistently applied. And it is vital that we support women who do have the courage to speak up, who risk retaliation in the worst case and who often suffer disbelief or dismissal. The solicitations, slights and stress that are all too familiar to many women astronomers don’t need to be an everyday part of life for the next generation of scientists.
I and my colleagues are incredibly fortunate to be astrophysicists today, in the middle of a revolutionary period in physics and astronomy. Between the recent discovery and study of dark energy, the major constituent of the universe; our modern ability to watch the growth of supermassive black holes in distant galaxies; the characterization of the dark matter that binds galaxies and clusters of galaxies together that is taking place and much more—we are so privileged to live and work in this age. The wonder of astronomy excites people all over the world—that’s why the White House is holding a star party on Monday, October 19. So let us recognize our profound responsibility to educate and mentor the next generation of scientists, and to treat all of our colleagues with respect regardless of position in the hierarchy. I know we can do this.
Meg Urry is director of the Yale Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics and president of the American Astronomical Society. Her research focuses on active black holes and their interactions with galaxies.