What astronomy can do about sexual harassment

Story highlights

  • Last fall, the world of astronomy was rocked by a major sexual harassment scandal
  • Meg Urry: In some ways, this bad news about astronomy is really good news

Meg Urry is president of the American Astronomical Society and the Israel Munson professor of physics and astronomy at Yale University. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Last fall, the world of astronomy was rocked by a major sexual harassment scandal. A professor retired early because a Title IX investigation concluded he had sexually harassed students.

Last week, at its annual winter conference, the American Astronomical Society held a well-attended plenary session to address harassment and next steps.
    To an outsider, the many articles about the incident might make astronomy seem like a bad place for women. But having worked in physics and astronomy for some 40 years, I see this bad news about astronomy as really good news.
    Meg Urry
    It's kind of like a mosquito buzzing around in the summer: They don't bite until they stop buzzing, so it's the lack of noise that signals danger.
    When I was starting out in science, no one talked about this stuff. It was not uncommon for professors and teaching assistants to date or even marry their students. (It isn't all senior men with junior women, but survey data shows that's the usual case.)
    While many astronomer couples have been happy and productive for decades, romances also fail, which usually meant women left astronomy.
    Results from a recent AAS survey were reported at the last week's plenary session on harassment, defined as unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability or genetic information. Some 82% of astronomers have heard sexist remarks from their peers; 44% heard sexist remarks from supervisors; 9% experienced physical harassment from peers or supervisors.
    The AAS is taking steps to solve the problem of harassment in astronomy. It helps that there are many women astronomers these days. Half the AAS officers and councilors are women. Women are nearing parity at conferences and in plenary talks (though this refers mainly to white women; women of color and gender minorities have not yet made similar progress).
    A sign at the American Astronomical Society's winter conference.
    Male astronomers are also outspoken supporters of women in astronomy.
    The AAS anti-harassment policy defines a path for reporting, investigation and sanctions. At the registration desk last week, a prominent sign stated, "If it's unwelcome, it's harassment."
    A grassroots "Astronomy Allies" effort at AAS conferences provides support to women who report unwelcome attention of any kind.
    While the AAS is mainly about science rather than social justice, we don't hesitate to tackle these difficult issues. The organization is working to improve the astronomy profession to be more inclusive by getting rid of filters that don't select for merit and changing practices that exclude some of the best and brightest. It is also trying to educate people about professional challenges for minorities and suggest ways for improvement.
    As the "Bad Astronomer" Phil Plait said, the first step toward making things better "is to acknowledge that [harassment] is happening, and it's happening everywhere. It's not just astronomy, it's not just science, it's everywhere."
    Will there be more bad news in the coming year? Probably.
    Even though the vast majority of astronomers are not serial harassers, we know the number of bad actors isn't zero. And even one is one too many.