How to make science safer for women

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Story highlights

  • Renowned astronomer Geoff Marcy resigns post amid sexual harassment scandal
  • The news prompts the field to reflect on attitudes toward serial harassers
  • "Our job is to make astronomy feel safe for victims of harassment," Astronomy Allies co-founder says

(CNN)It's a lesson most female astronomers learn at some point in their careers when they face unwanted sexual behavior from professors, advisers or anyone who holds their future in their hands.

Put your head down and don't say anything. Focus on the science.
Katey Alatalo heard it as a graduate student at University of California, Berkeley, where colleagues warned of certain professors and senior scientists you did not want to be alone with "behind closed doors."
    Heather Flewelling was warned that reporting sexual harassment by a superior could work against her. After all, "these are the same people you might need a recommendation from" one day.
    But when someone started stalking Flewelling at a conference, she found it impossible to ignore.
    "I was terrified, and I reported it because I didn't feel safe at the conference," she said. "If I didn't get it fixed, I wouldn't go to another conference."
    To help puncture the "culture of silence" in the field, Alatalo and Flewelling formed Astronomy Allies, a support group for astronomers who experience sexual harassment. Attendees who feel they are being bothered by other event participants can reach vetted allies by phone, text or email. Outside conferences, allies field queries, point out resources or simply listen when the harassed need someone to confide in.
    As relative newcomers to their field with little power or influence, Alatalo and Flewelling see Astronomy Allies as an "impeachable" way for them to make an impact.
    "Our job is to make astronomy feel safe for victims of harassment," Alatalo said. "Of course, we need to punish the harassers, but we're junior scientists -- we cannot punish them; we're not in a position of power to do that."

    Turning a moment into a movement

    How the field treats harassers came under scrutiny in October in a scandal involving one of its leading experts. An investigation by the University of California, Berkeley, found that renowned astronomy professor Geoff Marcy repeatedly violated campus sexual harassment policies, based on complaints from four women between 2001 and 2010.
    Such investigations are conducted in secret to protect the privacy of those involved. When Buzzfeed broke the story, it was the first the university community had heard of the allegations.
    The investigation focused on four complainants who accused Marcy of repeatedly engaging in inappropriate physical behavior with students, including unwanted massages, kisses and groping.
    One, who studied astronomy as a graduate student, alleged she was at a post-colloquium dinner with her graduate department at the University of Hawaii when Marcy placed his hand on her leg, slid his hand up her thigh and grabbed her crotch, according to the Buzzfeed report. Marcy called the accusation false and absurd, according to investigative documents obtained by Buzzfeed.
    Another complainant said she saw Marcy get "inappropriately touchy" with an undergraduate one evening during the American Astronomical Society's 2010 meeting in Washington.
    In a letter to the campus community, Chancellor Nicholas B. Dirks and Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Claude Steele said they did not have the authority under University of California policy to terminate Marcy without a "lengthy and uncertain" disciplinary process. Instead, they said they sought to impose sanctions that would protect students from recurring harassment from Marcy by agreeing with him on new behavioral standards.
    Marcy apologized for his behavior in an open letter to the astronomy community but denied some of the allegations.
    "While I do not agree with each complaint that was made, it is clear that my behavior was unwelcomed by some women. I take full responsibility and hold myself completely accountable for my actions and the impact they had. For that and to the women affected, I sincerely apologize," he wrote.
    Alatalo did not experience harassment from Marcy as a Berkeley graduate student, but the news did not surprise her. Still, she braced for the "apologists" to come out in his defense.
    Instead, she was shocked by the widespread outrage over the university's resolution, which some said added insult to injury. Marcy resigned days later, on October 14, from the faculty and from his position as principal investigator of the $100 million Breakthrough Listen project.
    The Berkeley shakeup inspired an online petition calling on Congress to enact a national sexual misconduct policy for faculty members, citing Marcy's case as further evidence of a culture of predatory behavior that prevails on college campuses.
    An open letter from Berkeley's undergraduate astronomy community accused the administration of a "lack of transparency and inadequate actions," which implied that Marcy's behavior was "tolerable on our campus."
    In an open letter to The New York Times, 276 astronomers and physicists representing institutions nationwide accused the newspaper of portraying Marcy too sympathetically in an October 11 article about his apology, despite evidence he "abused his position of power, betrayed his responsibilities as an educator, and sexually harassed students."
    For the co-founders of Astronomy Allies, these are all signs the scientific community might be ready to finally acknowledge a sexual harassment problem and do something about it.
    "We're trying to turn this moment into a movement to improve the situation for junior scientists," Alatalo said. "We're too junior in the field to punish anybody, but we can tell people how to empower victims."
    Astronomy Allies is barely one year old, but already it's earning key endorsements. Meg Urry, president of the American Astronomical Society, cited the group as a positive force in a field that seems to "lack the instinct to protect students from harassment by faculty."
    The group made its debut at the 2015 American Astronomical Society conference, its members wearing red buttons to make their presence known. Participants who feel they are being bothered by others could reach allies via text, email or phone to request subtle interventions. They also offered walks home from unofficial parties, giving participants a safe out from potentially uncomfortable situations.
    They received positive feedback, Alatalo said. Her favorite comment came from a senior scientist who said it was the first conference he could remember at which his students did not come to him with complaints of harassment.
    People continue to reach out to the allies with concerns from their schools. There's also been talk of implementing similar support programs in astronomy departments across the country.
    Harassment isn't simply a problem for women. The goal for the 2016 AAS conference is to extend the Allies' services to minorities and the LGBT community, Flewelling said.
    "Different people experience harassment in different ways," she said. "We're trying to find the people who can help us to help others, not just women."

    Self-preservation ahead of student safety

    Harassment is not just a problem in astronomy. The hierarchical structure of both the scientific community and academia creates a power dynamic ripe for exploitation. Advisers hold sway over grant money and important data that can change a student's thesis; postdoctoral fellows rely on letters of recommendation to progress in their careers.
    "The power dynamic leads junior scholars to feel afraid or unable to speak up for themselves," said Christina Richey, chairwoman of the AAS Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy. "One of the major forces in many cases of harassment is a power balance in favor of the harasser. Early career scientists are vulnerable to more senior men and women who mix professional mentoring with personal attention."
    In her 30-year career, Urry has watched the culture shift to the point where relationships between faculty and students are generally frowned upon and, at some institutions, explicitly prohibited. Policies and laws that protect students and junior scientists from harassment from superiors are on the books.
    But, as the Marcy case shows, "Institutions appear to be more worried about self-preservation than about their most vulnerable members," she said.
    "It's understandable from a financial standpoint, frankly, but when we don't see notorious harassers being fired or suffering any adverse consequences, we are less confident that complaints will be heard and adjudicated fairly. Then there are fewer complaints and less enforcement."
    Marcy's case has broad implications because of his profile as the most prominent American astronomer in his discipline of exoplanets. He has been mentioned as a possible Nobel Prize winner and has received some of the field's most prestigious awards.
    "A major national STEM objective is to increase the participation of women," said David Charbonneau, a professor of astronomy at Harvard University, referring to the effort to attract more women scholars to science, math and other male-dominated fields. "When one of the most prominent scientists repeatedly commits sexual harassment, it threatens this national objective."
    In response to the Marcy case, the American Astronomical Society emphasized its code of ethics, which reminds supervisors of their responsibility to provide "safe, supportive work environments" for subordinates.
    In light of the Marcy case, the AAS hopes to install a new set of procedures that would guide investigations and possible "serious" sanctions against alleged offenders.
    "In my view, that is what it would take to move the needle: severe and visible consequences for violating policies on harassment," Urry said. "And they do have to be visible."