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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

Sexual Harassment in the Scientific Community

By Phil Plait

The astronomical community was rocked recently, when, on Oct.9, BuzzFeed broke the story that a UC–Berkeley investigation found that Geoff Marcy, an accomplished and famous astronomer who is a leader in the field of detecting exoplanets, violated university policy by sexually harassing women serially for a decade.

I’m still sorting out the emotions I’m feeling from this, and I can’t even imagine what my female colleagues are going through, though reading their posts on Twitter, blogs, and other media shows pretty clearly just how angry and betrayed many feel.

A lot of events have transpired in the past few days. I couldn’t possibly describe them all, so here are some highlights:

After the scandal news broke, follow-up events came very quickly. The university initially didn’t make any public announcement about it; incredibly some faculty at Berkeley found out by reading the BuzzFeed article. Marcy posted an apology of sorts, which was quickly dissected by many online and found to be severely wanting (saying, for example, he wasn’t aware of the damage he was causing, despite having claims against him going back many years).

At this point the interim chairman of the astronomy department at Berkeley sent out an email asking others in the department to “support” Marcy, saying “this is hardest for Geoff.” Needless to say, this was not taken well by a large number of people who wondered why the victims of the harassment weren’t even mentioned, and why people should sympathize with the perpetrator.

(At this point I’ll note for full disclosure that, like many astronomers, I casually know both Marcy and Gibor Basri (the interim chairman) and have worked with both on outreach projects in the past.)

Berkeley’s response was seen as lame; they basically chastised him and told him they would have zero tolerance for another incident. This understandably caused more outrage—it was seen as no punishment at all. A New York Times article was published that was sympathetic to Marcy, quoting his wife, who said he was being tried in the “court of hysterical public opinion.” In response, more than 200 astronomers sent an open letter to the Times chastising them strongly for the article. The Times’ public editor, Margaret Sullivan, responded, essentially agreeing that the article had many problems.

Calls to action came next. Berkeley faculty (including Basri), postdocs, and grad students issued separate statements, calling for the department to at least distance themselves from Marcy, if not outright dismiss him.

Finally, on Wednesday, Marcy resigned from the university, and the university issued a statement about it. It’s worth reading that last link; in some ways the university’s hands were tied when it came to taking action.

A lot of people have written about this, including, as you’d expect, many women. My friend and astronomer Meg Urry is the president of the American Astronomical Society, the largest professional society of astronomers in the U.S. She wrote two terrific pieces about this. The first is an article for Scientific American with advice for how to help end this kind of harassment. The other (in her role as president of the AAS) is an excellent statement about what the AAS will do about such cases in the future; she has appointed a task force to revise the society’s code of ethics specific to harassment, including adopting procedures for what action to take if a member violates the code.

More articles can be found easily. Astronomer John Asher Johnson wrote a very personal piece—he worked with Marcy for years. My friend Amanda Bauer wrote about her personal experiences with harassment (NSFW language there), another friend Nicole Gugliucci posted on Skepchick about this, and yet another friend, Pamela Gay, wrote a touching piece about how, hopefully, this has opened eyes and may help create a world where we support each other more.

The steps that need to be taken to minimize and (hopefully) eliminate this sort of behavior are not simple or easy. On the contrary, these are very big, very difficult endeavors.

However, if we do nothing, then nothing changes.

Bear in mind: If this is fixable, it'll take a long time to fix, and it'll involve a societal change in the power imbalance between the sexes. The very first step is to acknowledge that this is happening, and it’s happening everywhere. It’s not just astronomy, it’s not just science, it’s everywhere. If anything good can be found in any of this, I hope it’s that realization comes to people who still don’t see it.

I didn’t see it, not for a long time, and the realization came pretty slowly. I can thank a long list of (patient) women for helping me understand it.

A big part of that was just hearing what women were saying about their experiences. More men need to listen, actually and truly listen, to what they are saying. We also need to be more aware of what we’re doing, even if it seems mild. And certainly there must be a stop to the vitriol and hatred that grows from the seeds of misogyny.

And I’ll add that we also need to understand that this is more than just about men and women, or sex. It’s about prejudice. It’s about race. It’s about all the ways we “other” groups of people. AstroBetter has a page with excellent links to help professional astronomers—really anyone—better understand diversity and equity.

Even then, this is all just a first step, not a complete answer. But it’s a necessary first step. Compassion, empathy, releasing prejudices—these and so much more are needed pieces of this.

Don’t expect huge changes overnight from this news about Marcy, even in specific cases like UC–Berkeley. But maybe it’s a single drop that starts a bigger flow.

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