Other scientific societies may want to follow suit. And, indeed, the American Geophysical Union held a session at its December conference in San Francisco called “Forward-Focused Ethics: What is the Role of Scientific Societies in Responding to Harassment and Other Workplace Climate Issues?” The session, which was unofficially a response to the Marcy case, discussed how the societies themselves can make science a better, safer, more fun, more productive, less creepy place for everyone. With the number of highly publicized harassment and discrimination problems in the past few years, it will not be surprising if more societies follow suit with active reforms and community-wide discussions.
For its part, the AAS—the professional society for American astronomers and publisher of four astronomical journals—plans to make members acknowledge that they have seen and will obey the new ethics code and understand that “sanctions” will come their way if they don’t. Anyone attending AAS meetings will have to do the same, for the code and the anti-harassment policy. They plan to increase their education and training (although no specifics were given) and maintain a list of resources for both those wondering how not to harass someone and those who feel they are being harassed.
These efforts are steps in the right direction. But lots of people signed elaborate, detailed honor codes and still cheated their way through college. What does it actually take to create a culture where harassment—verbal, physical, subtle, interpretable, blatant, brazen—isn’t tolerated? Because astronomers, and everyone else, deserve a world where it can’t continue as an “open secret,” as many astronomers say Marcy’s behavior was, for decades while the perpetrator climbs their way to gushing profiles in the New York Times?
Many say that victim reporting is the key. If the harassed don’t talk, the harassers can’t be investigated or punished. “Brave people have to come forward and complain with the clear expectation that it’s going to affect their career,” Urry told me. “It’s hard and risky for those victims, but unless there is a complaint, the behavior continues.” Although nearly all anti-harassment policies have “no retaliation” clauses—meaning that neither the accused nor anyone else can retaliate against the person who makes an accusation—retaliation can still take place. Just as subtle harassment is hard to “prove,” subtle or subjective retaliation is, too. And it can affect not just the complainant’s career but also their self-perception. Did that person write a mediocre letter of recommendation for me because I took down the department’s much-beloved senior scientist? Or because I’m mediocre?
Some organizations, like the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, have ombudsman programs, designated safe-space people who can help with reporting complaints. National Optical Astronomy Observatory employees can call a professional “whistleblower”-type hotline to file a complaint. And the AAS meeting was populated by people wearing Astronomy Allies buttons, which signify that the wearer is willing to listen, confidentially and judgment-free, and to help with navigating the complaint-filing process.