Astronomers Are Finally Doing Something About Sexual Harassment

Recent scandals have forced the field to confront a pervasive culture of gender discrimination and abuse.

David Gray / Reuters

“If it’s unwanted, it’s harassment,” proclaim signs around the American Astronomical Society’s (AAS) 227th conference, held this week in Kissimmee, Florida. The signs and a Tuesday town-hall meeting entitled “Harassment in the Astronomical Sciences” represent a response to a scandal that rocked the field this past fall.

In October, BuzzFeed revealed that famed planet-hunter Geoff Marcy had violated Title IX sexual-harassment policies at the University of California, Berkeley, with the accusations against him spanning nine years. Soon after the initial report, three women who had worked with him during his previous post at San Francisco State University came forward, suggesting that his serial harassment of junior female colleagues had gone on for decades. This all went down in public view, with much media attention, pushing the astronomy community to reckon publicly with the dangerous and depressing power plays that go on within its ranks.

This week’s all-AAS town hall was the first since Marcygate. Hundreds of members attended the meeting, which was intended to address sexual harassment, with a view toward fixing the culture in astronomy, but also science more broadly, and society at large. It was an ambitious goal for a town hall, but astronomers like to dream big.

“The current most-used system to protect those being harassed—the whisper culture—isn’t working,” said panelist Christina Richey, the Chair of the Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy, referring to the purported rumor mill that warns young women away from certain scientists. “That doesn’t help each and every person you don’t give that whisper warning to,” she continued. “And it doesn’t help the person being harassed.”

The committee that Richey chairs did a survey, whose results will be published this spring, to investigate the extent of harassment in astronomy and the extent of the harm done. Of 426 participants (about six percent of the total society membership), 285 of whom identified as female, 82 percent had heard sexist remarks from peers in a workplace environment during the past five years, and 44 percent had heard such remarks from a supervisor. Fifty-seven percent said that they had been verbally harassed because of their gender, while nine percent said they had been physically harassed. “This is an alarming trend,” said Richey. “This is not an issue we’re seeing with one or two people.”

C. Megan Urry, the AAS president and the panel’s moderator, began her work in astronomy in an era when sexual harassment was more accepted, and wasn’t even really called sexual harassment. She had thought that harassment was on the decline, as women grew in number and power within the scientific community. It may be true that fewer butts are being slapped and fewer professors publicly date their students, but harassment remains—it’s just gone more underground and perhaps become more sophisticated.

“It’s a slow creep,” Urry told me, last December. “It’s rare to have a faculty member come up and say, ‘Want to have an affair?’ They say, ‘Let’s have coffee. Let’s start talking about our personal lives.’ And it’s so gradual that by the time you realize what’s going on, you have acquired a bit of guilt. ‘I let it happen. I agreed to do this. How did I get here?’”

The AAS has an anti-harassment policy in effect at their meeting. Established in 2008, the policy outlines inappropriate behavior, provides a mechanism for people to report violations, gives the rundown of an investigation’s course, and gives the AAS authority to discipline anyone behaving badly. The society also has an ethics statement, written in 2010, that applies to its members. In the aftermath of the Marcy scandal, and in an attempt to seize this moment of reckoning and use it for progress, Urry created an Ethics Task Force to revise the code. The team used the Code of Ethics Collection at the Illinois Institute of Technology and adopted elements of codes from the American Sociological Association, the American Physical Society, the American Institute of Physics, and others, and modified them to apply to the astronomical community.

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.

If enough potential harassers believe that enough of the people they see as potential prey will recognize their behavior as harassment, and report it, they may be too afraid to behave badly. Or they may realize the error of their ways and reform themselves in light of the public shift in culture.

To lessen the burden on any one victim, astronomer Mordecai-Mark Mac Low of the American Museum of Natural History has advocated for an “information escrow” system of reporting: A victim registers a detailed accusation with an “escrow agent,” who keeps it in confidence. The agent collects accusations until multiple are made against the same person. Then, the agent sends the reports to the university, the organization, or the police. “This has the advantage that any response would start with effectively simultaneous, independent accusations, enhancing the credibility of the accusers, and at the same time diffusing their risk,” he wrote for the Women in Astronomy blog.

But not all who attended the panel were happy with the focus on violation reporting. Saying that harassment stops when people file complaints puts the onus on the victim. Harassment also stops when people stop harassing. And that means education for everyone, but especially people in positions of power. And it means public, vocal engagement with the topic—something that the confidential, secret-shrouded Title IX investigations don’t encourage. “We should be protecting our students close to the level where we’ve been protecting our professors,” Urry said.

It’s been a tough few months for astronomers, as they grapple with the seedier side of the cosmos. They are sad. They are angry. They are betrayed. They feel guilty. Some of them are guilty. Some are dubious about how much this matters. Others believe it matters more than anything.

But, you know what, it has been a tough forever for women in astronomy—and women in science, and also just women—who have been dealing with harassment and discrimination since always. Now, they and the community around them hope to harness the Marcy momentum and make a change—a real change—to the way their world functions. “Someone has asked me, ‘Have we hit rock bottom this year?’” said Richey. “I said, ‘No, we will hit rock bottom if in five years I have to go through this again. Let’s actually make change. Let’s freaking do it already.”