The Scientific Community Has a Serious Harassment Problem


On Monday, the National Science Foundation doubled-down on its commitment to eradicating sexual harassment and gender-based discrimination in science with the announcement that it may terminate funding to any institution that fails to adhere to Title IX guidelines.

“In light of recent, multiple reports of sexual harassment in science, NSF reiterates its unwavering dedication to inclusive workplaces,” reads a press release.

“NSF does not tolerate sexual harassment and encourages members of the scientific community who experience such harassment to report such behavior immediately. As the primary funder of fundamental science and engineering research in the U.S., NSF supports researchers and students at the forefront of their fields—each of whom deserves to be treated fairly, with dignity and respect.”

The press release follows a similar letter from NASA administrator Charles F. Bolden Jr. which called sexual harassment “conduct that is not only illegal but destroys the very fabric of our STEM community,” and urged grantee institutions to re-examine their policies for addressing it.

In the past month alone, the issue of gender discrimination and harassment within the scientific community has been cast in an unsettling spotlight. Mashable reported on former University of Arizona astronomy professor Timothy Frederick Slater, who regularly commented on women’s bodies and once gave a student a vibrator. BuzzFeed told the story of Christian Ott, an astrophysics professor at the California Institute of Technology, who fell in love with a female graduate student and fired her because of it. Before that, we learned of the allegations against astronomer Geoff Marcy who supposedly kissed, massaged, and groped four female students.

None of these professors has lost his job, and Marcy has been given the honorific title “emeritus.”

In July 2014, an online survey of field scientists found that almost two-thirds of 666 respondents had been sexually harassed at a field sight, and 20 percent had been sexually assaulted, according to Science. Another survey of 426 people working in astronomy and planetary science found that 57 percent of respondents had been verbally harassed because of their gender and 82 percent had heard a colleague make a sexist remark. The hashtag #astroSH reveals many, many more accounts of similar experiences.

While NASA and the NSF’s statements (which are not new policies, just stern reminders of existing ones) signals a growing awareness that the scientific community is often hostile toward women, it puts the burden of change onto the victim, urging her to report her harassment. Such an approach likely won’t do much more than overload ill-equipped administrative offices—for the past several decades, academic science has proven itself a hardened system that bends only to accommodate its men.

In order for real change to be affected, universities need to start holding professors found to be guilty of harassment accountable for their actions.

Last week, an anonymous female researcher at a major university wrote an article in Nature describing the professional and personal consequences she suffered after reporting her former postdoctoral supervisor’s continued sexual harassment.

After she filed a complaint, in which she claimed that her boss had published her data sets without her name included on the author list or her permission, she was attacked. She wrote:

…my harasser responded with dozens of pages of denials and counter-complaints, to which I was expected to respond. He belittled me, demanded access to my data sets, misrepresented evidence and argued for restrictions that would significantly detriment my career. Because of these issues and the confidential nature of the accusation, I found it nearly impossible to publish during the lengthy complaint process (which took much longer than laid out in the university’s own grievance procedures). I felt I had to excuse myself from international conferences, because I knew that he would be there. His career continued unaffected.
After almost a year and a half, his university told me that it had found in my favour. It said that he was guilty of both research misconduct and inappropriate behaviour, including sexual harassment. It did not fire him and stressed that I should keep the verdict confidential.

Recently, she reached out to the organizers of a scientific conference to see if he would be permitted to attend. Because the university’s investigation outcome had been secret, there was nothing the organizers could do.

“Until victims feel able to speak up freely, and details of such situations are shared, it is not the guilty parties who are punished, but young scientists,” she wrote, adding that Nature’s editors had encouraged her to remain anonymous to avoid having readers speculate about her various male colleagues.

Multiple groups have taken steps to increase reporting: Astronomy Allies encourages women who have been harassed at the American Astronomical Society conferences to come forward, while others, including the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, have released statements regarding unacceptable conference behavior.

On a broader scale, Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) is pushing legislation that would prevent male scientists from being able to hide behind institutional secrecy, although it is unclear how such legislation would work.

“We’re developing legislation that would first require that any investigation at one university where the professor either resigns or is fired, that information would follow them,” Rep. Speier said in an interview with Wired. “That investigation should follow the individual.”

On January 12, Speier spoke about such a bill on the House floor.

“Some universities protect predatory professors with slaps on the wrist and secrecy, just like the Catholic Church sheltered child-molesting priests for many decades,” she said. “Students enter astronomy to study the stars, not the professor’s sex life.”

Along with the anonymous account, the journal Nature ran an op-ed condemning universities’ treatment of sexual harassment victims.

“Any principal investigator who thinks, ‘it cannot happen at my university,’ is wrong,” the op-ed read. “These are not one-off cases. They are examples of a systemic underlying rot that is driving many young researchers out of science for good.”

Contact the author at [email protected].

Image of Geoff Marcy via Getty.

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