Monday, October 12, 2015

CSWA Chair's Message to the Greater Astronomical Community on Harassment

Early last week, the Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy (CSWA) received a letter from Geoff Marcy, along with a request for publication in our newsletter.  On Friday, a buzzfeed article  describing the UC Berkeley Title IX investigation against Marcy for several alleged infractions of its sexual harassment policy was published.  The CSWA, through its leadership at the American Astronomical Society, declined to publish Marcy’s letter.  Later on Friday, an online petition was created for people to express their support for “the people who were targets of Geoff Marcy's inappropriate behavior and those who have spoken publicly about it.”  The event has been a key discussion point of the community through social media and various outlets throughout the weekend.

I’d personally like to thank those who brought the complaint forward for their courage to speak out and report the issues that were raised, and for continuing to speak out against the issue of harassment.  I also want to thank my fellow committee members and our previous chair for their work in making sure this issue is highlighted and addressed.  But the key group, for whom I intend to focus my comments, are the women (and men) who are encountering harassment within our field. I offer any assistance that they need. This post is meant for the greater astronomical community, and those who would like to help in fostering a safe and welcoming environment for all.

The Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy is charged with recommending to the AAS Council practical measures that can be taken to improve the status of women in astronomy and encourage their entry into this field.  One of the key issues that the committee has worked to assist with is harassment.  From resource pages, to blog series , to community talks, to studies within our field, we have worked to improve our community’s understanding of how harassment is occurring, how to report and respond to issues of harassment, and we have been advocates and guides for those who have encountered harassment.  We have begun to raise awareness on this issue to the highest visibility possible, and while we have made progress, this is still an issue many of the people in our field are dealing with on a daily basis.

This problem is not just isolated to one incident or one person in our field, but to a larger societal issue of the misuse of power. In order for our field to become a safer environment for everyone, particularly for early career women, this abuse of power needs to be addressed.  One of the major forces we see in many cases of harassment is a power balance in favor of the harasser.  Early career women are vulnerable to more senior men (and women) who mix professional mentoring with personal attention. Studies have shown that this has made many women feel unsafe in their work environment so that they miss important career opportunities as a result.  In order for our field to move towards an environment where all persons feel safe and welcomed, we (as an entire field of scientists working together) need to acknowledge that harassment is a real problem in our field and we need to improve our ability to address this issue.  Many times, women and men have to work as a network to guide early career women away from individuals who may take advantage of them.  We’ve worked to try to help one woman at a time, instead of tackling the larger issue at hand.  In order for effective change to occur, harassment needs to be reported.  The American Astronomical Society has a strict anti-harassment policy that must be followed at all of their meetings.  Institutions have their own policies and procedures, and which should be easily found and readily available, that should be followed at all work functions, including labs, observatory runs, conferences, and work events.  All of these policies should include a statement that any form of retaliation against an individual who has brought forth a concern is prohibited.

In order for a case of harassment to be addressed, it first needs to be reported.  Documentation is critical when investigating harassment complaints. Yet we work in a hierarchical field where the power differential is dramatic.  Advisors hold grant money and important data that can change a student’s thesis; postdoctoral fellows are reliant upon letters of recommendation to move forward in their careers.  That power dynamic leads to junior scholars feeling justifiably afraid or unable to speak up for themselves.  And this is where those with power and the ability to help become a vital component of making a change for the better.

Beyond our regular duties of creating an environment that is conducive to recruiting the best scientists and doing great science, we must be prepared to act when that environment has become unwelcoming for others.  Being good isn’t enough.  Instead of making the woman be the only one to deal with the inappropriate advance she just received at a poster session, or instead of making it so that calling out the racist is the responsibility of the one person of color in the room, be the action.  When you see someone in trouble, help them.  I’m not saying put on a superhero cape; I’m suggesting stepping in and using the power you have for good.  Call out the individual causing harm, even if that only means pulling them aside.  Interrupt the pick-up artist at a poster and move the conversation back to science for the presenter.  Help the person who just lost power in the situation by returning the power to them: let them know you’ve seen what happened and offer to help them.  Let them know you’re there to support them, and let them determine their next steps.

When you see a serious issue, document and report the issue to the appropriate outlets indicated by the anti-harassment policy guidelines where you are (e.g., at a conference) and/or to the institution employing the harasser.  Find a person to help with these issues, and ask for their guidance when needed.  Also, while reporting concerns of harassing behavior is the best course, always respect the wants and needs of the targeted person at that point, even if that includes honoring the target's request to remain anonymous or to not participate in a formal investigation.

I’ve been working on harassment issues for many years now.  One of the primary lessons that I’ve learned through helping others is that there really are people who give a damn and want to help you.  Reach out to the many hotlines available that are confidential resources outside of the field (for a larger list of options, click here, and for the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, RAINN, page devoted to sexual harassment, click here). Reach out to those in the community you know and trust.  Reach out to this committee for help.  Reach out to me personally if needed. The writers of the Women in Astronomy blog intend to continue to have blogs and series on the topic of harassment, and we will work to include posts on highly relevant issues (such as the expectations when going through a Title IX investigation, as well as what can be done when the investigation does not go as intended).

The larger issue here is that everyone in our field should be treated as a scientist, with equal respect and dignity.  Women are not lining up at their poster for speed dating; they aren’t signing up to work in your lab because they want to be sexualized or objectified.  They are there to become a successful scientist.  And becoming a successful scientist should not include having to navigate a career path of occasional inappropriate comments, invitations, or the fear of repercussions should you not be receptive or silent during those moments of harassment.  And the fact that this is what so many women in our field are continuously dealing with is wrong.  We can do better; we need to do better.  “With great power comes great responsibility.”

15 comments :

Liz Moyer, University of Chicago said...

Hi - I am faculty in Geosciences but participated in a discussion with Astronomy students today in my capacity as co-chair of my university's Physical Science Division committee on women in science. One thing that came out of that meeting was that several students said that they had observed uncomfortable incidents - different ones! - at the annual party associated with the AAS meeting. This seemed strange at first, but when I asked further, I was told that the event is held at a nightclub, until 2 AM, with heavy drinking on the part of faculty who dance with the students, and no transportation is provided for students to return to their hotels. And that the students feel professional pressure to go - the party is part of the AAS meeting and therefore they must attend in order to network, even if they are uncomfortable. I have to say, as someone from another field, that this seems absolutely insane. I suggest asking around: what other scientific field does this? If it's is a professional meeting, act professionally. Socializing in a professional context means events during the day, with minimal alcohol, where people can talk about science. Or maybe, at most, a dinner and reception. But if you want to make the field friendly to women, a good place to start might be to stop pressuring them to drink with faculty til 2 AM in nightclubs. For liability purposes alone, I would have thought this kind of thing would have died long ago.

Anonymous said...

Responding to Liz Moyer: I too find this odd; in my opinion faculty dancing with students is inappropriate.

My main comment is this. Having observed harassment (racial, sexual, or bullying) for many years, it seems to me that the serial offenders have qualities such as immunity to public shame, risk taking, adeptness at lying, and an absence of empathy, which is not explained by the bad culture. (I'm not saying the culture of excusing harassment or worse doesn't exist, in fact it is often used by a shield by the serial offenders). What I mean is that the serial offenders fit the profile of workplace sociopaths. Since these people are often quite skilled at manipulating power structures and social networks, it is particularly hard to hold them accountable. Also, they are unlikely to respond to education or respect official policies.

I wonder if it is time to start thinking about whether serial offenders are sociopaths, and if so, how to use this information to create better policies. (E.g. stepping in, publically, when you see harassment, and empowering the victim, as suggested above, would be effective). But what else?

Anonymous said...

Liz Moyer: I don't think that the AAS party is an official AAS event. Instead it is organized informally. Thus, the AAS probably can't stop it, but it would probably help to publicize something about the sexual harassment danger.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate the statement but what I want to know is, will the AAS allow Geoff Marcy to remain a member of the AAS? I would like to see concrete actions taken against sexual harassers. I would like the AAS to set an example to Universities like Berkeley, and other professional organizations (like the National Academy of Sciences), that we will not tolerate this reprehensible and illegal behavior. Actions must have consequences.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps the AAS can't stop it, but faculty members themselves can, and AAS can formally, publicly, and strongly suggest as much. Hopefully, the party is over for Mr. Marcy; and needs to be so for all other faculty, too, for the sake of the students.

Admiral William Adama said...

In response to Liz Moyer:

I think there is a certain level of pride the astronomy community holds in its ability to act "professionally unprofessional." I know many departments that like to spend their Friday nights drinking together, faculty and students in tandem, in a responsible manner. This, of course, is not an open invitation to cross any inappropriate lines. I just wanted to note that many astronomers tend to be a bit more lighthearted and eccentric, and most of the time can have a bit of boisterous fun without becoming completely inappropriate.

Anonymous said...

As someone, among others, who started this party thing at AAS meetings (and I am a woman), it is not an official AAS event and it is not sanctioned or required, and certainly should not be perceived to be a place to network. It was just meant as a party to have fun. It started in the late 90s, largely as a secret invitation-only thing where a few of us would hand out cards to people describing where it was. It grew with each successive meeting, and I haven't been to one in a long time (like 10 years) so I can't speak to that. Originally it was *only* junior people, almost entirely students who wanted a little relief from the heavy load of the meeting with it's 8am start, parallel sessions and total saturation from science by the end of the day. Of course it is a small community and word gets out and various other people went. Largely over the years, there was nothing untoward going on, although I suppose students did at times try to pick each other up (not sexual harassment but couples did come out of it--and that went both ways, not just male students bring to pick up women, but the opposite too--some resulted in marriages). I gather that has changed for far worse situations. I'm not sure shutting it down is even possible. If people want to have a party, there is nothing illegal in that. What people do in a party is an entirely different issue.

Anonymous said...

As an astronomer, I don't think there is any reason to believe that we are able to act more "professionally unprofessional" than any other group of people. It is just arrogance. I don't go to the AAS party, because I have seen too many conference dinners become inappropriate with the addition of alcohol. I was in graduate school in a department where the grad students spent Friday nights drinking together on campus. I think that most people thought we were responsible. They probably don't know about the time that one of the students was pressured to drink so much that we had to take him to the emergency room for alcohol poisoning. Arrogance is a big obstacle to solving this problem, I believe.

Anonymous said...

Nice statement!
I just wanted to comment on the following part:

``...Also, while reporting concerns of harassing behavior is the best course, always respect the wants and needs of the targeted person at that point, even if that includes honoring the target's request to remain anonymous or to not participate in a formal investigation.''

At academic institutions, faculty (TAs etc) are mandatory reporters, according to Title IX rules. So if a student comes to a faculty member to report harassment, we have to tell them we cannot be a confidential source, and that we are obligated to contact the Title IX officer. (There has been much debate within academia about these rules, and at least some schools have set up a system where students can report confidentially elsewhere or submit a complaint anonymously through non-departmental channels).

Anonymous said...

While I do spend a fair number of Friday evenings with members of my department (from undergrad seniors to senior faculty) and pitchers of beer--and while I am male--I would be reluctant to attend any AAS party, especially now that I know the amount of creepy behavior that occurs. I would much rather hang out with known and trusted colleagues, even if it happened to be in a bar with other such groups. AAS should either take ownership of a party, enforcing "professionally unprofessional" content, or completely disavow any and all parties. The lines between conference staff and party organizers have become unacceptably blurred, and I think we need a major change.

Anonymous said...

Liz Moyer commented:

… no transportation is provided for students to return to their hotels…

This is a concern that has been addressed in the recent past by Safewalks organized by Astronomy Allies. At the Winter 2014 AAS meeting in Seattle, the Astronomy Allies volunteers walked people back to their hotels from the party. There was a list of pre-arranged times to meet with the volunteers that was circulated in advance at the meeting.

Ralph Wijers said...

Indeed, the astronomy allies initiative is a very great oen, in many ways, also during meetings. This should be kept up. On another note: I rather strongly disagree with the notion advanced in some of the posts that we should stop having conference dinners, parties, and other such things because they offer an opportunity for inappropriate behaviour. A community becomes stronger and better also by interacting personally and socially, and it would be a very sad loss if we capitulate to harassers by giving that up. My own department, too, has informal 'whiskey breaks' on Friday night, and wine and cheese events when there is something to celebrate. Life has many grey areas; two students starting a relationship by mutual consent is quite okay, a student and a staff member, very much not so. Having some wine or whatnot at an office party, fine; getting drunk and/or obnoxious at the same, very much not so. Drinking only soft drinks at such an event, very very okay. Do we really get a better professional world by sterilising all risk of transgression out of it? I doubt it very much. What we need is a strong, deeply felt culture of responsibility, in which what is not okay is both made very clear, and also internalised quite deeply in all of us. So deeply that we feel we have no choice but to actively fight the transgressors.

Katey Alatalo said...

I am one of the founders of Astronomy Allies. We were also concerned about the number of issues we had heard happened at the Astronomy party, so we have committed to having 2 Allies walk anyone home who wants to walk home, with the schedule on our website, which is mentioned on the party's FB page and the card that is circulated at the meeting. For winter meetings, we leave every half hour to take people home. We will continue to provide this service to the Astronomy party taking place during the AAS meeting (but not affiliated), and are discussing what more we can do.

It's certainly not perfect, but small steps forward.

Hibou in France said...

Professors shouldn't socialise with students, certainly not after having consumed alcohol. Indeed alcohol should be banned at conferences, and parties segregated. Men should always have a third person present during interviews, with the door open. Women must be protected, even when they are foolishly attracted to powerful, famous, rich and often older men. Indeed, male professors should be more careful about hiring female students, because of the ambiguity of their relationship.

I am not making fun of a serious problem, but I do question the way it is dealt with, and the consequences of that. Trial by petition and by committees that do not accept even to publish a letter by the accused, do not further the cause of women in science, which is after all mainly populated by men. Scientists deal with the world as it is, not with how they would like it to be. Women can have power. Carly Fiorina or Hilary Clinton are perfectly capable of competing with the male bullies. If they too want to be equal, young women must learn to look after themselves, just as they did.

My wife and my daughter both have doctorates from leading (European) Universities. My granddaughter is growing up to be a strong woman, and she will decide for herself what she wants. If she doesn't want it, I expect she will just say No.

Sean Johnson, U. Chicago said...

I have not attended an AAS unofficial party (or an AAS meeting for that matter), but students are explicitly told that the party is an important networking component of the meeting. The astrobetter blog on "Getting the most out of AAS meetings", for example, describes the party as "THE place to be on Wednesday night". At the same time, stories I have heard and blog posts make it clear that the unofficial party has become a throwback to prom after-parties but with a professional power dynamic added. It may foster community at some level, but it also fosters unprofessional, dangerous, and illegal behavior. The professional pressure to attend an event rife with harassment is unacceptable. The AAS may not be able to stop the party from happening at some level, but we as members of the community have a responsibility to police ourselves and step-in to ensure that behavior at professional meetings remains appropriate. The AAS could easily do a lot more on this front.

Short of official action from the AAS, we can take action as individuals to help maintain a safe environment. The Astronomy Allies are already doing great work by providing safe walks from the party to hotels. The rest of us need to take responsibility for our own actions and those of our colleagues and do more to stop harassment at meetings and in general.