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.”