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Change is possible when sexual harassment is exposed

Why should astronomy be different from any other field when it comes to sexual harassment? Flickr/PROnate, CC BY-NC-ND

Change is possible when sexual harassment is exposed

Why should astronomy be different from any other field when it comes to sexual harassment? Flickr/PROnate, CC BY-NC-ND

When the news broke in the United States about a high-profile astronomy professor, Geoff Marcy, receiving a lukewarm reprimand for a legacy of sexual harassment against his students, you may have been surprised. I was not.

Why should we think scientists are any different from everyone else? The small number of researchers who perpetrate these acts have convinced some that they are above reproach. The lack of personal and professional ramifications for their transgressions, in this case over many years, reinforces that idea.

Physicist Andrew Robinson explores this in a beautifully piece of critical analysis, Eminent Scientists are Not Special Snowflakes.

Meanwhile, plenty of scientists on Twitter swiftly denounced the astronomer.

Ethicist Janet Stemwedel pointed out the research community’s response to the sexual harassment case was stronger than that of his university, the University of California Berkeley.

Scientists also took several media outlets to task for their reporting on the case.

The headline on the first article to expose the verdict on the harassment read “Famous Berkeley Astronomer Violated Sexual Harassment Policies Over Many Years, University Investigation Finds.” But this was changed to “These Women Say A Famous Astronomer Sexually Harassed.”

The original headline was later reinstated after an uproar from the research community, as the changed title shifted the blame from the perpetrator (where it belongs) to the victims.

The American Astronomical Society (AAS) declined to publish an open letter from Marcy, according to the AAS President, Meg Urry, because: “I don’t think we should be seen as validating his letter.”

Other professional societies have already condemned his actions, including the Royal Astronomical Society and the Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy from the AAS, although the Association itself has yet to formally comment at the time of publication. A petition in support of the victims was created by a group of astronomers, and is available online for anyone to sign.

A systematic problem

Last year, a study was published by a group of researchers who looked at the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault in men and women researchers.

I wrote then that I wasn’t surprised that the rate of sexual violence the study found was almost exactly the same as it is in the public. Scientists are people, first and foremost, and sexual violence occurs in our community, too.

Women in astronomy face this challenge so often there are no less than 34 blog entries about harassment on the Women in Astronomy blog. A group called Astronomy Allies exists because of the extraordinarily high rate of sexual harassment towards women astronomers at scientific conferences.

Certain communities are disproportionately affected by sexual violence, including women of colour, especially Indigenous women (who are more than twice as likely to experience sexual violence), and transgender persons. Policies designed to protect scientists from sexual harassment and assault should take particular care to support traditionally underrepresented groups.

Ethical issues are central to science: how we do science, and who does the science. Even without sexual harassment being involved, there’s already too much pressure that can lead to bad science.

A rising tide lifts all boats

What we really need are changes to policy, as I wrote about previously in the scientific journal Nature. We need policies that help support survivors of sexual harassment in their professional lives after they are assaulted.

We need employees who harass and assault to be reported and responded to appropriately, as they would be in any other workplace. For victims of workplace assault and harassment, we need to separate their work history from their ability, since one might not reflect the other.

That has an effect on the funding system, since grant success currently relies on junior researchers being endorsed by more senior scientists. We need to build in support systems to help with career development when predators interfere, and provide funding for early-career researchers who are most vulnerable. We can implement other ways to find and fund excellent scientists.

Many of these policies could be crafted in a way that helps people recovering from other types of trauma or difficulty, also. Policies that aim to increase equity often benefit everyone, not just one group of people.

Community matters

In many ways, the reporting and subsequent community support for the victims makes me optimistic for astronomy. Statistics from the United States Department of Justice indicate 66% of rapes and sexual assaults are not reported to the police. Reporting sexual violence can be the first step towards large-scale initiatives to address the problem.

I talk about my experience as a rape survivor, because I care. I care about science, and the researchers who conduct experiments. Dialog helps shine a light on areas where help is needed.

The paradigm needs to shift, to focus on the fact that sexual violence is about power and entitlement – not sex. I reject the premise that perpetrators cannot control their desire and that their sexual desire is more important than consent.

I’m not a counsellor, but I could be a role model and supporter. To other victims of sexual assault or harassment, I believe you and stand with you. I welcome you to connect with me on Twitter @DrMaggieHardy.


In the United States, for more information about how to respond to and prevent sexual assault, see the White House website Not Alone. The Rape Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) provides a list of sexual violence laws by state.

In Australia, 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) is the National Sexual Assault, Family and Domestic Violence Counselling Line for any one who has experienced, or is at risk of, family and domestic violence and/or sexual assault, and Lifeline (131 114) provides national crisis support. Both operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week.


Maggie will be on hand for an Author Q&A between 4 and 5pm AEDT on Wednesday, October 15, 2015. Post your questions in the comments section below.