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Facts of Life

Zero tolerance for unethical sexual conduct

This week Geoffrey Marcy, Professor of Astronomy at the University of California, Berkeley, resigned after an investigation found he had violated the sexual harassment policies of the university by engaging in inappropriate behaviour with female students, including groping, kissing, touching and massaging them.

Reports from former colleagues and students imply that he sexually harassed multiple students over many years, and that his behaviour was an “open secret” in the astronomy community. An investigation had been under way for some time but it was only after details of the investigation were revealed, and complaints were made about the outcome, that the university acted swiftly to issue a statement describing a “zero tolerance policy” to sexual harassment. As public interest in the case increased, university colleagues and professional astronomers from across the world spoke out publicly against Marcy and the tolerance of sexual harassment.

Under mounting pressure Marcy resigned from his professorship this week as questions were raised about the tolerance of sexual harassment in universities, and particularly in male-dominated disciplines. We cannot tolerate a culture that allows sexist attitudes and sexual harassment to go unchecked until action is forced by the weight of public outcry.

Devastation has decisively been wrought on Geoffrey Marcy’s career as a result of his dubious sexual ethics. Others have described the devastation wrought on the wellbeing and careers of the students who suffer sexual harrassment, or find themselves in a vulnerable position experiencing harm at the hands of powerful perpetrators with influence over their opportunities for career advancement.

Prominent cases of sexual harassment in universities demonstrate that academics are no different from anyone else when it comes to matters of sexual ethics. Across the world, cases of sexual harassment – indicating disrespectful attitudes and unequal relationships – are disturbingly common. A review of 113 studies of young people across 27 member states of the EU found that up to 83% of females and 66% of males had been touched, grabbed or assaulted in a sexual way. Crucially, the review highlighted the importance of the role of culture in determining tolerance of, and rates of, sexual harassment:

Culture-level variables, such as differences in sexual behavior patterns, gender roles, extent of sex education, and drinking culture, may be systematically related to variations in sexual aggression rates, and establishing the role of these variables may provide essential information not only for theory building about risk factors of sexual aggression but also for designing effective prevention strategies.

Sexual harassment is a form of sexual victimization with deep roots in sexism. Thus, wherever there is evidence of sexism, sexual harassment will be present in one form or another, whether overt or covert. This means that leaders of organisations with sexist cultures need to be prepared to deal with the inevitable cases of sexual harassment that will follow.

A recent review of organisational strategies to reduce sexual harassment recommended that leaders of organisations should give a clear and consistent anti-harassment message. This message may be communicated through policies about sexual harassment supported by staff training, investigation and remediation procedures. However, it is the day-to-day reinforcement of these policies in organisational culture which most effectively addresses sexual harassment and prevents it becoming an “open secret” with potentially career-ending consequences for both victims and perpetrators.

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