stop sexually harassing my colleagues

Here I shall say nothing that has not been said before,
And in the art of prosody I have no skill.
I therefore have no thought that this might be of benefit to others:
I wrote it only to habituate my mind.

Shantideva, The Way of the Bodhisattva

It’s easy to feel anesthetized by news of awful things happening all the time, particularly widespread, systemic things one feels powerless to address as an individual. We might call it “rage fatigue”. It’s a failure of empathy, a failure of ethical imagination. But some things hit close enough to home that they slice through the fog. Despite being unable to solve the problem unilaterally and completely, to let them slide by without comment feels more like collusion than picking battles.

And so, while I would love to continue writing about my adventures in Sydney, or in other places in the months leading up to my working in Sydney, I instead bring much sadder news:

Famous Berkeley Astronomer Violated Sexual Harassment Policies Over Many Years

It’s hard for me to overstate how horrific this situation is. The astronomer in question, UC Berkeley Professor Geoff Marcy, is a giant of the field and a highly visible figure — both as a mentor for junior scientists (some of which he used his power and seniority to prey upon) and as an example for his colleagues and contemporaries (who, along with the victims, could see he wasn’t suffering any consequences worth mentioning for his actions, which were widely known within his specialty). He’s apparently only one of an unspecified large number of serial harassers among senior astronomy faculty, about whom warnings are spread by word of mouth to potential victims, but against whom no formal action has been taken.

Formal action is often not taken for many reasons, which Prof. Janet Stemwedel’s recent piece in Forbes helpfully breaks down; they include information asymmetries, victim blaming and reprisals, and the ways in which institutions protect their own perceived interests at the expense of victims. But in this case, a formal investigation conducted by UC Berkeley found Marcy guilty, which underscores how little doubt there is that he actually did what he’s accused of. And while the word “harassment” is being used here, Marcy’s actions often involved physically touching victims (“unwanted massages, kisses, and groping”), which is actually sexual assault. This is violence, folks, the abuse of power to harm another; it doesn’t have to leave a mark on someone’s body. He’s been doing it for years.

Until yesterday, I hadn’t heard anything about Marcy that would lead me to suspect it. Though I’ve done very little work on exoplanets, I actually remember him from the very first meeting of the American Astronomical Society I ever attended, as an undergraduate. I had a poster on the detection of planets by gravitational microlensing, work I did with my Harvard mentor Rosanne Di Stefano, detailed in these papers. Marcy had just begun his rise to stardom by discovering 51 Peg b using precision radial velocity measurement techniques that he and his collaborator Paul Butler developed. Marcy came by my poster; he asked about our results; I explained them; he asked some questions; I answered them. I don’t remember that much about the interaction years later, except that it was hugely validating for me to have intelligent discussion about my science with a leading figure in the field, and left a positive mark which encouraged me to keep contributing to astronomy in later years.

This is how professional interactions are supposed to work. And for junior women who want to talk about science with senior colleagues and end up talking about sex, this is the opposite of how they actually work. The positive becomes negative; the message becomes that they are not, in fact, valued for their contributions to science. The professional environment becomes unsafe. And so the careers of many promising young scientists end before they ever really begin. It’s not unlike the situation with Bill Cosby: I want to like Marcy and not have my pleasant memories tainted by the knowledge that this was the same guy who had been hurting people, possibly even as far back as my interaction with him. But this kind of behavior is beyond gross. And although I don’t pay my rent by working in this field anymore, astronomers are still my people, with whom I’ve spent half my life working. When harassment comes to my community, and affects people I know and admire, then it becomes personal on a whole new level. It’s just got to stop.

And yet, if serial harassers are widespread in astronomy, they are very likely to be a problem in my new field as well. Engineering suffers from all the same kinds of gender imbalance problems as astronomy. Who are the predators? Will I find out about them in the news? Or when I hear about, or even witness, their actions myself? What will I do then?

We’ve seen high-profile cases of sexism in the media multiple times over just the last year, along with social media groundswells in response. Matt Taylor’s pinup T-shirt as seen on TV (see #ShirtGate). Shri Kulkarni’s “boys with toys” (see #GirlsWithToys). Tim Hunt’s “trouble with girls” (see #DistractinglySexy). A few of my colleagues are at the front, leading the charge for a more inclusive environment. I follow more on Twitter as I become aware of them.

These are really just the tip of the iceberg; sexist views don’t need to be openly held to damage the aspirations of individuals. And they also damage scientific knowledge when those individuals’ contributions are lost as they leave the field (as they did on account of Marcy). And if the causes are ignored, the damage will continue to accumulate and compound.

One suggestion for minimal response I’ve heard in cases like these are that someone who has professed openly sexist views should lose their influence over other people’s careers. For example, don’t ask these people to serve on your hiring or promotion committees, or on selection committees for your professional society’s prizes. In the case of people like Tim Hunt, you can call for their resignation (from honorary appointments, anyway). These are straightforward actions those in charge can take that at least limit the direct harm these people can cause, and enables the contributions of junior scientists to be (more) fairly evaluated.

But sometimes the harm to others can’t be contained in this way, because a person has repeatedly flouted institutional policies without any apparent remorse or willingness to stop. Every interaction between that person and someone under their care presents an unacceptably high likelihood that more harm will be done. The fact that nothing is being done signals others that nothing will be done in the future either. Probably the only way an institution can support the interests of their students and staff in cases like these is to fire such a person. And indeed, while expressions of outrage pervade astronomy, at least a few are calling for their colleagues to #SanctionBerkeley until they #FireMarcy. Thus far, UC Berkeley has disciplined Marcy by asking him to please not do it again, or else they may take some unspecified “future action”, such as becoming Really Quite Cross.

Failing that, senior colleagues can isolate Marcy almost completely by breaking off collaborations, calling for his resignation from organizing committees, and telling their students not to go to UC Berkeley for grad school. It’s already happening now. Because speaking out as a junior scientist invites retaliation from senior colleagues who have power over hiring and funding decisions, this kind of change isn’t going to happen readily without buy-in from senior leadership.

I don’t have the power to fire Marcy, or anyone. But I can call on UC Berkeley to do so; it would be unprecedented, but would certainly send a clear message about that institution’s priorities. I can voice my solidarity with his victims. I can let my colleagues of any gender identity know that if I see abuse like this happening, I’ll do everything I can to shut it down. Finally, activities like these are enabled by a culture of broad gender discrimination, including unconscious bias. So I can continually build self-awareness, reading and listening to others, and recognizing ways in which I contribute to such an atmosphere, however inadvertently.

Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein’s piece and Prof. John Johnson’s piece responding to the news about Marcy call anyone with privilege (which I have, along every relevant axis except perhaps career seniority) to use it to the advantage of others. To not do so is to habituate oneself to doing nothing; as I learn about more of this stuff, I feel less worried about what might happen to me if I speak up or take action, and more worried about what will happen to me if I don’t.  


About Richard

I'm an American scientist who is building a new life in Australia. This space will contain words about science and math, but also philosophy, policy, literature, my travels, occasional rants, all sorts of things I find strange and awesome. The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the opinions of my employer at the time (currently University of Sydney), though personally, I think they should.
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