To hear a story about sexual harassment in the sciences, just ask a person who has been a woman in the sciences. Chances are, if it hasn’t happened to her, it’s happened to someone she knows.
This year yielded a lot of front-page stories about celebrity professors breaking bad, but it is also the year scientific societies and policy-influencers decided to try to do something about it. And if the momentum holds, 2017 could be the year they do more than try, as they transform new initiatives, brainstorming sessions, reports, and promises into action and cultural change.
The revolution began in October 2015, when Azeen Ghorayshi at BuzzFeed wrote about a Title IX investigation at the University of California, Berkeley. The school had found that lauded astronomer Geoff Marcy had violated harassment policies between 2001 and 2010—and then, having that information, applied no substantial consequences. When Marcy’s story came out in article form, much of the scientific community was outraged that this “father of exoplanets” had taken advantage of his status and then kept that status.
But others were surprised. That guy? Really? Was his behavior really that bad? And as scientific organizations like the American Astronomical Society pulled together new policies, codes of conduct, and workshops, some also expressed doubt this whole harassment thing was really such a big problem. As the year progressed, that chatter quieted.
“A lot of people were kind of oblivious to things going on right underneath our noses,” says Eric Davidson, incoming president of the American Geophysical Union. But since his organization has begun tackling the issue, it’s shown him exactly how real the problem is, although he knows it is not a new issue. “I look around and see my female colleagues exchanging glances and saying this has been going on for a long time, and it’s about time we start talking about it,” he says.
The numbers agree: A 2014 study found that 71 percent of female scientists had been sexually harassed while out in the field, and 26 percent had been sexually assaulted. In a 2015 survey of astronomers, 61 percent of respondents reported experience of verbal harassment in their current job, for gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, race, religion or disability status. Around 11 percent reported physical harassment.
“There is the sense that if you want to be a woman in science, that’s the extra price you get to pay,” says Janet Stemwedel, the head of San Jose State’s philosophy department, who writes about ethics in science.
And the academic environment doesn’t merely permit such transgressions: It’s their agar plate. “A cynical take is that the forces that allowed Marcy to harass women for so many years—his prestige; his ability to bring in funding; the employment protections he enjoyed as a tenured professor; the outdated, onerous, and secretive nature of sexual harassment investigations—are not anomalies of an outlying department, but in many cases defining traits of academia,” Ghorayshi wrote, in one of several related articles that came after the initial Marcy piece.
Ghorayshi and other reporters sent big sexual harassment cases into your newsfeed about once a month. You could make an old-school calendar out of them (although you probably prefer puppies in baskets and Yosemite as the seasons change).
Here’s a timeline of the year’s biggest events:
January: California Representative Jackie Speier revealed Title IX documents detailing how University of Wyoming astronomer Timothy Slater had given a student a vibrator, taken people to strip clubs on lunch break, and shared thoughts on women’s bodies. Speier used the case, based on events at the University of Arizona in 2004, to show how offending professors can move between universities while keeping their records secret. Also this month, Caltech suspended physicist Christian Ott for firing a student because he was sexually attracted to her. A Buzzfeed investigation revealed that he had confessed those feelings to another student.
February: University of Chicago professor Jason Lieb resigned (after the school suggested he be fired) for coming on to graduate students during a retreat and having sex with a student who was “incapacitated due to alcohol and therefore could not consent.” Also in February, Science published an article about American Museum of Natural History anthropologist Brian Richmond, whose direct report accused him of assault during a scientific conference in Italy, triggering “a cascade of other allegations against Richmond.”
March: Hope Jahren, author of the book Lab Girl, published a New York Timesop-ed discussing the pervasiveness of widespread sexual harassment—especially the kind in which a supervisor just can’t keep his star-crossed feelings for a student out of the body of an email. “Since I started writing about women and science, my female colleagues have been moved to share their stories with me; my inbox is an inadvertent clearinghouse for unsolicited love notes,” she writes.
April: Physicist Sarah Gossan—one of Christian Ott’s victims—tweeted, in a set of 33 posts, that she was leaving the research group she co-chaired for the gravitational-wave observatory LIGO and planned to leave the supernova research field altogether, due to Ott’s alleged retaliation against her and fallout from the case.
May: Thomas Pogge is not a scientist, but he is an academic ethicist. And according to a BuzzFeed article, he was accused of sexual harassment in the 1990s at Columbia University; again in 2010 at Yale University, where the complainant also claimed he retaliated against her; and then again-again in 2014 when a European student said he presented job opportunities as rewards for a sexual relationship. A Yale panel voted that there was “insufficient evidence to charge him with sexual harassment.”
June: Ebola and flu researcher Michael Katze, of the University of Washington, hired an administrator with the “implicit condition,” according to a BuzzFeed investigation, “that she submit to his sexual demands.” Katze also tasked another employee with cleaning his residence, buying marijuana, and emailing escorts (yes, that kind), on top of a background of sex-jokes and -comments and two attempts at physical contact. Katze remains employed at the university.
July: In Slate, astronomer Katherine Alatalo spoke of meeting with her department chair to talk about cutting off her working relationship with her supervisor, who made inappropriate comments about her appearance, asked about her sexual activity, and “[mixed] personal attacks with professional comments.” The chair’s follow-up letter informed her that she was “ceding a remarkable opportunity to work with one of the premier experts [in these fields].”
August: The University of Kentucky’s newspaper reported that entomologist James Harwood, who had resigned without giving a reason, had violated harassment and assault policies (the latter of which are actually called “criminal laws”) with two students. After the article came out, the university announced plans to sue the publication for bringing the case documents to light.
September: Neil deGrasse Tyson said in an interview with BuzzFeed science editor Virginia Hughes that science, and astrophysics specifically, does not have a special problem with harassment. “The issue is not sexual harassment in science,” he said. “The issue is sexual harassment in the workplace, which includes scientific workplaces. So I don’t see that there’s some special kind of solution to that problem needed to be invoked in a scientific community.”
October: The head of the University of Bath astrophysics department, Carole Mundell, went on trial for libel and slander. She had stated that a former supervisor, Mike Bode, wrote glowing letters of recommendation for alleged harasser Chris Simpson, ignoring the complaints filed about his behavior.
November: On a radio show and subsequent article, astronomers at the Australian scientific organization CSIRO detailed instances of harassment and bullying, including three formal allegations of sexual misconduct, two of which were upheld. Chief among them was that from Ilana Feain. The organization barred Feain, who has left the field, from disclosing the findings of the investigation.
December: At the American Geophysical Union’s annual conference, which attracts tens of thousands of scientists, the organization hosted nine sessions related to harassment, ethics, and workplace climate. Earlier in the year, the society had brought together 60 leaders in academia, government, and professional organizations for a workshop called “Sexual Harassment in the Sciences: A Call to Respond.”
With so many documented cases of sexual harassment (as well the women nodding their heads and saying “Duh”), this year’s journalistic investigations showed not just that the field has a problem but that patterns exist. “Once you’ve read five or 10 or 20 cases, you’re like, ‘OK, I don’t really expect the next harasser we find out about is going to be radically different from the ones we’ve heard about so far,’” says Stemwedel. “‘I see the size and shape of the problem.’”
That that quantification and qualification in hand, big-S Science can now enumerate and address its issues.
First, science operates under what Stemwedel calls a “medieval apprenticeship” model—in which students are immersed in their work and are completely dependent on advisers for funding, ability to finish graduate school, and future jobs. Second, university investigations usually remain in locked boxes, not leaking into the larger world unless there is an actual leak or a FOIA request. And third, universities depend on superstar professors for the grant money they rake in.
California congressional representative Jackie Speier has recently introduced legislation to take aim at that last issue. Her proposal attempts to bring transparency to Title IX investigations and force schools to report all violations to the funding agencies—like NASA, the National Science Foundation, and the National Institutes of Health—that give money to offending professors. For their part, those three money-senders have said that any institutions and/or individuals they support must comply with civil rights laws. “There’s still question about how much those words will be met with action,” says Stemwedel.
Legislation, of sorts, has also come from scientific societies like the American Geophysical Union, the American Astronomical Society, the Biophysical Society, and the American Physical Society. They have all created new, more explicit codes of conduct for members and meetings, detailing what harassment is and what happens if you harass. And many society leaders are working together to share resources, procedures, policies, and safe ways for members to report infractions. “These groups do carry a lot of weight in science,” says Ghorayshi. “And lot of the groups did pretty immediately stand up to the challenge of trying to address this problem. That’s also due to the fact that there’s a younger crop of scientists—largely women and a lot of allies—who are trying to draw attention to these issues.”
All of that philosophy, paperwork, and pontification only do so much good. They don’t immediately change behavior. But their aspirational nature does have value. “It’s sending a message to younger scientists that are entering the field that that is the culture to be valued,” says Ghorayshi.
Cultural change like that can take a while. “But just because it takes a while to change doesn’t mean you wait around for it,” says Davidson.