Sexual harassment has devastating consequences on victims’ ability to perform science, reports from women in the astronomy field show.

How Sexual Harassment Halts Science—and What’s Being Done About It

How Sexual Harassment Halts Science—and What’s Being Done About It

The state of the universe.
July 19 2016 1:01 PM

How Sexual Harassment Halts Science

Recent reports have revealed how rampant sexual harassment is in the astronomy community. What’s to be done?

Birds eye view of Buildings of UC Berkeley Campus.
The campus of University of California–Berkeley.

Ericbvd/Thinkstock

Katherine Alatalo, a graduate student in astronomy at the University of California–Berkeley, spent months wondering what was wrong with her. Why did she feel anxious and unfocused? Why couldn’t she get any work done? And then, a late-night G-chat conversation with a fellow student made her realize what was causing her such distress: Her friend relayed a conversation she’d had with other students and a professor, where they had discussed a different professor and how he had a “fascination with” Alatalo’s breasts. That the professor mentioned his colleague’s “obsession” at all, let alone in casual conversation, made Alatalo’s friend furious—“it was totally inappropriate,” Alatalo’s friend wrote. It was then—with the help of her friend’s outrage—that she realized the problem. She was being sexually harassed.

When it happened, in the late 2000s, Alatalo was what most people would see as successful. A recent University of Michigan graduate, she was pursuing her master’s and Ph.D. at Berkeley. But she didn’t feel like a success. There was one professor in particular who she felt was making her life a living hell—the one whose attention to her breasts was so obvious his colleagues had taken note.

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Alatalo, who is now 32, recalls how she had felt that something was definitely amiss in the relationship. This specific professor seemed to take perverse pleasure in upsetting her. She felt belittled in their professional interactions, hopeless and trapped as goals and directions shifted, seemingly out of nowhere. “The meaner he is, the less I resist,” she noted in a running diary of sorts she kept at the time. She told him she felt she couldn’t speak up or disagree with him out of fear. Yet, on multiple occasions, including after telling him of that fear, he yelled at her until she cried. Once, after she had remarked that she would get “intimate with the data to get it ready for publication,” he asked her if she and another man were “getting intimate in other ways.” She remembers thinking he became visibly happy once she was in tears and hugged her after one particularly tearful session. She even realized that she had been subconsciously covering up in his presence—wearing sweatshirts to meetings in an attempt to thwart his focus on her chest. “This alarm bell was going off that something was wrong,” she said.

But she hadn’t allowed herself to consciously recognize it—until her friend’s story showed her that it wasn’t just all in her head.

“Even these outsiders had noticed this behavior and had noticed this thing that I thought I was maybe just making up,” she says. “And that was my lucidity moment. That was the moment I started seeking help and naming it sexual harassment.”

She tried to take action. She requested a meeting with the department chair to discuss severing any working relationship she had with the professor. She built a log of emails and interactions to share—the professor’s tendency to mix personal attacks with professional comments, his inappropriate inquiry about her sex life, his habit of harshly chastising her over minor errors or misunderstandings, her feeling that if she disagreed with him then she was disobeying him, the overriding sense that it wasn’t a working relationship so much as a principal calling a bad pupil into his office for lectures.

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She laid it all out at the meeting. It did not go well. The department chairman accused her of making a mountain out of a molehill, Alatalo recalls, and she added that “if I told him something that could be seen as an allegation, he would have to inform the university.”

A follow-up letter from the chairman at the time spelled out some of her fears more directly. “You must recognize that you are ceding a remarkable opportunity to work with one of the premier experts [in these fields],” the chairman wrote. “Other options are always available to you and I encourage you to continue to evaluate your participation in the graduate program in astronomy.” The letter, which Slate reviewed, also suggested that a number of counseling resources were available to her, including a graduate adviser and student affairs officer. It did not say whether the professor Alatalo was complaining about would receive any sort of reprimand.

Current astronomy chairman Eugene Chiang, reached directly, referred inquiries to the press department, and the chairman at the time of the letter and meeting with Alatalo declined to speak specifically about the situation, citing student confidentiality laws.

Alatalo said that at the time, she didn’t need anyone to tell her to reconsider her future in the field—quitting was an option she’d long considered on her own. “The meeting felt like the faculty were closing ranks on me,” she says. “Instead of feeling like my concerns were being heard and considered, I was a liability that they were trying to figure out how to address.”

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This is the first time Alatalo has spoken publicly about her personal experience with harassment. She has declined to name the professor involved—for one thing, she doesn’t think it will do much good. But she’s also sick of stories that simply focus on the men who harass. Instead, in talking about her experiences, she hopes she can help illustrate what women go through when they experience harassment. “This is not about vengeance for me,” she says. “I can have a message that can help.”

She also says it was important for her to describe her experiences as news of harassment in astronomy specifically garners attention across the country. “Our field is data-driven,” says Alatalo. “I’m adding myself to them.” Alatalo’s account also offers a window into how toxic and consuming sexual harassment in a graduate school setting can be, particularly when the people in power have no interest in addressing the problem. Her experience shows the damage this kind of atmosphere can do, particularly for women in the sciences who are already facing the challenge of competing in male-dominated fields. And her story offers insight into how women can rally together to create systems of support.

Alatalo recalls how the experience made her doubt her abilities as a scientist. The mental fortitude required to persevere in the face of constant harassment made it difficult for her to focus on the work. “I looked like a struggling student,” she says, “and it’s clear that I’m not.”

Alatalo’s experience is not unique. In October, BuzzFeed published the findings of a U.C.–Berkeley investigation into allegations against celebrated astronomy professor Geoff Marcy. (Alatalo’s harasser was not Marcy.) It found that Marcy had violated sexual harassment policies at the university for close to a decade. (The university did not fire him, though Marcy did eventually step down, denying the claims against him. After the story was published, several other women came forward to corroborate the allegations, many dating even further back than the decade outlined in news reports.) BuzzFeed’s report launched the discussion of harassment within the astronomy community into the public eye—the Twitter hashtag #astrosh saw an outpouring of allegations and personal testimonials in January. The same month, CalTech suspended a professor for gender-based harassment, a move Science reported was the first in the university’s history. Also in January, Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., wrote a letter to the Department of Education questioning why it was not mandatory for people who had been found to have violated harassment policies to have to disclose that in future job applications; she cited the example of a prominent astronomy faculty member who was able to secure another position without disclosing that his previous university had found him guilty of creating a hostile work environment due to his sexual harassment. (Speier will host an panel discussion on Tuesday about how harassment and inaction around harassment can stop women from pursuing careers in the sciences.)

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Though the problem has been freshly thrust into the public eye, it’s been an open secret for years in the astronomy community. Christina Richey, the current chairwoman of the American Astronomical Society Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy, conducted an informal survey on workplace climate from January to March 2015. She received responses from 426 astronomers (285 women, 141 men) who answered questions about their experiences in the past five years. Thirty-two percent reported being directly verbally harassed based on their genders, with 9 percent facing physical harassment. Dozens, including students, professors, and postdocs, reported missing work opportunities because they “felt unsafe.” Her survey isn’t comprehensive, but it’s a useful starting point of data collection for the field, a niche subject area that has yet to be documented and studied extensively.

Recently published research, conducted at the University of Oregon and using its graduate students as participants, makes a broader attempt to assess the problem across all of its graduate schools. Of students surveyed, the researchers found that 38 percent of women and 23.4 percent of men had experienced some form of sexual harassment from faculty or staff in their graduate careers. (The sample size was representative of the population, and although students were compensated for their participation, there is still some risk that students self-selected to participate based on their interest level, which may inflate the results.) Women were 1.64 times more likely to experience harassment from faculty or staff than men were.

The research specifically considered the idea of institutional betrayal—the concept that experiencing harassment from a faculty or staff member could “create a pervasive sense of vulnerability extending beyond one specific classroom or carrel in the library.” The researchers found that for female students, harassment perpetrated by a faculty or staff member was significantly associated with experiences of institutional betrayal. “For female participants, faculty/staff sexual harassment was the sole significant predictor of institutional betrayal when accounting for all other traumatic experiences measured,” the researchers wrote in the paper. “This finding is consistent with Freyd’s (1994) betrayal trauma theory, which holds that abuse is more harmful when perpetrated by people one is close to or depends upon for survival.”

The research echoes the experiences of female graduate students who said that the harassment they experienced made it difficult to participate in the work. “It’s really hard to be a great scientist when you’re not there to participate,” says Richey.

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Stories like Alatalo’s expose the difficulty graduate students have in attempting to raise these concerns and get results. Students embarking on courses of graduate study are signing up for years of working with small groups of people, often on projects that blur into nonworking hours. And while expectations, goals, and assignments are very clear for undergraduate work, it’s more amorphous for graduate students. It’s one of the most difficult situations in academia, as research can be dependent on access to resources that are levied by just a few in power.

Superstar talent and tenured faculty are more valuable to universities than any individual student. This can create incentives for schools to avoid punishing offenders, leaving them free to interact with the very population they have victimized. (Berkeley in particular has been home to two other harassment claims that the university found violated its code of conduct outside of the astronomy department in the past year. One stepped down, but the other, despite having been found to have violated the code, remained employed and in an office feet away for six months from one of the women who filed the complaint. The women have since taken their complaint, against both the university and the professor, to the state of California. Additionally, documents released after a public records request related to one of the cases revealed that 19 Berkeley faculty and staff members had been found to have violated the university’s sexual harassment policies in the past seven years; 11 of those cases had not previously been made public, and seven of the offenders were still employed by the university. Punishments for violating the policies ranged from firings to cuts in pay to demotions, while four individuals had resigned.)

Berkeley, through a representative, declined to make any university staff available for an interview for this story. The university, however, did pass along a Feb. 3 update on policies and procedures within the department and school in the wake of the Marcy revelations. Changes include a new website with a list of resources and the installation of “climate advisors” who are educated on sexual harassment and can help point students to resources as well.

Climate advisers may help, but their success may depend on whether they can spur departments to take preventive action. And while from the outside, department chairs appear to have authority, they are also subject to the university leadership structure above them.

Part of what troubles Alatalo in retrospect is that as she was being harassed by one professor, she was also hearing whispers about Marcy’s behavior. “The conversations were nebulous, but older graduate students would take undergrads aside and warn them,” Alatalo says. “It was something a lot of them took on, trying to do everything they could to limit the damage he could do. Obviously we weren’t perfect, but we did what was within our power and without necessarily nuking our careers.”

Yet she still found it difficult to speak up for herself when she realized how much her professor’s unwanted attention was haunting her. Over the years, she had witnessed other students decry Marcy’s actions, with no results. When she eventually tried to sever the relationship with the professor, the department chairman’s written response confirmed her fears. “The letter implies, ‘Be quiet and behave or else,’ ” she says.

Alatalo interpreted the letter as implying that the supposed benefits of working with such qualified academics outweighed the harm. Other victims of harassment have gotten the same impression when they raised concerns with superiors.

“The old guard thinks we should allow for any type of behavior because these people are geniuses and they’ve contributed so much,” says Caitlin Casey, an astronomy professor at the University of Texas at Austin who, while a McCue fellow at University of California–Irvine, wrote about previous experiences being a victim of harassment. “It’s an excuse for bad behavior. Some people make that sacrifice, thinking that the experience on an academic level is so unique that they should just put up with it. I got to a point where it wasn’t worth it.”

In May 2014, Casey published an account of her own experience with harassment on the popular Women in Astronomy blog. She described incidents involving lewd comments and sexist language from multiple colleagues, as well as one instance of retaliation from an older male colleague whose romantic advances she’d rejected. She said she decided to share her story when it “got so bad I didn’t care about keeping my career, because it was so miserable.” But even then, she proceeded with caution. Contributors to the blog and friends warned her she could still be sued by the person she was describing, or the institution, despite the fact that she did not name names.

“There’s a lot of risk assessment in any reporting of any incident,” Casey said. “So you have to weigh the benefits of reporting against the negative effects it can have on you personally and in your department. I thought if I could have any positive impact on the culture moving forward, I should tell the story of what happened.”

Every single victim makes this risk assessment when deciding whether to make a report with his or her university.

“[Astronomy] is a worldwide small town,” Alatalo says. “The joke is you might be six degrees from Kevin Bacon but in real life you’re one degree away from everyone else in the field. It’s very hierarchical, and the people making decisions are the people with the most prestige in the field.”

The potential harm goes beyond whatever work is at hand at the moment. There are retaliatory issues at play both in direct interactions—for Casey, when one of her harassers began to badmouth her abilities to others in her department—and down the line. “For someone in the position of decision-maker in a small town, if they think ill of you, they can do some serious and real harm by saying a word or not saying a word,” says Alatalo. Both Casey and Alatalo describe being on the verge of simply quitting.

For Alatalo, it was the science that made her decide to persevere. “I remember being back in Michigan and talking to my adviser about how hard it would be to just leave,” Alatalo says. “I was living in the Bay Area at the time, and [I] could [have found] a job. For me, it was picking up a paper on galactic winds and being fascinated and realizing, god dammit, I’m not ready to leave this yet. I still really enjoy this.”

Alatalo might not have received the support she deserved from the department chairman or the university when she voiced her concern. She did, though, receive it from fellow students around the country; her graduating adviser Carl Heiles; her roommate; some other faculty at Berkeley in whom she confided; and figures such as Joan Schmelz, an astronomer and physics professor at the University of Memphis and vocal supporter of victims. (Schmelz also chaired the American Astronomical Society’s Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy from 2009 to 2015.)

After completing her Ph.D. in 2012, Alatalo went on to be a postdoc scholar at the Caltech Infrared Processing and Analysis Center before joining the Hubble Postdoctoral Fellowship Program at the Carnegie Observatories. She’s also working to help students who are going through the same struggles she did. In 2014, she and fellow astronomer Heather Flewelling—who herself has spoken out about her experiences with sexual harassment by a fellow astronomer—founded Astronomy Allies, a group that provides judgment-free resources and assistance to victims and anyone else who inquires looking for help.

They started small, identifying themselves at conferences and offering escorts at the annual American Astronomical Society meeting, which is where Flewelling alleges she had been harassed, during official events or informal gatherings. Soon, they began recruiting concerned members of astronomy departments across the country, taking nominations from current members and subjecting possible new members to a thorough vetting process. The members of the group are trusted ears, confidants for anyone who wants to discuss her experience with bullying or harassment, and they help navigate the oftentimes complex process of filing formal complaints. The group now has dozens of members (including Casey and Schmelz).

People who are now in Astronomy Allies were some of the first people Alatalo shared her story with privately, she says, and these interactions helped her move forward. “It was something that left me with the ability to deal with my harassment that didn’t leave me feeling sick to my stomach,” she says.

It’s hard to measure Astronomy Allies’ success, but Alatalo says the group has helped many students who didn’t have anywhere else to go. What Astronomy Allies can’t be, she says, is a substitute for action by the universities themselves. Schools must be held accountable, and they must change the way they handle harassment complaints.

In early July, American Astronomical Society Executive Officer Kevin Marvel published a letter encouraging victims of harassment to report any experiences they had to members of the organization’s executive committee. His statement came after two anonymous victims published their accounts of physical harassment—one at a conference—on the Women in Astronomy blog. He also emphasized that all members should treat conferences as professional gatherings, not social ones. “Frankly, it is not worth the social happiness of a majority if just one of our attendees is made to feel uncomfortable, under pressure, or damaged enough to leave our profession or to attend future conferences in a fearful state,” he wrote.

Alatalo is more hopeful than she was a few years ago that the status quo is changing and that change is coming. “People are listening now,” she says.