Tuesday, June 3, 2014


Cave in Iceland, Astrobiology Summer School (2012) 

Today's guest post is from Christina Richey. Christina is a Senior Scientist at Smart Data Solutions, LLC, and is located at NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC, where she works within the Planetary Science Division R&A group.  She is currently the contract Program Officer for the Cassini Data Analysis Program, the Discovery Data Analysis Program, the Exoplanets Research Program, and a Discipline Scientist for the Emerging Worlds Program.  She was recently the guest speaker for the Susan Niebur Event at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference.
In the past few weeks, months, and even years, the Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy, the Women in Planetary Science, and many other groups within our community have worked tirelessly to bring to light a plight that women in our community, in our society as a whole, have faced.  I have been one of those women.  I grew up in the laboratory astrophysics community, and even though I have been fortunate enough to have had the best advisors possible, who always considered me as a student/early career colleague with potential and really pushed me to become a leader, and even though I have worked in some of the greatest groups around, I too, have been harassed.  Not once, but multiple times.  Sometimes the story is more horrifying than others.  Sometimes it was easily shut down, sometimes I’m not even sure it could have been defined as harassment, but I knew it wasn’t okay.  It was frustrating, and many times, a damn near desperate time where I thought of leaving this field behind.  But I constantly reminded myself how much I loved the work I do, and that I wanted to be in this field to make change for the better for our entire community.  Not just myself, or women for that matter, but everyone.  

And this isn’t an issue that affects just our field.  If we’ve learned anything this past weekend, when a misogynist/racist-turned mass murderer killed innocent people and women responded with the #YesAllWomen hashtag, it’s that this issue is steeped within our very culture.  I forced myself to sit down and follow the hashtag for an hour Saturday night, and too many of the stories were close to heart.  What woman my age wasn’t taught to scream ‘fire’ instead of ‘rape’ because you’d be taken more seriously?  What woman hasn’t used the excuse of a fake boyfriend to make a man stop hitting on her, because she knew that man would take more seriously the woman being a man’s property than them not actually being interested?  Or what woman hasn’t been taught the basics of how not to get raped?  I actually worked Residence Life in undergrad; I taught women how not to get raped in the first week of school, and thought it was a necessary evil (go to the party/bathroom in groups, never leave your glass unattended, always leave together, keep your keys in between your knuckles when walking late at night alone, wait, what are you doing alone late at night???).  Yet I know my male counterparts were not teaching the new men on campus how to not rape women.  Even within our own field, we see these very cultural issues arise.  ‘Mansplaining,’ objectification, and yes, even harassment, were all issues I have dealt with in the work place over the years.  Even today at work, myself and another women experienced the joy of a creepy encounter in the elevator when the door opened to a man, staring us up and down, who said “don’t worry, I won’t hurt you.”  (Note: I didn’t know that was an option.)  And I know there’s a few reading this, thinking “oh, she’s just being hysterical/bitchy/{insert derogatory term here}”.  You’re right, I am.  Reading through those posts on Saturday made me feel sad for my 13 year old niece, who is about to experience the joyous, but brutal reality of growing up a smart, beautiful young women, and she’s already told me she wants to work at NASA.  And I want her to want that.  I’ve already done what’s needed to prove she, and any other person from my tiny, poverty-stricken town in Ohio can work like crazy and follow their dreams.  I’d say without the “how to not get raped” lecture, but we’ve sadly already had to start that conversation with my niece… at 13.  You’re right, I’m angry, and I have every right to be. 

Many of you have seen me become a leader for the rights of others in this field.  I’ve given talks at DPS and LPSC on how to mitigate harassment issues at conferences and what to do when those issues become serious.  I’ve met with several institutions to help them understand the importance of an anti-harassment policy, and have secretly celebrated the small victories that have occurred from these meetings.  I’ve listened and tried to help others who have dealt with serious issues of harassment, and I’ve tried to be a constant resource for those in our field.  And while the overwhelming response to #YesAllWomen has been unsettling, even for me, a woman who fights to ensure harassment issues aren’t a problem for other people within my field, it has also lead to an extraordinary amount of knowledge on the subject being released.  CNN, the Huffington Post, Time Magazine, and other media outlets have grabbed the story and highlighted many of the tweets that have came out (by the Tuesday morning after the rampage the hashtag had been tweeted 1 million times, so there’s plenty of source material to work with), sharing what was already obvious to many of us, even if we didn’t understand to what extent.  Many blog posts have emphasized what those of us trying to work with this issue have been sharing for some time now: how not to mansplain, how to deal with harassment (or worse,), and how to recognize that this really is a bigger issue than just one person.  My previous talks are already posted on the Women in Planetary Science blog, and please do reference them if you’re actively dealing with a harassment situation.  For this post, I want to share with you the basic advice in general, and what we, as a community, can do:

1. Listen: 

One of the hardest things for a person dealing with harassment to do is to speak out about the experience.  In that moment, they do not need to be shut down, or even belittled, with “not all men.” One of the most effective ways to help those who have dealt with issues before is to listen and to try to understand their frustration.  ‘Listening’ for me was forcing myself to watch the twitter feed and just observe, and I realized many men were doing the same thing.  Repeatedly in that hour I saw tweets from men who were trying to rally support for the women tweeting, for sympathizing with everything.  One in particular caught my eye: “Started reading #YesAllWomen tweets b/c I’ve got a daughter, but now I see I should be reading them b/c I’ve got two sons.”

2. Learn: 
Absorb the knowledge that comes with the statements that are being shared with you.  Know that these issues go beyond just gender issues.  Race played a very large role in the mass murder that occurred this past weekend as well as in many other  major incidents of violence in recent history.  Discrimination and hate are an intimate part, sadly, of the history of civil rights in the USA.  The LGBTIQ communities have faced their own set of barbaric and horrific crimes, and continue to face discrimination daily. All of these experiences are tragedies that we, as a community, should discuss and work to fix.  Everyone reading this is a scientist, and we love to problem solve.  Great, how do we fix issues that are seeped within our very culture?  We begin within our own community.  We learn how to not tolerate harassment, of any form, and how to be sympathetic towards issues that are negatively impacting our colleagues. That is a very basic stepping stone towards finding a solution.  We learn from what we just listened to.

3. Be a part of the solution:
It seems like the next natural step would be to join in and help all of us as a community, and as a society, move forward in ensuring each of our colleagues were being treated fairly and equally.  However, this step is still the major issue facing many of those in our field not encountering these issues (It’s even the major hurdle for many of us facing these issues daily). Yes, putting your head down, being a good scientist, and not harassing your colleagues is a solution for some.  But how does that help everyone else within the field?  Stephen Rinehart came out with a blog post about how to not just be part of the ‘okay’, but how to go above being ‘good’ and I highly suggest reading the post.  Stepping up can be as simple as showing your support.  The latest event I spoke about anti-harassment policies and procedures at was the Susan Niebur Event at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference.  We worked to ensure the big names that were at LPSC were in the room, and we gave our leaders in the field a chance to stand up and say how they supported everyone in the room and what they were able to offer in support.  Among many other items, the thing I heard back about that impressed those in attendance the most: the fact that the important people cared, and that they knew they had people’s attentions.  Maybe that’s where a major chunk of the solution lies: in our strongest, our most respectable, finally standing up and saying: ‘enough is enough.  I want the best scientists of our time, and I’m not getting that, because too many of them are being harassed and held down by a flawed system.  Fix the damn system.’   

4. Help:
When someone confides in you with an issue, try to help them as much as possible, either through helping them know what resources are available to them, guiding them through the procedures at their institution, or letting them know you understand and actually care.  The Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy (CSWA) has a large collection of resources available as does the AAS Working Group on LGBTIQ Equality, the AAS Committee on the Status of Minorities in Astronomy  and the Women in Planetary Science Group, along with several other national foundations and organizations (list).

5. Know when the issue needs more help than just you: 
One of the more overwhelming parts of stepping up as someone willing to help is knowing that others know you’re willing to help.  There’s one more piece of knowledge that we, as scientists, need: know when you’re out of your league.  That seems cruel to say, but I’ve been there on, multiple occasions.  I’m a scientist; I’m a Program Officer; I have to write this at 8 pm just to be able to help while also working.  I know when the bigger issues come to me, the ones I cannot help alone, to lean on key resources within my field.  Build a safety net and use it when necessary.  The CSWA, among the many other resources mentioned above, is one such safety net. 

1 comment :

  1. Excellent post. I was staggered by the recognition of all the 'survival' tips you mentioned. I don't even know how or when I learned that 'fire' was the right call and how to hold my keys. It brought tears to my eyes to know how common many of our experiences are, but also a ray of hope that it is now beginning to be discussed openly by women and decent men.