Monday, July 6, 2015

Unreported Sexual Harassment at AAS Meetings: An Example

This week’s guest blogger is Nicole E. Cabrera Salazar, an NSF Graduate Research Fellow and Chateaubriand Fellow at Georgia State University. Nicole is studying the feasibility of finding exoplanets around young Sun-like stars using spectroscopy. After she defends her thesis, she will be leaving academia to pursue a career in public outreach, focusing on equity and inclusion of underrepresented groups in STEM.
I’m writing this post because after a week of depressing conversations with other female astronomers about sexual harassment, it has become clear to me that we need to keep bringing these issues to light. I chose not to remain anonymous in order to put a name and a face to this problem and show that harassment has real consequences for real people. I do not judge anyone’s right to choose anonymity, because it has taken me years to work up the courage to speak publicly. By attaching my name to this post, my harasser will know exactly whom I’m referring to if and when he reads this, and I’m glad. I hope that reading this instills remorse and shame in all of the perpetrators out there. You know who you are.
I was 21 when I attended my first AAS winter meeting in Long Beach in 2009. I had just completed the REU that had convinced me to pursue a career in astronomy, and I had the full support of my REU adviser. I was nervous about going to the AAS on my own, with so many researchers who would be scrutinizing my work. My adviser met me at the undergrad reception and made sure to encourage me and introduce me to people he knew, and I felt very relieved that I didn’t have to network by myself.
At my poster the next day, my adviser came up with two fellow postdocs he knew. One of them was particularly friendly and seemed very interested in my work. He asked lots of questions about my observing methods and the reduction pipeline I had coded, and I was so happy and proud that a real scientist (other than my adviser) regarded me as a legitimate scientist as well. The interaction boosted my confidence, and as a female minority who was already feeling the effects of imposter syndrome, it made me feel more prepared to interact with the Chambliss judges who came by later to judge my poster. Wow, I thought, this is what it’s like to be a real scientist!
I kept running into this man at the conference, which seemed odd considering just how many people attend the AAS winter meeting every year. I realize now that this was probably not a coincidence, but again, every interaction was friendly and professional, and we talked mostly about my research and my studies. I may be more naïve than most people, and I especially was at that age, but no red flags were raised.

Then the unofficial party happened. I was there with a group of fellow REUs, but at some point I got separated from them, probably on my way to get a drink. Near the entrance of the bar there was a couch where this man was sitting, and as I walked by he waved me over. Not that it matters, but I was completely sober and I know that he was, too. He asked me how I was doing, and I had to lean in to hear him because the music was so loud. He took that moment to put his hand on my knee, and then he told me that he and his girlfriend were in an open relationship, and that she wouldn’t mind if I went back to his hotel room to have sex with him.
I was so shocked that I didn’t know what to say. I suddenly felt very vulnerable and alone. I was burning with shame. My adviser was not at the party (that I knew of), and the man I had blindly trusted as his friendly colleague had just solicited me for sex. I was also keenly aware that in such a loud bar, there were no witnesses.
A million questions raced through my head. Did I give him the impression that I was interested in him? Maybe I was too friendly all week; was it the way I had dressed? He must have not been interested in my work at all; does that mean I’m not really a scientist? What would my adviser think?
All I could do was mutter something about being in a closed relationship myself and walk away.
At this point, some people will say, But he didn’t attack you. You weren’t raped, you weren’t assaulted, and this was not a professional setting. And you’re right; I was lucky that this man did not become aggressive in his pursuit, and other women in the field experience much worse.
But that is not the point. This man was 10 years my senior and in a position of power relative to me. He feigned interest in my science and used that to manipulate my trust. He made me feel uncomfortable and unsafe in my work environment. He isolated me in a place where he knew he would not be overheard and where he could easily turn it around on me if I chose to report him. But he knew the chances of that were very slim, precisely because I was young and vulnerable and naïve. And he was right: I never reported this incident to the AAS and I never even told my adviser until now.
Several months ago I came across some articles that talked about just how rampant sexual harassment is at these conferences, and how many cases go unreported. As I read the ‘warning signs,’ I saw myself delineated in the bullet points almost verbatim. I couldn’t believe that this kind of behavior was so ubiquitous that it had its own playbook! Soon I started hearing about the underground lists of harassers that female scientists secretly warn each other about, either because they are too afraid for their careers to file official reports, or because complaints have been made to zero avail. It’s hard not to be discouraged by this kind of news.
Recently, I had to briefly interact with this man again at a conference, not knowing that he would be in attendance. When I realized who he was, I froze. Should I warn other women about him? What if I’m not the only student he has harassed? What if he tries to approach me again? I managed to be busy enough to avoid him, but I was angry listening to his talk, knowing that he was well-respected by the community and that even if people knew about his behavior, it would likely have no effect on him or his job or his ability to advise female grad students.
I knew that the only thing I could do was talk about it, to speak it out loud, to give it form and display it for all to see. Harassers rely on being able to hide behind their status. They are fully aware of their power and use it to manipulate others. The more we bring their misdeeds to light, to call the harassment what it is, the weaker this power becomes.
Of course, I’m aware that this incident happened six years ago, and that maybe this man has realized his actions were wrong and has changed. This is why I chose not to reveal his name publicly, but I will continue to warn other women about him just in case. I’m lucky that I have chosen to leave academia (for other reasons) and that attaching my name to this post will not negatively impact my career. So many other women do not have that luxury. I hope this serves as a warning that not all of us will be silent, and that this behavior has to change.
[Editor’s note: if this incident had happened in 2014 and not 2009, Nicole could have called on Astronomy Allies for help. Incidents like this illustrate the need for the Allies Program. If you ever feel like you are being stalked, harassed, or targeted at an AAS meeting, please know that you are not alone. Contact an Astronomy Ally!]
Other stories:


Anonymous said...

Only my humble opinion, but calling this "Sexual harassment" is a bit OTT. They both were fully grown up adults, and were outside work. The guy made a a move, it didnt work, end of the story. Where's the problem? He did NOT keep following her or whatsoever. Things like this spoils all the effort people is doing for bringing equality for women in Science.

CosmicBabs said...

Thank you Nicole for writing about your experience with sexual harassment at a AAS meeting.

I have read several of the articles related to sexual harassment in the blog, where no one is mentioned, but however, these predators are supposed to be well known. Being quite honest, names come to my mind but I don't know for sure who they are, and I understand the reason why Nicole decided to not provide the name of the person. I can also imagine the fear of a lawsuit is someone is mentioned. However, I wonder if any of the at least 4 contributors to this blog in relatively positions of "power" (meaning not grads or postdocs) has personally confronted any of these well-known serial harassers, and if they have, what excuses the harassers gave.

Predators feel comfortable enough in our astro community to behave like this in our meetings, in our institutions. Lets make sure they know that they behaviour is not accepted and that they should be held accountable for it.

Anonymous said...

To Anonymous @9:52 AM - a 21 year old undergrad is "fully grown up" in the eyes of the law perhaps, but not in terms of career relative to her harasser in this case. Regardless of the 10 year age difference, the man was 2 career stages ahead of her. The inherent power imbalance is a large part of what makes this inappropriate and sexual harassment - she couldn't know how her refusal would impact her future career, especially with someone in her sub-field who is friends with her adviser. And she couldn't know at the time that he wouldn't keep following her or try to proposition her at future events.

Additionally, the AAS Party, however "unofficial", is not "outside work" - we may all let our hair down, but it's still part of the meeting and we all still have to face each other the next day (or at the next meeting, or talk, or collaboration visit).

Finally, such situations negatively impact the confidence of the women who are harassed. Nicole mentions the confidence she gained from the post-doc's initial interest in her work, but then that she had to question his motives: "He must have not been interested in my work at all; does that mean I’m not really a scientist?" That's not an isolated reaction. Hannah Waters also wrote that Bora Zivkovic's harassment was a blow to her confidence as a science writer, because she then questioned his menthorship and whether she deserved the career ( Under-confidence and imposter syndrome are already problems for women in STEM without harassers exacerbating the issue.

Jeff said...

@Anon Even without getting into a debate about what does and what does not constitute sexual harassment, even without arguing about the professional inappropriateness of the situation, you need to reread the piece and listen to what Nicole is saying about the effect that it had on her. It's hard enough doing science, gaining confidence in your work and getting a footing professionally without having to navigate a minefield of doubts, questions and worry about your future career brought on by this kind of crap.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous, I think you're misunderstanding the situation - The guy wasn't just flirting, he made a power play on Nicole, plain and simple. And you can't call this an "after-work" move, because there is no "after-work" at a conference. It's advances like his that make women feel unsafe in astronomy.

Jessica Kirkpatrick said...

Anonymous -- Your comment shows a lack of understanding of the power dynamics at play in this situation, and highlights the blurred lines between "outside of work" when we are talking about social events which are part of a conference. First of all, we are not talking about a peer hitting-on another peer, we are talking about someone much more senior, and in a position of professional power propositioning an UNDERGRADUATE. Undergraduates are the most powerless and vulnerable people at an AAS conference. It shows (at best) a total lack of awareness of these power dynamics for a post-doc to proposition an undergraduate, and (at worst) an abuse of power. Second, the AAS party is an extension of the conference, and is thus a professional event. Treating this as otherwise is not correct. I don't expect appropriate and respectful conduct from my colleagues to go away just because we have moved from the conference center to a bar. Third, this guy didn't "make a move" in an appropriate way (even if you ignore the power dynamics or professional setting). Going from talking as professional colleagues to saying "let's go back to have sex in my hotel room" without any indication of the other person's interest (or even knowing if they are single) is incredibly aggressive, and would make any reasonable person very uncomfortable even if it were just two people in a bar.

I suspect Anonymous, that you are a man, and are having trouble understanding the experience of a person who is more vulnerable than you. How would you feel if someone did this to one of your undergraduate students or your daughter? Instead of denying that this experience is sexual harassment, try to understand why this was so upsetting to Nicole. Think about what you can do to prevent this from happening to vulnerable undergraduates at future AAS conferences.

Nicole -- Thank you for bravely sharing your story. Something VERY similar happened to me at a conference, and I had a lot of the same feelings of self-doubt and self-blaming. You did nothing wrong here. This man behaved in a way that was completely inappropriate and unprofessional. I hope he hasn't continued this behavior, and I hope other people who read this will learn to be more thoughtful of how to appropriately and inappropriately express romantic interest in a coworker when in a professional situation.

Jarle Brinchmann said...

Anonymous, if this was something happened at a bar in a random setting you could perhaps argue that this is not sexual harassment (although legally speaking in the US it would still qualify - see below).

However, that was not the setting, in any way. Imagine yourself as an inexperienced researcher, especially as an undergraduate student, and that you receive compliments on your science from a considerably more senior person - most people would be flattered. And rightly so. Now imagine that you next realise that actually it wasn't a compliment on your science - but rather on your body/face/whatever - something you most certainly did not go to a scientific meeting to exhibit. For most people that will be a very bad blow to their self-esteem as well as being creepy. Regardless of the label you put on it that is a**hole behaviour.

The words 'sexual harassment' are not the main point of this story - and should not be. It is the fact that what happened was unacceptable that matters here. However formally speaking it should be labelled sexual harassment in the US:

Mireia said...

At a conference this year, I was approach by a senior scientist. He was friendly and I was like, come on don't be as rude as your always are! But at some point some of the things that he said during the meetings where too weird, at the point that he said: "I have to ask you something because I don't understand women sometimes" So, he asked me if I was avoiding him (which I was). And then, of course, he asked me if I had boyfriend.
So, I totally understand you. Nothing happened, but you feel guilty because "maybe I was too friendly and he got it wrong". The thing is that it doesn't matter what you do. If you're too friendly or not, because they will still be like that. And we should stop blaming ourselves for that. We are not to blame. But, they are.

Anonymous said...

Those comments and the text make me very angry. Yes worse things can happen to a person, but when they happen to you it does feel extremely isolating and humiliating. However, I am sorry I doubt this business about allies. People know when this happens, and they make a choice to ignore it. And some worry more that the person being harassed might get some "favors". And just as often people who observe the dynamic, make the choice to support the person doing the harassment, because that person has more power. So I don't doubt this happens, I doubt the honesty of the "allies". Are there any examples of such allies that can be presented?

John Johnson said...

What happened in this story is against federal law (Title IX of the Civil Rights Act), so Anon's opinion is not only insulting, it's entirely moot. From the Title IX website:

"Before Title IX:

Making sexual innuendos, calling people sexually charged names, spreading rumors about sexual activity, or touching someone inappropriately used to be dismissed as "boys will be boys" type of behavior at best, and rude or crude at worst.

Since Title IX

Sexual harassment in education includes any unwanted and unwelcome sexual behavior that significantly interferes with a student's access to educational opportunities."

This extends to all students:

"Sexual harassment, defined as unwanted and unwelcome behavior of a sexual nature, affects students in educational institutions ranging from elementary to postgraduate schools."

The astronomer in this story also violated AAS bylaws:

"Sexual harassment refers to unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. Behavior and language that are welcome/ acceptable to one person many be unwelcome/offensive to another. Consequently, individuals must use discretion to ensure that their words and actions communicate respect for others. This is especially important for those in positions of authority since individuals with lower rank or status may be reluctant to express their objections or discomfort regarding unwelcome behavior."

Sexual harassment has little to do with human attraction and normal human sexual interaction. It has everything to do with men exerting power over women in a society that teaches all men that all women are inferior. Sexual harassment is an act of sexism, and like all sexist acts it is cruel, damaging and unjust.

F Harbi said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

I'm a PhD student. A couple of weeks ago, a (big and fat) observatory director and an important guy in my research topic put down the same question after extensive hitting on me on a conference, although in a slightly more polite way. It started with that he was taking photos of me in secrecy during the coffee breaks, I noticed he was staring at me constantly while taking pics in my direction. Then he initiated the conversation and didn't give me peace until Da Question came at the end of the first day.

The mistake is to feel the whole thing as a power-play, I mean, what can you lose by rejecting somebody on a conference? I understand that rejecting a supervisor or a boss might be tricky due to close interplay (yet very doable), but a random dude on a conference? Come on.

Maybe its difficult, if your entrance point is that you yourself want something (else) out of that relation and are weighting friends and acquintances by their relative usefulness to your career.

If you find it difficult due to him being senior, you have a tragic approach to people: kissing up, kicking down. Myself, I find that approach to humans and colleagues being distasteful. I told my supervisors and colleagues about the event and we had lots of fun from all the details. It makes a great story. And no, I don't give a damn if he becomes my referee or sits in some committee or so. He will have forgotten my name until then, because a man that asks such a question approaches women according the the Law of Large Numbers.

Sex is power. Rejecting this cod was a piece of cake. I avoided him successfully, although he was damn insisting for the coming days. If I meet him on a conference dinner, I'll have a difficult time suppressing an evil smile :-) Because, the power over my body is mine and mine alone.