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: