Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Sexual Harassment at Astronomical Observatories

Most sexual harassment rules apply to employees of a company/university/organization. What happens at an astronomy observatory when, for example, a staff member harasses a visiting scientist or the other way around? Or an advisor harasses an REU student or other intern? Or, if the observatory is run by multiple organizations, an employee of one organization harasses an employee of another?

Dealing with sexual harassment is a harrowing experience. If there are also layers of confusing and even conflicting bureaucracy, then reporting an incident gets even tougher. Getting a satisfactory outcome may be next to impossible.

During a recent discussion about sexual harassment with XXX, from company/university/organization YYY, which is running observatory ZZZ, it occurred to me that observatories now face the same type of challenges that the AAS faced ~10 years ago when dealing with sexual harassment. At an AAS meeting, astronomers come from across the country to attend a professional conference. The standard sexual harassment rules did not apply because harassers and victims would be, in many cases, from different institutions.

CSWA took up this challenge. Pat Knezek (former CSWA chair) and I expanded the simple “no tolerance” policy to a full blown procedure. This included instructions on how to report an incident, the subsequent investigation, and the possible disciplinary action. The AAS Council approved this expanded anti-harassment policy in January 2008. This policy is described here.

One important aspect of the policy is the disciplinary actions that could be undertaken by the AAS itself. Such actions could range from a verbal warning to ejection from the meeting. The incident could even be reported to the harasser’s employer. Repeat offenders could be banned from participating in future AAS meetings and even have their AAS membership terminated.

I suggested to XXX that YYY use the AAS anti-harassment policy as a model for a new policy for observatory ZZZ. The disciplinary actions could also range from a verbal warning to ejection from the observatory for a period of time. The incident could indeed even be reported to the harasser’s employer. Repeat or egregious offenders could be banned from the observatory. It appears that XXX is going forward with this plan for ZZZ, and it is our hope that other observatories will follow suit.

One thing that is essential to the success of such a policy is the implementation. The observatory director and senior staff must be on board. They set the tone and enforce the policy. The observatory is a professional environment where many astronomers do essential work to further both their own careers as well as the discipline itself. Although the atmosphere is often casual rather than corporate, and the location can be remote and often lonely, the environment needs to be safe and supportive. Everyone needs to know that sexual harassment is not tolerated and that there are serious repercussions for unprofessional behavior.

The enforcing organization also requires good information on the details of what actually happened. Because of the nature of a harassment offense and the complications involved in an event, which could take place in a small group environment at a remote location, the victim may not feel comfortable in subjecting him- or herself to potential retaliation. It could also aggravate the problem if the organization's upper management is not located at the remote site. This is a serious matter that requires a commitment to ensuring zero tolerance for harassment of any kind and safe workplace for all.

If you have been the victim of sexual harassment at an observatory or anywhere else, please talk to someone you trust: advisor, best friend, parent, sibling, etc. You can talk to me. You can read my story here.

The harassment experience can be isolating, but you do not have to tough it out alone. CSWA can help.

by Joan Schmelz, CSWA Chair, [jschmelz_at_memphis.edu]