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]


Anonymous said...


your points are well taken, and certainly no sexual harassment should be tolerated. The operating companies of the observatories must have a strong policy against harassment that is fair and thorough. There must be clear guidelines, and a procedure that protects the privacy of the victim and accused. But remember, when you are abroad you must abide by the laws of that country. It is not quite as simple as kicking someone out of the observatory if there is a problem. The accused will have legal rights that may not exist in the US, and the observatory must respect those rights.

There must be tolerance for the customs of other cultures. My daughter grew up in Chile, and it was natural for the teachers to hug and kiss the students, behavior that could get a teacher kicked out of a school in the US.

Harassment, as we define it in the US, must not happen in the foreign environment. But the education of foreign workers against harassing behavior must be done in a culturally sensitive way because the workers involved in the host country may honestly not know that for instance, an effusive compliment to a woman on her beauty would be considered threatening to some.

You can't go to a foreign country and demand that everyone act like US citizens. But we can, and should, train foreign workers to understand that behavior which may appear innocent in their culture is not okay in the workplace of an observatory, and will not be tolerated.

Nicholas Suntzeff

Alex Vogel said...


Your points are well taken, but we're not discussing culturally-acceptable behavior when we discuss harassment: we're talking about unwanted actions or words that contribute to a hostile working environment. (And many times it's been expressed to the person that their actions are unwanted. And the person knows that their behavior is hostile.)

I live and work in a Latin American place, with deep ties to Spain. Kissing on the cheek is common between women and men, like it is in some parts of Europe. Awkward for those not raised in it, but easy enough to indicate that it's not your practice if it makes you uncomfortable.

Most people know that in 2013 if you meet someone who was raised in a different manner than you, they may not kiss as a greeting. I've spent a long time in Japan where you simply don't touch people while greeting: you bow. A kiss on the cheek would be quite alarming for folks where bowing is normal! A quick search on the 'net for customs in a new country is easy for visitors.

Many astronomers have spent significant time outside of their home country on postdocs or as students, so are aware that norms vary from country to country, and usually expect some differences from place to place. And someone working at an international observatory should be similarly aware that visitors will come through with different customs and expectations.

Regardless of cultural background or country of origin, complimenting someone on their beauty or appearance in a working environment where looks aren't important can be very threatening and degrading. Can you imagine only being valued in your job for how you wore your hair or the measurement of part of your body? How would you feel if you were constantly worried about your appearance instead of your work? Being able to devote all your brain cycles to actual work is a huge deal, and constantly wondering if you're dressed appropriately or demurely enough takes a toll.

You can't go to a foreign country and demand that everyone act like US citizens. That's not what Joan is asking for: she's asking that observatories, remote sites, and even US institutions on US soil have policies that encourage everyone to do their best work in a good environment. And some of the worst offenders are the ones who've been raised on US soil and who think that because they're outside of a big city or beyond reproach they can get away with behavior that would not fly in any country or culture.

If you run an observatory in a country that's foreign to you, it's your obligation to make sure that local staff, foreign staff, and visitors from all places know what's expected of them, and that everyone is provided a safe and harassment-free environment.

We take such pains to minimize accidents, to wear hardhats, to have lockouts, and post placards advising folks of dangers from falls and high voltage: why not create a culture that does the same but for words.

Because those comments that might be innocent and naive could be very uncaring, or intentional, and do a lot to drive people from this field we love so much. Imagine how much better astronomy would be if we had clear guidelines on what behavior was acceptable and what isn't. Or if people weren't worrying all the time about appearance or the little things because they knew what was okay, and instead focused on the real work of understanding our place in space and time.

Anonymous said...

Dear Nicholas,
With all due respect, I don't think Joan is referring to issues of
cultural difference here. You seem to be jumping to the conclusion that the events in question occurred off of U.S. soil- is there a reason for this? I think (hope?) most of us are smart enough to understand that when we go to foreign observatories, we might be treated a little bit differently. And we certainly do need to educate staff about being sensitive and respectful toward visitors.

But I'm writing to tell you that much worse things happen than an unwanted peck on the cheek. I was sexually assaulted at an observatory in the not too distant past, and what happened was certainly not a cultural misunderstanding. Fortunately the observatory dealt with it in a very professional manner, but since these incidents remain confidential I suspect they never cross the radar of the greater astronomical community. Judging from what I hear from Joan, they are not isolated incidents either. I hope everyone in our field can become more aware of these very serious problems and work together to ensure the safety of our mountaintop workplaces.

Joan Schmelz said...

Thanks, Alex, for your detailed and eloquent response to the comment posted by Nicholas. You are right on target. Nicholas, although I agree that you have a point, I think it is a shame that you choose to emphasize this issue. As someone who has written recently on this blog cautioning about the cultural differences related to the Invasion of Personal Space:


I can assure you that cultural misunderstandings were not part of the incident at observatory ZZZ and did not prompt the discussion with XXX. Rather, as someone recently commented, it seems that some women in astronomy feel that they can share their horror stories with me. Part of the reason for this is that I have been a CSWA member for a number of years and that I have shared by own story of harassment:


It is also true that I can keep a secret. If someone is courageous enough to tell me their story, then I, as the Keeper of Stories, am not at liberty to share the details with you or with anyone else. Odds are that you and the astronomy community in general would not have heard that story. As the comment by Anonymous indicates, these stories can involve incidents of sexual harassment and sexual assault. Thank you so much, Anonymous, for posting your comment and shifting the focus of this post back to where it belongs.

Unknown said...

It is sad to see people who have been through sexual harassment. There are many people who are victims to it every year. There are a lot of great people in the area who are willing to help those who have been victims to it. I really hope that those that are victims can seek for help and know that they are not alone. http://www.withylaw.net/sexual-harassment