Monday, May 12, 2014

Fed Up With Sexual Harassment: Defining the Problem


One of the most damaging, yet all too common practices that hurts women's careers in astronomy is sexual harassment. Title IX of the US Civil Rights Act of 1964 (as amended in 1972) defines sexual harassment as
[U]nwanted or unwelcome behavior of a sexual nature that interferes unreasonably with a student’s ability to learn, study, work, achieve, or participate in school activities. Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination, and schools are legally responsible for preventing it. Schools must also prevent harassment based on your sex, even if it is not sexual in nature. 
Sexual harassment need not occur on school property—it can happen off school grounds in any school-related program or activity. 
Unlike flirting or good-natured joking, which are mutual interactions between two people, sexual harassment is unwelcomed and unwanted behavior which may cause the target to feel threatened, afraid, humiliated, angry, or trapped.
Note how intent is not included in any aspect of the definition. All that matters is the action and the result.

Before delving into this subject further I think it's very important to point out one important aspect of sexual harassment in comparison to the other factors that impede equal access in astronomy, such as the two-body problem, implicit (unconscious) bias, stereotype threat, lack of family leave policies at our institutions, etc. Of all of these various factors, sexual harassment is specifically prohibited by federal law. If we can't solve an illegal barrier for women in astronomy, how can we tackle the other issues that prevent equal opportunities for employment in our field?


This is not how your brain works. Your
brain interacts with the world around you.
Your science is therefore linked to your
environment. 
We astronomers depend on our brains to do our job. Because the same brain that we use to solve differential equations and write computer code is the same brain used to process our social environment, sexual harassment of any kind most certainly interferes with astronomers' ability to do their jobs. Far more subtle things than sexual harassment have been shown over and over again to greatly impact learning and performance on intellectual tasks. For example, exposure to derogatory cartoons can cause high-performing math students to struggle on a subsequent test. This sort of thing not only affects high-performing white women and minority students, but can also be triggered in white men who show otherwise high aptitude in math. How? Just tell them that the test they're taking is designed to compare Asian and American students' mathematical aptitude. (This is known as stereotype threat and there are more than 300 peer-reviewed articles on the subject. Anyone who cares about education should care about stereotype threat.)

Thus, studies show that things as simple as cartoons and as subtle as racist suggestions can derail a strong mind. These things are tiny effects in comparison to being touched inappropriately or having a professor comment on your body. If you still have a hard time imagining how this could be detrimental to someone's career, allow me to suggest that it's because it hasn't happened to you. It certainly hasn't happened to me, but that's almost certainly because I'm a man in a male-dominated field (although same-sex harassment does happen).

If you are a man and struggle to see why an unwelcome sexual advance can be so disturbing, take my friend's suggestion and ignore the gender mismatch. Instead of imagining a senior woman touching you, imagine a large, muscular man gazing seductively into your eye while touching your knee just before colloquium. How well would you remember the talk? What would be on your mind following the talk? Who would you talk to about the incident, especially if the man who has a crush on you has control over your career?

The problem with addressing sexual harassment comes down to the fact that Universities have very little incentive to act in the victim's favor. Consider the monetary value of a sexual harassment victim compared to a high-profile professor. The student brings in of order $10K/year (order of magnitude) in tuition, and depending on their socioeconomic status and how well they fare on the job market, potentially $10-100K in future alumni donations at the extreme end. The professor, on the other hand, can bring in tens of millions in grant funding, of which 30-60% goes straight to the University's coffers in the form of overhead. The professor, if he has high visibility, can also bring fame and recognition to the University by showing up in documentaries, and in some cases popular venues like the Late Show. A professor can also inspire donors to give large sums to the University. So losing a professor is to lose millions, not to mention the media storm that further impacts the University's ability to do business.

The other problem is the burden of proof is on the victim. After the traumatic experience, the victim of sexual harassment must present evidence to back their claim. But when the action involves inappropriate comments or touching, and the action happens in private, it is very difficult to prove wrong doing beyond doubt. So what usually happens is the woman walks away from the university's Title IX office with nothing more than instructions to try again when she has more evidence, or worse, a warning not to risk her career. After all, it's her story against his, and he insists that nothing untoward happened that night. Stories of these interactions spread among women on a campus, which further discourages other women from coming forward. This pattern has led to the lawsuit filed by 30 women against UC Berkeley.

Finally, note the power imbalance. If word gets back to the professor that a student filed a complaint, the professor has many ways of impacting the student's career, behind her back in the form of phone calls to colleagues ("she's not good enough for grad study at your institution"), he can volunteer to serve on her thesis committee, he can write weak letters, and the list goes on. A word here, a weak letter there is plenty to end an otherwise promising career.

When someone is known to engage in this behavior---and there are several known offenders in astronomy---no one seems willing to out them by name. Why? Again, it comes back to the power imbalance. It's hard enough to call a senior scientist out on an incorrect scientific result. It's far more difficult to call them on a charge of sexual harassment. This leaves only "underground networks" of astronomers passing information by word of mouth at conferences or in private discussions. This works to some extent, but it's an imperfect system and serial harassers know how to prey on the uninformed---generally undergraduate women who are not as well connected to the greater astronomy community. (Note, however, that libel/slander are only issues if the claim is untrue, in contrast to rules elsewhere, such as in the UK. In the US, we are free to speak out about something that is true.)

With this series of blog posts, I hope to shed some light on the behavior of serial sexual harassers by exposing their modus operandi, and by having women share their often painful and disturbing stories of being sexually harassed by fellow astronomers. In addition to the power imbalance involved, one of the things that protects serial harassers is the information imbalance. Women who have been harassed often think that they represent isolated cases. Without knowing how common it is in our community and how many other women have been similarly affected, there's a tendency for victims to blame themselves, compartmentalize the experience and generally not speak up. As Dara Norman recently wrote in STATUS:
It has gotten to the point where, about once a year, I find out that one more prominent astronomer is a serial harasser. While I am thankful not to learn these things first hand, I am dismayed at the persistence of this kind of behavior in astronomy. What is more disturbing is the number of times I have mentioned my newfound knowledge to other prominent astronomers who acknowledge that they already knew about this person. The collective silence that keeps these kinds of harassing activities under wraps is one of the most troubling things about our field. It is not only the harassment that is damaging to the field but also the culture of silence that allows it to persist unabated. 
Fortunately, in the age of social media, the information imbalance is lessening. One of my goals is to hasten this shift and accelerate the process of reform that is so badly needed in our field of science. It's time to start speaking up. It's time to start constructing a true meritocracy in which all astronomy undergrads have an equal opportunity to succeed at the highest levels.