Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Fed Up with Sexual Harassment II: The Astronomy Allies Program


Today’s guest blogger is Katey Alatalo. Katey is a postdoc at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at Caltech. Her research interests include using CARMA and ALMA to map cold molecular gas in candidates from AGN feedback and using Herschel to map the conditions in shocked molecular gas in interacting groups of galaxies.

Suppose you are standing at your AAS poster, and someone is monopolizing your time and standing way too close.  Suppose you meet a senior scientist at the AAS meeting, and s/he asks you to dinner under the pretext of discussing your work, but the conversation gets way too personal.  Suppose you drink a bit too much or stay out a bit too late at the AAS party, and you need a safe way to get back to your hotel.  What do you do? Contact Astronomy Allies.

The Astronomy Allies Program consists of volunteers who act to form a “safe-zone” at AAS meetings. An Astronomy Ally can act as a buffer, bystander, or advocate. As a meeting participant, you can contact an Ally if you need help. Allies can provide confidential advice, support, information, and resources. They can serve as a liaison between you and the AAS administration. They can help create an environment where the perpetrators of harassment feel they “can’t get away” with their unprofessional and disturbing behavior. As knowledge of the Allies Program grows, their very existence may help prevent future problems before they start.
 


How do you get in touch with the Allies Program?  You can text, tweet, or email the Allies Program, and someone with an Allies insignia will find you. You can sit down and talk confidentially. Allies will listen without judgment, offer advice when needed, and provide resources in case you decide you want to report the incident to the AAS. Nothing except the type of incident will be shared with the AAS without your explicit consent.


At the AAS party, Allies will offer Safewalks back to hotels. Since a lot of the worst incidents have taken place where alcohol is prevalent, think of Allies as the “designated drivers,” getting you to your hotel safely and (hopefully) harassment-free. No matter is too small for Allies involvement – if it has made you uncomfortable, let Allies help.

How do you change the world? Start small. Start smart. There is significant attrition of women compared to men in astronomy, even after women have committed to study astronomy in college. There are many factors that play into this, but one of these is the importance of one’s first “professional” experience. For many undergraduate astronomy majors, their first exposure to a large-scale astronomy conference is the AAS winter meeting. The AAS meeting provides many students a first-look at the astronomy community, and therefore can have a disproportionately influential impact on a student’s decision to remain in astronomy (or not). This is also a known hunting ground for serial sexual harassers. Can you imagine coming to your first professional astronomy conference, having a luminary in the field pay special attention to you, and then start steering conversations toward your personal life and your sexual partners? It might completely change the way you see astronomy. First impressions are important. This is why targeting the AAS meetings first has the potential to have a significant impact.

Now imagine an AAS meeting with an Allies Program, with carefully vetted people who wear their support of victims on their sleeves? If you were a victim, knowing there were people around who would support you without judgment and help you feel safe, you might feel a lot more positive about the experience at the meeting. As for the harassers, the meetings would become a dangerous place to practice their craft, as more eyes would be on them, and their targets would feel more comfortable coming forward.


Heather Flewelling (IfA) and I are committed to forming this group of Astronomy Allies. Like the AAS party, this starts with a small group of people who care and want to help, and we plan to expand. This is a first step toward making the astronomy community safer and more welcoming - and what better way to do that than to give people a chance to put their support of this into action.

Allies is in its nascent state, but there are already people who are committed to it and excited about it. Becoming a bona fide Ally will be by invitation-only; you cannot just volunteer. Allies is an exclusive group. This is, in part, to avoid the inevitable danger of the “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” Allies is being extremely careful about who gets to wear the badge. Allies does welcome any suggestions or offers of help. If you have questions/comments, a story you want to share, or advice to offer, please contact the Allies Program at astronomyallies_at_gmail_dot_com.


For more information about this series:

Fed Up with Sexual Harassment II: The Solutions Series

Fed Up with Sexual Harassment II: Information Escrows