Tuesday, November 24, 2015

It's Not Just Marcy, and the Grapevine Won't Save Us

The below post was written by a contributor who wishes to use the pseudonym ExUngueLeam. The author is a junior astronomer whose friends and colleagues may be able to identify her from her writing, but who is nevertheless afraid to post this under her real name.


Editor Note: The author of this guest post is not a member of the AAS CSWA, and has not shared any names with CSWA members. The CSWA is not using any information obtained from the author of this guest post to pursue or further Title IX cases against anyone in the astronomical community. The CSWA does not maintain an internal list of "serial harassers" of its own. 

ExUngueLeam states: "The purpose of this post is to explain the grapevine and passing along such lists are *not* the way to deal with the widespread problem of harassment in astronomy, and ultimately don't provide any real protection to the most vulnerable members of the astronomical community. While many members of the astronomical community may already have private lists of people to avoid, sharing these lists with colleagues poses real danger to one's career, and ultimately we need another way of addressing the problem of serial harassment."


Image credit is Jim. C. Hines
November was the month I discovered that the fractional abundance of "known" sexual harassers in the astronomy community is greater than that of oxygen in the universe.

Since the Geoff Marcy case broke I've had a number of overlapping conversations with friends and colleagues trying to discover if there are any "well-known serial harassers" at large in their area of specialization. I've had these conversations with astronomers at all levels of career advancement, from undergraduate students to tenured professors. While many of my senior colleagues were vaguely aware of the conversation about sexual harassment happening in the astronomy community, they never guessed that Marcy was on the list of alleged perpetrators. They were appalled and shocked when they found out.

"I knew about so-and-so, but not about Marcy," one friend confided. "How many more people exist like this in our community? How deep does this rot go?"

Another friend told me: "I keep hearing there are all these 'known' harassers, but I don't know who they are. Is there someone like Marcy in my subfield? I'm worried that in failing to warn my students about these individuals, I could be putting them in actual physical danger."

Those two specific quotes came from professors. Both of them identify as male. They've been working in astronomy (one of them in exoplanets) for well over a decade, and yet the news about Marcy caught them completely by surprise. The grapevine and whisper networks traditionally bypass men, and in particular well-established men, because of the dual assumptions that they are less likely to be targets of harassment and that they less likely to be sympathetic to the victims of harassment.  This is a problematic stereotype for several reasons, starting with the fact that men represent something like 10-20% of sexual harassment victims

So we undertook a small, quiet project to find how many more "known harassers" were out there, each of us reaching out to others in our networks to try to fill in the gaps. Not all of these attempts were successful: one of my colleagues claimed to know of several prominent harassers besides Marcy, but clammed up when I asked her for specifics, saying simply: "There are a lot of them. They are everywhere." Another friend of a friend was willing to name subfields, but not specific individuals. 

Nevertheless, within the past few weeks we've accumulated ten names. These are not guys who simply said something without thinking or had an awkward encounter that was badly misconstrued, √† la Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory. Each of these names generated multiple warnings, multiple bad stories, many of them on a comparable level of severity to the stories circulating about Marcy prior to the news from Berkeley. At least one of the individuals has been reported to his university by men as well as women. These men include leading experts in cosmology, galaxy evolution, stellar structure, radio astronomy (pulsars AND extragalactic), interstellar medium, sub-stellar objects (atmospheres AND detection), gravity waves, exoplanets (yes, this is in addition to Marcy), and astronomy education. All of the names are tenured professors or equivalent. They include prize winners, celebrities, policy makers, and even leading diversity advocates.

Writing down these names on a single piece of paper is painful.  These are names I recognize, people I have looked up to and admired, who I have maybe shared a pleasant meal or a drink with. Some of them I maybe hoped to collaborate with. None of the names are my close friends, so far, but two of them are friends of my friends. Reading their names in this context, one after the other, feels like a betrayal. 

I think that despite having read all the articles and seen the statistics on how widespread harassment is in the sciences, I'd gotten used to thinking of the serial harassers as something of a rarity.  A common analogy is that of the missing stair: the dangerous hole in the back staircase that we try to remember to warn newcomers about, but which we think is someone else's job to fix or have grown so used to avoiding that we simply accept them as part of the building's shoddy construction. We apparently have one in my department, too--the person who everyone celebrates in public, but grumbles about in private, passing along warnings and horror stories via the grapevine. Watch out for so-and-so. Don't make visiting women spend too much time alone with him if you can help it.  Don't spend too much time alone with him yourself if you can help it. Everyone knows what he is like in private.


Except, everyone doesn't know. The most vulnerable members of the community are also the ones who are the least well-connected to the grapevine. These are the people most likely to be targeted: The adjunct lecturer who doesn't attend faculty meetings. The only woman in the IT group. The new admin in the back office. The recent PhD starting their very first postdoc in a new city. Students, above all--both graduate and undergraduate. Who among us regularly shares the real departmental dirt with undergraduates? It's not a coincidence that young women early in their careers get more abuse than older or established ones--not because they are young and pretty, but because they are the most vulnerable. Sexual harassment is intrinsically a predatory act, with many of the worst offenders showing remarkable savvy both in their choice of victims and in their ability to present charming, respectable facades to the rest of the world.

And of course, many of the harassers' colleagues may not know, either, because the grapevine actively avoids telling them.  Who wants to tell their supervisor or department head that one of their long-time friends periodically assaults undergraduates? No one told my male colleagues about Marcy.

Even if they make a point of asking around, they might not be able to get the information. I'm discovering that it's actually quite difficult to find out who we are actually talking about when we say "well-known serial harassers". First you have to know which colleague to ask; then that person has to decide it's worth the risk to tell you. Make no mistake, there is some real risk to your career every time you opt to pass along a name. In the United States, the truth is supposed to be an effective defense against accusations of slander, but that's not universally true in all countries. And legal protections only protect you from lawsuits. There are so many ways to punish whistleblowers in a community like ours. The individuals with first-hand knowledge of a serial harasser don't want come forward because they are afraid, or because they are trying to move on with their lives, and often the harasser is a gatekeeper in their career pathway. The people with second-hand knowledge are also often in vulnerable positions, and are unwilling to betray the trust of the person who confided in them. The people with third-hand knowledge know that they possess only some of the details, and are reluctant to pass along vague and incomplete rumors.

The result is a grapevine that simply doesn't work.  The less well-connected you are to the rest of the astronomical community, the more likely you are to be targeted. And then who do you go to for help? 

Ultimately the grapevine and the missing stair model fail to protect anyone because they rely on the assumption of rarity--that it's actually possible to avoid the dangerous people and still maintain a successful career.  But as my list of names grows, it's becoming clear that this assumption is dangerously wrong. The "well-known serial harassers" truly are everywhere. I have ten names, and solid leads pointing to two more. I have been told outright that my list is horribly incomplete. Conservatively, we can assume that there are at least twice that many serial harassers out there, at comparably advanced levels of their careers. So that means a minimum of 20 individuals with senior astronomer status. The membership of the AAS includes something like 4,000 astronomers, including full, associate, and junior members, so the "fractional abundance" of serial harassers in astronomy is something like 0.005, or 1 for every 200 AAS members. This is the minimum, conservative estimate. For comparison, the fractional molar abundance of oxygen and carbon in the Sun is something like 1 in 2,000. Serial sexual harassers are an order of magnitude more abundant in the astronomical community than carbon and oxygen are in the universe.  

This comparison is not meant to be trivializing: most of us take the oxygen we breathe and the carbon in our cells for granted. And yet somehow we assume that serial harassers are a rarity, and we put the onus for avoiding them on their potential victims.  

So what should we do? What do we do when we hear rumors of sexual harassment, but no one will tell us who it is? What are our obligations when we do learn that someone we like and respect has been abusing others? What do we do if someone is asking us for the details, but we don't feel safe sharing them?

I do realize that this is a frustrating post to read. Here I am telling you that I have a list of harassers, but I'm not about to share it with you. In fact, reading this post is frustrating in exactly the same way that my own attempts at finding out these names was frustrating--because the grapevine is fundamentally designed not to work.

My point is that this is a very deep and widespread cultural problem, one that is impacting a considerable proportion of junior scientists and related staff, and we do need to start treating it as such and begin seriously looking at better ways of dealing with complaints. The Women in Astronomy blog covered several strategies in its "Solutions" series. One such alternative explored is information escrows, which allow targets of harassment to their record complaints without filing them. If some some threshold number of additional complaints about that same harasser is reached, all of the stored complaints will also be filed, allowing multiple victims who may not even know one another to file simultaneously, lending credence to each individual complaint and hopefully diffusing any negative pushback. Information escrows provide the most benefit in situations where 1.) serial harassers are targeting multiple victims over time, and 2.) individual victims are reluctant to make direct complaints [*]. Based on the ten names I accumulated over the past month, and the difficulty I had in obtaining them, Astronomy would seem to be such an environment.

Yet even information escrows require that the administrators who receive the simultaneous complaints actually take them seriously and act on them. Triggered mass complaints will only do so much good if department heads and university administrators refuse to attach real consequences to Title IX complaints.

And so the best and most important thing we can do right now is still simply to believe and support those victims who do come forward. Believing individuals who report harassment is a necessary precondition for anything else.

What I'm truly hoping for is that the Marcy case will bring about a sea change in the way we deal with sexual harassment and assault in astronomy. I'm hoping that more of these names will come out into the bright light of day, so that we do not have to rely on a grapevine whisper network that never worked in the first place. I'm hoping that we will do a better job of believing the people who make these reports, and that the next time a department head writes a letter it will be in support of the victims, not the harassers.

I'm hoping that some day soon it will not be worse to report sexual harassment than to endure it in the first place. When every single staircase in the building is missing steps, perhaps it's past time we start fixing up the house.