Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Where Are We on Harassment?

By Aparna Venkatesan

The year 2015 was a watershed moment for mainstream awareness of harassment in astronomy and physics, with individual cases involving decades-long harassment and long-term fallout for junior astronomers making national news. This was a galvanizing call to action for those working in astronomy and astrophysics, ahead of the recent #MeToo and other powerful movements. 2015 was also the year when the first Inclusive Astronomy meeting was held at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN, resulting in concrete recommendations endorsed by the AAS Council for creating an inclusive workplace and professional community (link for the  Nashville Recommendations for Inclusive Astronomy at AAS Groups wiki: https://tiki.aas.org/tiki-index.php?page=Inclusive_Astronomy_The_Nashville_Recommendations)

Clancy et al. (2017) demonstrated that a significant difference exists
in the percent of individuals who have felt unsafe in their current
position due to gender and race.  
Although harassment can occur in a variety of ways and environments, some groups are especially vulnerable and targeted by harassers, as reported by Clancy, Lee, Rodgers & Richey (2017; “Double jeopardy in astronomy and planetary science: Women of color face greater risks of gendered and racial harassment”, J. Geophys. Res. Planets, 122, 1610–1623; PDF  available at: https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1002/2017JE005256). This team of authors includes social scientists, astronomers, and planetary scientists. Their results are based on an online survey of workplace experiences conducted between 2011 and 2015 of 474 astronomers and planetary scientists, with the survey created by former CSWA Chair Christina Richey and Erica Rodgers. (For further discussion on the survey, an interview with the paper authors can be found here: https://eos.org/editors-vox/harassment-in-astronomy-and-planetary-science.) Some key points from this AAS-supported work include (with the survey and methodology caveats noted by the authors): women experience more physical and verbal harassment than men, and people of color (POC) experience more physical and verbal harassment than white respondents. Women of color are especially at risk for all types of harassment (including assault) and hostile workplace experiences compared with white women and men of color. The authors drew attention to decades of research on women of color being at greater risk of both gendered and racialized harassment (Moraga and Anzaldua, 1981; Carter 1988; Prescod-Weinstein, 2014, 2015, and other references in article), as seen in the accompanying figure (WM = white men, WW = white women, MOC = men of color, WOC = women of color; numbers at the bottom figure are the raw count for each category). Those with multiple subordinate-group identities might experience different kinds and levels of oppressions relative to those with a single subordinate-group identity. 

While harassment occurred at seemingly equal incidence at most career ranks in the study, the representation of women, POC and women of color dramatically declines with steps up the career ladder, raising the real possibility of a dramatic loss of junior astronomers owing to harassment. The levels of harassment experienced and/or witnessed by respondents were shockingly high, as were the lost professional and career opportunities owing to safety concerns and a hostile climate. Specifically, “40% of women of color reported feeling unsafe in the workplace as a result of their gender or sex, and 28% of women of color reported feeling unsafe as a result of their race.” Furthermore, “18% of women of color, and 12% of white women, skipped professional events because they did not feel safe attending”. 88% of respondents heard negative language from their peers, and about 51% heard this from their supervisors (this last statistic is especially startling as supervisors presumably have had some training on professional ethics and workplace conduct).

These results represent a significant failure in the astronomical community to create safe working conditions for all scientists.  These data also indicate that the too-low numbers of POC, and women of color, in the astronomical community are not occurring in a vacuum, and that hostile workplace experiences are likely a strong factor.

Our professional societies and granting agencies are beginning to recognize the direct impact of harassment in preventing an inclusive and equitable workplace, as well as in the resulting loss of a diverse community of highly trained talented professionals, particularly at early career stages. Harassment is now being recognized as a violation of ethical and research conduct/protocol, and is being included in the definition of scientific misconduct in many professional societies.

The American Astronomical Society (AAS) and the American Geophysical Union (AGU) have been leading the way for the past year on this front with revised ethics policies. These policies now take a significantly stronger stance on factors that impact workplace climate by expanding the definition of scientific misconduct to include harassment, discrimination and bullying, thus recognizing that research conduct and personal behavior impact the broader scientific enterprise. Additionally, anti-harassment statements are now required of AGU Fellow and Prize nominees as well. A recent update on AGU’s policies, and their impact on policymaking and other scientific societies can be found at:

The American Astronomical Society (AAS) has a revised Code of Ethics (https://aas.org/ethics), and a new form to report violations of the AAS Code of Ethics or Anti-Harassment Policy, currently managed 24/7 year-round through a phone and web reporting system with EthicsPoint: https://secure.ethicspoint.com/domain/media/en/gui/53297/index.html
Last, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has a new policy on harassment reporting, requiring all institutions receiving NSF funds to report any grant personnel who have committed sexual harassment, violated policies, or been put on administrative leave related to a harassment finding or investigation. Possible consequences include suspension of project funding. This new NSF policy was announced on 8 Feb. 2018 and the policy will take effect after a public-comment period ends on May 4, 2018: https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-01744-5 Read more at the NSF site: https://www.nsf.gov/od/odi/harassment.jsp. Comments can be submitted via the Federal Register through May 4, 2018 at: https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2018/03/05/2018-04374/reporting-requirements-regarding-findings-of-sexual-harassment-other-forms-of-harassment-or-sexual