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Congresswoman Proposes Bill to Fight Astronomy’s Sexual Harassment Problem


What is up with male faculty members in university astronomy departments sexually harassing students all the time and getting away with it? One California congresswoman is making putting a stop to such things a priority.

At most universities, when a faculty member is accused of sexual harassment, the investigation itself is kept confidential, with the concern that simply the knowledge of someone being investigated for something like that can tarnish a reputation, or ruin a career. SUPPOSEDLY. However, when allegations are proven during the investigation…the findings remain confidential – so confidential that even many of the accused’s colleagues don’t know about the investigation – allowing the accused to continue on with a slap on the wrist as if nothing happened.

Last year, one of those confidential reports was leaked about a prominent astronomy researcher named Geoff Marcy at the University of California, Berkeley, who had repeatedly engaged in sexual harassment. After it leaked, UC Berkeley called on him to resign, more than three months after the conclusion of the investigation, which he did.

Today, TMS’ Jessica Lachenal posted a story about Caltech astrophysics professor Christian Ott, who remains employed save nine months of unpaid leave after being found guilty of violating Caltech’s sexual harassment policies.

And it’s not just California’s astronomy departments that have a problem. A decade ago, at the University of Arizona, there was astronomer Timothy Slater. Several students reported problems with Slater, but no one formally accused him for fear of retaliation. According to Ars Technica, U of Arizona conducted their own investigation and found the following:

In one incident that he admitted to, Slater gave a student a vegetable-shaped vibrator as a gift at a party to celebrate the student’s impending marriage. He also regularly took students to a topless bar, where he ordered lap dances. While talking with students, he’d stop conversations in order to admire female students who walked past. Other allegations that he denied included plucking at a student’s underwear through her clothes and telling a female employee she would teach better if she weren’t wearing any underwear.

Because the report was kept confidential at first, there’s no telling what that did to his career at U of Arizona. However, we do know that it did nothing to his career overall, as he landed an endowed chair at the University of Wyoming.

The report of the investigation into Slater, as well as the leaks about the investigations against Marcy and Ott reported by Buzzfeed, were sent to California congresswoman Jackie Speier (D-CA) and inspired her to take action against the secrecy surrounding these investigations, which allow for harassers not only to remain employed at the institutions in which they harassed their students, but to be able to be employed at other universities where their transgressions against students may not be known.

Speier announced yesterday that she is currently seeking legislation that would force universities to share the results of the investigations of faculty with other universities that violate federal sexual harassment standards, and is using the aforementioned cases of harassment and concealment to bolster her effort. You can check out her announcement in the above video, where she says that sexual harassment in astronomy will continue until there are “severe and visible consequences” to harassers’ actions. By working to illuminate the results of sexual harassment investigations, she hopes universities will also be compelled to take action against those who would violate the trust of their students.

If you yourself have suffered harassment at an academic institution, Speier wants you to contact her office, presumably to bolster her case for the bill she’s crafting with additional information. This is our community, y’all. Scientists are sexually harassing students – geeky women like us who have a hard enough time in their chosen academic field without also being creeped on.

Science should not be dependent on the victimization of women and girls to move forward. It’s a shame that the actions of these men is making scientists look bad. Here’s hoping that the scientific community becomes as good about illuminating the truth surrounding their indiscretions as they are about illuminating our knowledge of the universe.

(image via Gary Cooper/Flickr)

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