In a span of four months during the fall of 2015, three high-profile incidents of sexual misconduct in college astronomy and astrophysics departments around the country rocked the astronomy community.
The three cases, which occurred at the University of Arizona, the University of California, Berkeley and the California Institute of Technology, all involved allegations of sexual harassment made against men who were tenured professors at the time. These cases moved to the forefront of a national conversation about the treatment of women in science.
After news of the cases broke, the American Astronomical Society made a point of addressing sexual harassment at its January 2016 conference, a five-day event that hundreds of members attended. There, AAS President Meg Urry, also the Israel Munson Professor of Physics & Astronomy at Yale, moderated a panel about harassment in the astronomical sciences.
Urry is, in some ways, considered the face of a Yale science department that holds a unique place in the national dialogue. With a faculty that is 28.6 percent female — well-above the American Institute of Physics’ reported national rate of 19 percent among astronomy departments — Yale astronomy has created, according to several undergraduate and graduate students, a more open, welcoming environment for its women.
“We are talking about a problem nationwide while existing in a culture that doesn’t suffer from it as much,” astrophysics major Lauren Chambers ’17 said. “Other departments around the country that aren’t as open as Yale are facing much more aggravated rates of these incidents.”
Still, despite the strides the department has made, students and professors interviewed stressed there is still work to be done.
THE GEOFF MARCY CASE
“To be a woman in physics or astronomy is to feel out of place, consciously or subconsciously,” begins the Baltimore Charter, a 1999 document written by Urry. Then-employed by the Space Telescope Science Institute, an independent organization that operates the Hubble Space telescope for NASA, Urry had spent the last 20 years working in “supposedly enlightened ‘nondiscriminatory’ times,” but she was still just the second woman hired by the Institute.
The charter, Urry told the News, was partially inspired by the fact that although 15 to 20 percent of Ph.D.s in astronomy were awarded to women at the time, only 5 percent of the hires at the Space Telescope Science Institute were female.
“Another issue was young women felt unsafe going observing at night, alone or with a senior male colleague,” Urry said. “Maybe I didn’t understand that at the time, but it was a symptom of a larger problem.”
The ’80s and ’90s were “a completely different time,” Debra Fischer, currently a professor of astronomy at Yale, pointed out, describing the environment as one in which a female researcher could walk into an optics lab and see calendars with nude women on the wall.
“In the 1990s, [Urry] would write these articles that would be published in the American Astronomical Society newsletter, and I would read them and think, this woman should be careful about being so outspoken,” Fischer said. “I thought she would never get a job. But then she was hired by Yale, and that made a huge impression on me. That told me it was okay to be outspoken on this issue.”
But the issue did not capture national headlines until last October, when Buzzfeed published an investigative article revealing multiple complaints of sexual harassment made against tenured Berkeley astronomy professor Geoff Marcy. The article incorporated interviews with multiple complainants and detailed the hostile environment created by Marcy’s inappropriate behavior.
In the ’90s, as a post-doc at San Francisco State University — where she studied for her master’s degree under Marcy, who also sat on her Ph.D. committee — Fischer recalled approaching an older male colleague who had stated he was available to talk if she needed. But when Fischer explained her concerns about some inappropriate behavior, the colleague responded by suggesting Fischer switch from studying exoplanets, her and Marcy’s area of expertise, to star formations, a different field.
“There was a sense that this guy, Geoff Marcy, owned the field,” she said. “So I grew up thinking there was no way to change. It’s going to slowly evolve, and as this generation of male astronomers dies out, the next generation will be more enlightened and slowly we’ll see a change in the way sexual harassment and sexual misconduct are perceived.”
Today, Fischer is considered one of the world’s foremost experts on exoplanets and multiple-planet systems, according to Astronomy Magazine.
The Buzzfeed article quickly went viral, and Marcy — whose name had been mentioned in conjunction with the Nobel Prize for Physics, according to multiple members of the astronomy community from across the nation — resigned.
Several students and professors interviewed highlighted the significance of the Marcy case, pointing out the speed at which it transcended the relatively small astronomy community. Christina Richey, chair of the AAS’s Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy, said the Marcy case led to a change in tone in conversations about sexual harassment, which began to occur in a larger forum.
Within a month of the story’s publication, over 2,500 academics had signed a petition pledging support to the women who were affected by Marcy’s harassment.
At Yale, the case represented a spark that would revitalize an ongoing conversation about the position of women in the Astronomy Department.
“The news from Berkeley really hit hard with a lot of the department members,” Louise Edwards, a lecturer in the Astronomy Department at Yale, said. “Right away, our chair, Pieter van Dokkum, set out a letter to the entire department stating in strong terms how unacceptable this type of behavior is, and immediately the department made plans to bring in a professional to help us talk about these issues.”
Urry similarly praised her male colleagues for their rapid response to the Marcy incident, calling it “a wake-up call” and noting that nearly every department in the country was discussing it.
Claire Dickey GRD ’20 recalled walking into the Astronomy Department’s common area the day after the Buzzfeed story was published and feeling the “somber” atmosphere.
“Suddenly, dirty laundry is getting aired in a public way, and outside of the field. That gave the story staying power,” she said. “This hasn’t happened in our department, but it could. You always want to think it happens to someone else.”
After the story, Dickey said the Astronomy Department began having departmentwide conversations about the issue of sexual harassment and sexual misconduct at Yale.
“Maybe it had happened previously on a smaller scale, but this was a very open conversation,” Dickey said.
YALE TAKES A STAND
In December, the Astronomy Department sat down together to answer a simple question: What is sexual harassment?
“The idea to do a seminar sprung from the feeling that we needed to have this conversation with everybody and get everyone on to the same page,” Dickey said. “It was enabled by our chair, Pieter van Dokkum, and Debra Fischer and Meg Urry being really supportive … They all said that’s great, we’ll make it mandatory.”
Every single professor in the department attended, Fischer said, as did observers from Yale’s Title IX office.
After attending the meeting, Stephanie Spangler, University Title IX coordinator and deputy provost, said she was impressed with the initiative the department chair and senior faculty demonstrated by organizing the event, noting specifically how comfortable students and faculty were when asking questions.
Chambers, the only female junior majoring in astrophysics at Yale, said the Astronomy Department has put together several events that discuss issues of diversity, sexism and gender bias. The events arose organically from the faculty’s interest in addressing such problems, she said, adding that though there is still work to do, she is “sufficiently happy” with how the department has handled the issues thus far.
Fischer said the December meeting marked the beginning of a longer, broader conversation — one that she ultimately hopes will result in the creation of a new system of reporting sexual harassment or misconduct.
“An issue right now is if a student comes to me and reports some kind of sexual misconduct, I have to take it up the chain,” she explained. “That’s my responsibility and I’m required by law to do that. That already sets a barrier for some students who need someone to talk to but aren’t sure they want to report it. We want to establish an ombudsman program.”
Though she emphasized that there was no formal plan for the ombudsman program — an informal method of cataloguing complaints — Fischer said the department will continue holding these meetings in order to develop the idea further.
Dickey, who was present at the meeting, described the ombudsman program as one that creates institutional memory. A pattern of harassment, which can span a career, often extends beyond one particular Ph.D. student’s stay. The hope is to have a person at each level — undergraduate, graduate, post-doc and faculty — that an individual can speak to about inappropriate behavior. Individuals will not be required to give the details of their experiences, Dickey said, and it allows individuals to share their experiences without having to go to the department chair, the Sexual Harassment and Assault Response and Education Center or Title IX.
“Especially for grad students, Title IX and SHARE don’t feel like they’re for you,” Dickey said. “What would you do if it was your thesis adviser? When that person has paid for you to be there and you’ll be working with for four years? That’s such an intense relationship, and it can lead to great things, but it’s easy for lines to get crossed. Nobody benefits when these things happen.”
Urry voiced a similar concern, pointing out the necessary acknowledgement of the power imbalance that is inherent to the adviser-graduate student relationship. Additionally, she said, people need to stop using the “great man” defense — excusing a man’s inappropriate or predatory actions because he brings a lot to the world of science.
“Once we see the damage to the individuals, we should see [harassment is] also very damaging to science. We’ve basically drummed out talent,” Urry said. “I personally know two, probably three women, who had to change fields because their advisers were harassing them.”
Though the program has yet to materialize, the Astronomy Department’s efforts have not gone unnoticed.
“This fall, at one of our first monthly meetings, we will have presentations from departments that have made effective strides on climate issues. Astronomy will certainly be one of the departments that we ask to present,” Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Tamar Gendler said.
That December meeting played out on a much larger stage in January at the AAS conference. Given the proximity of the meeting to the Marcy scandal, Urry said, it was natural to put together a panel about harassment at the conference.
Richey, who has been the chair of the Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy since August of 2015, presented the preliminary results of a survey of 426 members of the astronomy community.
Her informal results nevertheless supported what Urry has been fighting against for years: pervasive, consistent gender-based harassment in the workplace. 82 percent of respondents had overheard sexist remarks in the workplace, and 32 percent said they had been verbally harassed because of their gender.
The survey is still under review and will hopefully be published in the spring with results broken down even further, Richey said, and will include how women of color are impacted.
“One of the big things that people are requesting is assistance to those who have been harassed or assaulted. We get so stuck on the punitive measures that we start to forget about the person the damage has been done to,” Richey said. “I’d like to see more in regards to that, as well as accountability. We need to be making sure our leaders know that allyship and inclusivity is important.”
Chambers said she hoped the department will continue to emphasize diversity in new faculty hires, adding the fact that her first astronomy professor was a young black woman who had a “huge impact” on her career in astrophysics.
Students at Yale reiterated that female leadership in physics and astronomy has played an integral role in creating the openness that sets the Astronomy Department apart.
Once a semester, Dickey said, all the women in the department go out to dinner to talk, get to know one another and remind themselves that there are supportive women nearby.
“What we’re seeing now is made possible by changes that have happened at every level of academic and societal settings,” Dickey said. “We can’t underscore how important talking about this is, and talking in the open and where everyone can hear you. People have to listen, and that does a lot.”