It is unacceptable that many members of our science community experience harassment and discrimination, causing them to feel unsafe and unwelcome. To enact the needed changes within our culture, it is vital that all community members take action.
In particular, senior community members who have influence over policies and institutional environments can provide crucial leadership toward removing known harassers from positions of power, discouraging inappropriate behavior, and supporting victims.
Harassment: A Known “Secret” with Broad Reach
Over the past year, many cases of sexual harassment within professional settings have come to light in the media—including within science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. The cases that make it to the media are egregious and extend over years and multiple victims.
Often, the harassment was a known “secret,” with rumors and warnings—the “whisper network”—extending far into the community. Unsurprisingly yet tragically, the harassment is often allowed to continue.
For example, a well-known astronomy professor at the University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley), harassed women, with reported incidents extending back decades before any action was taken. Even then, it was only after victims and allies pointed out the milquetoast nature of the official institutional response that the professor retired from astronomy.
There are far too many other recent examples of harassment within academia. A few have been publicized in the national media, such as the astrophysicist at the California Institute of Technology, the molecular biologist at the University of Chicago, and several more employees at UC Berkeley, including six faculty members. Many others are known only to those who are “fortunate” enough to receive warnings.
Furthermore, many surveys have shown that academia is rife with harassment of all sorts—sexual or race-based harassment and discrimination against LGBTQ or those with disabilities—causing various amounts and types of harm [e.g., Atherton et al., 2016; Bohannon, 2013; Rosenthal et al., 2016].
A Broken Culture
This harassment occurs largely because our science community does not have a culture that sufficiently discourages those types of actions. Neither does it enforce policies to punish appropriately those who are found guilty and to protect those who can be harmed.
Harassers are able to continue harming members of our community because of systems that downplay or outright ignore complaints. What’s more, current practices allow the harasser to be passed between institutions before investigations can occur or conclude, prompting some legislators to draft bills that would to legally stop this.
In cases where punishment is actually administered, it is often inappropriately small and does not adequately enable the victims [Smith and Freyd, 2014] or other members of the community to feel comfortable with their environment. For example, faculty members at UC Berkeley have condemned the university’s drawn-out handling of campus sexual harassment investigations that leave the accused on campus and in contact with students. At the California Institute of Technology, one victim elected to finish her doctoral degree elsewhere rather than remain at the institution where her harasser continues to be employed, although the harasser was originally put on a 9-month suspension that’s now been extended an additional year.
Although some within our community are now openly recognizing the problems that were only whispered about before, we need more recognition of this issue, with people from all career levels involved and invested. Part of the reason this sort of harassment carries such power is that institutional, system-level policies often protect the powerful and the status quo—and thus, changes focused solely on what individuals can do within their daily interactions are not sufficient.
How Do We Change This Broken Culture? Senior Scientists Need to Be Involved
Efforts for change cannot and should not rest primarily on the shoulders of those who have been or who fear becoming victims. Nor should efforts for change rely only on junior community members, who often do not have the necessary experience, information, or influence to determine what specific actions can be taken, particularly if harassment involves high-profile scientists.
For these reasons, it is crucial that the senior members of our community be informed and involved in these discussions. They interact with the largest spheres of our community and are often the most visible members and thus have a much larger influence in setting our community’s culture and tone. Additionally, they have the greatest ability to improve institutional policies and enforcement measures because of their higher influence and experience within those types of discussions.
Nine Steps That Senior Scientists Can Take to Actively Stop Harassment
Back in April, we and others informally circulated a letter within the astronomy, physics, and planetary science communities, calling on senior members of these communities to engage in these discussions and to take actions toward ending harassment.
In particular, the letter identifies nine types of actions that senior members can engage in that would disrupt the ability of serial harassers to continue damaging our community. These actions are meant to serve as guiding principles that will enact change. We hope they will provoke senior scientists to engage in deep personal thought and in community discussions toward identifying specific ways to change the cultures of their institutions.
Senior community members are called to do the following:
- do all they can to protect the victims of harassment
- research and understand the problems regarding harassment and their solutions
- instead of just working to do the minimum required by law, work to create the best possible environment for all
- call out behavior that promotes harassment, even if it is not illegal; intervene to protect vulnerable members of the community
- make sure their institution’s and/or group’s antiharassment policies are worded with clear definitions, reporting procedures, and consequences
- take antiharassment policies seriously and enact the disciplinary actions that are a part of them
- remove harassers from positions of power or venues where they can continue to harass and do not allow them to just be passed between positions or institution
- stop collaborating with harassers and their enablers
- stop appointing harassers and enablers to positions of power.
During the first month the letter was circulated, nearly 400 members of our community expressed support for this letter, with signatories spanning all career levels and a wide range of institutions. Already, this letter has prompted discussions within several academic departments, pooling the perspectives and resources of students, postdocs, and faculty members into—one hopes—a careful and introspective examination of each department’s policies, history, and culture.
This letter is still open for signatures, and we hope you will add your name to this effort. We ask all letter readers to talk to others about the issue of harassment and to identify the individual efforts in which they can engage. Our hope is that such action will enact changes at both the individual and institutional levels.
A Loss to STEM
Those who experience discrimination and harassment suffer in many ways (e.g., post-traumatic stress disorder can result from sexual [Stockdale et al., 2009] and racial harassment), and this decreases the energy and attention that victims can devote to their work. Additionally, in efforts to avoid discrimination and harassment, a person may be forced to make a choice between personal safety and engagement with relevant scientific training, mentors, and/or collaborators [e.g., McKinney et al., 1988]. Choosing personal safety, then, can also limit access to research facilities and participation in professional meetings.
Because of all of this, discrimination and harassment discourage and sometimes actively push people out of STEM endeavors. Although it is impossible to measure this loss, we can see it in the gradual decrease in the number of women and people of color as one moves up the career levels and in the anecdotal evidence of so many members of underrepresented groups who enter our fields with the strong interests and desires and yet leave or contemplate leaving because of feeling unwelcome, unsupported, and/or overwhelmed by unnecessary and unfair obstacles [e.g., Williams et al., 2014].
We should find this unacceptable, as this means people and ideas are being left out of our pursuit for knowledge. We should be disappointed in our community and our institutions, that the passions and energies that could yield scientific contributions are being turned away and sent down other career paths.
Redefining What’s Acceptable
Grassroots efforts to combat harassment are enhanced by parallel pushes within funding agencies to stop supporting harassers and for professional societies to stop conferring honors on and tolerating harassers. In tandem, we can take active leadership roles in redefining what is acceptable within our communities.
We need to—all of us—do our part to reshape our culture into what we want “normal” and “acceptable” to be: an environment where all can contribute without being made to feel unsafe or unwelcome on the basis of factors such as race and gender, where harassment isn’t allowed to jeopardize our passionate quest for knowledge, and where we treat harassment as we would falsifying data or plagiarism—as a type of scientific misconduct.