Read our COVID-19 research and news.

Joan Schmelz says too much burden is put on the shoulders of women.

Joan Schmelz says too much burden is put on the shoulders of women.

Courtesy of Joan Schmelz

Q&A: Shining a light on sexual harassment in astronomy

The field of astronomy has been reeling since one of its most prominent members, exoplanet pioneer Geoff Marcy, was found guilty of sexually harassing female students at the University of California, Berkeley, over a decade. The university did not publish the results of its 6-month investigation, triggered by complaints from four former students, and it simply admonished Marcy to change his behavior. But a 9 October article in the online publication BuzzFeed and pressure from Berkeley students and faculty as well as the wider astronomy community persuaded Marcy to resign from his Berkeley professorship and other positions.

Astronomer Joan Schmelz, chair of the American Astronomical Society’s (AAS’s) Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy for 6 years until she finished her second term in August, played a key role in identifying victims of Marcy’s activities and letting them know they were not alone. Science spoke with her this week. Her comments have been edited for clarity and brevity.

Q: You and others started looking into Marcy after complaints about his behavior at the 2010 AAS meeting. What did you find out?

A: We found out that there were many other targets of Marcy. That he used similar techniques to approach them, to befriend them, to get close to them, all with the idea that he was mentoring them, that women in astronomy was an important topic for him. [Marcy has not responded to Science’s request for comment.

I started hearing from women who couldn’t figure out what to do at their own universities and more than one of these women were contacting me about Marcy. My goal was always to help them to do what was right for them. And in many cases that was not filing a Title IX complaint. [Title IX is the federal law covering sexual discrimination in publicly funded organizations.]

I reached out to some friends and colleagues of mine who were or had been at Berkeley, and we started to identify some women who were targeted by Marcy. In almost every case, they thought their interaction with Marcy was the only one; they did not know about the other women involved. So I think it was, at least for these four complainants, really the fact that there were other women and there was this long pattern of behavior going back many years that convinced them they should file with the Title IX office.

Q: Marcy’s behavior has been called an “open secret” in the community. Why has it taken so long to come to light?

A: Part of the problem is the way we handle all of this in terms of Title IX: All of the burden is put on the shoulders of the young women who were targeted. There is not a real avenue for, say, senior men who knew the secret or who knew about the behavior to intervene in any sort of sanctioned way. That is one of the things we should see if we can change.

It is not very common in academia that young women will come forward [with Title IX complaints] because they correctly fear retribution. They are in the most vulnerable phases of their career. They are relying on their advisers for letters of recommendation to get into graduate school, to get their first job. It is very much like the old medieval master-apprentice system, where you are completely reliant on these letters. That’s a system that’s worked in academia for hundreds of years, and I don’t know how we’re going to change that. But it is a system that can breed this sort of unprofessional behavior.

<p>Astronomer Geoffrey Marcy is no longer a member of the National Academy of Sciences.</p>

Astronomer Geoffrey Marcy is no longer a member of the National Academy of Sciences.

Niklas Hellen/Getty Images

Q: Will this case encourage other victims to come forward?

A: I’m not aware of anyone filing a Title IX complaint. I know I’ve received emails from people wanting advice, and those are all ongoing.

Marcy is not the only sexual harasser in astronomy. In this particular case, there were a number of victims who could be identified and therefore they could talk to each other and get support from each other. That’s not necessarily as easy to do in some of the other cases. Even in the Marcy case it was incredibly difficult. It took many years to get to this point.

Q: Institutions have a conflict of interest in disciplining their own faculty. Is there another way complaints can be handled?

A: One of the problems with the current system is that one individual complaint feels very much like a he-said/she-said. The he in this situation is almost always a professor, and the she is always a student or postdoc. As he has a lot more power than she, that means that she doesn’t come forward. But there’s no way to account for many shes. There’s no office that will keep a confidential complaint on file until, for example, they get a second confidential complaint from another person.

That’s one of the things I’d like to see going forward. The Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy had been acting like that, and I had been acting like that in a very informal way. That’s not the best way to do it or the right way to do it, but right now it’s the only way to do it.

Some campuses are much better than others at having offices where women can go and speak confidentially about this, before they would ever go to the Title IX office and file an official complaint. Some campuses are also better at making students aware of their options and resources. It seems that the Berkeley campus was not very good at that.

Q: Is there anything about astronomy that makes harassment a particular problem?

A: I don’t think astronomy is any better or any worse than any other academic field that is male-dominated. I think that for a number of years we have been shining a light on this problem, and it’s harder for the problem to hide in the shadows if you’re shining a light on it.

Q: Will the field’s collective action over this case have a galvanizing effect to tackle the issue of harassment?

A: I hope we all find a way to use this incident to build momentum toward changing the situation. We just have to move away from the status quo. Almost every sexual harassment survivor that I have talked to has always said to me, “I want the problem to stop.” It’s not that they’re looking for revenge or punishment; they just want the problem to stop. They want to be treated like everybody else and do their science. If anything positive can come out of this, I hope it is awareness that we can all work together to make our community a safer place for everyone.