STEM’s Harassment Problem Goes Well Beyond Field Work

I first published this on Scientific American about a year ago. In light of the news about famous exoplanet astronomer and professor Geoff Marcy sexually harassing undergrad students, it seems it’s time to publish it again.

It’s past time we stop giving offenders a mild scolding. Institutions can no longer let this shit slide. Consequences must be serious for the offenders no matter how famous or well-regarded they are. Victims must be believed and supported. Those attempting to solve this issue must be given the means and institutional support they need to do so. Our STEM spaces should be a hostile environment for harassers, not their targets.

And if that means a good, even great, scientist can no longer do his work because he (or, more rarely, she) harassed or assaulted someone and is punished? Fantastic! Because right now, great scientists aren’t able to do science at all due to the harassers’ behavior. Let’s clear out the bad actors so the others can get on with advancing science. We really don’t need the bad apples as much as we think we do.


D.N. Lee has a post up at her Scientific American blog that needs to be read right now. Here’s a pull quote, but read the entire thing. Now. No excuses.

I know the SAFE research focused on field research experiences – mostly abroad, away from home institution – but many women are getting harassed out of science before field research opportunities become available to them. You don’t have to go far away to experience this pain, and too many divert their research interests to lab spaces to avoid it. You don’t need a New York Times Op-Ed or Huffington Post published piece to hear these stories. Just listen to your students/academic advisees, especially the ones who may suddenly stop coming/going to class or students who refuse to go to office hours to see certain instructors or those that flake out on attending after hours social events or if you notice several students en masse avoid a certain instructor or adviser or section of a class/lab offering. These scholarly environments that indeed do exist, that the royal we have not proactively and deliberately made safe — this is not fair to them or science, either. I wager we are losing some great minds.

The SAFE study was the very first of its kind to document and comment on abuse within field research sciences. When news of this research first hit I remember many critics claiming it wasn’t comprehensive enough, more detailed questions should have been asked, *exact* details of unwanted encounters should have been parsed. Like any ‘first of its kind study’ those comprehensive details are not included. Moreover, I say demanding this amount of detail from subjects is unethical and unnecessary. I have a problem with how easily and quickly fellow scientists can be to harm human subjects because of ‘for the good of science notion’. No, what more detail do you need? I’m mad that we needed data in the first place in order to have a conversation about doing something. If you or our institutions demand this much research, detail and investment before half-way committing to doing something to establishing safe places and spaces for people, then it means they aren’t really, really interested in creating these safe places/spaces. It shouldn’t matter how often or intense the abuse is or when a ‘not who we expected’ victim speaks up that people in power finally create safe places and spaces. Period.

That second paragraph should be horribly familiar to those of us who have been combating sexual assault and harassment in skeptic and atheist circles. That second paragraph needs to be thrust under the noses of every single person in any community who has been hand-waving away reports of problems. And the ones who continue to hand-wave are the ones we’ll know we need to cull from our spaces.

Image shows a tuxedo cat with its paws crossed and a serious look on its face. Caption says, "This is unacceptable."

I have no tolerance left. I’m tired of waiting for people to clue in. Either you recognize there’s a problem with the way women and minorities are treated, or you don’t. If you recognize the problem, help us fix it. If you don’t, get out of our way.

And go read D.N. Lee’s piece until it finally sinks in: you should be doing something to end this right now. You should have started doing it long ago.

No more silence.


A previous version of this post appeared at En Tequila Es Verdad.

STEM’s Harassment Problem Goes Well Beyond Field Work

One thought on “STEM’s Harassment Problem Goes Well Beyond Field Work

  1. 1

    You are right of course.

    I was really shocked and saddened to learn that exoplanet hunting astronomer Geoff Marcy, colleage of Sara Seager and Debra Fisher among other remarkable women astronomers has been a sexual harrasser for years. I do believe the women students there and think he needs to face severe consequences for his actions.

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