In the past four months, four high profile cases of sexual harassment in astronomy have come to light, prompting such headlines as “Astronomy’s snowballing sexual harassment scandal picks up even more cases”, “Astronomy’s sexual harassment problem gets Congressional attention” and “Astronomers Are Finally Doing Something About Sexual Harassment” and (with a thesis very similar to this article) “What astronomy can do about sexual harassment”. All of this led one Ars Technica commenter (and possibly, you) to ask “What’s going on in astronomy? Is there something about it that predisposes astronomy classrooms be some kind of den of iniquity?”
Short answer: No.
Longer answer: This is a huge problem that affects more than just astronomy, but right now astronomy is fairly unique in doing something about it. Rather, you should be concerned that there AREN’T tons of scandals in physics, geology, psychology, materials science, law firms, Hollywood, the parks service…
Astronomers are human, and are (whatever we’d prefer to think) just as prone to sexism, racism, ableism, and all the other -isms as everyone else, made worse by the master-apprentice system that academia operates under. What’s different in astronomy is that, through some combination of the increasing presence and voice of senior women faculty, the small and closely-knit profession, the increasing scope and availability of communications and support networks, and an overall climate more willing to listen to women and take them seriously, the astronomical profession has decided that it’s had enough of sexual harassment and is actually taking steps to stop it.
Keep in mind- the astronomers being called out in these cases are not being called out on hearsay or malicious rumors, and it’s not over some single accidental incident. They have been investigated by their universities for years of serious harassment, and found in violation of the university’s own statutes regarding proper conduct… despite the huge barriers to doing so. A further problem is that thus far the administrative actions all amount to “don’t do that again”, because the violators are somehow too talented to lose. That’s assuming anyone can actually see the report, as some of these were shrouded with so much secrecy that others in the departments didn’t even know an investigation had taken place – even after the university found fault. That leaves everything in the uncomfortable realm of rumors. As someone with a shred of decency, it bothers me that I might enthusiastically recommend a talented student of mine for a position which ends up destroying her career and sanity, simply because I didn’t hear the right rumors. (That weak sentiment probably looks downright hilarious to someone who actually has to LIVE in an abusive situation, but I’m a straight white man, with the privilege of not having to deal with this personally.) UPDATE: There’s also the problem that, if universities hide violations, other institutions like the NSF or NASA won’t be able to act on it accordingly.
For the moment, there is a lot of dirty laundry being aired in public. This is going to stay ugly for a while, because every time a situation is revealed, women promise that they know of many more such incidents. This is ultimately a good thing. What will come out of the other end of this process is a scientific profession that is respectful of its members, and takes its own rules seriously. And then we’ll devote more time to unraveling the mysteries of the universe.
I recognize that this is all words, coming from someone who doesn’t have to deal with this personally – I just don’t like remaining silent. If you want to learn more, here are a few of the people at the forefront you should check out. The president of the American Astronomical Society, Dr. Meg Urry, for one. Also Dr. Hope Jahren, Dr. Pamela Gay, Dr. Sean Carroll, Dr. Chandra Prescod-Weinstein, Dr. Sarah Tuttle, NASA Administrator Dr. Charles Bolden, and many more I apologize for not mentioning. If you’re on Twitter, I recommend checking out the #astroSH and #astroRH hashtags, to see what people are finally having the courage to say.