For Female Astronomers, Sexual Harassment Is a Constant Nightmare
Illustration by Julia Kuo


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For Female Astronomers, Sexual Harassment Is a Constant Nightmare

Earlier this year, famous Berkeley astronomer Geoff Marcy was found to have sexually harassed his students for years on end. Female astrophysicists say that he's just the tip of the iceberg—widespread misogyny and bullying are driving women out of the...

Growing up, Mia* studied and studied so she got full marks in every exam. Always mesmerized by the big questions about the universe, she won her place at one of the top universities in the world and went on to pursue a career in astrophysics. Today, in her 30s, she is one of the young leaders in the field of black hole astronomy.

Few know how tough she has had to be to get to where she is. Careers in astronomy and physics are incredibly hard for women, she says, because of the sexual harassment, misogyny, and bullying that plague her field.


In October 2015, one of the world's leading astronomers, Geoff Marcy of the University of California at Berkeley, was found to have violated the university's policies on sexual harassment for nearly over a decade, with student allegations of unwanted massages, groping, and kissing. In a public letter of apology, Marcy later said: "While I do not agree with each complaint that was made, it is clear that my behavior was unwelcomed by some women."

Then in January this year, another prominent astrophysicist, Christian Ott, of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), was in the news after violating the school's sexual harassment policy with two graduate students working in his lab. He even fired one woman because, as the Washington Post reports, "he worried that her sexual sway over him was allowing her to slack off, despite her being unaware of his feelings." Caltech released a statement speaking out against harassment, suspending Ott temporarily and requiring him to undergo retraining, but he is due to resume his post.

Very few women in the field escape harassment, Mia says. Physical groping and sexual propositioning are commonplace, as well as academic career-blocking by senior male academics. "At the junior level you're more targeted sexually," she says, "but as I became older I was much more affected by the sheer bullying and blackmail

"Until recently, we have tiptoed cautiously around these discussions for the most part," she adds. Although Mia is now in a senior position, she is not yet high-ranking enough to feel safe to be identified. "There are so few women in my field—most of them quit because of the bullying and sexual harassment."


Over the years, a constant stream of female colleagues have confided in Mia their own stories of being bullied and harassed. But it is only in the last six months that the scandals about harassment at major universities have started to break publicly.

Cases continue to crop up almost daily about women being victimized across the sciences. The New York Times recently reported on the sexual misconduct of a molecular biologist at the University of Chicago and published an article by University of Hawaii geobiology professor Hope Jahren, who argued from her own personal experience that sexual harassment is responsible for the persistent minority of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

Mia thinks that although the problem goes across science, "it's probably worst in physics…there are so few women and it's a vicious circle." Statistics collated by the American Astronomical Society found that in 2013, senior women made up less than 20 percent of the majority of American astronomy departments compared with senior men. Some departments have no female astronomers at all. At the time of the survey, Berkeley had two women to 17 men, while MIT had three women to 11 men. At Harvard, there was only one woman compared to 12 men.

Astrophysics is one field dominated by men, though the gender discrepancy exists across the sciences. Photo by Paul Schlemmer via Stocksy

Mia knew some of the women involved in the Berkeley and Caltech cases and had already heard their experiences before the scandals reached the news. Even though she has mentored numerous junior women scientists for years, she says she cannot overstate how much of the last six months of her own and her female colleagues' time has gone into supporting these young women and other victims, who have formed their own Facebook groups and tweet using the handle #astrosh ("sh" stands for sexual harassment).


Women in the field have mobilized online in the wake of these scandals. #biosh and #stemsh (sexual harassment in biological sciences and STEM) are two hashtags bringing female scientists together on Twitter. The Facebook group Astronomy Allies is a 'safe space' for women in the field who have experienced sexual harassment; it also runs a buddy programme to support women. Meanwhile, blogs like Women in Astronomy share up-to-the minute personal accounts, reports, and articles on sexual harassment in astronomy from around the world. It receives around 10,000 visits per month, with numbers doubling between 2013 and 2014.

The Berkeley and Caltech cases are the tip of the iceberg, Mia says. Exoplanets, Geoff Marcy's field, is a relatively modern branch of astronomy with a higher than average proportion of women. They are now finding strength in numbers to fight back, but in other older fields in astronomy, it's "more male-dominated and there are even worse problems."

Katherine's* story is typical. A 31-year old British postdoctoral researcher in astrophysics, she has studied in both the UK and the US. She has experienced sexual harassment at all stages of her career. When she was an undergraduate, a male student on her course pinned her against a wall and tried to kiss her. During her PhD, another student tried to force his way into her room at a UK national astronomy meeting. "When I tried to talk about it, I was told to shut up because it would embarrass him," says Katherine.


Then, she says, after splitting up with a lecturer she was dating, he started to threaten her and send emails about her to colleagues. Katherine still has panic attacks when she thinks about him.

She has also experienced what she calls "everyday" misogyny—being asked "Why don't you dress more slutty?" when giving a talk, and hearing a lecturer and his male postdoc openly rank female students in order of "who they wanted to fuck."

"People have no problem hiring someone with a history of sexual assault if they've got a good citation count." Photo by Miquel Llonch via Stocksy

"Bullying is massive," she stresses. "If you cross one of these harassers, they will call up everyone you know and tell them you made up your results, that you faked or stole your data, whatever they can do destroy you. People have no problem hiring someone with a history of sexual assault if they've got a good citation count."

Universities, Mia notes, have protocols for dealing with complaints of sexual harassment, but much of the work in astrophysics involves collaborations between academics from different countries and institutions, and "there's zero protection." Disturbingly, some of the known bullies "are vocally into [gender] diversity in astronomy and use it as a cover."

One British PhD student in theoretical astrophysics recently told Mia how a married professor showed up at her hotel room at 3 AM, trying to sleep with her. "He's the best friend of her supervisor and when she complained to her supervisor that she felt distraught," Mia says. "He said 'Forget it, he's just trying to be friendly.' They don't take it seriously; it's covered up."


Mia's own struggle started in her 20s when professors tried to kiss her at conference dinners and in the corridors of the institute where she worked. As a master's student, she was stalked by a senior male professor who found out her home address from a secretary. Such incidents, Mia says, were "the norm until I was 27 or 28. I was able to deal with these advances by pushing the men away and I took these experiences as part of the package of being a woman in astronomy. I kept totally silent about them."

But she says her worst experience was being blackmailed by senior male co-workers who demanded full credit for her research so that they would win prestigious jobs. Mia refused and says that they threatened her with repeated phone calls and emails for years, warning her that they would destroy her career. She was assured that reference letters or phone calls would be made to sabotage her future job applications.

Mia feels that being perceived as a non-confrontational woman put her at an additional disadvantage. "I was quiet and super-polite and tried to get on with things," she says. After some years in silence, Mia turned to a couple of male coworkers and friends for advice. They told her: "These people are bullying you, and you're being polite back to them."

Women…aren't signing up to work in your lab because they want to be sexualized or objectified. They are there to become a successful scientist.


"If it wasn't for the fact that my closest friends in astronomy were telling me it was outrageous, I might have quit," Mia says. "I was simply lucky to have these individuals in my life, and eventually I went to seek professional confidential and anonymous advice from organisations like the American Astronomical Society's Committee for the Status of Women."

NASA scientist and Committee chair Christina Richey agrees that harassment is an issue that all too many in astronomy, especially women in the early stages of their career, are dealing with "on a daily basis."

Her message to the harassers is this: "Women…aren't signing up to work in your lab because they want to be sexualized or objectified. They are there to become a successful scientist. And becoming a successful scientist should not include having to navigate a career path of occasional inappropriate comments, invitations, or the fear of repercussions should you not be receptive or silent during those moments of harassment. And the fact that this is what so many women in our field are continuously dealing with is wrong. We can do better; we need to do better."

Other senior female astronomers are speaking up, too. Dr. Anna Watts, the associate professor of astrophysics at the University of Amsterdam, recently wrote a public letter of support for the two graduate student victims in the Caltech case. The letter has circulated the astrophysics community and was signed by more than 800 scientists around the world.


"The topic was being openly discussed in other places, and a number of us could see the toll that the lack of support was having on [the victims]," Dr Watts says. "So a small group of us decided to take the lead and to write the support letter, to thank them and to let them know that we appreciated their courage and had their back."

We are standing up to fight back now because we have no other option. The universities have a duty of care that they are completely ignoring.

She adds: "Even though the details of the case were horrific, there was… deafening silence from the departments at the centre of the case." Caltech did not respond to Broadly's invitation to comment.

Another prominent astrophysicist calling for change is Professor Carole Mundell, the head of astrophysics at the University of Bath, who says: "There have been a number of high profile cases in the media over the past six months; it is clear that there is a strong research community desire to encourage institutions who do not appear to have good work cultures to address this urgently."

Dr. Watts is aware that speaking out risks retaliation. She says victims wanting to report harassment face "substantial discouragement from institutions with a vested interest in maintaining their reputations, or from people who will warn them 'not to be a troublemaker.' This is toxic, and deeply harmful."

But she says: "I have tenure, which provides a degree of insulation. The onus has to start to be on the tenured to stand up to the bullies in our field."

Dr. Watts herself experienced harassment as a graduate student when she was groped by a senior male scientist at a collaboration dinner. She reported the assault, which was witnessed by her supervisor, but does not know if her attacker faced any repercussions. Even today, she has to avoid him at conferences, and stepped down from a research council recently when she found out he would also be a member.

"I explained to the chair why I was stepping down and although he was understanding, there was no question of the other guy being asked to step down," she says. Having now learned about a string of follow-on incidents where the man went on to harass other women, she says: "I am taking concrete actions to remove him from any position where he would have power over young women."

There are days, Katherine says, where it's impossible for her to do any work— either because she's supporting other women who have been harassed, or because she's dealing with her own harassment. "We are standing up to fight back now because we have no other option. The universities have a duty of care that they are completely ignoring. I think talking to each other about what we're all experiencing has made a huge difference. We're still a minority in most departments, but we all have worldwide networks that we can bring together."

The UK and Europe, says Mia, are only just starting to wake up to the problems faced by female scientists, and some of the world's most respected universities continue to offer jobs to known bullies and harassers. "These people are incredibly aggressive and bullying and they come to the top. I feel really sad that the daily abuse still happens. For all the talk about sexual harassment, will things change? I have no idea—but we will keep fighting for it to change."

* Some names and identifying details have been changed