Cut open with a rusty blade

Pamela Gay published a wrenching, heartbreaking, infuriating post early today about her struggles as a woman in science and skepticism.

With ever increasing difficulty I’ve been dealing with issues of gender related to my career. Right now, I am struggling with hearing that an event I categorized as “A drunk ass  tried to grab my boobs,” is now being discussed by witnesses as, “He tried to sexually assault her in a bar while intoxicated.” I had created a euphemism for myself, and having that euphemism striped away is making me realize that I have been hiding from myself the true degree to which I have been harmed.

I have previously tried to confront and to give voice to the harm that sexual harassment and gender discrimination can do. I don’t think I’ve ever allowed myself to be totally vulnerable in my words, but during my July 2012 talk at The Amazing Meeting (script I vaguely followed and video here) I came close. My goal was to focus on inspiring people to do good, but I briefly addressed many of the issues that hold women like me back: Issues of being inappropriately touched, issues of hearing workplace banter about our boobs, and the effects all this and more has on our self-esteem. I made the following point as clearly as I could: “I know as I say this that it sounds unbelievable – and how can we report the unbelievable and expect to be believed?

Well we know from bitter experience that we can’t expect to be believed, whether we report the believable or the unbelievable, at least not by a very large and entrenched segment of the relevant population. But more and more of us are reporting it now, and the ground seems to be shifting.

I did not give this talk lightly. I suspected I’d experience backlash for daring to admit that I too am one of those women who has been touched, who has been held back, who has suffered self-doubt related to my gender. What shocked me was the form and degree of backlash. As a result of this talk I faced threat of professional reprimand. Let me state this more clearly, because I admitted that gender related comments hurt my self esteem, there were authority figures who demanded I be punished. While my direct supervisor and the dean we report to have always made me feel respected and have supported me, there were others within my profession who demanded I publicly apologize; that I be formally punished for what I said.

I was horrified when I read that this morning. I’m not the only one. My friend (and Pamela’s friend) Brian Engler is another. So is Leonard Tramiel, whom I met and liked enormously at the CFI Summit. The news is getting around.

And then last week, the fading scars of what happened were cut open with a rusty blade.

I learned that a witnesses to an event that occurred in 2008 is discussing that event and naming names. During the event in question, a man in power who I’d previously never met made a lunge at my breasts. This is one of the events that weighed on me when I wrote my TAM talk. It weighed on me when I said, “As an astronomer, at conferences, I’ve randomly had my tits and ass grabbed and slapped by men in positions of power and by creeps who drank too much. This is part of what it means to be a woman in science and skepticism.”

I’ve been warned this may all hit the internet. I’ve been warned the social media maybe about to explode. I’ve been warned this could be devastating to my career. Let me put this more clearly: Because someone witnessed a man in power attempt to grab my boobs, I have been warned that I need to worry about my career being actively destroyed by others.

And that is fucked up. I run a program that works to spread science education, to generate science results – we are doing good – and I have to be worried that my ability to do good is going to be limited because I have boobs someone thought would be fun to grab at.

And then that man with power – the one who staggered at my breasts at the moment of our introduction – emailed me out of the blue on Halloween, denying anything happened between us because he’s never done anything like that, and if he has never… then he never did with me. He went on to ask why I never confronted him later, why I never did many things, and I found myself explaining, “There is absolutely no way for a woman to walk up to any man, let alone a prominent man they don’t really know, and say, ‘Pardon me, while you seemed to be drunk, you did this inappropriate thing.’ Inappropriate physical contact is so common at these events as to be just part of being a woman in science and skepticism. People drink. Inappropriate things happen, remembered or not, and for the most part we just move on as though it had never happened because otherwise we could never work.”  I told him he should get help, and I dug out my own prescription for dealing with the PTSD that had me shaking. He promised he would share with no one our communications and I told him I didn’t want to communicate with him at all.

This exchange left me broken – it broke me on my favorite holiday of the year.

I am still broken.

There’s more. As I said, it’s heartbreaking.

It’s a long, long road.


  1. Claire Ramsey says

    A horror. A total horror. And other scientists who should be colleagues called for her to be reprimanded. It breaks my goddamn heart.

    I completely understand that broken feeling. I hope you can find a way to feel whole again as soon as possible. You ARE doing good work. You are making a positive impact. And the world is full of sick fucks. . .

  2. jenBPhillips says

    Shit. This is absolutely gut-wrenching. I feel such impotent rage that she and so many others have been subjected to this kind of mistreatment in their professional realms, I don’t even know how to process this.

  3. Stacy says

    NOTHING she could have done in this situation would have been “right.” However a woman deals with sexual assault and harassment, she will be met with denial and dismissal (and if she does nothing, well, she’s to blame for not holding the perpetrator accountable.)

  4. screechymonkey says

    Dear Astronomer,

    I understand that as a result of speaking about the harassment you’ve experienced,

    there were others within my profession who demanded . . . that I be formally punished for what I said.

    As a fellow scientist, I can certainly understand how having one’s career threatened could be troubling. But there are bigger problems in the world. Why, I heard about some folks on Twitter who were… I can barely type the words… blocked by the people they were abusing. Yes, they really were! There are even reports that some bloggers banned people from their comments sections.

    In light of such things, I’m sure you can understand where the real bullying problem is. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go buy some honey.

  5. brucegee1962 says

    My young daughter is going to be gorgeous, and she loves math. I tell her every day how proud I am of her, and how great it would be if she decides to go into engineering or science.

    Posts like this make me wonder if I’m doing the right thing as a dad. Maybe I should be encouraging her to study languages or English Lit, where the balance is a lot closer to 50-50.

    That makes me SO ANGRY on her behalf, and the behalf of all the current and future woman scientists.


  6. echidna says

    As an engineer, and also a woman, I’ve learned a thing or two over the years. A group of mainly men will automatically determine a pecking order, and women will automatically be on the bottom of it. However, this is a little unstable, as women aren’t really meant to fit in at all. So there is leeway to create your own place, because people don’t really know how to deal with you.

    Rule 1: Never take crap. Even from the boss.

    It doesn’t always turn out well, but it won’t turn out well the other way either.

    P.S. Your daughter might like statistics, and there simply aren’t enough statisticians around.

  7. yahweh says

    Naming and shaming the drunk could bring legal action, and that argument has been done to death,

    But whoever it was who offered the “… threat of professional reprimand” may unequivocally be supporting criminal behaviour – unless they know the facts of the case and have good reason to dispute them.

    Let’s hear who this was and let them answer for themselves.

  8. Ham says

    Unless I’m missing something, the drunk was probably Shermer. She says that people have been discussing the incident on twitter and naming names. Also, her assailant contacted her on Halloween, which is the same day that Carrie Poppy named Shermer as groping a TAM speaker.

  9. UnknownEric the Apostate says

    I hope both people feel extra stupid when the last details percolate to them.

    No, they’ll just continue to ignore/deny. Because they don’t care. They don’t care about women. They don’t care about assault. They just care about their fuckin’ little boys club. NO GIRLS ALLOWED, LULZ.

    I’m so angry I could put my hand through a wall.

  10. UnknownEric the Apostate says

    Naming and shaming the drunk could bring legal action, and that argument has been done to death

    Plus you’d need to be living under a metaphorical rock to not know who it is.

  11. Pteryxx says

    Let’s hear who this was and let them answer for themselves.

    yahweh: did you read the linked article?

    Dr. Gay did name names, in confidence, and that confidence was betrayed in order to further punish her. She’s already had to seek legal advice. She may already have grounds for a retaliation lawsuit. It’s all very well for random bystanders to go “let her name names” when we’re not the ones whose careers are on the line.

  12. yahweh says

    Pteryxx, yes I did read the article.

    I said that the people ‘in authority’ who betrayed her confidences and reprimanded her should be named and shamed. They bring their institution into disrepute by licencing what is in fact criminal behaviour and should be outed (and sacked for that matter). They have responsibilities and they have failed in them. IMO

  13. yahweh says

    And there is presumably no need for Dr. Gay to do it either since apparently everyone knows who it is (again, the ‘authorities’ not the perp.).

    Many years ago, Betrand Russell’s appointment to a New York college was challenged on the grounds that he was not a fit and proper person to educate the students. The trial was a blot on the American legal system but I wonder if someone with legal standing could raise a similar, more legitimate, challenge against these ‘authorities’.

  14. kaboobie says

    Yahweh, I think we know who the perp and the witness (who testified to it under oath, according to Carrie Poppy) are, but not the authorities who censured her. Unless I’m missing something.

  15. Pteryxx says

    I said that the people ‘in authority’ who betrayed her confidences and reprimanded her should be named and shamed. They bring their institution into disrepute by licencing what is in fact criminal behaviour and should be outed (and sacked for that matter).

    yahweh: I agree, but most likely the only person who can name exactly who took those reports is Dr. Gay herself. So she probably is deciding right now whether to keep silent, or as silent as possible as this all blows up around her, or whether to go public at the cost of a career she cares deeply about and has worked hard all her life to achieve, and all the good she could do for science education with that career.

    She said in the article she has legal advice. If she has a retaliation case, for example, then she may be precluded from going public. (Employers are responsible for preventing retaliation as part of equal opportunity law.)

    References for workplace retaliation: one, two

    Keep confidential any complaints that you receive. The fewer people who know about a complaint, the smaller the chances are that someone will retaliate against the complainer. Of course, when you investigate the employee’s complaint, you will have to tell some people about it. Make sure that you tell only the people who absolutely need to know. And, when you tell them, explain what retaliation is and tell them that you won’t tolerate it. (For more investigation tips, see Nolo’s article Guidelines for Handling Discrimination and Harassment Complaints.)

  16. Trebuchet says

    I’m a regular at Dr. Gay’s CosmoQuest forum, so I was very interested in seeing this. I’m still trembling, and I’m an old retired white guy. The original incident was bad enough, but the retaliation….damn. Just…damn. I’m kind of speechless.

  17. Pteryxx says

    bah… and because of the statute of limitations, she has no harassment case.

    More than 300 days after this entire mess started, I received notice that I should be allowed to tell what happened to me without fear of reprimand, but that I have no legal case. Here I’d like to note that the statute of limitations on the relevant laws is 300 days, so it is literally true that I had no case at the time of this decision.

    Those limitations might apply to any retaliation case arising from the incident or the reporting, as well; it depends on her specific situation, state law and such.

    Of course, there’s no statute of limitations barring the backlash and damage to her career if she names anyone now. Nor a limit on the PTSD resulting from said backlash.

  18. Gordon Willis says

    It’s what happens to girls who cry “rape!”, isn’t it? How dare anyone complain to the slave-owners? Because that mentality is still with us. We men still think and act like slave-owners. The very idea of a mere woman complaining about a man’s — a MAN’S — behaviour! It’s — well, it’s, it’s, shocking. Not what he did, but that she should complain! Such poor taste. How she could even mention such degrading acts? She must be depraved even to open her mouth. To say such things! Stoning is too good for her. I mean, he might have children, and a wife, and…you know, some women are just so wicked, saying these things.

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