I remember when I learned that the skeptic/atheist movement was full of harassing jerks — I was shocked. And then these people started getting exposed in every discipline, from literature and philosophy to physics, and it started to sink in that the entire world is a playground for assholes, which might have been a relief (whew, it’s not just my communities!) but is incredibly depressing instead.
Now add astronomy to the list. One of their most prominent representatives, Geoff Marcy, has been revealed to be a serial sexual harasser, someone who has wrecked women’s careers in astronomy. And it’s a familiar story: the women in that community all knew of his reputation, and it was an open secret.
“He’s had a long history of behaving inappropriately, especially with undergraduates,” said Kirkpatrick, who at the time was a graduate student at Berkeley studying astrophysics. “Women discouraged other women from working with him as a research advisor. It was just something that was talked about pretty frankly among the women in the department.”
Kirkpatrick, who has since left academia, continues to run the Women in Astronomy blog, through which she says three other women have approached her with accounts of their experiences with Marcy.
A blog post by a former student of Marcy’s reveals the same thing.
This should be surprising to very few researchers in the exoplanets community, particularly those of my generation or younger. Geoff’s inappropriate actions toward and around women in astronomy is one of the biggest “open secrets” at any exoplanets or AAS meeting. “Underground” networks of women pass information about Geoff to junior scientists in an attempt to keep them safe. Sometimes it works. Other times it hasn’t, and cognizant members of the community receive additional emails, phone calls and Facebook messages from new victims.
How can this kind of behavior persist? Everyone knows about it, everyone whispers to each other about it, but no one does anything about it…because he has power and prestige, and everyone also knows that if you challenge the Big Man all the other Big Men will close ranks and make your life hell, and shut down your career, and there will be the usual apologists for the status quo who will start whispering about you.
Everyone knows this, too, and they know where power’s bias lies. After the big reveal, in which an investigation exposed exactly how awful he had been for years, Marcy’s department head sent out this memo.
Dear Colleagues – this has been a day of drama and difficulty for many of us, each in our own way and with our own context. It is hard to process for those who know Geoff well. It is hard to process in relation to our colleagues here and elsewhere. And it is difficult for the department as a community. For those for whom these issues are triggering or raise strong passions, please seek support. This is very strong and emotional stuff, and it would not be surprising if more is yet to come, given its very public nature.
I have called a faculty meeting for next Monday at 1pm, and am willing to work to have some representatives of students and postdocs present for part of it (I know that some of you are talking to them). There is a need for our community to process this in a number of ways and forums over time. Clearly folks are organizing some of these already and I’ll try to help when such help is welcome. Mostly, everyone will need support from others and should offer support to others.
Of course, this is hardest for Geoff in this moment. For those who are willing and able, he certainly can use any understanding or support they can offer (this wouldn’t include endorsement of the mistakes he acknowledges in an open letter on his website). I ask that those who have the room for it (now or later), hear him out and judge whether there is room for redemption in all that will transpire.
The emphasis in that last paragraph is mine. I think this long drawn out event has been hardest for the women whose careers he derailed; I don’t have any sympathy for Marcy at all, especially not after reading his ‘apology’.
As some of you may be aware, concerns were raised with UC Berkeley regarding my conduct some years ago involving some women in our field. These complaints, which were raised last year, led to an official investigation by the University, which concluded three months ago. While I do not agree with each complaint that was made, it is clear that my behavior was unwelcomed by some women. I take full responsibility and hold myself completely accountable for my actions and the impact they had. For that and to the women affected, I sincerely apologize.
It is difficult to express how painful it is for me to realize that I was a source of distress for any of my women colleagues, however unintentional. Through deep and lengthy consultations, I have reflected carefully on my actions as well as issues of gender inequality, power, and privilege in our society. I was unaware of how these factors created unforeseen contexts and how my actions and position have affected others in ways that were far from what I intended. Through hard work, I have changed in major ways for the better.
Note the tells. He doesn’t agree with each complaint; so there are some instance of harassment he thinks are justifiable? His behavior was
unwelcome; yeah, that’s an understatement. But hey, it was
unintentional! You have to forgive him, he didn’t really mean to stroke that student’s thigh. He was
It’s all a lie. I don’t believe he was
unaware; he knew every step of the way that his desire for sexual gratification was being expressed inappropriately, to students.
If he were honest, he would have said he didn’t care. He was preying on students, without concern for their careers, and conscious that his status in his field would protect him from any repercussions. He knew this.
I wouldn’t accept an apology that didn’t fully acknowledge the depth of Marcy’s willful violation of his students’ working lives.
I think we also have to recognize that our communities have been complicit in this kind of behavior. It takes more than just finding the predatory individuals in our ranks and tagging them with a warning label — we also have to change the social structures that permit this kind of behavior to fester for decades, and only rarely penalizes the perpetrators.
Some smart words:
As such, defeating sexual harassment goes well beyond expunging people like Marcy from our ranks. It will require a fundamental restructuring of the way we do business, and a reeducation of our field—all of us—in matters related to the culture of science and academe. This will not be easy because our culture fosters a deep distrust and even hostility toward the “soft sciences” such as sociology and psychology that provide us with the best tools for addressing our pervasive inequities. But if we are truly interested in a meritocratic scientific community that makes full use of its talent pool to understand the Universe, we’ll see this as a worthwhile investment. Until we do, there will be more stories filling more inboxes as we collectively shoot ourselves in the feet.
Now if only sociology and psychology were also free of this taint…