Are You a Scientist and Sexual Harasser? We Have Some Questions…

Covering sexism and sexual harassment in the sciences and academia may not yet be a full-fledged beat for journalists, but it’s getting there.

Earlier this summer, BuzzFeed News reported that a highly acclaimed Ebola researcher at the University of Washington, Michael Katze, had violated the university’s sexual harassment policies with two employees.

Katze, BuzzFeed wrote, had been admired for, “preaching calm in the face of fear” during the 2014 Ebola epidemic in West Africa. Yet the laboratory he had led for nearly 30 years “was descending into chaos.” He was found to have “misused university resources for personal gain, including by asking an employee to do chores for him and solicit a prostitute,” the story said.

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Katze responded by suing the university in federal court for violating his rights as a tenured professor. He also sued BuzzFeed to block release of the documents in the investigation, which included more than 100,000 text messages, emails, and other material. Both suits were unsuccessful, a fact noted in the story by Azeen Ghorayshi, a staff reporter at BuzzFeed, who has been tracking cases of sexual harassment by scientists for months.

Persistent pockets of old-boy sexism within the academy are as absurdly anachronistic as an episode of “Mad Men,” and yet they still exist.

She is not alone. Over the last several years, a rising tide of science journalists, many (though not all) of them women, have trained their lenses not just on the practice of science and its myriad successes and failures, but on scientists themselves — particularly those who continue to flourish in male-dominated departments and institutions at the expense of female colleagues. It may be overstating things to call “sexual harassment in science” a full-fledged beat — and to be sure, the problem has a long pedigree. The National Academy of Sciences’ landmark report “Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering,” which documented relentless discrimination against female researchers, is already a decade old, after all.

But it would be easy to argue the counterpoint: that were it not for a new and brash generation of young science journalists, for whom persistent pockets of old-boy sexism within the academy are as absurdly anachronistic as an episode of “Mad Men,” we might not know that such pockets still exist.

They very much do.

Ghorayshi began focusing on the issue in the fall of 2015 after breaking the news that an investigation by the University of California at Berkeley had concluded that one of its most high-profile scientists, the exoplanet researcher, Geoffrey Marcy, was in serious violation of its sexual harassment policies.Three months later, in January 2016, she told the story of Christian Ott, an astrophysicist at Caltech, who was found to have violated the university’s harassment policies with two women. The story was headlined: “He Fell In Love With His Graduate Student – Then Fired Her For It.”

  • The University of California at Berkeley concluded that one of its most high-profile scientists, the exoplanet researcher, Geoffrey Marcy, was in serious violation of its sexual harassment policies. Buzzfeed broke the news.

    Visual by NASA

Ghorayshi also identified a pattern in which both universities appeared reluctant to discipline the scientists or call attention to the problem. Ott was quietly given nine months of unpaid leave during which time he was barred from campus and most of his communications with postdoctoral fellows was monitored. Caltech did not announce the actions publicly until Ghorayshi inquired about them. In Marcy’s case, she reported, UC-Berkeley had identified a pattern of sexual harassment involving four students over almost ten years. The school responded by letting him know that this was unacceptable and that he risked future sanctions if it continued. Five days later, after a series of earlier incidents were made public, Marcy resigned.

In addition to reporting egregious examples of harassment, Ghorayshi and BuzzFeed have also made a point of exploring the cultural issues behind such problems. In another piece titled “Here’s How Geoff Marcy’s Sexual Harassment Went On for Decades”, she wrote: “A cynical take is that the forces that allowed Marcy to harass women for so many years — his prestige; his ability to bring in funding; the employment protections he enjoyed as a tenured professor; the outdated, onerous, and secretive nature of sexual harassment investigations — are not anomalies of an outlying department, but in many cases defining traits of academia. “

As Wired science writer Sarah Zhang wrote, shortly after the Marcy story broke, “This kind of thing, unfortunately, isn’t new. What’s remarkable is what happened after each of these events occurred, when the hashtags trended and the voices clamored: The people responsible were held accountable for their actions.” Zhang noted that after BuzzFeed’s story broke, scientists responded by organizing a petition in favor of stronger punishment. Within minutes, hundreds had signed it. Within 10 days, there were more than 3,000 signatures.

In fact, one of the things that makes Ghorayshi’s reporting so pivotal is that it seems to reflect a fairly recent consensus both in science journalism — and science itself — that this is an issue that needs to be addressed openly. Researchers like University of Illinois anthropologist Kate Clancy have been working to illuminate the problem for some years. In a post for Scientific American in 2013, for instance, Clancy wrote a detailed and passionate essay exploring “reports of harassment and abuse in the field.” Hope Jahren, a geobiologist at the University of Hawaii and author of the book, Lab Girl, published an essay in The New York Times in 2014 on sexual assault problems in science.

All of that was simmering in the news when Virginia Hughes, who joined BuzzFeed in 2014 as science editor, and decided that it was time for a science beat focused on issues of sex in American culture. Hughes hired Ghorayshi in early 2015 and gave her broad freedom to cover a host of sensitive subjects in addition to sexual harassment, from narrative features about children who are intersex to stories of embryos in divorce court.

“We didn’t go chasing after the sexual harassment thing per se, but … we wanted to have the BuzzFeed science desk be an established place where sexism is talked about,” Ghorayshi said. Hughes echoed that sentiment: “We didn’t explicitly set out to do a beat in sexual harassment in science … but now that it’s happened, we’re committed to doing much more of it.”

But it’s Ghorayshi’s reporting on sexual harassment that has caught the most attention both from scientists and other journalists. “We are seeing a huge upswing in sexual harassment reporting,” said science writer and New York University professor Michael Balter, who added that he thought the big breakthrough came last October, when Ghorayshi broke the story of the Marcy case at Berkeley.

“We didn’t explicitly set out to do a beat in sexual harassment in science … but now that it’s happened, we’re committed to doing much more of it.”

“At Science, I was still debating with my editors whether we should cover the Brian Richmond case when that story exploded,” Balter said, “and it was the tipping point for our own investigation.” Balter’s story, published in Science early this year, explored accusations against Richmond, a curator for human origins at the American Museum of Natural History, under the headline “The sexual misconduct case that rocked anthropology.”

Balter also thinks the academic climate for reporting sexual harassment has changed. “Victims of sexual harassment and their supporters seem to be really fed up with it, and are talking to reporters now when they might not have earlier. A sort of critical mass situation.”

Congresswoman Jackie Spier, a California Democrat, discussed sexual harassment in science on Capitol Hill earlier this year.

Hughes said she is “thrilled that lots of other outlets are also paying more attention, citing Balter’s story, a piece by Amy Harmon at The New York Times on the resignation of University of Chicago molecular geneticist Jason Lieb following a sexual harassment investigation, and reporting by Mashable’s Miriam Kramer on Tim Slater, an astronomer at the University of Wyoming.


The question, of course, is whether this increasingly public conversation can lead to significant cultural change. I asked Janet Stemwedel, an ethicist and philosopher of science at San José State University, whether she thought that reporting such as Ghorayshi’s, Balter’s, and others had, so far, changed anything.

“Does it reduce the incidence of harassment? I think it’s too soon to tell,” she said. “And it’s notoriously hard to get accurate information on the incidence of sexual harassment to begin with; harassers aren’t usually doing it out in the open, and their targets have lots of sensible reasons to decide not to report, given the kinds of personal and career blowback that come with being a whistleblower.”

“The hypothesis that it’s just a few isolated ‘bad apples’ doesn’t seem plausible anymore.”

Still, she added, the recent uptick in reporting on the topic has proved one thing: “There are enough well-publicized cases that the hypothesis that it’s just a few isolated ‘bad apples,'” Stemwedel said, “doesn’t seem plausible anymore.”

Another question is whether reporting on harassment will affect universities, funding agencies and professional societies. Proposed legislation to require universities to disclose findings of sexual harassment to funders, for example, could have unintended consequences — not least because universities are heavily dependent on grants. This, Stemwedel said, might make them less willing to call an incident harassment “because having to share this information threatens their funding.”

But that would only seem to underscore the importance of continuing to expose sexism and discrimination wherever it occurs. “A culture of sexism,” Ghorayshi noted, “enables something like sexual harassment to go unpublished, unaddressed.”

Indeed, “bigot,” “chauvinist,” and “harasser” are not terms that any scientist or academic would readily display on a CV. And yet we know, perhaps now more than ever, that such appellations remain well-deserved in some corners of science — and sometimes even inside prestigious programs and institutions that we might have assumed, by 2016, would be more enlightened.

The perpetrators of such behavior have profound incentives to keep their actions quiet. So do their institutions. Sadly, so do the victims of harassment, who often discover that reporting bad behavior damage or even destroy their own careers.

And yet, reluctant whistleblowers and tangled knots of competing interests and motivations have forever been the hard stuff of journalism, whatever the beat, and science journalists are as obliged as any member of the profession to keep digging, keep writing, keep exposing. Sure, such work won’t change things overnight. But change — however sluggish and freighted with cultural inertia — can’t happen without it.

“I think in the long run,” Balter said, “[a] cultural change will take place that will make sexual harassment more difficult to get away with.”

See What Others Are Saying

9 comments / Join the Discussion

    To those that pose the question “does this really happen that often?” The answer is yes it really does. I have experienced it in all 3 positions I have had in science. The first time was as a grad student when a professor that came to hear my poster presentation tell me he would never hire a young woman as a postdoc because there is “too much risk for her to take time off to have babies.” The second time I experienced it was as a postdoc. My mentor constantly made comments and innuendos about sex and then at a conference after some drinks actually put his hands on me. It was reported to our superiors when we returned but guess what their response was? “If you don’t like how you are being treated you should leave.” And that was the FEDERAL GOVERNMENT! Even though they are supposed to be setting the example, they remain to be “the good ol boys club”. After leaving and getting my current position my direct supervisor knows what happened to me and has been supportive and frequently says how disgusting it was and how wrong it was handled, but he also makes constantly jokes, blonde jokes, jokes about other women and sex jokes. He doesn’t mean to be hurtful by them, he thinks he is being funny but doesn’t see how he makes people uncomfortable with these things. He has so much power within the university everyone is afraid to say anything about it. He has been known to target people and get them released from their contract if they got on his bad side. So where does that leave things? For me it leaves me stuck in a position and a veiled I have come to hate. What started out as a dream to make a difference has become a nightmare that must be endured just to get by.

    Reply

    Jason, “It seems that much of the fervor to “out” harassers is driven by a desire to show that men are responsible for the dearth of women in science”…. Are you commenting on the article? If you can point out where in the article this is suggested, I would appreciate it. If not, then this is a very dry and scratchy straw man. You are the one suggesting a cause “for the dearth of women in science”.

    Reply

    Hi Paul,

    Sexual harassment happens in the sciences like it happens anywhere else, no doubt, but is it really as extreme as it’s painted in articles like yours on the Internet? One tends to wonder about advocacy journalism and the big F word: modern feminism and its relentless obsession to conquer STEM, despite the still impoverished count of women finding statistically significant enthusiasm in it.

    “Still, she added, the recent uptick in reporting on the topic has proved one thing: “There are enough well-publicized cases that the hypothesis that it’s just a few isolated ‘bad apples,’”

    Does it really prove that? The CDC showed an “uptick” in rape reported on college campuses, too. We thought we were having a rape epidemic on college grounds, until we looked at the parsimonious methods and overly broad definitions of rape the “study” employed. Feminist politics is on everyone’s minds these days. For all its marketability, it has created a hostile relationship between males and females in and of itself, in my view. If there is a larger number of women reporting harassment, that does not necessarily mean this is greater evidence of a real systemic problem with actual harassment. As the saying goes in science, correlation does not equal causation—especially when there is an obvious political agenda to one’s writing.

    “[…]reluctant whistleblowers and tangled knots of competing interests and motivations have forever been the hard stuff of journalism, whatever the beat, and science journalists are as obliged as any member of the profession to keep digging, keep writing, keep exposing.”

    But do you really think this is cutting edge journalism, Paul? I don’t find anything brave or particularly novel about yet another political speech disguising itself as “journalism” while it caters to the politically correct mandate du jour that is feminism. This is, in fact, a very tired and safe topic, one that has been repeated ad nasueam because it pulls lots of eyeballs, makes a lot of money, and garners the obligatory applause of one’s peers. It’s not the first to cash in on this subject and it won’t be the last.

    Nicely executed site, beautiful design, and good writing quality, but I sense the intellectual rot of feminist advocacy and its common political foibles here. The agenda is questionable, in the least.

    Reply

    Well said Marc.

    Janet Stemwedel is a first and foremost a feminist activist, despite whatever other academic positions she may hold. Paul should not have quoted her as an unbiased source on this issue and certainly not without bringing in a much needed counter opinion.

    Reply

    “There are enough well-publicized cases that the hypothesis that it’s just a few isolated ‘bad apples,’” Stemwedel said, “doesn’t seem plausible anymore.”

    It’s great that the “bad apples” are being rooted out and that there is increased awareness around this issue. And certainly the guild-like structure of academia is ripe for abuse and would benefit from some restructuring. However, statements like the above from Janet Stemwedel would lead one to believe that there is an epidemic of harassment holding women back from careers in academic science. This seems ludicrous given how liberal and progressive academia is in general. It seems that much of the fervor to “out” harassers is driven by a desire to show that men are responsible for the dearth of women in science, rather than it being the result of women’s cumulative life choices. While both forces could be at play, the evidence suggests the latter has much more weight.

    Reply

    You’re kidding, right? “Women’s cumulative life choices”? You mean having the reproductive organs to have children? Because every woman I know in science has set out to do great things, and every woman I know has also been the subject of teasing, taunts, or ridicule due to their gender at work or in school.

    I’ll admit its not only men but society overall that is a problem. Its a woman’s “choice” to take time away from work to birth/raise children, except that in order to have children at all most couples must acknowledge that the man gets paid more and that it’s more financially sound to have the mother take time off. Plus the social stigma at a stay at home dads, career moms, etc.

    But with respect to the cases of sec’y a lb harassment coming out, it’s critical that we pay attention. When professor is a sexual harasser or predator, he won’t just affect the career of one woman. He affects literally hundreds. His sexist demenor keeps his dozens of female undergraduate advisees from seeking the mentoring they need. He oove-criticizes his female graduate students and under-praises them, causing them to “Master out” like flies. He treats his female post docs like lab techs, and his lab techs like personal assistants. Few to none of the females in his lab get the authorships, funding, or recommendations they deserve.

    There are plenty of good, honest men in science. But the bad ones make a huge difference for those of us under their power.

    Reply

    Let it not be forgotten that this movement started not long after science writing endured its own harassment scandal, which Hughes and Stemwedel observed firsthand. It can’t be proven but it seems likely that experiencing the exposure of a serial harasser who was central to their community opened the eyes of many science journalists and created an environment where such stories could be told and accepted.

    Reply

    Great point! Before 2014 sexual harassment in science or academia wasn’t talked or discussed much. It breaks my heart to remember the fear of talking about anything related to it since that was just shameful to have gone through it.
    We need more discussion to help survivors! We need more people talk about their experiences so that others feel more supported and less isolated! We also need more training through our institutions that involve explicit definitions, explanations of even the trickiest situations, and provide more information on resources or ways to get help! We need our department chairs to support our students and post docs, and help them accommodate their needs in times of crisis! We need universities care about every individual (student, post doc, staff, faculty, etc) regardless from the amount of grant money they bring or their tenure!

    Reply
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About the Author

Paul Raeburn

Media critic, author

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