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.
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.
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.”
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.
“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.”
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.”
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.”