APS News

APS Addresses Sexual Harassment Scandals

By Emily Conover

Sexual harassment scandals have rocked the astronomy community in recent months, as news outlets uncovered a number of university investigations which found that astronomy professors had harassed students. The stories have generated outrage among scientists, politicians, and the public, and spurred calls for harsher punishments for harassers.

The incidents have served as a wake-up call for many in the scientific community. Both NASA and the National Science Foundation issued statements that they do not tolerate sexual harassment. And Representative Jackie Speier (D-CA) spoke about the issue on the House floor on January 12, saying she would introduce legislation to address sexual harassment in science. The events have also prompted increased action at APS, and reaffirmed the urgency of its efforts already underway.

In October, exoplanet researcher Geoff Marcy resigned from the University of California, Berkeley, after BuzzFeed News revealed that the university had investigated him on multiple accusations of sexual harassment and found him in violation of university policy.

Soon, more scandals followed. Caltech professor Christian Ott was placed on a year of unpaid leave for inappropriate interactions with graduate students. And a decade-old University of Arizona investigation resurfaced, detailing inappropriate behavior by astronomy educator Timothy Slater (now at the University of Wyoming).

The problem is by no means confined to the astronomy community. University of Chicago molecular biologist Jason Lieb resigned in February after he was found to have harassed students.

“I think most women in the field would say it’s a serious problem,” says APS CEO Kate Kirby. “I think most women would say that they’ve experienced harassment, inappropriate comments, and inappropriate behaviors.” Also, the leadership of some APS divisions has raised concerns about harassment with APS senior management.

APS efforts to address harassment include a code of conduct for APS meetings, approved in November 2015. The code states, in part, that all participants “will conduct themselves in a professional manner that is welcoming to all participants and free from any form of discrimination, harassment, or retaliation.”

The code lays out consequences for transgressions. “Violations of this code of conduct policy should be reported to meeting organizers, APS staff, or the APS Director of Meetings. Sanctions may range from verbal warning, to ejection from the meeting without refund, to notifying appropriate authorities.” The full code of conduct is available at the Code of Contact for APS Meetings page.

“I think it’s just incredibly important that we make sure that people are able to practice physics without being bullied, harassed, or made to feel uncomfortable,” Kirby says. “We have to establish — especially at our meetings — an environment where people feel safe and can benefit from participating fully.”

APS senior management is now getting legal advice on what actions the Society can and should take upon accusations of harassment. “I think APS needs to be prepared to handle whatever comes,” says Kirby. “I’m very concerned with setting up the appropriate due process because it is really, really important for a society to try to treat people fairly in such situations.”

The code of conduct is just the first step in addressing harassment at APS meetings, says APS Director of Education and Diversity Ted Hodapp. “The second step is to provide training for all APS staff members and all session chairs to know what to do in case they witness or experience unprofessional behavior.” Such behavior is not limited to sexual harassment, and includes other kinds of unprofessional conduct, such as yelling at speakers.

Prior to the 2016 March and April meetings, harassment training will be provided to APS senior management, certain APS Education and Diversity staff, and all APS meetings staff. The training instructs employees how to respond if an attendee at a meeting has concerns about harassment or other inappropriate behavior. Additional APS staff present at the meetings will receive basic information on what to do if an attendee approaches them with a complaint, including directing the person to APS staff that have received the harassment training. Session chairs at the meetings will receive written instructions.

Unfortunately, there’s little data on sexual harassment specific to physics, says Lauren Aycock, a graduate student at Cornell and the Joint Quantum Institute at the University of Maryland. To try to get a better handle on how prevalent such issues are in the physics community, Aycock worked with APS to include questions about harassment on a survey taken by participants in the Society’s recent Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics. In preliminary, unpublished results from that survey, shared in an interview with APS News, Aycock found that about half of the undergraduate women stated they had witnessed inappropriate comments “often” or “sometimes.” And about half said that they had personally experienced such conduct. “To me, this is saying ‘This is a problem and we should address it,’” Aycock says.

The APS Committee on the Status of Women in Physics (CSWP) has formed a three-person subcommittee tasked with studying harassment issues and considering how APS should respond to reports of harassment. The subcommittee will formulate recommendations that they will bring to the full CSWP in early March, and then to APS leadership. “We’re really trying to both understand the scope of the problems and understand what the possible interventions are at this point,” says Patricia Rankin of the University of Colorado, Boulder, the leader of the subcommittee.

Providing a supportive, inclusive environment at APS meetings is a top priority, Rankin says. “We’ll be looking at what happens in the March and April meetings.” Then, by the time of the next round of meetings, in 2017, “We would expect to have something which is much more fully developed at that point,” Rankin says. In the long term, the subcommittee will also tackle questions of how to investigate complaints and how to prevent harassment from occurring in the first place.

“I just don’t think we can afford to lose people from physics because people are behaving inappropriately,” says Rankin. “There’s so much that is so exciting about physics that to me it’s a tragedy if people are dissuaded from coming into physics.”


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Editor: David Voss
Staff Science Writer: Emily Conover
Contributing Correspondent: Alaina G. Levine
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