Prominent Space Scientist Found Guilty of Sexual Harassment

By Mika McKinnon on at

Once again, a prominent researcher is revealed to be complicit in creating a culture of oppressive harassment that alienates women from science. Can we hurry up with the cultural revolution to ditch this bullshit already?

Yesterday, Buzzfeed broke the news that prominent exoplanet researcher Geoff Marcy was found guilty of violating his university’s sexual harassment policy for at least a decade. As a consequence, he offered up a semi-apology that he didn’t realise sticking his hands up skirts and tops might not be welcome by all of his students. Somehow, his argument that he didn’t realise he was in a position of power and privilege rings hollow in the face of mandatory biannual sexual harassment trainings.

Although the formal complaints spanned 2001 through 2010, the whispered warnings among women looking to study exotic worlds start earlier and don’t stop. It’s darkly charming that Marcy still denies the allegations even when the university investigator noted that, “based on the preponderance of evidence, I find it more likely than not that [he] acted as reported”.

The only consequence Marcy is facing is instructions from UC Berkeley to behave himself around his future students. If a student is brave enough to face professional consequences and personal humiliation, and willing to shoulder the burden of proof by filing a complaint about the professor committing unspecified violations, after another investigation he’ll face undetermined sanctions that may be just as mild as this non-response. Meanwhile, Marcy’s department chair wrote a letter to the rest of the astronomy faculty commiserating that this is such a hard time for our poor beleaguered culprit with no mention of the women Marcy made miserable.

The closest thing I can find to a silver lining is that Marcy was asked to skip the most important academic conference in his field this year, and he agreed that maybe he shouldn’t be there. In an interview with Science, American Astronomical Society (AAS) President and Yale astronomer Meg Urry explains her intolerance for harassment at the conference:

“Sexual harassment usually involves a question of a power imbalance. We run a professional astronomy meeting, not a dating market. And one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen is when a young woman realises that the extra attention she is receiving from an older, male astronomer is not related to her science.”

While it doesn’t magically make AAS a safe space to forget about gender and get on with the science already, at least it’s a step in the right direction to support women in science.

Women in science run a fine balance between salvaging their own futures and protecting others from repeating the same horrible fates with whispered warnings. From cautions over which professors to never be left alone with to rumours of university departments that chronically can’t keep harassment in check, it’s a pitiful patchwork of coping to try to keep the number of victims from growing as quickly.

I hate writing about this bullshit. It’s just so predictable and widespread and horrible that I’d rather write about lessons we can learn or ways the science community reacts to find a glimmer of hope. But I just can’t this time, knowing how much is being kept in darkness and whispers. [Buzzfeed]

Top image: Geoff Marcy is an exoplanet-finding powerhouse, and gropes students. Credit: NASA