Sexual Harassment Case Shines Light On Science's Dark Secret

Oct 16, 2015
Originally published on October 18, 2015 3:45 pm

A sexual harassment case is sending shock waves through the scientific community this week, and raising questions nationwide about how common sexual harassment is in science and why so little is typically done to stop it.

A six-month investigation by the University of California, Berkeley concluded in June that a faculty member, renowned astronomer Geoffrey Marcy, violated multiple sexual harassment policies over the course of a decade.

Marcy has been a leader in the hunt for Earth-like planets beyond our solar system, was head of a $100 million project aimed at finding life on other planets, and has often been touted as a possible candidate for the Nobel Prize.

But he resigned Wednesday after a number of faculty members and students in his department publicly released letters condemning his alleged inappropriate behavior with students, and the university's inadequate response in dealing with it.

Marcy hasn't responded to NPR's request for an interview. He denies some of the allegations, but he posted a public apology "for mistakes I've made" on his faculty website.

The school had kept its investigation private — even from its own faculty — until the online news outlet BuzzFeed broke the story last week.

Aside from stating that "Marcy violated campus sexual harassment policy," the university released no details about what the investigation found. But according to BuzzFeed, the report concluded that Marcy's offensive behavior included unwanted massages, kissing and groping of at least four students, from 2001 to 2010.

One of these students was Sarah Ballard, now a postdoctoral fellow in astronomy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She first met Marcy a decade ago when she was an undergraduate at Berkeley. He taught her astronomy class and showed special interest in her career, she tells NPR.

"To have a really renowned scientist praise you — and praise your ability — you can imagine, was really encouraging to me," she says.

At first, she and Marcy met a few times at cafes around campus, where they talked about astronomy and her career. But sometimes, she says, the conversation became too personal. He talked about when he was young, having sex with a former girlfriend.

Then one day, Marcy gave Ballard a ride home. He parked the car by her house. "The fact that we were in the car together suddenly made me feel really uncomfortable," she says. "I think I really realized that the tenor of the mood was really wrong."

As Ballard started to get out of the car, the professor "reached over and was rubbing the back of my neck," she says. She left the car — and stopped getting together with Marcy outside of class.

Ballard says she was afraid to report Marcy. She didn't want to hurt her chances of going to graduate school. It's a common and very real conundrum for many women hoping to pursue university research careers, says Katie Hinde, a biologist at Arizona State University.

"Academia has a particular climate that allows sexual harassment, sexual assault and sexual abuses to persist," Hinde tells NPR. Last year, she co-authored one of the few studies aimed at figuring out how common sexual harassment is in science.

Hinde and her colleagues surveyed roughly 500 women doing fieldwork in a range of scientific disciplines. Seventy percent of those women told the researchers they had experienced sexual harassment, often from their mentors or supervisors — "people who had power over their career, who had power over their research," Hinde says.

In science, letters of recommendation from mentors are particularly crucial to obtaining a coveted faculty position, Hinde says. When a mentor sexually harasses or assaults a woman, it backs her into a corner: She can either report the offense, and possibly hurt her career. Or she can try to ignore it.

In fact, most harassment is never reported, says Heather Metcalf, research director of the Association for Women in Science.

Women are often told to keep quiet about lewd comments, touching and leering, she says. "There is a bit of a norm for those behaviors to sort of be brushed off, rather than be taken seriously."

An incident last summer involving the prestigious journal Science shows how common this attitude is, Metcalf says. A young female scientist wrote to the journal's advice column, asking what she should do about a situation in the lab where she worked.

"She was really enjoying the scientific work she was doing, but she was feeling really uncomfortable because she kept catching her supervisor trying to take a peek down her blouse," Metcalf says.

The magazine columnist essentially advised the woman to say nothing — to turn a blind eye, Metcalf says. Science eventually retracted the column.

But the culture of keeping silent about sexual harassment continues.

In Marcy's case, it took years of complaints before the university took up its investigation. Then it disciplined him privately.

The university, which declined an interview with NPR, confirmed in a written statement that Marcy was told to follow strict behavior guidelines or "be immediately subject to sanctions that could include suspension or dismissal." This agreement was the "most certain and effective option for preventing any inappropriate future conduct," according to the statement.

Michael Eisen, a molecular biologist at Berkeley, says the school didn't go far enough.

"In essence the university convicted him," Eisen says, "and what was so stunning to me was that Marcy got, at best, something you would describe as a slap on the wrist."

By not punishing him, Eisen says, "they're all but ensuring this kind of behavior is going to continue from others. Basically they're saying there are no consequences for this type of behavior."

In the days since the news got out, many scientists have demanded consequences.

Thousands of scientists have signed an online petition supporting the women who accused Marcy of harassment. And 24 faculty members in the department of astronomy at Berkeley signed and released a letter Monday that said, in part, "We believe that Geoff Marcy cannot perform the functions of a faculty member."

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We're following a sexual harassment case that has stunned the scientific community. It comes from an investigation at the University of California, Berkeley. That investigation found renowned astronomer Geoffrey Marcy violated sexual harassment policies over the course of a decade. Marcy resigned on Wednesday. He's famous for looking for extraterrestrial life and has been described as a possible future Nobel laureate. As NPR's Michaeleen Doucleff reports, this case has triggered a discussion of how common sexual harassment is in science and how little is done to stop it.

MICHAELEEN DOUCLEFF, BYLINE: The investigation into Marcy's behavior ended in June. The university kept it private, even from its own faculty. Then Buzzfeed reported the story last week. According to the news site, officials found that Marcy engaged in inappropriate behavior, including unwanted massages, kisses and groping with at least four students from 2001 to 2010. One student was Sarah Ballard. She's now an astronomy postdoc at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but she first met Marcy a decade ago as an undergraduate. He taught her astronomy class and showed special interest in her career.

SARAH BALLARD: To have a really renowned scientist praise you and praise your ability you can imagine was immeasurably encouraging to me.

DOUCLEFF: Eventually, Marcy and Ballard started meeting at cafes around campus. They talked about astronomy, but sometimes he'd bring up an old girlfriend and talk about having sex with her. Then, one day, Marcy gave Ballard a ride home. He parked the car by her house.

BALLARD: The fact that we were in the car together suddenly made me feel so uncomfortable (laughter). I think I kind of realized that the tenor of the mood was really wrong.

DOUCLEFF: Ballard opened the car door and turned to leave.

BALLARD: He reached over, and he was kind of rubbing - he was rubbing the back of my neck.

DOUCLEFF: Ballard left the car. Like many women in science, she was afraid to tell anybody about what happened.

KATIE HINDE: Academia has a particular climate which allows sexual harassment, sexual assault and sexual abuses to persist.

DOUCLEFF: That's Katie Hinde, a biologist at Arizona State University. She co-authored one of the few studies looking at how common sexual harassment is in science. Hinde and her colleagues surveyed about 500 women working out in field sites. Seventy percent reported experiencing sexual harassment, often from their supervisors...

HINDE: ...Who had power over their career, who had power over their research.

DOUCLEFF: And that's the big problem. Women can either report the harassment and possibly hurt their careers or try to ignore it, like Ballard did for almost a decade. In fact, most harassment is never reported. Heather Metcalf at the Association for Women in Science says women are often told to keep hush-hush about lewd comments, touching and leering.

HEATHER METCALF: And there is a bit of a norm for those behaviors to sort of be brushed off, rather than taken seriously.

DOUCLEFF: Just this past summer, a young woman wrote to the prestigious Journal of Science for advice about sexual harassment.

METCALF: She was really enjoying the scientific work that she was doing, but she was feeling really uncomfortable because her supervisor - she kept catching him trying to take a peek down her blouse.

DOUCLEFF: The magazine column, which has since been retracted, basically advised the woman to turn a blind eye. In Marcy's case, it took years of complaints for the university to investigate him. Then it disciplined him privately. He was told to follow strict behavior guidelines or risk the possibility of dismissal. The university declined an interview with NPR. It said in a statement that this agreement was the fastest way to stop Marcy's misconduct. But then the news got out on Buzzfeed, and scientists got angry. Michael Eisen is a biology professor at Berkeley.

MICHAEL EISEN: In essence, the university convicted him. And what was so stunning to me was that Marcy got, at best, something you would describe as a slap on the wrist.

DOUCLEFF: With such a lenient punishment, Eisen says, the university is all but ensuring harassment will continue in labs.

EISEN: You know, basically, they're saying there's no consequences for engaging in this kind of behavior.

DOUCLEFF: Since the news got out, many scientists have demanded consequences. Thousands signed a petition supporting the women Marcy harassed, and 24 of Marcy's colleagues called for his resignation. Marcy hasn't responded to NPR's request for an interview. He denies some of the allegations, but posted an apology on his faculty website. Michaeleen Doucleff, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.