Though women in the STEM fields are gaining more representation and people have begun listening to the voices of women in science, some things still need more progression: safety, for example. Sexual harassment against women in science remains a problem, and some women are working to address and correct it.
Recent allegations against University of California Berkeley astronomy professor Geoff Marcy found that he had repeatedly violated campus harassment policies against his female students. But rather than engage Marcy in a “lengthy and uncertain” disciplinary process, the school chose to impose sanctions on Marcy, agreeing on new behavioral standards with him.
But the sanctions outraged people, only adding “insult to injury,” as graduate student Katey Alatalo put it. Marcy eventually resigned over the investigation, citing that though he did not agree with some of the complaints filed against him, he felt deeply sorry for his actions.
In response to the investigation and to the widespread harassment of female scientists, Alatalo and some of her colleagues established Astronomy Allies, a group which provides support for victims of harassment. “We’re too junior in the field to punish anybody, but we can tell people how to empower victims,” Alatalo said.
Astronomy Allies first went into action this year at the American Astronomical Society conference. Members of the group wore red buttons for visibility, and participants who felt they were being harassed could text, email, or call other allies to help them out of unwanted situations. The Allies also offer walks home from parties, allowing members to get where they’re going safely and without being accosted.
What is important about the cases against Marcy is that he is a high-profile scientist with the potential to win a Nobel Prize. People may have been reluctant to come forward in the past because they knew they might have to ask him for a recommendation someday, but that ideology of silence is beginning to fade.
“When one of the most prominent scientists repeatedly commits sexual harassment, it threatens this national objective [of increasing the participation of women in science],” says David Charbonneau, an astronomy professor at Harvard.
Because of groups like Astronomy Allies, science is becoming a safer place for women. For the group, visibility is key. “Seeing us wear those buttons tells you not only that there is someone friendly around should you need us, but reminds people who might think about committing harassment that there are always people holding beacons of light to shine in the corners they are hoping to keep dark.”