Stories Spill Out as Spotlight Is Shined on Sexism in Astronomy

Jan 16, 2016

Photo credit: Chris Usher/CBS, via Associated Press

By Karen Workman

Jessica Kirkpatrick, an undergrad student, was wearing dishwashing gloves to clean part of her research experiment when a senior member of her team walked by.

“That’s what women are good for, washing dishes in the kitchen,” he said, she recalled of the incident 15 or so years ago.

That’s among the less threatening stories of harassment shared by Dr. Kirkpatrick, 35, a former physics and astrophysics student at the University of California, Berkeley, who went on to get her doctorate.

She and many other women in astronomy have been tweeting about similar experiences using the hashtag #astroSH. The outpouring has surged since Tuesday, when Representative Jackie Speier, Democrat of California, announced a push for legislation to address sexism at universities.

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28 comments on “Stories Spill Out as Spotlight Is Shined on Sexism in Astronomy

  • Okay, what are you going to do! Report it or ignore it. I would say just tell the creep to fuck off and get back to work and excel! Assholes suck and we all have to deal with it sometimes. Period. The feminists love to complain, and pretty soon they’re going to run out of things to complain about. Sorry. I’m a feminist – but they can be very annoying.
    Oh, by the way, E=MC2 is a sexed equation; it privileges the speed of light. (Dawkins’ joke.)

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  • At work party, a drunk senior member of my group puts his hand up my skirt. He later claims he had blacked out and didn’t remember. #astroSH

    This is not only unacceptable, it is criminal. You don’t have to be a feminist, or part of any ideology, to see this as what it is. Dead wrong and needing addressed.

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  • Who said otherwise? Address it, by all means. Hand up your shirt? Go to the fucking police. That is criminal. It’s molestation.
    I don’t see what the problem is. No one controls you or holds your future in his hands. Report the creep.
    Black-out or not, he deserves to be terminated. Isn’t there a human resources dept. at most places of work?
    Even if there isn’t you can always take action.
    Tired of all this belly-aching. You are not powerless victims.
    Be aggressive and report him to his superior, play hard ball if you have to.
    What did you end up doing?
    Usually it takes no more than one complaint to get someone suspended or fired.
    You have options, power, resources. You can make choices. Is it a problem? Of course. But harassment happens to everyone. A fact of life. Be pro-active.
    Maybe it is more of a problem than I think, as Phil suggested.
    If that’s the case I apologize for my short-sightedness.
    Btw, NeoD, I always assumed you were a guy. (My unconscious sexism?)
    Take care. —DR

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  • One need only google sexual harassment in academia to find thousands of articles and abstracts to see the scope of the problem. Women who are abused by their team superiors and report it are seldom successful at getting justice and at best lose valuable time and energy fighting a system that doesn’t take sexual harassment seriously. I’d like to know any instance when one complaint ever got a tenured professor fired.

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  • I shall leave aside the rather shocking naivety and false equivalence and focus on the fact that most people don’t want to redirect their lives into being social justice warriors. They want to finish their expensive, one chance at an education and carry on with their life plan.

    Usually it takes no more than one complaint to get someone suspended or fired.

    This is far, far from the case and as pointed out most unlikely when the guy (!) is an asset.

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  • Well I won’t take your word for it, Candace. I suspect that this problem is not as ubiquitous and severe as you present it. I have a friend who is a tenured professor who has to worry about every damned word he says; he has gotten complaints for using words that are misinterpreted by overly-sensitive idiots. That is the other side of it.
    There are thousands of articles on every subject, including diabetes and holocaust denial. Terrible point.
    I also know a wonderful man (Sidney Peck) who was falsely accused of harassment years ago. It almost killed him, and it was all manufactured. He won the case with great difficulty. This is not the rule (false accusation) but it does happen a lot.
    I was a victim of identity theft and the police did nothing.
    Yes justice does elude us all at times.
    Anyway, do you have any solutions or do you want crocodile tears?

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  • So what would you suggest? Sounds like the problem is here to stay then (and I am not so sure that this your assessment isn’t as inaccurate as mine might be).
    How do you know that this is endemic if no one is reporting it or doing anything?

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  • The most powerful tool is technology. Some police wear cameras now that protects the police as well as the public. Make all employees wear them which will keep sexual predators at bay as well as third wave feminists and SOME women who use the sexist card at the drop of a hat.

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  • It is under-reported (though increasingly less so) and under acted upon (though less so).

    The wincing sexism of the seventies films and TV programmes no-longer finds its way on to the screens in anything like the same volume. The job will never be done and academe is exactly the sort of area where the aging uncultured socially incompetent male nerd in a position of authority might remain a little toxic pool of abusive behaviour.

    Merely shining a flashlight into this dark corner will help immeasurably. Discouraging the behaviour is more efficient than mitigating its subsequent harms.

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  • The most powerful tool is technology. […] Make all employees wear [cameras].

    I don’t know if you’re serious or not, Olgun. Sounds like a dystopian novel, depicting a nightmarish surveillance state. (There are no third-wave feminists. Nor is there post-feminism or post-modern art. There are only feminists and there is only modern art.)

    It is under-reported (though increasingly less so) and under acted
    upon (though less so). —P.R.

    Under-reported and yet well established as evidence? Sounds like woo to me.

    I’d like to know any instance when one complaint ever got a tenured.
    professor fired. —Ms. Young

    That might be because in today’s world, in this climate, really demanding sex for a grade or any serious harassment of a sexual nature, would immediately jeopardize one’s safe, permanent tenured position. So as an associate or full professor, you’d have to be pretty self-destructive to begin with. Are there such people in the world? Obviously, yes.

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  • Under-reported and yet well established as evidence? Sounds like woo to me.

    This is the article’s proposition.

    demanding sex for a grade or any serious harassment of a sexual nature

    You’re a writer. You can imagine a scenario of how an abuser might work with a continual drip of “sub-clinical” harassment.

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  • I don’t know if you’re serious or not, Olgun.

    I am very serious Dan. I think George Orwell might have made us overly sensitive on this subject.

    A woman makes a complaint and man denies it. Where is the evidence. We here live for evidence. Of course there will be rules to wearing this camera.

    It will be a personal device. It will not be monitored by the corporation. It will not be handed in at the end of the working day and will remain the responsibility of he wearer. If a complaint is made then, and only then, will it be used, in the presence of the wearer and another witness, to provide the evidence for the offence. No other information will be taken from it. The same will be done for the accused. The usual rules apply if the accused, or other, claims to not have theirs switched on or they lost it etc…There are car users who use this technology off their own backs or to reduce the cost of insurance. Push bike users use them more than anyone else. It is a way not only to record any incidents but also, as the public get to know about it, to make the bikes more visible and make motorists be more aware unconsciously. If something as small as modern cameras can be worn around the neck that stops women being held back and promotes proper behaviour then I will not pander to my fear of things new like people have done since the wheel. “That will never catch on or it will take work away from the bison”, is an attitude I like to stay away from. That is why I have a Kindle 😉

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  • Read the article, smell a rat. Scary stuff, if you ask me. It creates a terrible environment where a complaint is virtually tantamount to an accusation. I know people in academia, do you? Unwanted comments are not harassing comments necessarily. I have a friend who was reported for looking at a student’s breasts for a few seconds, where a cross was hanging. Whatever . . . And this fellow has a lot to lose. If he had lost his position over that BS he might have suicided.
    So what are they going to do?
    It works both ways. I told you about my father’s friend Prof. Peck (now stricken with Alzheimers). Some asshole woman accused him of harassment and none of it was true!! He was a prominent man so it got a lot of attention. All the leading feminists at the time (the 70’s) rallied to her defense. That’s terrorism, btw. Well they didn’t know who they were dealing with. He, with the help of his wife Louise, and my parents, fought it and won. But he suffered a serious heart attack in the process. This happens to others too, I presume.
    I have many friends whose kids are in college. None of them have mentioned anything.
    Astronomy labs are a rough place? I say there’s something gamey going on, an anti-male bias, or maybe some more insidious form of power mongering and social engineering. Who runs the universities now? Women! A backlash of some kind, rooted partly in envy, politics, ideology, real resentment for past inequities, and stupidity. This is going to get way out of control. If you ask a fellow employee or a student out twice or if you look at her tits (okay breasts) for a second longer than she deems appropriate you’re booted and blacklisted?
    An under-reported problem that must be addressed because it’s like an epidemic. Oh no!—That’s what the article “proposes,” you say. Well I propose that Schopenhauer was right about everything. So blah!
    (Foul mood again, Phil. Sorry for my un-nuanced and one-sided semi-diatribe, but I am sure I am onto something. Harassment is a tricky issue. You’re smart enough to get that. Imagine you were falsely accused! Think about that, but not too long.)
    No cameras in the rooms, Olgun. That will make life impossible. We need to learn from Orwell.

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  • No cameras in the rooms, Olgun. That will make life impossible. We
    need to learn from Orwell.

    Learn what? That we are not intelligent enough to find solutions to problems? Orwell’s book wasn’t a definitive future but a story that needed to go way beyond in order to make it interesting. Your fathers friend could have benefited from it.

    I know a baroness who was constantly pulling out the feminist card the minute we challenged her on anything. She was so obsessed that she managed to sideline us on an issue we were supposed to be on the same side as her on but she wanted the limelight. Once we were out of the way, a couple of conservative MPs who were against us, religious and male chauvinistic tore her to pieces and ousted her from the APPG. She put in an official complaint but we no longer talk, unless we have to, so I don’t know the outcome.
    Oh! And to be clear (not that it will make much difference in your mind) the cameras are worn and not in a room.

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  • Maybe the camera thing could work. But so inhibiting! Stifling! Maybe I need to read your proposal more carefully. It would be after someone is suspected? But what would prevent everyone from wearing recording devices at all times?
    Sounds like the concept of arming people with guns.

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  • They will wear them at all times when in the workplace. They can even opt to wear them on the way home if they like but that would be for outside court use if admissible.

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  • Sorry for my un-nuanced….

    Then why not be nuanced? Why not offer something more than opinion?

    Workplaces have been studied and the outrageous results-

    have since found their way in to corporate policy…still being tightened up.

    Academe has been mostly ignored. (Profs don’t do this stuff surely?)

    ‘Bout time, ‘cos they do. Maybe not as much as your psychopath boss, but…

    (Note the amount of agreement between male and female on incidence rates.)

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  • Foul mood again, Phil. Sorry for my un-nuanced and one-sided

    By the way, @ Dan – you have more admitted foul moods than anyone I’ve encountered here! How about moving forward we assume you’re in a foul mood and then you can give us a crazy glass half full “great mood!” when it strikes your fancy, if ever? Ha, just kidding. A little 😉

    But I agree with Phil that nuance is important. I recently left an uncharacteristically (I hope) un-nuanced and borderline inappropriate comment on a sensitive issue (such as this one) and it was rightfully ripped immediately by bonnie and I quickly apologized for my lack of sensitivity. We are not face to face here where we can sense and detect visual cues. Decorum (to an extent) is important if we’re to have productive discussions, though as I’ve said before, I do miss some of our more contrarian contributors from the recent past.

    I’m lucky that in some of my other internet writing roles my often cutting sarcasm, which is probably never evident here, is quite welcome and favorably received so I have an outlet for that. Here I just stick to my 2 cents. Or if we’re using a sliding scale, 1.5 cents.

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  • Well, we disagree, Phil. These are my opinions, and they are valid opinions. I don’t trust your source.
    We need to find some balance on this issue. No doubt sexual harassment is a real problem but here is the other problem: whenever a public accusation is made against a male there is an immediate assumption of guilt on the part of women. Whatever happened to presuming people innocent until proven otherwise? Having said that it can be difficult to prove sexual harassment beyond a reasonable doubt because there are usually no witnesses. I still say though people tend to jump on the band wagon who are feminists at the slightest insinuation of harassment. And what about the problem of women in power who sexually harass men?

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  • Steve, Steve, Steve,
    I shouldn’t have said that my comment was not nuanced. I am always nuanced (except when I’m not). Not my fault that posted comments and emails are tone-deaf.
    I am not going to try not to offend people. I will always speak my mind. Look, the article is exaggerated, and you all have an addiction to being right. (Sorry. Foul mood.) Can’t there be a middle-ground? Didn’t you read what I wrote? Again:
    In today’s world, in this climate, really demanding sex for a grade or any serious harassment of a sexual nature, would immediately jeopardize one’s safe, permanent tenured position. So as an associate or full professor, you’d have to be pretty self-destructive to begin with. Are there such people in the world? Obviously, yes.
    (Glad it was the cat!)
    Best Wishes,
    Dan the sexist
    P.S. Well I am a “contrarian” contributor, so you don’t have to miss anything anymore.
    Nice of you to apologize to Bonnie but I am not apologizing because I feel no contrition.

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  • Phil (and Steven too), you and others dig up some cherry-picked link (one of hundreds of thousands) to a study, and expect me to believe it a priori. Sorry, I am not religious.
    I am not saying that harassment and racism and sexism in academia (and the work place) isn’t a problem; I am just saying the situation is out of control. A white professor of African History uses the N word (IN CONTEXT) and the next thing you know he’s in deep shit.
    What’s the matter with all of you? I am presenting a perfectly reasonable argument.

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  • I sound a little angry. I am sure that harassment is pervasive. But my point is a good one. Too many people watching every word they say. That too is a problem: the abuse of the harassment charge and accusations being tantamount to guilt.
    Okay. Time to move on.

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  • Steve, Steve, Steve…

    Dan, let me start by saying that while my approach might be different (you tend to bludgeon…gently) I agree with you more than I disagree with you re: this issue with the possible exception of my default reaction (more on that later). Clearly the default is always to lean (if slightly) towards agreeing with the lady in a situation where an allegation is made. Of course this results from the historical fact (no, not providing a link, just common sense) that lady’s bear way more of the brunt of this topic than men do for obvious reasons. But are false allegations made? You bet. However that’s not really at issue here. But to immediately default to wondering whether or not such allegations are true reveals in your case a history of being privy to such false allegations, which you allude to with your Prof story. So you’re letting personal history shade your assumptions, as we all do. You mention a scenario with a white professor using the N word. Have you ever read the book The Human Stain by Phillip Roth? It covers this entire topic quite nicely, using the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal as a backdrop.

    My comment that bothered bonnie was my attempt at a joke regarding a sensitive issue. You’re not joking, just presenting an opinion so there is certainly no need for an apology of any kind from you. However in my case I felt it was warranted since I was simply being punny about something that wasn’t pun worthy. At least in this environment. I am gloriously non PC but there’s a time and a place. And that’s not a judgement, I don’t think you’re out of line at all.

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  • Thanks, Steven. Good comment. Love all your comments. You are a man of understanding, compassion and wit.
    My only criticism of you (and this does not warrant an apology from you) is that your comments are all-too-often too damned brief!
    Bye, for now.

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