We’re still playing catch up with academia’s longstanding #MeToo sexual harassment problem


The #MeToo campaign has focused attention on workplace bullying, sexual harassment and assault. Are such revelations a surprise to an astronomer, like myself, who studies distant galaxies? No.

I, along with the science and academic communities, have been directly confronted by these issues in recent years. Bullying, sexual harassment and assault is prevalent at universities and research institutions, as it is in society as a whole.

Only this week, another case of alleged sexual harassment in academia was aired by the ABC’s Background Briefing program on Radio National.

The ABC’s Hagar Cohen reported on allegations levelled at Terry Speed, one of Australia’s most prominent statisticians. Much of the alleged harassment took place when a woman the ABC referred to only as Barbara, a junior scientist from Berkeley, visited Speed at Melbourne’s Walter and Eliza Hall Institute (WEHI).

Cohen’s report makes for difficult listening. While Speed disputes some of the allegations, the report refers to emails from Speed wishing for Barbara to “sit on (his) knee all day” and discussing “sweat(ing) a lot in close proximity”.

Barbara has undergone much anguish, and our learned institutions have failed her and many of her peers. Damningly, this is all too familiar.

The power imbalance

This, taken from an email from Barbara to Speed and reported by Background Briefing, stopped me dead in my tracks:

You must never forget that you are my advisor. Whatever feelings you might have, you should never act upon them.

It’s an obvious statement. It should never need to be written.

I supervise junior scientists, both students and postdoctoral fellows, and that role comes with huge responsibilities. I provide them with the seeds of research projects, I advise them how to tackle new problems, I provide funding for their research expenses and travel, and I write letters of recommendation.

I, like many of my colleagues, have the ability to make or break a promising scientist’s career. This should be obvious. And yet a Berkeley investigator, quoted in the ABC report, found Speed seemed oblivious:

(…) this too ignores the power dynamic and associated vulnerability inherent in a faculty advisor-advisee relationship.

This imbalance is often central to harassment cases in academia. For example, in my discipline of astrophysics, sexual harassment allegations against Geoff MarcyChristian Ott and Tim Slater all reportedly involved interactions with students.

The power imbalance is also why harassment complaints often take years to surface. How can you lodge a complaint against the person who holds the keys to your career?

Too little, too late

Power imbalances are a catalyst for sexual harassment and bullying in academia, but the problem is exacerbated by ineffectual institutional responses.

According to the Background Briefing report, it was back in June 2017 when a Berkeley investigator concluded that Speed had breached the university’s sexual harassment policies. The investigator’s report has been with Berkley’s vice provost since then, and yet nothing appears to have happened since.

Berkeley wouldn’t even confirm to the ABC the existence of the investigation. Berkeley’s investigation of Speed only came to light in January this year via a blog post by computational biologist Lior Pachter, a friend of Barbara and co-complainant.

Such slow and ineffectual institutional responses are commonplace. A six-month investigation of astronomer Geoff Marcy found he had violated Berkeley’s harassment policies, and yet it appears the university initially only gave Marcy a warning.

It was media pressure and colleagues that forced Marcy to resign, not disciplinary actions by Berkeley. Later, further allegations against Marcy surfaced, stretching back decades.

When there are disincentives for victims to launch official complaints, and investigations are ineffectual, how do academics respond?

One way is the whisper network, quietly warning people which academics they should avoid. I have done this myself, and I will do it again.

Of course the whisper network is a stopgap measure. It uses hearsay, and could get things wrong. Defamation is a real risk. But ineffectual or confidential institutional responses mean harassers and bullies can remain in circulation for decades. The whisper network is a natural response to that failure.

Catch up

Academics and institutions (to varying degrees) are playing catch up, as they finally recognise the impact of harassment and bullying on gifted young scientists.

This is exemplified by Cohen’s interview with WEHI Director Doug Hilton. Midway through the interview he changes policy, deciding to publish WEHI’s harassment policies online.

Doug Hilton: Just if you give me sort of 30 seconds to have a chat … we’re just putting a call through to our head of HR to ask whether there’s any reason that we’re not aware of why we couldn’t put that policy up and other policies where there, I think you’re right, there is a public interest to having them up.

Hagar Cohen: So 30 seconds later … bingo! Policy revised.

It’s an awkward moment, even if it does align WEHI’s policy with best practice.

I can appreciate how this can happen. I didn’t fully recognise the need for a conference code of conduct, until I saw inappropriate behaviour. At a conference. That I organised.

And there’s more to be done. A code of conduct is good, but it needs teeth. Mathematician Nalini Joshi has proposed that the Australia and New Zealand Industrial and Applied Mathematics division expel members who have engaged in harassment.

Expecting victims to instigate complaints perpetuates the power imbalances that enable harassment. Bystander reporting of harassment may mitigate that imbalance.

My colleagues and I are playing catch up. And we need to do more.

Author Bio: Michael J. I. Brown is an Associate professor in astronomy at Monash University