Sexual Harassment Case Shines Light On Science's Dark Secret Renowned astronomer Geoffrey Marcy resigned this week after accusations that he sexually harassed students became public. Researchers are asking why so little is done to stop harassment in science.
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Sexual Harassment Case Shines Light On Science's Dark Secret

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Sexual Harassment Case Shines Light On Science's Dark Secret

Sexual Harassment Case Shines Light On Science's Dark Secret

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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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.

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