The Sexual Misconduct Allegations Facing Neil DeGrasse Tyson Aren’t News for Women in Science

The sexual misconduct allegations against Neil DeGrasse Tyson are only the most recent high-profile cases to rock astrophysics. In 2015, famed astronomer Geoffrey Marcy was forced to resign from Berkeley; 2016 saw the downfall of Christian Ott at CalTech. Earlier this fall, CERN physicist Alessandro Strumia was suspended. And those still are only some of the biggest cases that made international news.

Like many of my women friends and colleagues, I am exhausted. I have spent more time and energy dealing with issues related to gender and harassment over the last two years than I have put into doing actual science.

Allegations facing famed astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson are indicative of a bigger problem in the field. (Marc Nozell / Creative Commons)

Is this impacting my career and scientific reputation? You bet. But I am a full professor with tenure, and I don’t need to worry about getting or keeping my job under these circumstances. For more junior women in science, the reality is altogether different. I know, because I was once one of those junior women.

One of the graduate students I work with was recently told by a (male) peer that “people will only talk to her at conferences because she is pretty, and not because they want to talk to her about science.”  Now, every time a male astrophysicist talks to her, instead of her being focused on science, she is worried about why they are talking to her. You can be sure that this is affecting her career.

Far too often, when instances of inappropriate behavior are shared with our male colleagues, their response is defensive. “I think it was probably a misinterpretation,” they might say. “Are you sure it isn’t just all in your head?” Plus: “People’s love lives are none of our business.”

When I hear those responses, this is what they sound like: “I do not respect your ability to be aware of what you experienced.” From a detached, clinical perspective, it is fascinating to me that their gut response is to conclude that the claim cannot be true—instead of believing the lived experience of the victim.

One of the problems with scientists is that we think we are objective. In fact, there is evidence that the less biased you think you are, the more your bias impacts the judgements you make. Many institutions are trying to make their climate more positive for women, but the efforts are often ineffectual. For example, a common practice is to have faculty and other university members take web-based modules on harassment and bias—but the number of times I’ve heard colleagues bragging about gaming these modules, and not actually reading them, or reading them just enough to pass, underscores their perceived lack of importance.

As the old saying goes: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” As scientists, we are trained to want evidence. To a scientist, a lived, personal experience often does not count as sufficient evidence, but in this case I would like to invoke Occam’s razor. Is it more likely that so-and-so acted inappropriately, or that this junior female scientist would risk her career and deep personal embarrassment to lie about it for no personal gain?

Given that women are severely underrepresented in many STEM disciplines, changing the culture is a heavy lift, because there often isn’t critical mass to instantiate real lasting change. Many hands make light work, but the small number of women in STEM fields are most often the people putting elbow grease into changing the culture—in addition to all of their other duties and actually doing science.

We desperately need more male colleagues who care enough to do something, and step forward to take some of the weight off of our shoulders. We are tired. If you’re one of them, I suggest a radically different response to the next allegation you hear about from your female peers: “What can I do to help?”

About

Kelsey Johnson is a Professor of Astronomy at the UVA and director of the Dark Skies Bright Kids Program. She is on the board of the American Astronomical Society, vice president of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific and a 2018 Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.