Rep Jackie Speier on Why She’s Taking on Sexual Harassment in Science
On Tuesday morning, Representative Jackie Speier (D-CA) took to the House with a poster of the moon. But she wasn’t there to talk about space. Astronomy had been reeling since famous exoplanet hunter Geoff Marcy resigned in disgrace from UC Berkeley for repeatedly sexually harassing students. Speier was on the floor to talk about yet another case in astronomy, this time at the University of Arizona.
Hours after she quoted the university’s investigation on the House floor, Mashable published a long investigation into the professor, who now holds an endowed chair at another university. And the stories kept pouring out. Science named a Caltech astronomy professor who had been suspended for sexual harassment. BuzzFeed followed up with another in-depth investigation into the Caltech professor, who had retaliated against a student he professed to falling in love with.
Speier talked with WIRED about why she spoke on sexual harassment in science and how she plans to craft legislation to deal with it.
WIRED: How did your office first become aware of the University of Arizona report, which is actually from 2004?
Speier: It was leaked to us. When I was made aware of it, I was astonished and disgusted. It is consistent with what I have seen in science for a long time. When I was in the state legislature, I chaired an oversight committee that looked at the repercussions of Prop 209 [which banned affirmative action in California] passing. The University of California went from hiring over 30 percent of its professors who are women to it dropping down. In particular in the sciences it was egregious.
Then the MIT study came out where they took tape measures and measured the lab space for professors and found out that female professors always had smaller lab space. So that started my interest in wanting to make sure there was both accountability and equality.
At the end of your remarks yesterday, you asked people who have experienced sexual harassment in science to contact your office. Have you been hearing from them?
There have been probably six or seven calls that we received yesterday.
It’s hard to come forward because of the fear of reprisal and retribution. The potential risk of having your career stymied. That’s unacceptable that out of fear women who are sexually harassed and assaulted are unwilling to come forward. We have got to make sure that not only are they protected but that the perpetrators get the kind of justice they deserve, which is prosecution in my view.
Do you mean prosecution in the criminal justice system?
To the extent that there’s rape. For sexual harassment, it means what happens in the private sector: When someone in a superior position sexually harasses others, they’re fired.
We’ve got to stay very clear eyed about one thing. Students go to college to study and advance professionally in academia. They do not go to college to be sexually harassed.
One of the most remarkable parts to the backstory of the investigation into Geoff Marcy at Berkeley is how the victims found out about each other. Astronomer Joan Schmelz wrote a blog post about her experience with sexual harassment, and so many victims wrote to her that she saw a pattern and put it all together.
In my work on sexual assault in the military and sexual assault on college campuses, the pattern is there. Typically predators are in environments where there is a closed institution, where they have their own code of conduct—whether the military code of justice or the code of conduct at a university. Often times these cases are not handled appropriately. They sweep them under the rug. It allow sexual predators to reoffend. Often times it’s six or seven times before they are actually caught because everyone believes it’s a one off situation.
So the legislation you want to craft will make it easier to share information.
We’re developing legislation that would first require that any investigation at one university where the professor either resigns or is fired, that information would follow them. In the case with Professor Timothy Slater at the University of Arizona, as egregious as his behavior was, it was kept confidential, and he moved on to the University of Wyoming. That investigation should follow the individual.
In a way, requiring universities to share information seems like the least we can do. Part of the reason this happens and students are reluctant to come forward is that graduate students are so reliant on their advisors, and breaking ties with your advisor can wreck your career. Should we also be thinking about how the academic system is set up?
That’s a very good question, but we’re talking about adults who are professionals who should conduct themselves consistent with their professional status. If we have to redouble efforts for sexual harassment training, then so be it.
You’ve introduced legislation before on sexual assault and harassment on campus and in the military. This is a larger problem in the world and the workplace. Why the focus on on science now?
It’s focused on justice and equality wherever it is not being pursued appropriately. Right now, I think the case of Professor Marcy has opened the floodgates in astronomy. I don’t think there’s any doubt it’s going on in other areas of science. One peer-reviewed study found that 26 percent of women surveyed and 6 percent men were sexually assaulted doing field work. I think this has a great deal to do with why women hold less than a third of the faculty positions in science and engineering.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
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