What Happens When a Harassment Whistleblower Goes on the Science Job Market
When astronomer Sarah Ballard walked onto the University of California, Berkeley, campus for an academic job interview in February, it was a homecoming. She had attended college there, walking to class underneath the Seussian London plane trees as the campanile chimed periodically in the background.
Berkeley had made her the exoplanet-studying scientist she was. It had taught her well, prepared her for graduate school, and propelled her into a successful career, including her current position at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It had, in fact, prepared her so well that she was back, being considered for a professorship at one of the country’s top astronomy departments. And what a nice narrative—to have come full circle.
But her home wasn’t only a happy one. She had grown up in this department, but she also had been harassed, and helped topple an astronomical icon. Now, here she was, about to stand before a group that would evaluate her for a position not unlike the one that icon—famed astronomer Geoff Marcy—had assumed in 1999, and then slipped out of in 2015.
In October of that year, BuzzFeed revealed that Marcy—the so-called father of exoplanet research—had violated sexual harassment policies between 2001 and 2010, according to a Title IX investigation at UC Berkeley. The case included stories from four students, three of whom alleged personal harassment by Marcy and one of whom witnessed inappropriate behavior that “personally impacted” her, as reported in the Title IX documents.
When the story went public, Ballard—alias Complainant No. 2, who had remained anonymous during the investigation—decided to go public. She became the face of a sexual harassment problem within astronomy.
And then she went looking for a job.
Since the revelation of Marcy’s case, pervasive sexual harassment in academia has become a public conversation. Several other prominent scientists, in and out of astrophysics, stand accused of sexual harassment and assault. In response, organizations like the American Astronomical Union and the American Geophysical Union have hosted sessions to discuss how to amend their culture and policies to curb and punish harassment. Scientists have taken to Twitter with hashtags like #astroSH and #bioSH to share stories and offer solutions. On July 19, Ballard will return, once again, to the Bay Area, this time to speak in a panel discussion—“Stop Sexual Harassment in Academia.” US Representative Jackie Speier organized the event, at which the head of the University of California President’s Task Force on Preventing and Responding to Sexual Violence and Sexual Assault will also speak.
But while the increasing coverage of harassment and investigations is important, it can overshadow an important part of the story: what happens next to the harassed, who made their identities public for the greater good. What challenges face these women when they try to continue their careers? Ballard wasn’t sure, but she already had planned to apply for faculty positions before the BuzzFeed story came out. And so she did.
When that path led her back through the gates of her alma mater, she felt pride, and something else: “A very new feeling for me, which was an absence of fear. It was the first time I was present in the department without Geoff being a faculty member there,” she says. His gravity no longer tugged at her. But that freedom from fear wasn’t her only emotion. She would have to re-confront the Title IX case in professional situations, deal with a saturated job market, and figure out her place in a shifting cosmic landscape.
Ballard and I met in the summer of 2006, as interns at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. I left science soon after, and we lost touch until recently. Now, we see each other a few times a year at conferences where she gives speeches and I drink free coffee in the press room. But that long-ago summer, she told me about her encounters with Marcy, which had happened the year before.
As she also told the Title IX investigators, it all began at a 2005 Take Back the Night rally she helped organize to combat sexual and relationship violence. Marcy, her introductory astronomy professor, attended. “Dr. Marcy has a long history of commitment to advancing women in science and feminist issues,” says his lawyer, Elizabeth Grossman.
Ballard later emailed him to say that it meant a lot that he cared about these issues. He wrote back immediately, telling her to call him at home to discuss the matter. “I felt very confused by that, and I just pretended like I hadn’t seen it,” Ballard says now.
He became an informal advisor, and they met at cafes to talk work, including her research on galaxies in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. “The fact that he was so encouraging to me made me feel really good about myself and made me feel hopeful about my future in astronomy,” she says. But he started to shift the conversation toward more personal matters.
“The discussions with him were about her personal problems,” says Grossman. “She was coming to him for advice on personal and professional matters.”
One day, at a coffee shop in north Berkeley, he brought up the machinations behind the galaxy survey whose data she worked with. “He spoke to me as he would to a colleague, about the high-level professional politics around it, and that made me feel really good,” Ballard says. And, according to the Title IX documents, he started talking about outdoor sex he’d had with an old girlfriend.
After one of these shifting conversations, he offered her a ride home. In the parking lot outside her apartment, Ballard says he gave her advice about her current relationship. She opened the door and stuck her legs out, eager to leave. “It was a flight impulse that led me to do that,” Ballard said in the Title IX investigation. “I remember my thinking at the time was that I could just run if something happened; I could always get out.” He put his hand on the back of her neck and told her to relax, that everything would work out with that boy. “For a long time, I really chastised myself for being so stupid as to get in his car,” she says.
Ballard was 21, with a newly formed sense of her scientific identity, and wanted to become a successful astronomer. That career could be made or broken by her immediate superiors. Professors wield enormous power over students, students never forget that, and ill-intentioned scholars use both facts to their advantage. When students reject romantic or sexual advances, or confront the issue directly, professors sometimes fire them, sabotage job prospects, or make their work lives deeply uncomfortable.
After the skin-to-skin contact, Marcy backed off. Ballard’s career continued forward, and she went to graduate school at Harvard University in the field of exoplanets—Marcy’s expertise. They interacted often, as they worked in the same subject and with the same telescopes, like NASA’s Kepler. But he never acknowledged what their interactions had been like.
“His conduct falls far short of the classic definition of sexual harassment,” says Grossman, and also notes that there was no alleged retaliation on Marcy’s part—no attempts to stifle Ballard’s career.
“Was he tone-deaf?” she says. “He absolutely acknowledges that.”
The Outside In
Ballard learned after she left Berkeley that Marcy was accused of acting inappropriately with other students. For a long time, she says, she had thought she was alone in that. Discovering that she was part of something bigger helped her parse the situation and decide to do something about it. “I thought that it was only me,” she says. “I was unsure of whether I had done something wrong. And so the fact that I later learned that it was a pattern of behavior meant I was able to contextualize what happened.”
That context influenced her decision later, when she learned that an official sexual harassment investigation was mounting. She could join or not, be named or not. Her feelings were unhomogenized: He had made her feel afraid … but he had written great letters of recommendation and supported her in pursuit of leadership roles. “I wondered if his behavior toward me later, in acting supportively, was that trying to say he was sorry or something?” she says. “But, you know, the truth is that that’s not an apology. And even if it were, that doesn’t erase the damage that was done or nullify that it was a violation of the Civil Rights Act, what happened.”
In the end, the decision to participate in the investigation was more about what she could do for someone else than about what Marcy had done to her. “I wanted to be the woman that I needed then,” she says. “Because I felt completely disempowered and afraid and confused. And I needed a woman who was older, or a person who had more familiarity with the lay of the landscape, to make it stop in some way. And I realized in 2014 that I was this woman.”
She became anonymous Complainant No. 2. Along with three other complainants, she told her story. Their allegations spanned 2001 to 2010.
On June 22, 2015, the Title IX investigators’ report stated that Marcy had repeatedly violated campus sexual harassment policies. And if, in the future, Marcy violated certain rules, like only touching students to shake hands, he would see “sanctions that could include suspension or dismissal,” according to documents later released by Berkeley. Marcy kept his job, and the investigation documents remained locked within the university.
Grossman, Marcy’s lawyer, says she believes the punishment was commensurate with the results of the investigation. “[Berkeley was] exercising judgment and bringing that judgment to bear on the evidence before them,” she says.
But the way Ballard saw it, Marcy would have to harm a woman before his behavior harmed his career, or became public knowledge. With that revelation, some involved in encouraging the investigation and supporting the complainants decided to reach out to the media. They ended up talking to Azeen Ghorayshi at BuzzFeed, and told Ballard that the story was coming. Like with the investigation itself, she could participate or not, use her name or not. She decided to talk to Ghorayshi.
BuzzFeed broke the story on October 9. Ballard came forward. She was no longer Complainant No. 2. She was herself.
She had read about how gay people’s individual comings-out had added up to a change in majority perceptions, because they forced people to admit that “gay” meant their sisters, cousins, best friends, colleagues. “It would be very easy for people reading the article who were my colleagues to dismiss it more readily if they couldn’t associate someone they knew who had been harmed,” she says. “If I associated my name with it, people would think, ‘I know Sarah. It’s not a faceless person.’”
She also wanted to show other women that she wasn’t afraid—of Marcy, of people in power, or of colleagues thinking about some guy touching her neck before they thought about her research.
Marcy resigned less than a week after the story came out.
Putting Up the Mask
But Ballard was afraid. She knew she would be entering a supersaturated, hypercompetitive job market. According to the American Astronomical Society, about 240 people graduate with astronomy PhDs each year, and fewer than 150 permanent jobs open up. But people who have been in postdoctoral positions for years (of which there are hundreds) apply for those.
Ballard worried that when potential employers looked at her Google results, Marcy would eclipse her work. But she had been doing science—finding, studying, and digitally exploring exoplanets—for a decade, and believed in the quantity and quality of her research. Besides, a school that doesn’t want to hire someone because they were sexually harassed and had the gall to say so … that’s probably not someplace a woman would thrive anyway.
It turned out that she didn’t need to worry. A week after the BuzzFeed article came out, L’Oreal awarded her the 2015 For Women in Science Fellowship, which came with a $60,000 prize to support her ongoing postdoctoral research at MIT, a position that can last for three more academic years if she does not take a permanent professorship. The fellowship also came with laudatory first-page Google results and media training in how to sound good to probing reporters (whether they’re asking about planets or professors).
Still, she worried that job interviewers would bring Marcy up. Other colleagues didn’t seem reluctant to. At conferences, several people had approached her to suggest the investigation was just a vendetta. A young exoplanet colleague had cornered her at a field-specific meeting and asked if “this” is what she wanted. “The basic destruction of the image of a seminal figure in astronomy and the upheaval within our culture and the humiliation and so on,” she says. “And I responded, no, that what I wanted was for the University of California, Berkeley, to have done its job the 10 times that it failed.”
But giving that kind of response to a peer, one-on-one, is different from responding that way to an interview committee, in front of whom the entire goal is to appear calm and competent. For this, Ballard slipped on an expressionless mask. From its mouth-hole only calm, competent words flowed. “A lot of academic interactions are based on behaving in a way that does not feel intuitive, where you have to abandon your intuitive emotional response to a situation—anger, confusion—particularly if you’re a woman or person of color, in favor of ‘This is just how it is. I’m going to pretend,’” she says.
But the hiring committees did, in fact, ask about Marcy. “It came up at every place,” she says. “At every place.”
This is what the mask sounds like:
“How did it feel when this,” one interviewer said, turning a copy of her Title IX testimony toward her, “became public?”
“It was a Freedom of Information Act request that turned up that document, so it’s not really a question of how I feel,” she responded.
He didn’t stop.
“How do you feel about the fact that whistleblowers are associated with whistleblowing instead of science?” he asked. “Did you think about it?”
“Yes,” the mask responded. “I am intimately familiar with that calculus.”
He wanted to go over it with her, as if she may have forgotten its contents. “This was my 30 minutes with a faculty member to talk about why or why not I would be a good fit at that department, and this individual wanted to talk about this Title IX document,” Ballard says now. “To force an interviewee to confront this document in the middle of an interview and then to ask her very emotionally probing questions about it. It was very strange.”
The Power to Change
After she emerged from her talks with Berkeley faculty, Ballard realized she had no idea how the interview had gone. “I had no emotional resources remaining to interpret how the interaction was going,” she says. “I had no resources left to think anything other than, ‘Do your best; do your best; do your best.’”
When she met with Berkeley’s astronomy students (standard practice in professorship interviews), they were still dealing with the upheaval, the downfall of a departmental icon, and mistrust of their institution. They asked her, “How would you fix it?”
And for the perhaps the first time, Ballard feels she has the power to do so, or at least to start. The culture of science—which includes abuses of power, inequity, and exclusion, in addition to awesomeness—is something she has wanted to blow up and rebuild for a long time.
When Ballard and I met as interns, we were both about to enter our senior year of college. We spent our days Doing Science, like Real Scientists. We had everything budding astronomers could want. But we weren’t happy. The politics and posturing in our research environment, or at least our perception of them, put us off.
In Ballard’s memory, we fumbled around trying to change the atmosphere of the strange planet on which we found ourselves. “We were trying to craft something in fits and starts—just the idea that a science culture could be different, that it could involve a playfulness, that it could involve a real social awareness, and a sense of humor and a levity, in addition to passion for the scientific material,” she says. We roamed campus discussing the problem, having serious doubts about how to make ourselves belong in academia. It was during one of these walks that she told me about what had happened with this man named Marcy, in his car, at that rally. The memory was fresh.
Eleven years after her encounters with Marcy, 10 after the summer of our discontent, Ballard thinks she can finally do what we couldn’t back then: make a meaningful change in how science functions, in who feels welcome and supported, and in who does that welcoming and supporting. “Now it’s not these other people who are in charge,” says Ballard. “I’m in charge.”
She did not get the Berkeley job, and she feels mostly relief. But she has job options, and she feels strongly that the path she ultimately picks will be the one that maximizes her ability to influence American science culture, in addition to maximizing her influence on exoplanet research.
For now, with the L’Oreal money, she has hired her own team, including a student from the University of Puerto Rico who simply wrote her an email about her love of different worlds and a desire to know more about them. Colleagues asked why she would hire someone from the University of Puerto Rico when she could just hire someone from MIT. “Because this person reaching out to me has not had the same opportunities,” she replied.
“I remember being this exact young woman,” says Ballard. “And now I have the power to just bring her to Boston to work with me. To have the attention of a more senior person, and to have any kind of care and education, and that person telling you that you have promise: That was unreal. And now I get to dole that out”—without the complications that came with that attention in her own career.
See original article: