When we talk about harassment in the sciences, the focus is often on the most scandalous cases--and there are plenty of recent ones to choose from, such as the one that induced astronomer Geoffrey Marcy to retire in 2015 from the University of California, Berkeley, amid public outrage, or the incidents that sparked the resignations last year of molecular biologist Jason Lieb from University of Chicago and paleoanthropologist Brian Richmond from the American Museum of Natural History. A slew of scandals and lawsuits over the past several years have demonstrated that scientists guilty of sexual harassment have repeatedly been allowed to continue their careers, enabling them to find new victims. But focusing on headline-making cases may avert attention from the underlying issues: institutional tolerance for patterns of behavior, legal or illegal, that create an unwelcoming environment for women and underrepresented minorities--and an incentive structure in academic science that resists changing this atmosphere.
A survey of 474 astronomers that Kathryn Clancy and others published recently in the journal of Geophysical Research: Planets indicates that 40 percent of women astronomers of color and 27 percent of white women astronomers reported feeling unsafe in the workplace because of their gender or sex, and 28 percent of women of color reported feeling unsafe as a result of their race. However, most white male respondents were unaware of their colleagues' experiences, a result that points to a knowledge gap that needs to be addressed. For example, 40 percent of the women astronomers reported hearing sexist remarks "sometimes or often" from their peers, in comparison with 23 percent of the men. And 21 percent of women reported hearing such remarks "sometimes or often" from their supervisors, whereas only 5 percent of men reported observing such behavior.
The gap between astronomers of color and white astronomers was similarly large with regard to racist remarks: Twenty-eight percent of astronomers of color reported witnessing racist remarks by peers, but only 9 percent of white astronomers reported it. Katharine Lee, one of the survey's coauthors and a graduate student in Clancy's laboratory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, notes that white men, "even though they are the majority of the workforce in science ... are either not seeing [the harassment of others] or they're not taking the time to see these problems in their surroundings."
The gaps between the experiences of people of color and whites in the science workplace, and between experiences of women and men, indicate a need for building awareness and providing training. "A lot of places [in academia] don't even have diversity and cultural awareness training," Lee says. "They just have general harassment training, and it doesn't address a lot of issues around cultural stereotyping that can be problematic in the sciences."
One can at the very least start building awareness, she says, by first considering a few questions: "Does everybody look the same where you work? Have you ever had people stop to think about why that is? Is it on purpose, or is...