Sharona Gordon, Professor, University of Washington and Editor-in-Chief, Journal of General Physiology shares her views on sexual harassment in science and the code of conduct and anti-harassment policy the Biophysical Society instituted in 2015.
In my view, a successful society must protect the interests of the most vulnerable among its population. In our global society that means the poor, the sick, the disenfranchised, and any others who do not enjoy the privilege those of us in the upper echelons take for granted. In a professional society such as the Biophysical Society (BPS), the most vulnerable among us are trainees. Students and postdoctoral scholars depend entirely upon the support of more established scientists for access to mentoring, experimental resources, introduction to a broad network of other scientists, and letters of recommendation required for career advancement. For the vast majority of us, this power we hold over trainees is the power to protect. However, for some among us, this power is used to intimidate and exploit.
Sexual harassment has been in the news in the last few years due to some particularly horrifying and long-lasting patterns that came to light. The behavior of exoplanet astronomer Goeff Marcy at UC Berkeley seems so surreal that it is human nature to dismiss it as an exception that must surely be exceedingly rare. To illustrate this, a colleague I ran into at a seminar, who happens to be a department chair, asked me whether I thought anything like the Marcy incident could happen at our institution, the University of Washington. As if to underscore my answer that I was sure it was happening even as we sat there and discussed science, months later a UW colleague named Michael Katze was revealed to have led a decades-long sexual circus in his lab. If institutions can be blind to such egregious cases spanning years, what hope is there for getting institutions’ attention for acute, more mundane incidences of harassment?
Is sexual harassment at BPS-sponsored events a problem? Yes because it happens and yes because it undermines the free exchange of scientific ideas our meetings and events are meant to promote. Although I have not seen data examining the collective experiences of our members, I have personally experienced sexual harassment at the annual meeting. I have avoided events at which a past harasser was likely to be present. In addition, I have observed sexual harassment at the meeting and intervened in sexual harassment at the meeting. Even if my direct experience of harassment at BPS sponsored-events were unique, our members come from a world in which harassment based on gender, race, ethnicity, sexual identity, religion, and other factors is commonplace. Policies governing harassment are even more important at professional society events, where scientists of all ranks mix more freely and the protections of the academy may seem distant. In short, sexual harassment happens at BPS-sponsored events, as it does at events sponsored by all professional societies, and the reduced contributions from those affected by harassment diminish the value of the meetings for all.
For both the Marcy and Katze cases, the financial benefit to the institutions of looking the other way may have been a factor in the longevity of the harassment. Professional societies, in contrast, are not direct beneficiaries of the millions of dollars in grant money brought in by established faculty. Membership dues paid by one person make little difference to the financial health of the professional society, so that societies may be in a unique position to address harassment without the conflict-of-interest that arises from the economic value of a given faculty member. I believe that professional societies thus have an obligation to proactively educate their members about harassment and ensure it is not tolerated among their ranks.
When the Marcy case was first reported in the popular press, I wondered whether my professional society, BPS, had an anti-harassment policy in place. What I found was that BPS was among the majority of professional societies in its lack of policies governing professional behavior and prohibiting sexual harassment. As a member of BPS for more than 20 years, a former member of Council, Co-Chair of the Program Committee, and past member of the CPOW, Nominations Committee, and Thematic Meetings Committee, I felt it was my responsibility to help BPS correct this deficit. I wrote a letter to the BPS leadership explaining the need for an anti-harassment policy and pointing to the bylaws and anti-harassment policy of the American Astronomical Society as a model for its anti-discrimination language and its policy governing its meetings and events.
My confidence that my BPS colleagues would take up my charge was satisfied rapidly. I wrote my letter in October, 2015 and a policy was in place in time for the 60th Annual Meeting in February, 2016. The BPS Code of Conduct and Anti-Harassment Policy covers the definition of harassment, outlines an investigative process, specifies disciplinary actions, and an appeals process. I am proud of BPS for taking this step forward in protecting the interests of trainees and others vulnerable to harassment and intimidation. I am proud to be a member of a Society that strives to create a safe, welcoming environment for the exchange of scientific ideas. I would also encourage all members to participate actively in BPS because, as a collection of individual members, each of us can make a difference.
Connect with the author on Twitter @ProfSharona.