Women speak out about sexual harassment in sciences, academia


(CNN) — For years, it’s been said women are underrepresented in the sciences. In both the public and private sectors, educators have worked to correct this imbalance.

But something demeaning is happening in grad school science labs across the country, something that has some women abandoning their scientific dreams.

Across the country, cases of sexual harassment has surface in the field of astronomy — prominent scientists accused of going after vulnerable students they’re supposed to be advising.

Astrophysicists Sarah Ballard and Jessica Kirkpatrick, and rocket scientist Alessondra Springman, are all accomplished in their fields, and are speaking out about what they have experienced over their careers multiple times from different men.

“Physical touching, skin-on-skin, on my neck,” said Ballard.

“He got very drunk and physically separated me from the group,” Kirkpatrick said.

Springman said “he would actually come up to where I was staying at the observatory at 11 p.m. at night and knock on the door and wait on my porch as I would hide under the bed with all of the lights off.

“when I finally did report it, I was told that nothing could be done about sexual harassment, because it just turns into ‘he said, she said,'” she added.

“I also had the comment of ‘how do you feel about ruining a man’s life?,” said Kirkpatrick.

Universities are sometimes hesitant to fire offenders and lose researchers who bring in federal funding. When a university does take action, harassers are often allowed to leave for another institution with an unblemished record. a practice known as ‘passing the trash.'”

“Departments implicitly will dismiss the claims of younger women who are most vulnerable and instead take the word of their older male tenure colleague,” said Ballard.

And according to one study, more than 90 percent of those being harassed or assaulted were students or departmental employees.

“A lot of people in science don’t hold their fellow scientists responsible for their behavior,” said Springman.

CNN asked “a lot of times women don’t have an out. They can’t just leave because leaving their adviser because sometimes leaving their harasser means leaving their research, right?”

“Yeah, it would be pretty much impossible to report your adviser for harassing you and then be able to continue working with them as them being your thesis adviser,” Kirkpatrick said.

Ballard and Kirkpatrick both studied at UC-Berkeley where one of the most prominent scientists in the country was accused of sexually harassing female grad students.

Ballard says she was one of Geoff Marcy’s victims, a scientist once held in so much esteem he was considered for a Nobel Prize. He retired last year following the allegations.

Marcy released a statement at the time saying “I never intended to cause distress and I apologize deeply for having done so. I take full responsibility and hold myself accountable for the harm done.”

Marcy’s attorney told CNN that “throughout his career, Dr. Marcy has been committed to and been an activist for the advancement of women in science. He has also demonstrated a vigorous and unwavering support of the long overdue efforts to eliminate sexual assault and sexual harassment from all work places, including academia.”

UC-Berkeley said tenured professors cannot be fired and Marcy quit before disciplinary procedures could begin. It is taking a comprehensive look at our processes regarding sexual harassment and assault cases involving faculty and staff.

“So I think what the situation at Berkeley has really highlighted is the fact that institutions are incentivized to protect their faculty,” said Kirkpatrick.

“So when I think of change, I don’t know if it will really come within Berkeley,” said Ballard. “I think instead of it coming from the federal level.”

California congresswoman Jackie Speier says universities need to be held accountable for how students are treated “and yet when it comes to your teaching assistant, there’s no such requirement that you treat them in a humane way.”

Speier made news when she took to the House floor earlier this year highlighting a case of a professor who was investigated for sexual harassment and later hired by another university. She’s now proposing legislation that would force federal agencies to take any harassment charges into consideration before handing out research funds.

“And if someone is engaged in sexual harassment, if someone is discriminating, if someone’s a sexual predator, they should not have access to federal dollars,” she said.

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