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A Step In Stepping Up – DPS 2015 Men’s Auxiliary

December 13, 2015

Andy Rivkin, David Grinspoon, and Bob Pappalardo organized an informal Men’s Auxilliary discussion at DPS this year around the topic of harassment and steps to changing the culture in the planetary science community.  They were kind enough to share the below summary and thoughts from the event.  Thanks to Andy, Dave, Bob, and all of the participants for taking the time to discuss this topic and contribute important perspectives and reflection.

Event Report

Many of us who were graduate students in the 1980s and 1990s were under the impression that issues of gender equality and sexual harassment were matters of demographics, and that time was on the side of justice, and by the time we were mid-career scientists these issues might solve themselves. Needless to say, this hasn’t occurred.  With an eye toward taking an active rather than passive role, we began engaging the male members of the Division of Planetary Sciences at the annual meeting in National Harbor, Maryland in a discussion of where we are and where we want to be in the near future. Specifically, how can the men of our community be more proactive and help change the culture?

Because of a hasty start and lack of any official standing, we met informally in the hotel bar on the Thursday of the meeting week, with notification spread largely via Twitter, a few copies of handwritten signs, and word of mouth. Roughly 25 people participated, split into two groups to facilitate discussion. Drs. Chrissy Richey and Amy Simon each took part, as well as mostly male community members from the US and elsewhere, covering a range of experience from current graduate student to retired. The main discussion lasted for about two hours, though it continued to be a topic of conversation among meeting participants for the remainder of Thursday night and through Friday, spurred by Dr. Richey’s intense and well-received Masursky Prize talk earlier on Thursday.

The conversation itself gravitated to four main topics: How best to intervene to stop those serial harassers who can ruin careers and terrorize colleagues; how to raise awareness about microagressions that even well-wishers can inflict on our friends; where the “danger areas” are at conferences; and how to become more aware and helpful in all of these situations. Improvements in these areas all require men in the field to be more aware of situations they are confronted with, and to be willing to intervene. It was noted that inaction in the face of offense can be rooted in either a lack of recognition that something bad had occurred (“Oh, it’s probably nothing, or just a joke.”) or freezing up in dismay and shock until the time to act is past (“Did I really see what I just think I saw, and is there anything I can or should do about it?”).


In other cases, we may cause discomfort without realizing it, simply because the general experience of women in society is distinctly different from that of men, and we may trigger negative feelings without realizing it.  Here, too, thinking through the situation (“Oh—maybe insisting to walk her to her hotel is coming across like I’m making a pass, even though I know I’m just trying to help her feel safer”; “She doesn’t know me, so I should push the elevator button first, so she doesn’t think I might be following her to her floor”) could make life easier for our colleagues. One member of the group noted that he was unaware how his actions were affecting his female colleagues until he was explicitly told, at which point he reflected and realized his behavior needed to change.


Even at this early stage for increased male planetary scientist ally engagement, some themes for moving forward are recognizable. Many people are confused by what reporting entails, and conflate one-time mistakes that could be fixed with a simple apology with long-term serial harassment. Dr. Richey made a clear distinction in her Masursky Prize talk and while talking with us later, noting that “reporting” an incident isn’t nearly the same as requesting an arrest warrant, for instance, and that a pattern of reports or reports from several complainants (for instance) would likely be needed to trigger action, while a true misunderstanding would not recur. Clearer rules for what reporting means and a wider understanding of those rules should reduce some of the free-floating angst felt by some that they might be inadvertently and unknowingly guilty of serial harassment.


As far as intervention when harassment is occurring, there was a recognition that “with great power comes great responsibility”: as one moves through their career and can absorb more risk, they should be willing to take on that risk in calling out harassment. More junior and vulnerable members of our community, no matter how willing and interested, should not be held responsible for taking on battles that others are better equipped to fight.  However, it is recognized that the situation is fraught.  There was a suggestion that professional societies might be able to help their members at small institutions, where backlash and retribution might be difficult to avoid.  It was also mentioned that institutions are concerned about any negative publicity from being associated with harassers, which may compromise their ability to recruit women scientists.  This concern needs to be channeled into an incentive to clean up harassment at those institutions, rather than an incentive to bury evidence of its occurrence.


It was recognized that a big trouble spot at meetings is poster sessions. Women who are new to the field and do not have a lot of social connection in the community, and therefore a trusted support network, are particularly vulnerable. Because they have a strong professional incentive to stay by their poster, they can become trapped by male scientists who might focus on them inappropriately, and may even follow them when they do leave their poster. We need to learn to be more observant in these situations.  If you see something like this happening, or suspect you do, you can intervene. We discussed just walking up and asking, “Are you okay with this? Do you feel comfortable?” but recognized that this can itself be somewhat transgressive, especially if one might be misreading the situation.  So an alternate suggested response is to walk up and start a new conversation. Ask a question about the poster. Give the presenter the opportunity to pursue a new conversation, should she so choose. If you remain concerned say something to other women around whom you trust.  In general, have the courage to speak up when you see something.


Another situation that calls for being observant is the tail end of parties. Anecdotes were told about tipsy young women stumbling from hotel parties, seen being helped toward their room by someone whom you hope is their friend helping them. The idea was floated that perhaps the people hosting these parties should be encouraged or required to have designated people there, who remain reasonably sober, whose job it is to keep an eye on the end of the party.  Again, be observant.  At the end of the night, keep an eye out.  Make sure that scenarios you observe pass the “sniff test.”


With only a couple of hours time, we were only able to begin what must and will be an ongoing discussion. Left unanswered were questions of whether a more formal group should be established with an association to the DPS or whether we should continue to have more informal (but still regular) meet-ups. There was enthusiasm for continuing, regardless of level of formality, with the next obvious opportunities at AGU or LPSC. While we are focusing on bringing men in the community up to speed and taking our share of responsibility for ending harassment, we most certainly do not want to exclude women from any conversations.  In fact, the women who joined in this conversation and shared contributed greatly to the conversation and our recognition of the issues. We recognize that while women in our community and in society share some common experiences, there is a large diversity of thought and preference, which must be respected.


We began this post by noting the conventional wisdom imparted on those of us who were graduate students in the 1980s and 1990s. Two current graduate students added that this was also what they’ve been told today. This conventional wisdom makes unfounded assumptions, clearly predicated on ignorance of the forces that actively drive women and minorities out of the community. We must take active steps to counteract those forces in order to advance science, and to be good citizens and colleagues.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Susan Keddie permalink
    December 14, 2015 9:14 am

    Thank you so much to the men (and women) for having this event and continuing this conversation. I recognize that we women share a part in this–we have to educate our male colleagues about where the line is… because while some things are clearly over that line, the exact location is not always easy to understand.


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  2. What astronomy can do about sexual harassment – CNN

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