On Mentorship and Harassment

October 14, 2015

Several times before now, I have considered writing about my experience of sexual harassment in academia in the early 1980s, but I thought: this is old news, it’s not really relevant or useful. Then a few days ago the news broke that Dr. Geoff Marcy, a famous professor of Astronomy at UC Berkeley, had been harassing his students with impunity for a decade or more.  I found myself following the news of his case obsessively and returning again and again to considerations of how my own early career had been shaped by a powerful and sexually-predatory mentor. This morning I wrote the following narrative: 

[Note: my stylistic approach in this piece was inspired by a post about “Impostor Syndrome” by Elisabeth Newton, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics; it was shared recently on the blog “Mahalo.ne.trash.” You can read it here (and I recommend that you do): http://mahalonottrash.blogspot.com/2015/09/guest-post-by-elisabeth-newton-impostor.html]

On Mentorship and Harassment:

Young Ambitious Professional is thrilled when Powerful Older Professional praises her achievements. Y.A.P. is even more thrilled when P.O.P. recommends her work to his colleagues and nominates it for prizes. Suddenly unknown doors are opening and previously unimagined vistas of success appear on her horizon. P.O.P. seems to know everyone and everything. Y.A.P. drinks in his knowledge and his wisdom; she glories in his championship of her work. True, P.O.P. is a touchy-huggy kind of guy but that doesn’t especially bother Y.A.P. because she’s a reasonably huggy kind of gal too. Anyway, it’s California. It’s the eighties. “Sexual harassment” isn’t a thing, not a thing anybody names or talks about. Y.A.P. considers P.O.P.’s attentions to be evidence of her talent and intelligence, not her physical attractiveness. When he begins dropping hints about his “open” relationship with his wife, she ignores them. When he mentions a fellow P.O.P. at another major university who is opening doors for one of his students and also sleeping with her, she ignores the implications very hard indeed. When P.O.P.’s hugs turn into pats on the butt, she pulls away and says nothing.

Time passes. Y.A.P.’s professional career has gotten off to a brilliant start, thanks in no small part to P.O.P.’s mentorship. But now her career has stalled. Although no longer P.O.P.’s student, Y.A.P. continues to send him her manuscripts. He responds with articulate, intelligent, and dismissive criticism. “A tempest in a teapot” is one phrase she remembers decades later. She deliberately draws no conclusions from his slackening interest in her work, and she continues to seek his approval. But after he writes her the world’s most tepid letter of recommendation for an important fellowship, she finally stops trying to figure out how to please him.

Eventually, she will find other champions for her work and, more important, she will learn how to advocate for herself. But she wishes to this day that she had learned these lessons much earlier.

Shortly after writing this piece, I learned that Dr. Marcy had resigned from his faculty position. This result was thanks to four former students of his who filed complaints and to the investigative journalism of BuzzFeed news reporter Azeen Ghorayshi. Without the courage and persistence of these women, Marcy’s harassment would have remained the “open secret” it long had been in the Astronomy community. Ghorayshi’s original article posted on October 9, 2015 can be found here:  http://www.buzzfeed.com/azeenghorayshi/famous-astronomer-allegedly-sexually-harassed-students