Parallels Between the Catholic Church and Academia: Inappropriate Behavior and Lack of Action by Leadership

There’s a discussion going on now on AASWomen (the newsletter of the Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy) that is worthy of everyone’s attention. The reason why I think this is important is because so many people know someone who has had to deal with unwanted sexual advances from someone senior to them (e.g., PhD adviser, close collaborator). I believe this situation is more common than we’d like to admit and we need to get the problem out into the open so it can be eradicated. Below, I’ve linked to the relevant bits of the newsletter; Serial Offenders especially deserves to be read.

  • Anon’s request for advice
  • Serial Offenders — an excellent rant that makes an apt comparison between the blind eye that the Catholic church hierarchy turned toward serial sexually abusive priests, and the blind eye that many academic departments turn toward serial sexual harassers on the faculty. “How can we get the chairs of university departments or directors of observatories to take this problem seriously?”
  • Advice and More Advice — some ideas for those who find themselves is this situation.
3 comments… add one
  • Sarah Apr 19, 2010 @ 10:17

    Just a few misc. notes…
    Did you know that one of the powers of the AAS president is to remove people from meetings for inappropriate behavior? Did you know he has exercised said right? 🙂 Proudly?

    I think it is important for us to recognize that perhaps unlike the catholic church, there are allies in positions of power in Astronomy, as an institution. It often feels as a graduate student that we have almost no power. It isn’t true, which is why those above us are so scared. Taking the step to call someone out is terrifying – but I truly believe that finding allies in your department/university/field you will find support, sometimes in surprising places. But anyone who encounters harassment must speak out. Flip the shame back to where it belongs.

  • Jane Rigby Apr 19, 2010 @ 20:27

    This NYT opinion piece asks, “Why are humans so good at ignoring warning signs?”, discussing cases with lots of warning: the bad levees of New Orleans, global warming, child abuse by priests, subprime mortgages, Bernie Madoff. We’ve had lots of warning that our profession has a problem with sexual harassment. To quote the Baltimore Charter for Women in Astronomy from 1992:

    “Sexual harassment, ranging from an uncomfortable work environment to unwanted sexual attention to overt extortion of sexual favors, can force confrontation between junior astronomers and older, better established colleagues who can strongly influence career advancement; it diverts attention from science to sex, places an undue burden on the harassed, and damages their self-esteem.”

    “Strong action must be taken to end sexual harassment. Education and awareness programs are standard in U.S. government and industry and should be adopted by the astronomical community. Each institution should appoint one or more women to receive complaints about sexual harassment and to participate in the formal review process. Action against those who perpetrate sexual harassment should be swift and substantial. “

  • Kelle Apr 20, 2010 @ 13:19

    Coincidentally, there’s a similar post to Anon’s request for advice at Female Science Professor…also by an astronomer:

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