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Starts With A Bang

How did Geoff Marcy happen?

Exclusion and a lack of diversity are the breeding grounds for harassment.

“There is no kind of harassment that a man may not inflict on a woman with impunity in civilized societies.” –Denis Diderot

A little over a year ago, I wrote about sexism in science, and in particular, about the ways that I encountered it both directly and indirectly. Over the past week or so, a huge number of details have come to light about an ongoing problem in the astronomy department at the University of California at Berkeley: famed exoplanet astronomer Geoffrey Marcy was found guilty of repeatedly sexually harassing at least four students over at least a 9 year period (2001–2010), with other allegations going back as far as 1995.

The story was broken by Buzzfeed a few days ago, and if you read the whole thing, there’s a certain part that might jump out at you:

[Ruth Murray-Clay], in her capacity as student representative to the Berkeley astronomy faculty, she says, she spoke with him several times in December 2004, directly confronting him with complaints from undergrads and graduate students.

After speaking to her in person, he wrote her an email. “Thanks for all those thoughts and hopes,” he wrote. “I feel lucky that you’re helping me see myself better from the outside, and from the inside too.”

But over the next year, Murray-Clay says, more women came forward with complaints. So in September 2005, she went to the department chair, Don Backer. She says Backer, who died five years ago, defended Marcy and told her he could not respond to anonymous accusations.

After another undergraduate came forward with a complaint a year later, Murray-Clay, along with three other female graduate students and postdocs, tried to register an official complaint at the university level. But there, too, they were told they could not do so on someone else’s behalf.

Of all the things to jump out at me, why would those sentences be the ones to do it? For two reasons:

1.) In all of these cases, you have a junior woman, in terms of both age and power, trying to get some action taken by a senior man as respects an issue of a man sexually harassing a woman in the workplace.

2.) Geoff Marcy himself posted a letter on his own webpage giving a non-apology for his behavior (where you’re sorry for the effects of how someone perceived your actions but don’t take responsibility for the actions themselves), but where he explicitly stated how he wasn’t aware of how these actions were perceived by others.

Image credit: screenshot from; box by me.

There are all sorts of objections that people make to “condemning” Geoff Marcy based on the evidence that you can find publicly, including at the aforementioned Buzzfeed piece. There are objections to the call for his firing, to the tarnishing of his legacy in the field, etc. So I want to take a moment to address some of the most common ones, because they are not valid objections.

“He’s the leading exoplanet researcher, and the field will suffer without him.”

He’s certainly a pioneer in this field, as he confirmed the very first exoplanet. His research has continued to be excellent, and he’s done massive good for the enterprise of science. But the reality is there are a great many good, smart, capable people at work in the field today, and there is no evidence that without Geoff Marcy, the field will in any way suffer.

“He’s just an affectionate, hugger of a person; he never intended to harass anyone.”

Fortunately, the person doing the harassing doesn’t get to define what harassing behavior is in this world. If you make an unprofessional advance towards someone in your profession, that is harassment. If you make an unprofessional advance towards someone in your profession and you are their superior, that is criminal activity.

“The UC system will really suffer if they lose Geoff Marcy’s funding.”

Yes, it’s true that Geoff Marcy just received a $100 million grant over the next 10 years, and the University will lose their cut of that if they fire him. But the members of the astronomy department — contrary to the original statement put out by the chair — have put forth a letter calling for Marcy’s dismissal, as the UC system will suffer more if they make this an unsafe space for women or anyone not in a position of power.

Image credit: screenshot from

“But that’s just Berkeley. What about the entire University of California system?”

They’ve issued an even stronger statement:

Image credit: screenshot from

And finally, the most maddening objection of all…

“But how can you prevent anything from being called harassment at all?”

Here’s a couple of tips that I think might help you out. If you’re of equal power to someone you’re romantically interested in, even though you’re in the workplace, you are free to ask, once, if the other person is interested in you. If you get a “no,” that’s the end of it; you don’t get a second ask.

If you’re of superior power to someone you’re interested in, you don’t get to ask. That doesn’t mean you never get to pursue it, but you don’t get to start it. If you’re a grad student acting as a TA and you’re interested in one of your undergrads, if you’re a postdoc interested in a grad student, a professor interested in a postdoc, etc., you need the person of inferior power to approach you.

That’s not law, that’s just the rule of being a decent human being.

Image credit: screenshot from

This, above, is the appalling, initial response from the UC Berkeley astronomy chair, which I want everyone to take a good look at. This letter went out — internally, but has since been leaked — after the University’s “decision” about Geoff Marcy. The decision, of course, was to remove certain faculty protections from him in the event of future harassment incidents, not to fine, suspend or remove him from his position.

But there’s one big thing I want you to notice about the difference between the initial response from UC Berkeley and the immediate response — quoted earlier in full — from UC Santa Cruz. While the UC Berkeley astronomy faculty (or rather, 22 of the 31 active and emeritus faculty) signed the later statement quoted here, the first response that went out was one that expressed sympathy not for the victims of harassment and sexual assault, but for the harasser and assailant.

Do you know what I think the difference is between UC Berkeley’s response and UC Santa Cruz’s response?

Images credit: screenshots from the UC Berkeley Astronomy faculty pages.

These are the UC Berkeley astronomy faculty members, active and emeritus. There are 31 of them: only three of them are women, and at the start of Geoff Marcy’s alleged harassment, only one (Imke de Pater) was on the faculty at the time.

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On the other hand, UC Santa Cruz’s astronomy department, which is somewhat smaller, has these four women as part of their department, and I want you to pay close attention to the second one.

Images credit: taken from the UC Santa Cruz astronomy faculty page at

That second woman? That’s Sandy Faber, the “Faber” in the famous (for astronomers) Faber-Jackson relationship, which was the first tool that allowed us to measure how far away the distant, giant elliptical galaxies were in the Universe. This work made her famous back in the 1970s, and that’s a big, big deal.

Not just for her, and not just for astronomy, but for setting the tone for the culture of her department. Like it or not, representation matters. And that means strong, smart, successful people of diverse races, genders, countries-of-origin, religions and all sort of other ways one can measure one’s background matters. It matters for all the junior people who come through; it matters for making it not okay to treat the “different” ones like they don’t belong there.

Because the harassment, the sexism, the racism, the assault… it hurts us all.

Image credit: Ayodhya Ouditt/NPR, via UNC Charlotte at

It makes the field worse, it makes the culture worse, and perhaps most of all, when we turn a blind eye — and do nothing and say nothing, and let it slide — it makes all of us worse, and it makes life worse for the next generation of scientists who’ll come along.

It’s up to all of us to make it right, to stand up and say this is not okay.

It’s not okay. And there’s nothing Geoff Marcy can do to fix it; it’s up to all of us to fix it by protecting everyone else out there from all the Geoff Marcys of the world. Because the Geoff Marcys have no place in it; all of science and all of us are better off without them.

For further reading, check out this open letter and this article in The Age.

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