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Pauline Gagnon | |

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A long history of sexual harassment


What a relief it was for me to hear last week that the Nobel Prize in Physics 2015 rewarded the discovery of neutrino oscillations and not exoplanets – planets outside the Solar system. Not that the discovery of exoplanets does not deserve it, on the contrary. But many people anticipated that Geoff Marcy could share the prize with Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz.

Geoff Marcy, an astronomy professor at the University of California Berkeley, makes the headlines right now not because of his fame as an astronomer but rather because an internal University investigation found him guilty of sexual harassment against several of his female students at Berkeley between 2001 and 2010 after four of his former students filed a complaint. But I suspect that what has come out so far is only the tip of the iceberg. His inappropriate behaviour goes back a good thirty years, when he was teaching at San Francisco State University.

This is where I met him in 1985 when we both worked in the Physics and Astronomy Department while I was a Master’s student and a lecturer. It was well known that he had intimate relationships with several of his female students. But it is not the only aspect where I felt Marcy’s ethics were questionable.

In 1987, Marcy’s colleague in the search for exoplanets realized that he had handed her a revised copy of their joint grant proposal. On the copy Marcy had given her, both their names appeared, his as main investigator and hers, as co-investigator. But Marcy’s official copy, the one he had submitted to the funding agency, bore only his name.

She reported this to the department head, who fired her on the spot. Marcy was the rising star of his department. She then filed a formal complaint for professional misconduct against Marcy. But she was unable to recover her position and she left the field of astronomy. Following these events, a few people tried to draw the University’s attention to Geoff Marcy’s inappropriate behaviour with his female students.

The Code of Conduct at the time strictly forbade professors to engage in intimate relationships with their students. We were unfortunately unable to convince some of the women to lodge a complaint against him. One woman told me several months later that at the time, she was dating Marcy and thought that I was crazy to want to file a complaint. But with hindsight, once the relationship had ended, she understood how she had been had. To my knowledge, Marcy was simply notified by the University that his behaviour violated the Code of Conduct and that it had to stop. Unfortunately, this is again the option chosen by UC Berkeley, even though he was found guilty of sexual harassment and even though 22 of his colleagues are now asking for his dismissal.

This situation is far in excess of the comments made by Professor Tim Hunt who had to resign from University College London. This biologist, a Nobel laureate, had asserted that it was difficult to work in a laboratory with women because they cried all the time.

How many women left science because of Geoff Marcy and the like? I am so delighted to see many astronomers (Katie Mack, Ruth Murray-Kay, John Johnson) dared to denounce him. I am also pleased to see that despite the abuse they sustained, several of Geoff Marcy’s victims, some who dared speak up, some who feared to, are now well-established astronomers far from his influence. Yesterday was Ada Lovelace Day, a time to celebrate the accomplishments of women in science. It’s a great opportunity to salute the resilience and determination of these women.

Pauline Gagnon

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