NASA Takes Forceful Stance on Sexual Harassment 

NASA put out a press release stating it "does not tolerate sexual harassment," but is it enough?

Credit: China Photos/Stringer

Next to a sign that read “Stop Sexism in Science!” California Representative Jackie Speier spoke passionately before the House on Tuesday about the issue of sexual harassment in this field. She said that universities handle this heinous activity like the Catholic Church dealt with its sexual abuse scandal. Speier wants perpetrators’ history to follow them as they move forward in their careers and plans to introduce legislation that would require this.

Women and men took to the internet to share their horror stories on Twitter using the hashtag #astroSH. NASA also responded yesterday with its own statement on the matter, with the words, “NASA does not tolerate sexual harassment.”

This issues has gained more attention in recent months after UC Berkeley astronomer Geoff Marcy resigned this past fall. Turns out he successfully harassed women for about two decades. And this Tuesday though, it was widely reported that for the first time in its history, Caltech suspended a professor of theoretical astrophysics for this same bad behavior. Representative Speier actually was spurred to address this issue because of a case at the University of Arizona. And if #astroSH is any indicator, this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Speier explained the importance of this legislation to Wired in an interview: “It’s hard to come forward because of the fear of reprisal and retribution. The potential risk of having your career stymied. That’s unacceptable that out of fear women who are sexually harassed and assaulted are unwilling to come forward. We have got to make sure that not only are they protected but that the perpetrators get the kind of justice they deserve, which is prosecution in my view.”

NASA clearly took notice. Administrator Charles Bolden published a letter yesterday to its grantee institutions stating that NASA is concerned with maintaining “inclusive educational environments.”

Bolden wrote, “Let me be perfectly clear: NASA does not tolerate sexual harassment, and nor should any organization seriously committed to workplace equality, diversity and inclusion. Science is for everyone and any behavior that demeans or discourages people from fully participating is unacceptable.”

“Equality of opportunity and inclusion are not just buzzwords, but are internalized by all members of the community and institutionalized in fair and equitable policies and practices,” he continued boldly, “We do so in part through program assessments under civil rights laws, such as Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits race, color, and national origin discrimination and harassment among federal funding recipients, and Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972, which prohibits educational funding recipients from engaging in sex discrimination, including sexual harassment and sexual violence.”

The program will remain “vigilant,” he wrote, about protecting all who work under these grants and asks NASA-funded institutions to examine their existing policies and procedures on this matter. If an issue arises, he assured, NASA will work closely with the institution and other stakeholders to make it right. He even asked grantees to check out its civil rights assistance tool MissionSTEM website and to both comment and ask questions on the site. “We must lead the way by refusing to be silent in the face of conduct that is not only illegal but destroys the very fabric of our STEM community,” he concluded.

On Twitter, women and men both shared their stories with each other. Some lauded Bolden’s statement. Others still feel like it isn’t enough. They believe that people on the ground won’t experience the effects of these words on a daily basis, that it’s not inclusive enough in that it didn’t cast a wide enough gender net (though Bolden doesn’t specify any one gender in the release).

Will this legislation actually get administrators to hear the stories of the victims? At least their tales and the struggles women in science face will be brought to the attention of a wider audience thanks to Representative Speier’s speech and the magical connecting powers of Twitter.

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