When many people I consider mentors and scientific leaders recently spoke publicly to honor an accomplished academic who had engaged in harassing behavior, I felt as if they were speaking directly to me. I asked myself whether they knew that the collegiality they heralded on the part of the honoree was not open to all. Did they choose to overlook how he interacted with certain women, judging this insignificant compared with his contributions? Did they realize that their praise communicated not only to those whom his actions had most severely harmed, but also to many others, that his accomplishments were more important than their participation in science?
In 2018, the scientific community should not honor individuals who have engaged in behavior that harms, degrades and discriminates, including sexual and gender harassment—but many major scientific societies do not have policies to prevent this. This needs to change. I recently wrote an open letter, together with other fellows of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Leshner Leadership Institute for Public Engagement, calling for a change: a strong, meaningful policy to address harassment among AAAS fellows and honorees. Our group of Leshner Fellows has asked others, especially AAAS fellows and honorees, to add their names in support.
It wasn't any single case, though, that prompted me to initiate this public letter. Though I've never before spoken out publicly about sexual and gender harassment, and I rarely sign on to public letters—let alone write them—I took a leadership role in this effort for two main reasons.
First, the pervasiveness of harassment as a systemic problem in science means that efforts by all of us are needed to address it. Its impacts are not limited to the cases garnering the most public attention. Even for those who are not the direct target of the most severe harassment, our professional interactions, choices and career paths can be shaped by it. Personally, I feel these impacts when I modify my own behavior to try to avoid being the target of a known harasser; when I think about whom to sit with at meetings or social gatherings to avoid degrading or sexualized conversations; or when I hear comments suggesting my gender affects my competence and potential.
By remaining silent, all of us, especially those in positions of authority, contribute to perpetuating these harms. I contributed myself by not speaking up to tell my colleagues how I felt when hearing their accolades. Every time we fail to call out inappropriate behavior, we are tacitly accepting its systemic burdens. As a tenured faculty member, I do not want to have to teach the next generation how to evade or put up with harassment as a strategy for scientific survival.
The second reason is that I increasingly see a strong link between the inclusiveness of the scientific community and the academic issues I commit my career to and often speak publicly about: the need to engage with stakeholders to address large-scale societal challenges. Doing impactful science in my own work on air pollution, climate change and sustainability requires engaging with communities and decision makers as part of the process. Public engagement is our core mission as part of the Leshner Fellows program, and we are specifically asked to train and mentor other scientists and promote engagement within our institutions. As scientists, we are much better equipped to engage if our community actively welcomes diverse participants, ideas and perspectives.
In our letter, the Leshner Fellows propose characteristics for a strong, transparent harassment policy that, importantly, would also apply to us as AAAS honorees. We argue that a new policy should address prospective honorees and also set out a procedure for revoking honors where appropriate. It should cover all types of harassing behavior, including gender harassment, which a recent National Academies studynoted is the most common form of harassment faced by women in science. We suggest that AAAS fellows and prior awardees be asked to disclose institutional proceedings resulting in professional misconduct findings and that award nominees should be asked to disclose findings as well as ongoing investigations. AAAS should encourage direct reporting of incidents related to honorees and establish procedures to make concrete recommendations for appropriate responses.
I hope our letter will encourage AAAS to adopt a stringent, meaningful and transparent policy, setting an example for other scientific societies. However, a policy is only the beginning: the scientific culture needs to change as well. Beyond signing onto our letter urging action, individuals can begin this process of change by talking more openly with each other about the impacts of harassment and how we can respond.
We should also work in our own institutions and professional societies to create a more inclusive scientific community, intervene individually and collectively to prevent harassing behavior, and help to craft strong, transparent policies. In the last few days, I have been heartened to receive several messages from those who have signed on to support our effort, communicating their concern and relating their efforts to make science more open for all. In contrast to what I hear when colleagues honor those who have harassed, these messages have given me hope that the scientific community can and will change for the better.