How To Make Science Safer For Women

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It’s a lesson most female astronomers learn at some point in their careers when they face unwanted sexual behavior from professors, advisers or anyone who holds their future in their hands

Put your head down and don’t say anything. Focus on the science.

Katey Alatalo heard it as a graduate student at University of California, Berkeley, where colleagues warned of certain professors and senior scientists you did not want to be alone with “behind closed doors.”

Heather Flewelling was warned that reporting sexual harassment by a superior could work against her. After all, “these are the same people you might need a recommendation from” one day.

But when someone started stalking Flewelling at a conference, she found it impossible to ignore.

“I was terrified, and I reported it because I didn’t feel safe at the conference,” she said. “If I didn’t get it fixed, I wouldn’t go to another conference.”

To help puncture the “culture of silence” in the field, Alatalo and Flewelling formed Astronomy Allies, a support group for astronomers who experience sexual harassment. Attendees who feel they are being bothered by other event participants can reach vetted allies by phone, text or email. Outside conferences, allies field queries, point out resources or simply listen when the harassed need someone to confide in.

As relative newcomers to their field with little power or influence, Alatalo and Flewelling see Astronomy Allies as an “impeachable” way for them to make an impact.

“Our job is to make astronomy feel safe for victims of harassment,” Alatalo said. “Of course, we need to punish the harassers, but we’re junior scientists — we cannot punish them; we’re not in a position of power to do that.”

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