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Sexual Harassment at Work: Congresswoman Proposes Bill to Fight Growing Problem in Astronomy

An astronomical sexual harassment problem in higher education institutions may actually come to a halt now that a California Congresswoman has announced a newly proposed bill that would bring to light confidential sexual harassment investigations into faculty members.

You may recall that last year, a leaked confidential report revealed that University of California, Berkeley had conducted an investigation into one its very own astronomy researchers, ultimately finding that the prominent researcher had repeatedly engaged in unlawful harassing behaviors. In fact, the report was so confidential that even the researcher's coworkers didn't know about it. But once the report leaked, faculty voiced demands for the researcher to resign. However, he wasn't the only astronomer who had been accused engaging in conduct that violates Federal civil rights law, Title IX and the California Fair Employment and Housing Act, Cal. Gov. Code § 12940 et seq.

An astronomical sexual harassment problem in higher education institutions may actually come to a halt now that a California Congresswoman has announced a newly proposed bill that would bring to light confidential sexual harassment investigations into faculty members.

You may recall that last year, a leaked confidential report revealed that University of California, Berkeley had conducted an investigation into one its very own astronomy researchers, ultimately finding that the prominent researcher had repeatedly engaged in unlawful harassing behaviors. In fact, the report was so confidential that even the researcher's coworkers didn't know about it. But once the report leaked, faculty voiced demands for the researcher to resign. However, he wasn't the only astronomer who had been accused engaging in conduct that violates Federal civil rights law, Title IX and the California Fair Employment and Housing Act, Cal. Gov. Code § 12940 et seq.

Sexual Harassment in Astronomy Prompts Congresswoman to Propose Bill

The level of secrecy that the investigation revealed drew the attention of California Congresswoman Jackie Speier (D-Calif.). Last week, Speier announced that she would be proposing legislation that would compel universities to make other universities aware of the results of investigations into violations of federal sexual harassment laws. Speier also released an additional confidential report that details how another astronomer was accused of engaging in sexual harassment, but continued a prosperous career at another university despite his alleged misconduct.

Unlawful Sexual Harassment Kept Under Wraps, Astronomers Continue Careers

Typically, university investigations into faculty misconduct are confidential as even false allegations can have damaging consequences on a career in academics. However, in both of the aforementioned cases, the universities (Berkeley and University of Arizona) kept investigation results confidential even though the sexual harassment allegations had been substantiated.

In the case of one of the faculty members, the act of keeping results of the sexual harassment investigation private allowed the astronomer to pursue his typical daily activities in spite of a zero-tolerance policy that department faculty was not even aware of until the leaked report surfaced.

Similarly, according to Speier, in the case of Timothy Slater, a University of Arizona astronomer, the investigation uncovered outrageous behavior on Slater's part, with multiple reports of sexual harassment problems. Some of the findings include Slater giving a student a vegetable-shaped vibrator as a gift at a party to celebrate the student's marriage, taking students to a topless bar on a regular basis where he ordered them lap dances, and telling a female employee that if she didn't wear underwear, she would be a better teacher.

It's not quite clear whether these reports had consequences for these faculty members' careers, but appear to have had little impact on their careers in the long-term as they have been allowed to transfer to other universities.

According to Speier, the confidentiality of both of these cases has created a hostile work environment where sexual harassment can flourish without consequences. Because faculty members are kept from seeing reports, employees won't have clear indications of inappropriate behaviors, women will continue to unknowingly accept jobs where they work with these alleged offenders, and other faculty will remain unaware of the sexual harassment, preventing them from protecting their students and peers. Moreover, other universities can still hire offenders without having any indication that they had been accused of causing hostile environments at their previous jobs.

Speier's bill will target that last issue, compelling universities to make other institutions aware of all Title IX investigations into their faculty. During Speier's announcement of the proposed bill, she quoted head of the American Astronomical Society, Dr. Meg Urry, saying that astronomy's sexual harassment problem will continue until "severe and visible consequences" impact those who engage in harassing behaviors.

Read the original article on ArsTechnica

Sexual Harassment in Astronomy: Additional Information

  • Astronomers Are Finally Doing Something About Sexual Harassment via The Atlantic
  • Astronomy roiled again by sexual-harassment allegations via Nature.com
  • Congresswoman Proposes Bill to Fight Astronomy's Sexual Harassment Problem via The Mary Sue
  • What astronomy can do about sexual harassment via CNN

No one should have to suffer from a hostile work environment due to sexual harassment. If you are being subjected to these unlawful workplace behaviors in California, contact our sexual harassment attorneys for a free consultation today.

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