Wednesday, February 08, 2017

The Romance of Science

"In Miami, this was the norm. [Here] white Americans had to assimilate to our culture, learning how to speak Spanish and how to kiss on the cheek, hello and goodbye." (Nicole Cabrera)

Culture matters. Kissing someone on the cheek is expected in one culture and forbidden in another. Touching someone on the shoulder is reassuring in one culture and disconcerting in another. Or rather, each culture has its way of kissing and its way of touching appropriately. Decency is neither in the lips of kisser or the cheek of the kissed, neither in the shoulder of the held or the hand of the holder. It's in the manner they are brought together—the manners that bring them together. What has interested me lately, for wholy impersonal reasons I assure you, is what the current norms are for touching and kissing astronomers.

Perhaps "norms" isn't the right word. These days, there are quite explicit rules on the subject, and I find this somewhat puzzling. If I were an astronomer, I would find it quite distressing. Consider the story Nicole Cabrera tells at the Women in Astronomy blog. As I read it, she met a young man at a conference. She was an undergraduate attending her first conference, he was a post-doc. Apparently, he took a liking to her, seeking out her company at the conference sessions whenever the chance arose. During the formal part of the program, he kept things professional and scientific, no doubt mindful that her primary interest in being at the conference was to learn about science and try out her own ideas on other smart people. He seems to have offered engaging and interesting conversation on this front.

But one evening at a social function he got the courage to proposition her. He invited her to sit with him in a sofa, and when he thought the moment was right, he put his hand on her knee and invited her to his hotel room. She politely declined, making reference to a relationship she was in at the time. This ended the conversation. Nothing further happened. He appears to have taken the rejection in stride.

Joan Schmelz (I presume) appended an editor's note to the blog post, which made the significance of the story for so-called "allies" in the anti-sexual harassment movement explicit:

If this incident had happened in 2014 and not 2009, Nicole could have called on Astronomy Allies for help. Incidents like this illustrate the need for the Allies Program. If you ever feel like you are being stalked, harassed, or targeted at an AAS meeting, please know that you are not alone. Contact an Astronomy Ally!

This reminded me of a project I've had on the back burner for a while. The American Astronomical Society, like most professional organizations, has an anti-harassment policy, not least to govern interactions at conferences like those between Nicole and her suitor. The policy is promoted at conferences with official signage, which offers a very broad definition of “harassment”—namely, anything “unwanted”—and encourages people who “experience or witness” such behavior to report it using a phone number. It seems like a very simple and direct procedure, which got me thinking.

For further information, we are directed to the Executive Officer of the AAS, Kevin Marvel. I wrote to him back in November. My first question was simple: How many reports have been made at AAS meetings since this policy has been implemented and the reporting mechanism established? This question is especially relevant in the light of the framing of Cabrera's story at the Women in Astronomy blog: this is one of the "unreported" harassment incidents that are now easier to report.

At the time, I was asking to get a better sense of the prevalence of the problem of harassment in astronomy, about which there has been a lot of press lately, but not a lot of data. The use of the hotline would provide a useful indicator. But since the reporting system does not allow anonymous complaints, and requires detailed information about the problematic encounter, we here also have a way of understanding the nature (not just the frequency) of harassment in astronomy. This led to my second question: What sorts of behaviours are being reported to the hotline?

Kevin offered a detailed and helpful response:

To date [November 16, 2016] we have had 8 anti-harassment complaints since our anti-harassment policy went into effect in 2008. Not everyone uses the hotline, so that is not the right statistic to reference. This number captures all complaints received, including the hotline.

Reported behavior has ranged from inappropriate touching or propositioning to harassing language or aggressive questioning to the point where people felt threatened. Not all of the complaints have been made by women against men. Not all of the complaints have been about sexual harassment, although the majority have been.

All in all, that seems like a quite tolerable level, and it confirmed my sense—and my assumption before the Geoff Marcy story unleashed sweeping claims about "rampant" sexual harassment in astronomy—that astronomy is a community that is very hospitable to women and generally manned (if you'll allow it) by decent people who treat each other with kindness and respect. Kevin did emphasize that there was concern about unreported incidents, but described the available data as "positive".

When I read Cabrera's story last week, I immediately sent Kevin and Schmelz emails asking them to clarify the nature of the transgression. Was the behavior Cabrera describes against the harassment policy of the ASS? I asked Kevin. In Schmelz's case, since she seems pretty clear that her answer is "yes", I asked her to clarify just exactly what he did wrong and what she thinks should happen to him as a result. I haven't yet heard back from Schmelz, but Kevin offered the following:

We deal with each harassment issue as it comes to us in the same way. That process is detailed in our anti-harassment policy and begins with a written complaint and an investigation. Based on the facts and the severity of any inappropriate action and any history of past incorrect behavior, different responses would result. There is not a one-size fits all solution. The AAS believes it is inappropriate for a professional science conference to be considered a dating or pickup zone. We believe that a professional scientific conference should be just that, a scientific conference. Our actions in establishing and advertising our anti-harassment policy and processing the few claims we have received fully and confidentially are steps to establish an open culture focused on science. We believe we are succeeding and we will continue to take steps to ensure that culture is maintained.

Now, in the Cabrera case, most of the facts are known, and for the sake of argument let us assume that they are uncontested. That is, let us take the blog post as the text of a "written complaint", and let us assume that the subsequent investigation would have extracted a full confession. Let's imagine that the post-doc simply admits to doing exactly what Cabrera says he did.

I think it is worth discussing this in the community. I think it's worth defending the post-doc's actions as wholly appropriate, at least for the sake of argument, i.e., for the sake of having a conversation about how romantic relationships can even begin to happen at conferences without undermining the important work of science. Indeed, it is interesting how well Tim Hunt actually captured this problem with his his infamous "trouble with girls" remark. One of the difficulties that having both genders is science constitutes is simply love. There's no avoiding it. "The doctors are working day night," sings Leonard Cohen, "but they'll never ever find a cure for love."

Kevin gets a little too close (for my tastes) to suggesting that they will:

The AAS believes it is inappropriate for a professional science conference to be considered a dating or pickup zone. We believe that a professional scientific conference should be just that, a scientific conference.

Is it really the AAS's official position that no romances can be pursued at an AAS conference? Notice how careful the post-doc in Cabrera's story was. If he wanted to talk to her during the day, he made sure to keep it about the science. "Every interaction was friendly and professional," Cabrera writes, "and we talked mostly about my research and my studies." He waited until "the unofficial party happened" to make his move. He was completely open about his situation and his intentions. She rejected his offer. And that was the end of it. Is it really the position of Joan Schmelz and Kevin Marvel and the American Astronomical Society that this kind of thing should never happen?

Notice that letting it happen doesn't turn the entire conference into "a dating or pickup zone". But it does suggest something that I had thought was obvious and desirable: science isn't the only thing that happens at a scientific conference. It's also a lot of fun. People don't just "network" professionally. They actually socialize. The make new friends and, occasionally, find a new lover.

I sometimes hold time management seminars for researchers. When we get to the topic of conferences, I usually indulge in a little humor. I encourage them not to bring their "work" with them. That is, I tell them to get their writing, grading, and grant-applying done before they get to the conference. Don't sit in your hotel room between sessions working. "Let your schedule be open to what conferences are for," I tell them. "Things like: networking, catching up with old friends ... adultery." It usually elicits a little laughter, some of it nervous. Are we really going to have to give up the mild "debauchery" (outside the workshop) of the academic conference in the interest of gender equality? I, for one, hope not. But I'm not an astronomer. This isn't my community. I'm just hoping astronomers have a serious conversation about this before they turn out the lights. In the sky?

5 comments:

Jonathan said...

What if two people had developed a connection, and started dating after (or during) the conference. Imagine a less awkward pickup that is actually "welcome." Surely that would not be "harassment." I'm sure there are astronomers married to each other who met in professional contexts, and one asked the other out.

So to day that a conference cannot be a dating zone would seem absurd. Rather, the point is to legislate the kind of come-ons that are appropriate. Here the problem is that unwelcome ones are those rejected, and welcome ones are the ones accepted, so there is no way to know in advance, though surely a bald invitation to "come up to my room to have sex" is likely to be rejected in this particular context.

Anonymous said...

While flirting at a conference (even after-hours) is roundly decried, if two people do meet at a conference and enter into a serious relationship, it is the unanimous opinion of all liberal-minded academics that institutions must accommodate their dual-career status to avoid being sexist. Since women in science often marry other scientists, and since finding two good jobs in academic science in the same locale can be difficult, it is sexist not to hire the both of them.

Thomas said...

@Jonathan: I would say that it's hard to imagine one-off come-on that constitutes harassment all by itself. That was part of the point of my post about Tom Smothers and the peanuts. Even if someone takes offense and walks away, unless the relationship is explored further, it's too likely to be merely a misunderstanding, perhaps even grounded in a culture or language barrier (Ah! the art of kissing someone on the cheek!). Indeed, that ought to be the "out" that even the Don Juan of astronomy is entitled to. "You misunderstood my meaning," should be always be possible ... but ONLY IF nothing more happens. In any case, I'm very hesitant about "legislation" ... unless you mean the sort of thing Walt Whitman had in mind.

@Anonyomous: I agree that there's a contradiction there. There's also just a sort of puritan middle-class sexual moralism in it. It really comes down to what kind of sexual relationships you are willing to accept. That's the issue that would need to be raised if we got into the Tim Slater case. But I'm not ready to open that can of worms yet. The two-body problem you mention is indeed an issue. It has always puzzled me how obvious activists make the co-hiring solution sound. To me, it sounds like recipe for undermining the credibility of a persons appoint. It will be hard to shake the knowledge among colleagues and students that you are the co-hire, and you're only going to be around as long as your spouse is at the institution. I recognize it as an issue for feminist, but I don't believe the solution is that simple one.

Anonymous said...

This is getting eerily close to Orwell's 1984. The "Anti-Sex League" that was part of the society he envisioned made sure that anyone who thought about sex was punished. We're certainly heading in that direction.

Thomas said...

Yes, the beauty of anti-sex as an instrument of oppression is that virtually everybody is thinking of sex. So the entire population is guilty. In my dystopian novel of this situation, the government has a plan to announce that an extinction-level asteroid (an external threat to scare the population into submission) is going to hit the earth within a decade and so it needs obedient astronomers to make the relevant "observations". Getting people like Geoff Marcy out of the way is no doubt a smart move to that end.