Bullying and Sexual Harassment at CSIRO

No sooner has the deluge of emails I’ve been receiving about the Case of Bode versus Mundell started to dry up when I hear about another alarming story revolving around sexual harassment in Astronomy.

This time the revelations concern the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), the federal government agency for scientific research in Australia, and specifically relate the organization’s handling of  numerous instances of  sexual harassment and bullying that have driven several female astronomers out of the organization’s Division of Astronomy and Space Science (CASS). You can listen here listen to a radio programme about this that was broadcast last Sunday on the Australian station ABC. It’s not an easy thing to listen to, but I urge you to make the effort.

Once again one of the key issues raised by this is that of confidentiality. As outlined by the official response from CASS, there are indeed very good reasons for respecting confidentiality:

To make details of our individual investigations public, we could prevent people from coming forward in the future or we could lead to situations of trial by the public or media without full information or a proper process.

Fair enough, but confidentiality cuts both ways. Once again I quote the official response:

Around 200 people on average work in the astronomy and space science business unit. In the past 8 years we have had 16 formal allegations of inappropriate behaviour within this business unit. The cases varied in their degree of seriousness and all of the allegations were investigated. Three of the allegations were of a sexual nature, with two of these three allegations upheld.

Two cases of alleged inappropriate behaviour per year for eight years seems rather a lot for a unit of this size. Granted that isn’t known how many of those are genuine, but in my view even one case is one case too many. However, what is really worrying is that two of the allegations that were “of a sexual nature” were upheld but the outcomes of these investigations were not made known to staff in CASS. I’m all for confidentiality and due process, but if one thing is going to stop people “coming forward in the future” it’s the perception that nothing will be done if they do. There just has to be a better way of dealing with misconduct allegations than what CSIRO (and all organizations) I’ve worked in do now. I hope we’re past the stage of denying that there is a problem. The question is how to make things better.

I’ve thought a lot about this since I blogged about the Bode versus Mundell case (here and here). We should all agree that we need to strive to create working environments wherein harassment and bullying simply do not happen, but sadly they do and until that changes we need to find ways of dealing with the perpetrators fairly but firmly and promptly.

I have two concrete suggestions to make.

The first is that organizations of a sufficient size to bear the cost should have independent misconduct investigators rather than relying on staff from the same workplace. This role could even be fulfilled by someone from a different organization altogether. Universities, for example, could set up a shared resource to deal with this kind of thing. Such a move would avoid any perceived conflict of interest but, more importantly, a dedicated investigator could carry out the work much more quickly than a senior academic who is busy with many other things.

The other suggestion is that confidentiality agreements covering disciplinary should become void if an employee leaves the institution, whether that is as a result of dismissal or because they leave before investigations are completed. That would put an end to the game of “pass the harasser”.

There are probably serious problems with both these suggestions and I’d be happy to take criticism through the comments box below.

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6 Responses to “Bullying and Sexual Harassment at CSIRO”

  1. CSIRO did appoint external investigators in these cases, and followed the ensuing recommendations. So that may not be a solution?

  2. I would like to see ‘code of conduct’ documents list unacceptable behaviours and consequent sanctions, because current codes are written in such benign general terms that serial perps (usually in senior positions) can simply ignore their workplace code of conduct and ruin their victims lives with impunity

  3. Dr Mel Thomson Says:

    The CSIRO and my ex university both used external investigators in the cases reported by Hagar Cohen on the ABC this week. Neither acted immediately on the findings which upheld SH & Bullying claims on the victims. This is the real problem. Victims get independent verification of the insults they suffer….then expect the axe to fall. It didn’t at CASS (perpetrator still employed there ATM). In my case, we had to counsel and collect more evidence to form case….then they did a dodgy deal that gagged us giving a bad reference. It’s not about lack of external investigations, it’s about failing to use this evidence as solid enough to dismiss as gross misconduct.

    • telescoper Says:

      Thank you for your comment. Failure to act promptly and appropriately after an investigation seems to be a theme in other cases I’ve heard of too.

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