Yet more sexual harassment in Astronomy

Yesterday I saw a thread on Twitter commencing with the following tweet by Dr Emma Chapman (now of Imperial College):

You can find the whole thread here; and here is one of the documents that have now been published:

I have met Dr Chapman and knew that she had endured sexual harassment in the recent past, but did not know any of the details of her case because they remained confidential until yesterday. They relate to sexual harassment by her PhD supervisor, Dr Filipe Abdalla of University College London (whom I don’t know personally). It has taken Dr Chapman two years to get documents relating to this case disclosed publicly. I also didn’t realise that episodes of harassment of other women were involved or that Dr Abdalla, who remains in post at UCL, has apparently been indulging in retaliatory behaviour towards those who have made complaints against his conduct. I am given to understand that Dr Abdalla is on a final written warning for his conduct.

I suggest you read the whole thread and form your own conclusions.

For what its worth, although I find it very hard to avoid the conclusion that University College London has handled this case abysmally at an institutional level, it is important to realise that failure to tackle sexual harassment properly is a systemic problem not confined to that particular institution. I know that the Department of Physics & Astronomy at UCL has fought very hard to tackle sexual harassment and discrimination, but efforts at such a level are not always helped by the attitudes of those in higher places.

I would like to take the opportunity to praise Emma Chapman for having the determination to get this out in the open (at considerable personal cost) and her legal advisors for finding a way through the wall of silence.

I have blogged a number of times before about sexual harassment cases, but I’ll take this opportunity to repeat what I said in an earlier post:

Failure to act strongly when such behaviour is proven just sends out the message that the institution doesn’t take sexual harassment seriously. In my view, confidentiality is needed during an investigation – to protect both sides and indeed the person doing the investigation – but if the conclusion is that misconduct has taken place, it should be acknowledged publicly. Justice has to be seen to be done. Sexual assault, of course, is another matter entirely – that should go straight to the police to deal with.

I’ve talked about protocols and procedures, but these can only ever apply a sticking-plaster solution to a problem which is extremely deeply rooted in the culture of many science departments and research teams across the world. These tend to be very hierarchical, with power and influence concentrated in the hands of relatively few, usually male, individuals. A complaint about harassment generally has to go up through the management structure and therefore risks being blocked at a number of stages for a number of reasons. This sort of structure reinforces the idea that students and postdocs are at the bottom of the heap and discourages them from even attempting to pursue a case against someone at the top.

The unhealthy power structures I’ve discussed will not be easy to dismantle entirely, but there are simple things that can be done to make a start. “Flatter”, more democratic, structures not only mitigate this problem but are also probably more efficient by, for example, eliminating the single-point failures that plague hierarchical organisational arrangements.

We are very far indeed from eliminating harassment or the conditions that allow it to continue but although cases like this are painful, I think they at least demonstrate that we are beginning to acknowledge that there’s a problem.

I think we’re now long past the point where acknowledgement is necessary. It’s now time to take action against the individuals and institutions responsible for perpetuating the problem.

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6 Responses to “Yet more sexual harassment in Astronomy”

  1. Reblogged this on Disturbing the Universe and commented:
    I’m glad that more details on this case are now public, including the name of the perpetrator, Dr Filipe Abdalla. UCL’s actions in this case are also reprehensible.

    Let’s hope that google searches on the name Dr Filipe Abdalla will soon have the details of his sexual harassment coming up on top.

  2. It’s remarkable how little comment this post has attracted, when compared to similar posts on situations in Switzerland and the US. And unless I missed something, there is ongoing, deafening silence from UCL in response to these revelations. Both facts seem very strange.

    • telescoper Says:

      I agree. The post has been read well over 10,000 times too! Unlike previous posts on sexual harassment I haven’t received any private emails about it either.

      I am told however that UCL will be making a public statement soon.

    • Maybe because most readers are in the UK and don’t want to comment on a UK problem?

      • telescoper Says:

        Actually, over the last week I’ve had more readers from the USA than the UK.

  3. telescoper Says:

    It has been drawn to my attention that there is now a summary on the UCL web pages of the measures the Department of Physics & Astronomy has been taking to prevent sexualharassment. Though it does not deal specifically with the case mentioned in this post, readers might find interesting:

    http://www.ucl.ac.uk/star/support/Actionstakentopreventsexualharassment

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