AAS Committee on the Status of Women 
Issue of February 18, 2011	
eds. Joan Schmelz, Caroline Simpson & Michele Montgomery

SPECIAL EDITION: A Story of Sexual Harassment

Coming Out (of a Different Type of Closet)
by Joan Schmelz [jschmelz_at_memphis.edu]

At the recent AAS meeting in Seattle, I was forced to confront an issue that I
had hoped (unrealistically) would just fade away: sexual harassment. Although
incidents occur much less frequently than in years past and every university has
a policy against harassment, new victims continue to seek me out and tell me
their stories. They know I'm chair of CSWA, may have attended our town hall, and
might even read AASWOMEN. As much as I hate to admit it, our community appears
to contain a (small) group of sexual harassers that have somehow managed to
remain below the radar.

One of these young victims, whom I have been mentoring for a number of months,
pleaded with me to "come out" (of a different type of closet) to AASWOMEN. She
wanted me to admit that I am a survivor of sexual harassment. I argued that my
experience was years ago; what relevance could it have in this day and age? She
insisted that knowing my story had helped her to deal with her own situation,
and she argued persuasively that it would mean a lot to other victims too.

It is true that I have had at least one foot out of this (different type of)
closet for a while now. Even the most superficial reading between the lines of
my recent AASWOMEN posting entitled, "The Legacy of Anita Hill," will reveal
that I was a victim of sexual harassment. If sharing my story could help even
one young victim realize that she was not alone, would I do it? Should I?

[Note: The AAS lawyers have advised me that I might be liable if I were to
reveal too many details of this experience, so I will simply refer to the
individual as "the harasser" and the organization where I worked at the time as
"ABC" institute/university/observatory.]

I have often felt that the term "sexual harassment" was somewhat misleading.
Although there was certainly a sexual component to my relationship with the
harasser, it was much more about his abuse of power. That being said, the
harassment would never have occurred if I were not a woman. In fact, none of the
other young astronomers (all men) at ABC faced what I faced.

At the time, I was a young astronomer in a vulnerable position and the harasser
was my supervisor. Writing this summary forced me to recall several unpleasant
examples of his abuse of power. One rather poignant quote that I remember
vividly goes like this, "I wish I could keep you in my pocket and take you out
when it's convenient." 

I should have run for the hills! That reaction, however, would have meant giving
up not only my job, but maybe on astronomy itself. I stayed on at ABC and tried
to tough it out.

Another example of the power dynamic involved specific instructions that I was
never allowed to ask questions. The implication was that my ignorance would
reflect badly on the harasser. "You have to be perfect," he said to me.

No pressure there! My job was hard enough without these added complications, but
things soon went from bad to worse. After the first six months, my significant
other moved to ABC. In retrospect, it now seems obvious that this move triggered
a major change in the precarious power dynamic that existed between the harasser
and me. After all, I would no longer be spending any time in the harasser's
proverbial pocket. The harasser's response to this new dynamic was to start
putting me down at every opportunity, destroying what little confidence I had.
He soon stopped talking to me and started talking about me. His gossip spread to
the senior researchers/faculty/staff at ABC and eventually diffused through a
segment of the astronomy community.

My time at ABC was not easy, especially after the harasser began poisoning the
environment against me. I continued to show up for work, however, struggling
alone with the analysis. I confess that I also battled depression. My
significant other didn't understand why I wasn't working 24-7, why I wasn't
listening to my supervisor, in short, why I wasn't behaving like a typical young
scientist. To be honest, I didn't understand it myself, but I've come to realize
that I was spending a lot of my energy fighting off depression and insulating
myself from the toxic environment the harasser had created at ABC. I needed a
lot of sleep and a lot of downtime. I worked at ABC during normal business
hours, read novels in the evening, and took weekends off. 

I stumbled through the next year or so, doing analysis on my own and struggling
to write up components of my work for publication. I found I could be highly
focused, concentrating only on the next paper and ignoring just about everything
else. I had a self imposed, very strict work schedule. If I stuck to it, I could
make progress. If I tried to push it, to put in more hours or work weekends, my
progress would grind to a halt. I realized that I had a choice. I could either
write up my work a paragraph at a time or I could give up entirely; there seemed
to be no middle ground. I chose the paragraph option, and celebrated every minor
milestone. If I could finish another paragraph, then it was a good day.

One thing that eventually tipped the balance in my favor was that my research
papers - the ones that I wrote a paragraph at a time - were being published. The
senior researchers/faculty/staff at ABC could not think that I was as bad as the
harasser said I was if my work was appearing in a prominent publication. My
position at ABC ended, but unfortunately the power the harasser had over me did
not. It was time to find another position. Can you imagine the job application
process with a vindictive sexual harasser as one of your references?

After a round of job applications, a rumor started by my harasser got back to
me. Apparently, he was bad mouthing me to potential employers. He was careful to
put nothing in writing and I don't know exactly what he said to them, but I got
no job offers. For the next round of applications, I did not include the
harasser as a reference. I attended a winter AAS meeting with the hope of making
job connections but got no interviews. I do remember running into a certain
astronomer that I had known before I went to ABC. We exchanged a few words about
a job I had applied for at her institute/university/observatory, but she
couldn't get away from me fast enough - as if she might catch whatever I had. As
I watched her walk away, I realized that I would never get another job in the
branch of astronomy where I had all my training.

Fortunately, there are other objects in the universe and other bands of the
spectrum. A couple of broad-minded, creative-thinking scientists at another
institute/university/observatory decided that a young astronomer with my
background would make a fine addition to their team. The bad news was that I had
no expertise in this new astronomical sub-field and would essentially be
starting over. The normal scientific momentum that any young scientist would
carry from one position to the next would be completely lost. As a result, I
worked for years on other people's science and co-authored many articles that my
significant other refers to as my "et al and Schmelz" papers. Eventually, I
worked my way back up to a position of astronomical seniority.

In a very real sense, I still live with the repercussions of the harassment
experience. How much better would those original papers have been if they had
been written by the team of knowledgeable coauthors rather than a lone stressed
out young scientist? How much further could I have progressed as a scientist if
I had not had to start over in another band of the spectrum in a completely
different corner of the cosmos? It was clear that no one was going to nominate
me for the Pierce Prize or the Warner Prize.

Because my harassment experience was so long ago, my only choice was to tough it
out or give it up. Neither ABC nor any other institute/university/observatory
had a sexual harassment policy at the time. In fact, I do not blame ABC for what
happened to me; there was really nothing they could have done. The good news is
that things have changed. If you are the victim of sexual harassment, please
read the article on CSWA's Advice column entitled, "Yes, Virginia,
Discrimination and Harassment Do Still Happen" at:


One important step is to talk to someone you trust: advisor, best friend,
parent, sibling, etc. You can talk to me. In fact, the argument that convinced
me to come out (of this different type of closet) was that it would put me in a
better position to reach out to young victims. The harassment experience can be
very isolating, but you don't have to tough it out alone. CSWA can help.

Please post a comment about this story on the CSWA facebook page or the Women in
Astronomy blog:



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