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The Long Con

Hiding in Plain Sight

ESPN has a series of sports documentaries called 30 For 30. One of my favorites is called Broke which is about how professional athletes often make tens of millions of dollars in their careers yet retire with nothing. One of the major "leaks" turns out to be con artists, who lure athletes into elaborate real estate schemes or business ventures. This naturally raises the question: In a tightly-knit social structure that is a sports team, how can con artists operate so effectively and extensively? The answer is quite simple: very few people taken in by con artists ever tell anyone what happened. Thus, con artists can operate out in the open with little fear of consequences because they are shielded by the collective silence of their victims.

I can empathize with this. I've lost money in two different con schemes. One was when I was in college, and I received a phone call that I had won an all-expenses-paid trip to the Bahamas. All I needed to do was put a deposit down and I'd receive my vacation package in the mail. When it never came, and when no one answered the phone at the "company," it slowly sank in that I had been conned. Here I was, a highly intelligent college student studying physics, and I was too "stupid" to not see what was happening to me. Thinking back, I still get a sick feeling in my stomach. The shame is still palpable, 17 years later. I never told anyone in authority. In fact, this is the first time I've spoken about it publicly. 

Being conned feels the way it does because your trust is a valuable commodity. As social creatures, we don't give our trust to everyone. Others must earn it. But once they do, they have access to other valuable aspects of yourself. In my case, the person on the other end of the phone gained access to my debit card (fortunately, they only made a single charge). The other time I was conned, the person worked for months to gain access to my time and effort, in addition to my money. But things like money can be recouped. Other things cannot.

Sexual Harassment as a Con Game

Something that people rarely think of as a con game is sexual harassment, but after listening to the lived experiences of women who have been sexually harassed and/or assaulted, I feel the analogy is apt. Like a con artist, the sexual harasser usually knows their victim well and uses their authority or "friendship" to gain trust. With that trust, the harasser then works to gain access to something far more valuable than money. They gain access to the victim's body, their sexuality, their most private selves. In addition to anger and frustration, the common theme in the stories I've heard is shame and guilt. These feelings are why sexual offenses are so infrequently reported. 

However, what's worse than the betrayal of trust is that even when sexual harassment/assault and rape are reported, victims are often met with disbelief, invalidation, shaming and inaction. In my case, if I had overcome my shame to report my con artist, I likely would have had the charge reimbursed and the company investigated. But I seriously doubt that the person on the other end of the phone at the consumer protection agency would have asked, "Are you sure you didn't lead the con artist on?" or "Oh, I know him. He'd never con anyone!" or "You know what, we need to keep this quiet. I think the best approach is for me to have a private conversation with the con artist to clear things up."

So there are similarities, but there are also huge differences between being conned and being sexually harassed or assaulted. But the analogy should help doubters who question the intent of the victims who are brave enough to speak out, or question why they didn't report the crimes right away. At least it should. I've been a part of the astronomy community long enough to expect some very ugly behavior and words in the wake of what is soon to follow. Sexual harassers are protected by the silence of their victims, inaction from authorities, and also apologists in their community. 

The Playbook
Based on the stories I've heard from women who don't know each other, but share eerily similar experiences, I put together a Serial Harasser's Playbook. Most of the stories I heard before writing that post were related to one specific colleague: my former adviser Geoff Marcy. Thus, the Serial Harasser's Playbook I posted is seemingly Geoff's playbook. To be clear, many harassers employ such a strategy. But Geoff is the person most commonly named by targets with whom I've spoken. 
After publishing the Playbook post, most of the people who contacted me with additional stories named a single person. That person was the target of a six-month Title IX investigation at UC Berkeley. That investigation report, which I have seen, concluded that, "The evidence gathered supports the conclusion that the totality of [Marcy]’s behavior violated the relevant UC sexual harassment policies." Violations of that university policy de facto are violations of the federal law on which the policy is based, as articulated by Title IX of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The Berkeley Astronomy faculty were unaware of the conclusions of the report because their former and current chair declined to inform them.

Vice Provost of the Faculty, Janet Broughton wrote:
First, I should explain that your complaint was extensively investigated over a six-month period by our Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination (OPHD).  This process resulted in a written report, and if you have not already done so, you may request a redacted copy of that report from Will Mallari ( 
The OPHD report was referred to me for assessment under the Faculty Code of Conduct.  As a result, the University entered into a formal agreement with Professor Marcy to resolve this matter.  
The agreement states that he will abide by clear expectations concerning his future interactions with students.  Were he to fail to meet those expectations, the terms of the agreement provide that he would be immediately subject to sanctions that could include suspension or dismissal; such sanctions would be imposed summarily by the Vice Provost for the Faculty.  
Sincerely yours,  
Janet Broughton  
Vice Provost for the Faculty
After multiple complainants testified about Geoff's behavior, he was given a warning. Until he was recently asked to step down, he was on the scientific organizing committee of the upcoming Extreme Solar Systems III meeting. He was recently the featured lecturer at UC Santa Cruz's "Evening with the Stars" program. Following the findings of UC Berkeley's Title IX investigation, he was free to continue to exert his considerable power within the community.

Geoff recently posted an open letter that is, in my view, as vague as it is calculated. But what it does do is remove any doubt about his actions and guilt. This should be surprising to very few researchers in the exoplanets community, particularly those of my generation or younger. Geoff's inappropriate actions toward and around women in astronomy is one of the biggest "open secrets" at any exoplanets or AAS meeting. "Underground" networks of women pass information about Geoff to junior scientists in an attempt to keep them safe. Sometimes it works. Other times it hasn't, and cognizant members of the community receive additional emails, phone calls and Facebook messages from new victims. 

In 2013 I received tenure. Leading up to my tenure decision, I decided that I would use my position, voice and male privilege to finally do something about the open secret—Geoff's long con of holding the community in fear to provide himself cover to continue harassing our junior female colleagues. Yes, I have greatly benefited from Geoff's letters over the years. But his publication record shows that he has benefitted from my scientific productivity. In 2013 I figured we were square, and I effectively ended our 13-year collaboration.

I'm ashamed that I didn't speak out sooner. I hate that academia's power structure, which allows a single phone call from a senior member to sink a person's career, so often forces junior people into silence for fear of losing their jobs. For this reason I am in awe of the bravery of the women who spoke out all the more; they were far braver than I and other male astronomers have been over the years.

With today's news story, I hope Geoff's long con of the astronomy community has finally come to an end.

This is Bigger Than Mr. Marcy

That said, and if Geoff is finally brought to justice, it will only be a partial victory for our community. I sincerely hope that we recognize that Geoff wielded a highly effective weapon in his use of sexual harassment. His expertise in harassment, honed over the decades, ruined many promising careers; pushed women away from exoplanets in particular, and astronomy generally; and in so doing set progress in our subfield back in ways that we'll still be grappling with in a decade hence. But it will be important to recognize that Geoff is just one of many serial harassers in our field of science, and that other fields are also widely infected (cf Clancy, Nelson, Rutherford & Hinde 2014). Plus, it's not just the serial harassers. It's also the "everyday" harassment that women face in their departmental hallways, astro-ph discussions, scientific conferences, and committee meetings. All of this is aided and abetted by a vacuum of leadership at universities like UC Berkeley, which is dealing with a class-action lawsuit as well as a civil lawsuit by many former students for mishandling their complaints. 

Sexual harassment is just one very powerful aspect of the systemic sexism that pervades our daily lives. 

As such, defeating sexual harassment goes well beyond expunging people like Marcy from our ranks. It will require a fundamental restructuring of the way we do business, and a reeducation of our field—all of us—in matters related to the culture of science and academe. This will not be easy because our culture fosters a deep distrust and even hostility toward the "soft sciences" such as sociology and psychology that provide us with the best tools for addressing our pervasive inequities. But if we are truly interested in a meritocratic scientific community that makes full use of its talent pool to understand the Universe, we'll see this as a worthwhile investment. Until we do, there will be more stories filling more inboxes as we collectively shoot ourselves in the feet. 

Scholarly articles about sexual harassment:

Survey of Academic Field Experiences (SAFE): Trainees Report Harassment and Assault (URL)
Abstract: "Little is known about the climate of the scientific fieldwork setting as it relates to gendered experiences, sexual harassment, and sexual assault. We conducted an internet-based survey of field scientists (N = 666) to characterize these experiences. Codes of conduct and sexual harassment policies were not regularly encountered by respondents, while harassment and assault were commonly experienced by respondents during trainee career stages. Women trainees were the primary targets; their perpetrators were predominantly senior to them professionally within the research team. Male trainees were more often targeted by their peers at the research site. Few respondents were aware of mechanisms to report incidents; most who did report were unsatisfied with the outcome. These findings suggest that policies emphasizing safety, inclusivity, and collegiality have the potential to improve field experiences of a diversity of researchers, especially during early career stages. These include better awareness of mechanisms for direct and oblique reporting of harassment and assault and, the implementation of productive response mechanisms when such behaviors are reported. Principal investigators are particularly well positioned to influence workplace culture at their field sites."

Workplace Sexual Harassment 30 Years on: A Review of the Literature (URL)
Excerpt: “While verbal harassment may appear to be less threatening and more socially acceptable than harassment involving physical contact, sexually offensive humour and sexualized imagery are argued to be damaging in that they serve to mark certain workplaces as masculinized spaces which reinforce and perpetuate discrimination and harassment in socially acceptable ways...Job-related factors consistently linked with SH include absenteeism, lower job satisfaction, commitment and productivity, and employment withdrawal.”

Link between general incivility and sexual harassment (PDF)
Excerpt: "This article attempts to integrate the literature on sexual harassment with emerging research on generalized interpersonal mistreatment in the workplace. Overall, results underscore the need to look at sexual harassment as an experience embedded in a larger context of disrespect. These findings should cast a new perspective on how such seemingly different forms of antisocial behavior relate and combine to interfere with working women’s occupational, psychological, and physical health.

The role of power in sexual harassment as a counterproductive behavior in organizations (PDF)
Excerpt: "In order to more completely understand the impact of SH [sexual harassment] in an organization, it is important to recognize that SH should not be considered as an isolated negative organizational behavior, but rather as part of the cadre of behaviors included under the rubric of 'counterproductive work behaviors'...early research in Federal offices included estimated costs of SH to be upwards of $180 million over a two-year period (U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board, 1981). These costs were the result of a number of outcomes, including employee turnover, absenteeism, insurance costs and lost productivity."

The climate for women in academic science: The good, the bad, and the changeable (URL)
Abstract: "The current study of 208 faculty women scientists tested this theory by examining the effect of personal negative experiences and perceptions of the workplace climate on job satisfaction, felt influence, and productivity. Hierarchical multiple regression results indicated that women scientists experiencing more sexual harassment and gender discrimination reported poorer job outcomes. Additionally, perceptions of a generally positive, nonsexist climate, as well as effective leadership, were related to positive job outcomes after controlling for harassment and discrimination. We discuss implications for the retention and career success of women in academic science."

Organizational Responses for Preventing and Stopping Sexual Harassment: Effective Deterrents or Continued Endurance? (URL)
Abstract: "Survey data from a student population of experienced workers was used to examine perceptions of organizational responses to sexual harassment. Results revealed significant differences in the perceived seriousness of gender harassment, unwanted sexual attention, and sexual coercion. Moreover, women viewed all three types of harassment as being significantly more serious than men. Terminating perpetrators’ employment, providing a verbal/written reprimand, and mandating an apology were rated as being the most common organizational responses to sexual harassment. A significant positive relationship existed between perceived organizational response severity and effectiveness in combating harassment. Results partially supported the notion that more severe responses are associated with greater effectiveness in communicating organizational intolerance of harassment. Contrary to hypotheses, ratings of organizational response effectiveness and appropriateness were not dependent upon harassment type. Further, organizational responses that involved transferring or reassigning victims were not viewed as less severe punishment for perpetrators than were most responses that involved the perpetrator directly."

Other Resources

The University of California Sexual Harassment Policy (PDF)

The University of California Faculty Code of Conduct (URL)


Nathan said…
I understand if you can't comment, but I'm curious if you want to speculate why he wasn't fired. It seems like the university issuing a warning for this exposes to them to possible litigation under Title IX as well as the huge PR mess that's unfolding right now.
Lynda Lovon said…
I would think that they didn't fire him because he is famous and in contention for a Nobel Prize in physics. He has an endowed chair. He was my professor at SFSU. There were complaints filed against him there too but swept under the rug because of his fame.
Steve Bryson said…
Kudos, John, for bringing a larger perspective to what is for many of us a a bad personal experience. I hope Geoff's story is part of the growing awareness that there is a very large problem, and punishing or ostracizing one person is only a step towards a needed, larger solution.
PT said…
If I'm reading the article correctly, the agreement between UC and Marcy states that UC can impose punishments for future malfeasance "summarily," ie Marcy waives his rights of due process. If I'm reading this correctly (admittedly a good question), that is huge. It means that in the event of further complaints, he can simply be dismissed. Getting rid of a tenured faculty member can be extremely difficult, complicated, time consuming, and expensive (ask UNC about Paul Frampton). It would appear that Marcy has agreed that if he's accused again, UC doesn't have to go through all that; they can simply can him, and he has even less right to contest such an action than a regular employee, much less a faculty member.
JB said…
There's a recent case of sexual harassment at UCLA in the history department that was even more offensive than Marcy and had a similar outcome (no apparent discipline for the UCLA history professor).

Details are here:
Sarah Stewart said…
John's experience brings up one of the structural issues of academia: the powerful reference letter. Such letters have super-sized power when the writer is famous.

Evaluating candidates for any position, graduate school applicant through tenure review, is a tremendous amount of work. The work can be shortcut by reliable and authoritative reference letters. However, our reliance upon these letters has led to an undesired side effect:

We tolerate bad behavior (of many sorts) in order to obtain (for ourselves or our advisees) a valuable reference letter.

How do we mitigate this undesired effect? At present, our community's valuation of letters leads to a nearly all-powerful position for the letter writer. Thus, it seems that we must balance our system of values, and evaluation, to rely upon more information and metrics than the words of a handful of people.

There is no singular solution. Perhaps letters should not be confidential (as is the case with many state schools, but not private schools). Perhaps more emphasis should be placed on arms-length evaluations. Perhaps more weight should be given to other aspects of the candidate's portfolio.

Perhaps candidates should be given the opportunity to respond to letters in certain situations. One may worry about many he-said/she-said situations; however, the current system places all the trust in the letter writer. This power imbalance was key to enabling the bad behavior in the Marcy case.

The depth of the damage done in this case should motivate us to shift our community values toward a system that can mitigate the actions of such individuals. There have been many such people in the past; what can we do to limit the possibility of such people in the future?

SWE said…
As part of a mentoring event for promising local high-school students, I spent a day in the company of a man who took the opportunity to sit me down and explain the realities of my chosen field. There are unscrupulous men who prey on young women, he said. Trust your instincts, stay away from any of them who are creepy, and make a huge stink if anyone tries anything so that everyone knows who they are and other talented young women can be safe. At the time, I was a 17-year-old who wondered how this could possibly be career advice.

That was nearly a quarter of a century ago, in the field of music. And it was spot on. I was vigilant and I was lucky and I was horrified that others just as vigilant were not as lucky. Your assessment of harassment/assault as a con is spot on. Any walk of life in which performance relies on good luck to make years of hard work is tailor made for people who imagine their attentions are a magnanimous gift. That covers a lot of ground.

When I spend time with my daughter's 6th grade class, I am struck by how universally their pre-adolescent brains seem to tell them "I'm having fun so the other person is having fun too!" This is a developmental phase, I understand, but it sure is painful to watch. Middle school is every bit as fraught as I remember, and now I get to see why. Getting the kids to get to work and keep their hands to themselves is a small part of the picture. The real work of every day is teaching perspective-taking skills. This helps with empathy when impulse control is spotty at best. It's a process, and one that I suspect many talented/popular/lucky/brilliant people miss out on based on their behavior in their professional lives.
Nicole F said…
As a former grad student at Caltech, I must say: Thank you for helping your colleagues and women scientists.

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