An Astronomical Primer on Workplace Environment, Discrimination, and Your Rights

This post is intended as a primer on harassment for those entering the academic workplace. It was prompted by recent events surrounding sexual harassment cases in astronomy, but I have tried to make it more broadly applicable to workplace environment issues faced by underrepresented groups– however, I am writing as a white, able cis woman and acknowledge up front that I may not have the direct experiences necessary to capture everyone’s concerns, so I welcome alternative viewpoints from members of marginalized communities, as well as commentary and contributions to improve the post if you see places to do so.

Welcome to astronomy! I can’t begin to tell you how excited I am that you have decided to explore the workings of our universe. Regardless of your eventual career goals, studying astronomy (and the sciences, in general) prepares you to think both analytically and creatively about the world around you. Knowledge of the physics that lies underneath everyday phenomena provides you access to a deeper appreciation of the physical world, and links us to places and events across the cosmos.

If you are reading this post, it may be because you are a member of a group that is traditionally unrepresented in the sciences– maybe you are differently abled, you differ in gender identity, in ethnic background, or just in some way don’t resemble the other science students you see around you. That’s awesome! You are part of a vanguard that will enhance our ability to solve outstanding scientific mysteries, because diverse groups solve problems more efficiently than monocultures. In other words, we need you— you make science better!

Unfortunately, because science is a human pursuit, and human society is plagued by both structural and individual discrimination and inequality, it may be that you will encounter discriminatory behavior during your career. Discriminatory behavior can take a variety of forms, from subtle to overt. In pop culture, you often see various forms of harassment depicted in very obvious ways (someone being grabbed inappropriately, someone using a racial slur)— but there are a variety of other behaviors that may contribute to a hostile working environment. This post is arranged into four sections, designed to help you:

  1. know your rights
  2. recognize discriminatory behaviors
  3. validate the way you experience those behaviors, and
  4. understand your options for making the situation better.  

I hope you will never need this information, but if you find that you do, I hope you will draw strength from it.

  1. Your Rights Are Protected

There are a few major pieces of legislation you need to know about: Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title IX of the US Education Amendments of 1972, the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, the IDEA Fairness Restoration Act, and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. It’s beyond the scope of this post to go into detail on each one, but respectively, these laws protect everyone from discrimination on the basis of race or national origin (Title VI), gender (Title IX), or physical or mental disability (ADA/IDEA/504).

The existence of these various documents means one thing: you have a right to live, be educated, and work free from discrimination. Your personal comfort is not a luxury, it’s the law. Experiences of discrimination are nefarious— they can undermine one’s confidence, they can make you feel unwelcome. Know first and foremost that your experiences are not a reflection of your self-worth, they are illegal actions being taken against you, and you have a right to be free of them.


  1. Learn to Recognize Discriminatory Behavior: Bad Apples, Bad Barrels

By Dave Bonta from Tyrone, Pennsylvania, U.S.A. (conjoined apple 3) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By Dave Bonta from Tyrone, Pennsylvania, U.S.A., via Wikimedia Commons

In narrative arts, whether it’s written fiction, film, whatever— there is usually a villain. That villain is not typically a sympathetic character; storytelling often hinges on the battle between good and evil. This depiction of how bad comes to be in the world is misleading— in truth, the world is not full of singularly-evil bad apples. History is littered with complicated human beings, many of whom caused great harm to others while simultaneously being appreciated by others as a friend or family member. However, the fact that they were not singularly evil does not excuse their actions— nor, for that matter, do the circumstances under which they committed harmful acts, or their intent. Harm is harm.

In your career, you may encounter people who harass you directly and overtly— but just as likely, you will encounter more subtle forms of discrimination that lead to what is known as a “hostile work environment”. Now, I always thought that a “hostile” environment was an obviously threatening place, one where I would be consciously aware of said hostility. I mean, that’s what it sounds like, right? In fact, a hostile work environment happens any time the conditions of your workplace interfere with your ability to do your job. Here’s an example: let’s say someone says something racially charged to you at morning coffee in your department. You are rightfully upset, and you find you are distracted from your ability to do your research for the remainder of the day. The next morning, perhaps you are reluctant to go to morning coffee, where you might have to interact with that person again— thus depriving you of both research time and the opportunity to discuss science with your peers. That person has contributed to a hostile work environment.

We don't really need to see the original again, do we? Here's Elly Zupko's hilarious photoshop remix covering the shirt with women scientists instead.

We don’t really need to see the original again, do we? Here’s Elly Zupko’s hilarious photoshop remix covering the shirt with women scientists instead.

Note that this can also apply to groups: if discriminatory discussions frequently take place, it doesn’t matter whether one person or several are responsible— it’s a hostile work environment. It can even apply to the field as a whole, rather than an individual institution: the #ShirtGate uproar a while back is a good example of how discrimination can casually seep into workplace culture (and mar a perfectly good comet landing). 

Here, I would like to take a moment to highlight a piece written by John Johnson that specifically addresses serial sexual harassment— unlike single remarks, inappropriate discussion, or other acts of discrimination, there also exist more calculated forms of harassment that exploit the hierarchical structure inherent in academia (in other words, older scientists in positions of power or influence abusing that position to take advantage of younger scientists). This post, entitled The Serial Harasser’s Playbook, is an extremely useful, practical guide to recognizing problem behaviors by sexual harassers. While it is based specifically on behaviors by Geoff Marcy, the UC Berkeley astronomer who was recently found in violation of Title IX, my own anecdata says that many of these behaviors are common practice amongst harassers. 


  1. Your Experiences Are Valid

Yoda_comeatmebroKnow yourself, young Padawan. You are the best judge of your own experiences, and you must learn to trust the feelings that go with them. As scientists, we tend to discount phenomena when we can’t readily identify a direct cause— so if someone does something that rings that little alarm bell in your head, you may be tempted to analyze their behavior and pass judgement on whether you had verifiable cause for that bell or not. Instead of interrogating it, practice listening to and respecting that bell.

Listening to your intuition is very important, for a variety of reasons. For one thing, the early stages of harassment may be a kind of “testing the waters”, where your potential harasser is trying to figure out where your boundaries are. Their behavior may or may not be directly inappropriate, so you might not have something solid to point to to justify your feelings. Your intuition may not be legally actionable, but it is your first warning system.

In the case of racial discrimination, it’s handy to become familiar with the concept of microaggressions— small acts of discrimination that subtly add up to create hostility (this fact sheet on recognizing microaggressions is particularly handy). Again, you may not be able to point to a single one of these as an overt, actionable racist act (although make no mistake, that’s exactly what they are), they are inappropriate all the same.

There are two notable caveats to the above:

  • If you did not experience a warning bell, it is not your fault. You are entitled to not have to think about whether someone is behaving inappropriately, because it is your legally-protected right to not experience that behavior.
  • Your response or reaction to a discriminatory incident is not a factor in the seriousness of the incident—if the perpetrator’s behavior is inappropriate, you did not contribute to it. It’s on them, not you.

Bearing the burden of discriminatory behavior is tiring, distracting, and takes your energy away from your studies. On top of this, those who choose to report or discuss their experiences bear the added frustration of people questioning whether they truly experienced discrimination (see for example these two excellent blog posts, also from John Johnson’s blog):

Race and Racism: Why won’t you believe me?

On Sexual Harassment and Our Culture of Denial

And for a lighter take, here’s a personal favorite (NSFW language warning),(because if you have to ask… it probably is): Yo Is This Racist 

Remember: it’s not you, it’s them.


  1. Talk To Someone

Image via betanews

The decision whether to formally (or even informally) report harassment or other discriminatory behavior is a highly personal one, and no one can make that decision for you but you. However, if you are experiencing any of these behaviors, you do have options. Your zeroeth-order step should be to talk with someone you trust— know that you are not alone, and do not have to bear this burden alone.

You can talk with a fellow student, a family member or friend, or a trusted superior– however, before you speak with someone at your institution, be sure to look up your institution’s reporting policies! Some institutions require that fellow employees report any violating behavior they learn of, so you may not be guaranteed of confidentiality. Maybe that is a concern for you, maybe it isn’t– but you should make sure it’s an informed decision.

Besides the moral support of talking to a friend, you can also take steps to address your concerns and end the behaviors in question. If you feel comfortable speaking with a faculty member within your department, or the department chair, you may of course do so, and work with them to develop a course of action (note again the above comment about looking up your institution’s reporting policies to be sure you are comfortable with them). However, discussing with members of your department might not be the best solution for you— for example, you might be concerned about the confidentiality of that discussion for one reason or another, and you want to make sure your comments stay private. In that case, look up the Ombudsman of your school— the Office of the Ombudsman is tasked with helping you address your workplace concerns, and your exchange with them is confidential.

Furthermore, while I am not a lawyer and can’t provide legal advice, I can also give you an outline of your more formal options:

In the case of sexual harassment, all universities are required to have an established procedure for handling Title IX violations. You may also file a formal complaint with the Department of Education (here’s an overview of how to do so).

Incredibly, as noted in this piece by Chanda Hsu Prescod-Weinstein, universities are not currently required to have an established procedure for dealing with Title VI violations. In theory, there is supposed to be an American with Disabilities Act coordinator at every school, but in practice this may not be the case. Having said that, if you have experienced discrimination as a result of race, disability, or age in an educational setting, you can also file a complaint with The Office for Civil Rights in the Department of Education.


Thanks to the analytical brain of Renée Hlozek for being my second pair of eyes, and to disability studies vegan superhero Nicole Sims for help with disabilities legislation!


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