Breaking the Wall of Silence

By Nathalie A. Cabrol, Director of the Carl Sagan Center 

Last week’s announcement regarding famed astronomer Geoff Marcy’s admission of guilt in several cases of sexual harassment, is a painful reminder that we still have a lot of progress to make as a society, in preventing such events from ever taking place. I feel compelled to write down my thoughts, not only because I am a woman who cannot tolerate such behavior, but also because to me, sexual harassment is not only a man going after a woman. It’s about any human abusing the trust and responsibility associated with positions of power, and violating the rights and privacy of another. This is simply unacceptable. 

I am also sharing my sentiments because I am a leader of a wonderful group of men and women representing the full spectrum of diversity of ethnicity, religion and sexual orientation. We embrace our diversity and we respect each other, and these men and women must feel that they can always come to me at any moment, to express concerns or report problems.

Equally, when violations occur, we all have a responsibility:  The institution, company, organization or group that knowingly allows violations to continue, for fear of scandal, losing prestige and privileges, or for greed, is as guilty as the perpetrator.  The leadership of institutions and organizations have a responsibility to respond swiftly and decisively to instances of harassment of any kind, and there can be no room for cover-up and suppression. And there are also the witnesses who don’t come forward because they are afraid to do so.  How can one feel safe in coming forward when the leadership you rely on for protection is the leadership that betrays you? How does one come forward when one is afraid of retaliation? 

It takes a mountain of courage, the kind of courage women and men around the world are starting to find. The only way to beat sexual harassment is to break the wall of silence, one by one, and to join force. Harassment cannot continue.  It must be stopped, one voice at a time. 

It is too often the case that we keep silent after the fact, simply because we are too embarrassed that this could happen in a circle of highly educated professionals. We also comfortably hide behind words such as “we should not judge”. I am sorry, but now is the time to make a statement and hold ourselves and our peers accountable. Our silence is an accomplice of the process that leads to sexual harassment and other misconducts, and we all need to make a stand. It is about human dignity. It is about human decency.

In this particular case, there is more than the trauma and human distress that is being suffered. There is also the collateral damage. Young women were abused and betrayed. Some of them will leave the field they had chosen, hoping to fulfill a passion for research. Others are withdrawing their postdoctoral applications. It is an entire scientific discipline that has been let down, and for that, I cannot stay silent either. For all the young men and women around the world who look up to us for leadership with sparkle in their eyes, we need to stand strong and make them know that fulfilling their life’s passion will be a matter of them applying themselves, working hard, and making it on merit, in a safe, supportive and inspiring environment.