Full transcript of RN program on Bullying in CASS
For those interested in a thoroughly insightful read, we have posted the full transcript of the Radio National program presented by Hagar Cohen on sexual harassment and bullying within the ranks of CSIRO’s Astronomy and Space Science (CASS) division. Unsurprisingly, the CSIRO executives interviewed for the program demonstrated a completed lack of empathy for the victims of sexual harassment and bullying, instead preferring to hide behind the secrecy afforded by CSIRO corporate policy and the ever more pathetic screeches of “I am only doing my job” or “it’s not my job”.
As the old adage goes “Those who walk past poor behaviour condone it” and in this, and many other cases, CSIRO is tacitly condoning such behaviour by failing to address it. Nothing at all has changed as a result of the Pearce “Investigation”, except maybe that the perpetrators are becoming more emboldened by the fact that a failed $4.5 million investigation has effectively failed to hold them accountable for their behaviour.
There is an endemic and, dare we address the elephant in the room by stating, systemic problem with a bullying culture within the CSIRO and it is an affront to all those who have suffered for CSIRO to continue to deny it is occurring!
Hagar Cohen: She was one of the best and brightest in Australian astronomy.
Ilana Feain: This is me. So I did a PhD in astronomy at Sydney Uni, then I was a Bolton post doc at CSIRO. From my Bolton post doc I was the ASKAP project scientist for many years and I guess I know almost everyone in the audience.
Hagar Cohen: Dr Ilana Feain was a CSIRO astronomer. Young, incredibly intelligent, working on a blue-sky project to help us understand one of the closest galaxies to planet Earth, Centaurus A, 12 million light years away.
Ilana Feain: I was thinking about what is the skillset that I have. So I thought, okay, let’s start, radio galaxy evolution, that was my thing.
Ilana Feain: That’s Dr Ilana Feain, speaking at a career conference in December 2014. She was regarded by her colleagues as a fearless go-getter. Then suddenly she quit her tenured job at CSIRO and left astronomy.
Ilana Feain: You know, I’m an astrophysicist, I had a…okay, I hammed it up a bit, but I basically said, you know, I had this stable, permanent job, which I did have, I spent years trying to get permanent, and then I resigned after a year. But I said I had this stable, permanent job in astronomy, it was really great, it was really cushy, and I gave it all up.
Hagar Cohen: Just why she gave it all up has never been publicly revealed, but in the world of astronomy it’s an open and very dirty secret.
Bryan Gaensler: I’m still very angry about what happened to Ilana.
Ilana Feain: That’s astronomer Professor Bryan Gaensler, who worked closely with Ilana Feain.
Bryan Gaensler: Because Ilana had the attitude that she wasn’t going to fall into all the same traps that other women were going to fall into with regard to hitting glass ceilings, or having to choose between family and career, or having powerful men derail her.
Hagar Cohen: In fact Ilana left CSIRO because she couldn’t tolerate a system that favoured powerful men, and protected abhorrent behaviour.
Since leaving, she went back to university, and now she runs a successful company focused on curing cancer.
Ilana Feain: If you’re diagnosed with cancer today, your chances of survival have never been better, but cancer has now surpassed heart disease as the leading cause of non-communicable mortality…
Hagar Cohen: Background Briefing is telling her story for the very first time.
In 2012 Dr Ilana Feain filed a lengthy formal complaint about professional misconduct in the workplace. She accused a senior colleague of unprofessional and inappropriate personal attention, over some years, which distressed her.
The internal investigation dragged on for months, the accused was counselled, and an ‘adverse finding’ placed on his file. The findings remained confidential and Dr Feain was not allowed to talk about it.
Not long after, she resigned from her tenured CSIRO position. The senior colleague remained in his senior position. This was demoralising to some of her closest colleagues. They were left wondering if he faced any repercussions. Professor Naomi McClure-Griffiths:
Naomi McClure-Griffiths: The secrecy that is put around this, it only ever helps the perpetrators. And if things are not right, we all have a responsibility to speak up and say they need to be fixed, and yet we can’t.
Hagar Cohen: What were the consequences in Dr Ilana Feain’s case?
Dave Williams: I’m not prepared or not allowed to talk about those issues.
Hagar Cohen: The person in charge of CSIRO’s astronomy department is Dr Dave Williams. He refused to be drawn into a discussion about the consequences.
Dave Williams: Because they’re confidential staff issues, and that’s the way it remains, and that’s the way all organisations work in these areas.
Hagar Cohen: But I suppose the lecturers who spoke to me, that was their main concern, that those issues are not talked about openly.
Dave Williams: Well, I think there you’ve got to go with the fact that I don’t know any organisation that publicises that sort of information.
Hagar Cohen: Because it looks like there have been no consequences at all, that’s why.
Dave Williams: There have always been actions implemented where the external investigator has deemed that the case has been misconduct or worse.
Hagar Cohen: Not only did Ilana Feain feel betrayed by her workplace, she felt she could no longer stay in astronomy.
Bryan Gaensler: It’s a very selfish thought, but I’m angry at the astronomy discoveries that will now never be made because Ilana won’t be the one to make them.
Hagar Cohen: Professor Bryan Gaensler is one of a number of top scientists who have now come forward to tell her story.
Bryan Gaensler: Her attitude was always, like, I’m tougher than any of you, and I will always win. And she has got that incredible fire in her belly, that when she’s got her eye on something, you’d better get out of the way. To see this just break her, to see this destroy everything she had worked so hard for was just devastating.
Hagar Cohen: This sentiment is shared by the scientist that holds one of radio astronomy’s most senior jobs
Phil Diamond: When somebody of immense talent and potential like that does leave the field, it’s a crying shame.
Hagar Cohen: Professor Phil Diamond is the director general of the Square Kilometre Array organisation in England, which is an international effort to build the world’s largest radio telescope. At the time of Ilana Feain’s investigation he headed the astronomy department at the CSIRO, and he was responsible for implementing the recommendations.
Would you agree that she had left astronomy because of the way that the investigation was handled?
Phil Diamond: I do not know her personal reasons for doing so, no.
Hagar Cohen: Some of Professor Diamond’s former colleagues hold him responsible for the aftermath.
Hagar Cohen: Would you take any responsibility for the fact that she had left astronomy?
Phil Diamond: I’m really not commenting further, Hagar, on that particular case.
Hagar Cohen: But if incidents like these are not being talked about and, as people suggested to me, are hushed up, what’s the disincentive, what would prevent anyone from behaving inappropriately?
Phil Diamond: I repeat what I said, every recommendation was implemented exactly as it was communicated to me.
Hagar Cohen: While all of this was going on with Ilana Feain, CSIRO was going through a major independent investigation into its workplace culture. It would bring much unwelcome public attention onto our leading science organisation.
By the time it wrapped up, in 2014, its then CEO Dr Megan Clark was able to reassure a senate estimates committee, CSIRO was cleaning up its act.
Megan Clark: And certainly, I have asked my staff not to walk past it. So in terms of CSIRO being the best it can be, I can assure you that there are much broader outcomes from this report and we have been and are fully committed to both the safety and health of our staff.
Hagar Cohen: This inquiry was led by barrister Dennis Pearce. But not everyone was reassured. In Senate estimates, questions were asked about other allegations.
Senator David Bushby: Is it true that during 2012 a formal investigation was launched into allegations of the bullying of a female staff member by a senior officer in the Food Futures flagship? Is it also true that that investigation unearthed another 10 cases of suspected bullying of female staff by the same CSIRO employee but that nothing was done about that either at the time or since because it was not considered to be within the scope of the original investigation?
Mike Whelan: Senator, I would have to take that question on notice. I’ve got…
Hagar Cohen: It’s unclear just how much of what was going on at the astronomy department, made its way to investigator Dennis Pearce.
Background Briefing can reveal that since 2008 there have been 16 investigations into professional misconduct within the tightknit department of astronomy alone. One of them involved allegations of a sexual assault. In one, police were involved.
Are you concerned though that one of those allegations were so serious that it had to go to police?
Dave Williams: For me every case that comes in on misconduct, or allegation comes in on misconduct is serious.
Hagar Cohen: Executive director for Digital, National Facilities and Collections at the CSIRO, Dr Dave Williams.
Dave Williams: And I personally would feel very sad at certain things happening, but that’s not my job, my job is to act as a person who looks at each case and determines how we carry it forward, and appoint external advisors as necessary with our HR support.
Hagar Cohen: Background Briefing understands that the alleged sexual assault claim was first reported to the CSIRO in 2009. The victim escalated it to an official complaint in January this year. A finding is expected soon.
Back when the complaint was first made, Professor Bryan Gaensler, then at the University of Sydney, got a call from the head of astrophysics at CSIRO about one of his PhD students.
Bryan Gaensler: I got a phone call from a senior astronomer at CSIRO confirming that I had a female student being supervised by a particular astronomer, and encouraging me to terminate that relationship, because of concern about these allegations and that it wasn’t appropriate for him to be supervising female students.
Hagar Cohen: Professor Gaensler talked with his PhD students about how the placement was going. He couldn’t talk to her about the allegations. The student didn’t say anything to raise an alarm bell, but he felt he had no choice but to withdraw her from the project.
Bryan Gaensler: Again out of a duty of care, and not wanting to risk anything, I came up with an excuse why it was time to adjust her project or to rearrange her supervisory arrangements, and I terminated that supervision.
Hagar Cohen: And so what excuse did you give her?
Bryan Gaensler: I told her that her project was moving in a different direction now, that we wanted to try different things, and she happily accepted that. She enjoyed going out to CSIRO and working with him but she also was keen to move on to the next stages in her project.
Hagar Cohen: The truth was though that you were seriously concerned for her safety?
Bryan Gaensler: I’m a very risk averse person, and given that I’d been told by this person’s line manager that he should not be supervising female students, so I really had no choice but to remove even that very small risk and to act on the instructions that I had been given.
Hagar Cohen: The alleged perpetrator, does he still work at CSIRO?
Bryan Gaensler: Yes, he does, in a broadly similar role where he pursues research and publishes papers and works with students.
Naomi McClure-Griffiths: Australia has been and continues to be and will continue to be for a long time a really big powerhouse for radio astronomy.
Hagar Cohen: It was in 2001 that US born Naomi McClure-Griffiths decided to relocate to Australia, lured by the stars.
Naomi McClure-Griffiths: We have the southern skies that look straight into the centre of the Milky Way. It’s traditionally been a strong place to doing radio astronomy, because there are not many people who live here. It’s very radio quiet.
Hagar Cohen: She landed a post doc position at CSIRO, and then a tenured job.
Naomi McClure-Griffiths: For almost all astronomy post docs, the holy grail is to get a tenured position. It actually came very easily for me, it came at a good time where I had a lot of really productive work.
Hagar Cohen: But after a number of years she received information that alarmed her.
Naomi McClure-Griffiths: I became aware of cases of sexual harassment. I was an innocent bystander, but it’s hard to watch colleagues be unhappy.
Hagar Cohen: From then on things weren’t quite the same.
Naomi McClure-Griffiths: People were more defensive about what they were doing. It felt like there were more secrets and discussions behind closed doors.
Hagar Cohen: As a senior staff member, she didn’t know if her workplace was safe.
Naomi McClure-Griffiths: I also started watching a lot more, because I was aware of these cases and I felt like part of my responsibility and something that I could do was to watch.
Hagar Cohen: One of her closest colleagues confided in her. It was Dr Ilana Feain.
Naomi McClure-Griffiths: She came to me for advice. I think actually she came to me more, though, to ask me to watch out for other people. I think that was a major part of what…she wanted to make certain that other people wouldn’t be victimised, so she hoped that in the position that I was in as a permanent staff member, I could keep a watchful eye out.
Hagar Cohen: Following standard HR procedures, everything about Dr Feain’s case was strictly confidential. It was an arrangement that made Naomi McClure-Griffiths uncomfortable.
Naomi McClure-Griffiths: I couldn’t talk about these things directly. So I couldn’t ask direct questions, and it did make me feel very uncomfortable to be listening and powerless and watching and feeling like I was having to be going around the back of my colleagues in order to try to understand how their interactions were going with other people. It was not a pleasant place to be.
Hagar Cohen: Because some of those students were working directly with alleged perpetrators of sexual harassment.
Naomi McClure-Griffiths: Yes, students and staff alike. That’s one of the horrible things about sexual harassment cases is that they get closed down into complete silence, and so potential future victims can walk completely unknowingly into a situation that could be dangerous for them.
Hagar Cohen: Naomi McClure-Griffiths wasn’t the only staff member who felt concerned. It was affecting a lot of colleagues in the astronomy department. Their director at the time, Phil Diamond, saw this and contacted a respected colleague, Bryan Gaensler, for advice.
Bryan Gaensler: He was worried about the effect that this situation was having on the morale of the broader community, particularly those of us who were regular visitors or that shared students, and wanted to know ways in which we could all be reassured that it had been dealt with and that this was a safe working environment.
Hagar Cohen: Gaensler told Diamond he should send a clear message to staff that inappropriate behaviour would not be tolerated. He suggested that the response should be along the same lines as a memo sent to CSIRO staff back in 2007 when a similar case was rocking the department.
Bryan Gaensler: I was a long term visitor to the CSIRO and so I was on the various email lists, and I was surprised to receive an email from the director Brian Boyle saying very forthrightly that there had been a very serious case of sexual harassment within the organisation, that the person who had committed that sexual harassment was no longer with the organisation, and that this activity was abhorrent and illegal and unacceptable.
Hagar Cohen: Gaensler suggested Diamond do the same thing.
Bryan Gaensler: I recalled that email that had been sent by the previous director, and he understood why this was a useful thing, but he indicated that current HR rules or bargaining agreement prevented him from even acknowledging, widely acknowledging that an incident had occurred and sharing that with the broader community.
Phil Diamond: Definitely a conversation happened with Professor Gaensler. I don’t recognise that bit at the end, but I honestly, and this is the absolute truth, I don’t remember the details of the conversation.
Hagar Cohen: Professor Phil Diamond says that he takes full responsibility for the way things were handled.
Phil Diamond: I did what I thought was appropriate, taking full advice both within the organisation and from this external expert. Nothing else really I felt that I could or should do.
Hagar Cohen: Were you prevented from talking about the consequences?
Phil Diamond: No, no.
Hagar Cohen: So it was your decision?
Phil Diamond: It was my decision as advised by human resources.
Hagar Cohen: And you have no regrets?
Phil Diamond: The biggest regret I have is that Dr Feain left astronomy, but that was her personal decision. I really do wish that had not happened.
Hagar Cohen: He says he’s disappointed some of his colleagues can’t just trust that he would do the right thing.
Phil Diamond: On a personal level for me I do feel that I try and engender a degree, a strong degree of trust and loyalty to my staff and I would hope that is returned. So people should look at me as a person and my moral code and understand that I would not let such things go without consequences. Just because they do not know what those consequences are, I’m slightly disappointed that they don’t or they didn’t trust me enough to understand that consequences were implemented.
Hagar Cohen: Do you feel that’s good enough though, would you have accepted such explanation if you were in their place?
Phil Diamond: Look, it really is hard to know. As I’ve said, I did what I felt was right at the time.
Hagar Cohen: Professor Phil Diamond, now director of the UK’s Square Kilometre Array organisation, which is an ambitious worldwide effort to build the largest radio telescope.
The events around Dr Feain didn’t put a stop to the workplace problems at CSIRO. Since she left in 2014, Background Briefing understands there have been at least four more investigations of inappropriate behaviour involving nine past and present staff members from the astronomy department. CSIRO’s Dr Dave Williams:
Dave Williams: Well, you’ve got that information at your fingertips, I don’t have that information at my fingertips…
Hagar Cohen: But they suggest that this kind of behaviour festers, do they not?
Dave Williams: I think it suggests that people are willing to raise issues, and when they do we go through the process. I don’t think it’s a matter of festering.
Hagar Cohen: Despite Dr Williams’ reassurance, the astronomy department wasn’t a happy place.
Shari Breen: I guess I’m in a fairly unique position to talk about the complaints process at CSIRO, having been through it. It’s a little bit different for me, and it’s a bit harder to point the finger at the complaints process when you’re the one that’s being complained about. And that was the case with me.
Hagar Cohen: When Dr Shari Breen first came to CSIRO it was a dream come true.
Shari Breen: To me when I got to CSIRO, it was like a magical wonderland.
Hagar Cohen: And was it a good get to do your post doc at CSIRO?
Shari Breen: Absolutely, that was the best job. It was really the greatest job that I could have hoped for.
Hagar Cohen: In 2015 she was named a UNESCO for Women in Science Fellow for her work on understanding how big stars are formed. She gave this interview at the time.
Shari Breen: This is the Parkes 64-metre radio telescope. It’s quite unique in its structure, you can see there is a tower below where the actual dish part is sitting. So when you observe from here, you sit in that tower, you can feel the dish move, you can hear it move. It’s just a really wonderful telescope.
Hagar Cohen: Shari’s excitement about her work slowly diminished when she became aware that that there was something deeply dysfunctional in her department at the CSIRO.
Shari Breen: A lot of people tell me a lot of things, which I think is great, and I would never turn anybody away from telling me stuff, but sometimes you get to a point where you just break a little bit.
Hagar Cohen: Shari knew of a number of ongoing workplace complaints including alleged bullying and alleged sexual assault. She was distressed by a particular complaint involving two colleagues.
Shari Breen: Yeah, I tended to know what was going on and how the situation was progressing, and I didn’t react as well as I should have. That was the time that I just, you know, boiled over a little bit.
Hagar Cohen: Dr Shari Breen boiled over at the pub one night. She was with some colleagues, and she admits she used strong language to describe the accused.
Shari Breen: I talked a little bit about why I was upset, and probably could have chosen my words a little bit better. I was very concerned and I felt her pain. Like, I was upset for her, with her.
Hagar Cohen: Some of Shari’s colleagues took offense at things she said that night. Shari says she was misunderstood. The colleagues filed an official complaint against her for a breach of the workplace code of conduct.
Shari Breen: I was completely stunned.
Hagar Cohen: So when was the first that you knew that there was a complaint about you?
Shari Breen: I got an email from HR. and then I was told over the phone about the complaint. So I had a lot of meetings with HR people and other senior members in the Department. In those meetings, one of the things that really hurt me was that I didn’t think a lot of the things being said were founded or true. So there was a complaint, fine. But then rolled up with that I kept being told that I had ongoing behavioural issues.
Hagar Cohen: Did you have ongoing behavioural issues?
Shari Breen: No. At CSIRO you have a review process every year. I’d done six of those. No issues were ever raised with me, and so it’s unfair for someone to then go ahead and say that there were issues, and in fact the end my line manager said that’s not true.
Hagar Cohen: She says there was no effort to bring those who filed the complaint into a room with her to talk things through. Mediation was not an option.
Shari Breen: No, none whatsoever. So I continually was worried about how those relationships would then progress. People that I still have to work with. I really wanted to clear the air. I was told that that would not be a good idea.
Hagar Cohen: Why not?
Shari Breen: Mainly because I was told that they wouldn’t speak to me.
Hagar Cohen: It took seven months for the whole process to finish, and when Shari Breen came out the other end, she was deeply bruised.
Shari Breen: The process itself was terrible. I was not doing my work, I was completely unproductive, I wasn’t sleeping. I had to see a doctor to get medication in order to sleep. I was having anxiety attacks. It wasn’t pleasant.
Hagar Cohen: Dr Shari Breen’s contract ended at the CSIRO, and she is now employed at the University of Sydney.
Shari’s senior colleague Professor Naomi McClure-Griffiths was also worn down by what was happening at work. She was watching her female colleagues’ backs. She was suspicious. She was unhappy.
Naomi McClure-Griffiths: My final year or so at CSIRO was not happy. I had been carrying the weight of other people’s problems for a long time, I felt that the workplace had become antagonistic at times for me personally.
Hagar Cohen: What does it mean, that the workplace had become antagonistic towards you?
Naomi McClure-Griffiths: I felt that the goals and the places that I wanted to get to were being hampered, that I was not receiving support in the way that I wanted to to be able to achieve what I considered to be my potential.
Hagar Cohen: She was offered a professorial post at the ANU in Mount Stromlo, and so she took it, and quit her tenured job at the CSIRO. The price of staying there was just too high.
Naomi McClure-Griffiths: It did have an effect on my mental health. I’m an ambitious person, and I’m always looking at be moving up and doing more and more challenges and have more excitement, and that wasn’t possible for me at CSIRO at the time. So that made me feel very down on myself. It made me feel like I wasn’t successful. I think I was sick a lot more, physically sick a lot more in my last year at CSIRO than I ever have been in my life. But I don’t think I have completely recovered my sense of self-worth.
Hagar Cohen: Now at the ANU, Professor McClure-Griffiths hesitates before sending her students to some parts of the CSIRO.
Naomi McClure-Griffiths: So it becomes a very complex conversation where you work with co-supervisors and discuss and try to see if there are just ways to subtly avoid that supervisor relationship coming about without ever having to say that somebody is a risky person.
Hagar Cohen: Professor McClure-Griffiths says there’s nothing to stop those people who antagonised her and her other colleagues from repeating the bad behaviour.
Naomi McClure-Griffiths: It bothers me because of the fact that they could go on and re-offend without us being able to protect those potential future victims. These could be one-off instances that would never happen again. But on the other hand I would hate to be the person who sent a student to go work with somebody and have them turn out to become a victim of harassment, and know that I could have prevented it
Hagar Cohen: Could that situation potentially arise right now?
Naomi McClure-Griffiths: I think that situation could arise right now.
Hagar Cohen: So do you believe that the department of astronomy is a safe workplace at the moment?
Dave Williams: I believe on balance, at CSIRO, all of CSIRO is a safe place to work.
Hagar Cohen: CSIRO’s Dr Dave Williams.
But would you go so far as saying that the department of astronomy particularly is a safe workplace?
Dave Williams: I’d say overall the whole of CSIRO is a very safe place to work.
Hagar Cohen: But you wouldn’t go so far as saying that the department of astronomy is?
Dave Williams: Well, astronomy is not an unsafe place. And there are incidents. And those incidents have a mechanism to resolve. And therefore I would say that it is on balance a safe place. There is no undue problem with the astronomy department.
Hagar Cohen: Oblivious to the problems inside the astronomy department, US based Dr Megan Johnson came across a post doc position at the CSIRO. She decided to go for it.
Megan Johnson: And there was a job posting for neutral hydrogen studies of galaxies which is the exact work that I had been involved in since my graduate degree. And it was a very exciting opportunity to come to Sydney Australia and work at the ATNF at CSIRO, and get to use the Parkes telescope, the compact array, and also get involved with the new next-generation telescope that the Australians are building in Western Australia called ASKAP. The job description itself, I could not have written it better if I had tried, it seemed like it was the perfect job for me.
Hagar Cohen: She got the job. So she packed up her young family and in August 2013 landed in Sydney to what she thought would be her dream job. But it wasn’t. She says that one of her colleagues was bullying her. It all started one morning when she was late after being up all night, observing the stars.
Megan Johnson: And when I went into work I had missed our morning tea, which up until that point had just been what I had thought was an informal gathering of the astronomy department staff to meet and discuss science for an hour over coffee and biscuits. And she really did not like that and yelled at me, and I had not been yelled at like that ever.
Hagar Cohen: How did you respond to the yelling?
Megan Johnson: I was completely shocked. In fact I couldn’t even speak. I just sort of stood there and I just smiled and I agreed and I apologised, and I didn’t quite really know what to say and I didn’t really know how to react because I had never been yelled at like that.
Hagar Cohen: From then on, things went downhill.
Megan Johnson: That was the first awakening I guess. We moved past that, and things progressed and got steadily worse. And there was a time when she was over my shoulder yelling at me, in front of my office mates. And even after she had left the office, my office mate next to me was in shock as well. So it wasn’t just my perception, it was the perception of everyone else in the room.
Hagar Cohen: And why were you being yelled at?
Megan Johnson: For my writing on this paper.
Hagar Cohen: So it was not the nurturing environment that you had expected when you accepted the job?
Megan Johnson: Right. No, it was not nurturing for me in any way. There was always a feeling of walking on eggshells. I felt that every day. Some days were better than others. I couldn’t figure out what it was that I did that provoked those behaviours.
Hagar Cohen: Dr Megan Johnson decided to make an official complaint, alleging bullying. After an attempt at mediation she was asked to sign an agreement that set out how the two should interact in the future.
Megan Johnson: I was hoping that there would be some sense of, oh my goodness…some sense of self awareness, but it didn’t seem to happen. The outcomes of it were something that were all up to me to change, and it was either, you know, I comply to these particular things or we’re not going to get along.
Hagar Cohen: Dr Megan Johnson couldn’t see the point of the resolution that was being offered to her.
Megan Johnson: There was nobody there to see that anything would change, that there was never going to be any consequences, there was never going to be anybody to see that these things didn’t happen to somebody else.
Hagar Cohen: And the real sticking point was the confidentiality provisions, which she felt amounted to a gag.
Megan Johnson: It came across from the human resource person that this was sort of to protect me. And I felt that the things that were happening to me should be openly talked about rather than kept quiet, and that perhaps the reason for the confidentiality was not to protect me but to protect her. That’s how I felt.
Hagar Cohen: And so Megan Johnson refused to sign the proposed agreement.
Megan Johnson: And I went to the WD director and I explained that this was a very stressful situation and that I didn’t think that the mediation really worked.
Hagar Cohen: Were there any consequences to the person who was causing you all that stress?
Megan Johnson: Not that I’m aware of, no.
Hagar Cohen: Were you told there were consequences but you’re just not allowed to know what they were?
Megan Johnson: No. I was told that this was nobody’s fault and that they were changing my line management simply because they wanted to reduce the amount of stress on me.
Hagar Cohen: Dr Megan Johnson was moved to another area, and she finished her contract at the CSIRO in August. She’s now in Washington DC and has a permanent job as an astronomer.
The problems in astronomy are not just confined to Australia. It’s a worldwide problem. It prompted one Harvard astronomer to write a blog post called The Serial Harasser’s Playbook.
Professor John Johnson outlined the 13 steps that the harasser will usually take when they approach their victim. They include things like: Big smiles in the hallway, arm around waist or back to guide the woman somewhere, back and shoulder massage, and discussing the professor or the victim’s sex life.
The head of the Dunlap Institute at the University of Toronto, Professor Bryan Gaensler:
Bryan Gaensler: This was written by someone who I think is one of the real standout champions of equity and of safety and diversity in the field, and he did it to show the things that he had seen first-hand. And it’s not a joke.
Hagar Cohen: This blog post became popular after three high profile astronomers in the US and the UK were exposed as serial sexual harassers. The stories came to light after whistle-blowers revealed that universities had been covering up the situation for years. When he first heard about it, Professor Ganesler said he was shocked.
Bryan Gaensler: That was an incredible shock. I’d heard rumours about these people, and I knew that they were people that I needed to keep an eye out on around young students, but when you actually hear names, and see the details, and hear about the things they did, it’s really confronting that someone who’s a very distinguished profound brilliant scientist would actually do these things.
Hagar Cohen: Professor Gaensler decided to stop his students working with two of the professors in question.
Bryan Gaensler: I felt that I had no choice but to remove them from the project in both cases. So I wasn’t punishing anybody, I wasn’t taking the law into my own hands, but knowing that the activities that we were going to be pursuing was going to involve people at the very beginning of their research career, who are enthusiastic and excited and for whom there is a whole range of possibilities, I cannot take the chance of them having a negative experience that could really sour their whole career.
Hagar Cohen: Professor Bryan Gaensler thinks there’s much more to be revealed. In fact he’s got a black list.
Bryan Gaensler: Unfortunately I think there’s a lot more to come. There’s many of us who have these informal lists of people to watch out for, either because of rumours or because of things we know first-hand. There’s a long list of people who’ve had investigations against them, or findings against them, or people that you simply do not want your students to be around.
Hagar Cohen: How many people are on your black list?
Bryan Gaensler: I personally know of about 20 senior tenured male astronomers who’ve had some accusations against them. Whether the accusations are substantiated or not, I can’t say, because I haven’t participated in the investigations, but I know of about 20 people.
Hagar Cohen: And of those 20, how many of them are in Australia?
Bryan Gaensler: There’s about two or three in Australia that I know of, people that I would not be wanting my students, particularly my female students, to work with.
Hagar Cohen: Background Briefing‘s coordinating producer is Linda McGinness, the series producer is Tim Roxburgh, technical production this week by Leila Shunnar, our executive producer is Wendy Carlisle, and I’m Hagar Cohen.
Keep an eye out for our follow-up investigation this Tuesday into secrecy surrounding harassment complaints against a scientist at Deakin University. Check out the RN website and make sure to tune in to Life Matters on Tuesday morning.
- Hagar Cohen
- Tim Roxburgh
- Supervising Producer
- Linda McGinness
- Sound Engineer
- Leila Shunnar
- Executive Producer
- Wendy Carlisle