Fears of flying monkeys limits accountability 

So, for those of you who like to keep track of my brave/stupid activities to advance the cause of Women in STEM, please listen to the ABC Radio National ‘Background Briefing’ Programme, by Walkley winning journalist, Hagar Cohen, about sexual harassment at CSIRO and University cover ups and gag orders, I was an unwilling party to, in my previous job.

The subject of this piece, however, is to discuss the inner workings of such an investigative piece, which somewhat compounds the insults already suffered by the victims. 

Contrary to popular belief, I don’t go looking for opportunities to take the moral high ground in specific cases (apart from my own) or launch bridge burning attacks on former employers. I was referred to Hagar by one of her ABC colleagues, as a person who had been brave/stupid enough to stick my head above the parapet on Gender issues in science in the past, including my own experiences of sexual harassment as a student

I gave Hagar a flat ‘no way’ to her initial approach…..but after a sleepless night examining the structural integrity of my moral fibre, I came to the ephinany of ‘If not me, who? And if not now, when?’ Several of my colleagues from the  ‘Twitterati’ had been similarly approached, as I found out in DM’ed conversations, full of hand wringing angst due to the taboo induced silence, facilitated by the risky shame of being seen to ‘bite the hand that feeds’ careers in academic research science. A taboo which I no longer suffer under, since having ‘flown the coop’ of the Ivory Tower some months ago (although previous convoluted steps taken by ‘the powers that be’ to gag my efforts to advocate for women in STEM issues provide a great cocktail hour story).

It was at her collegue’s suggestion that Hagar delved deeper into the story of Dr Ilana Feain and I had been previously made aware of a paragraph (subsequently redacted due to fears of litigation) on her experiences of sexual harassment at CSIRO in an ANZ Women in STEM piece by one of her Astronomy colleagues. 

But as the Internet is forever, see redacted copy here:

What her peers didn’t know was that while Ilana had been having sort of career young astronomers dream about, in the latter years she’d also been dealing with almost constant sexual harassment.
“There was a lot of grooming and then a lot of harassment and a lot of inappropriate conduct that was not managed properly which left me feeling extremely isolated,” she says. “I lost my confidence. I lost my self-esteem. That was part of what propelled me to look somewhere else to find a new, fresh and inspiring challenge to work with.”

Hagar is a talented saleswoman of any given narrative and I begrudgingly admired her tenacity and laser tight sighting  of the Achilles heel of her quarry. She sold me on the idea of corporate and personal accountability that her combined exposé may bring. The story was to be of a CSIRO Astronomy harasser (and the system that protected him) and also based on my evidence of the existence of a HR gagging order I was forced to adhere to, subsequent to a exit ‘deal’ being struck with a local bully in my old department. She had me pegged from the outset as a sucker for natural justice, a ‘failing’ of mine since I was a small child. 

The level of detail sought of the exact harassment allegations was something I strongly believe only a victim has the right to speak of, so I could only provide evidence for the internal University processes I had been involved in. Although I did consult with the main victim, to check she had no objections to me ‘Whistle blowing’ and using artefacts from her case. She was happy to let me help shine a light on the broken parts of the system, as like many victims brave enough to launch formal proceedings, she felt non plussed by the experience and the outcome. Understandably, she declined the offer to revisit the narrative of her own experiences, as she’d moved on and was very happy in her new role, away from the bench. 

I conducted the interview, careful not to make claims I couldn’t back up with the ‘black and white’ evidence I had provided, in case of legal challenges and had my photo taken in grim faced ‘Wonder Woman’ pose to provide a visual to accompany the story. I then popped by the Victor Chang Public Lecture series to speak as a patient Advocate against dodgy Stem Cells treatments before getting on a plane to speak at the EU Gender Summit in Brussels and see my friend Hilary, win the UK WISE Campaign ‘Hero of the Year’ award in London (these activities pass as ‘holidays’ in my world).

Meanwhile, Hagar, her producer Tim Roxburgh and team, were beavering away on the harassment story. As the publication deadline drew close, my interactions with them also increased as the ABC lawyers were nervous of defamation suits, if the perpetrators could be identified. Hagar was pushing hard to actually name both perpetrators but in the absence of victims willing to provide eye witness accounts (and also be prepared to testify in court, in any potential defamation cases) the ABC lawyers were not prepared to take the risk. I stated I was willing to testify in court about my claims (as it was evidence based truth) and even sounded out the NTEU (of who I am still a member, due to my loose affiliation with various parts of the university system) to see if they would take on any prospective case where I was prosecuted as a whistle blower on this topic. 

Ultimately, the fear of the ‘Flying Monkeys’ of potential law suits, meant the most of the finer details of both cases, including the names of the perpetrators, where stripped out in post production. Sadly, the victims who had been initially warned that the perpetrators would be named and perhaps themselves had (more) sleepless nights bracing for the impact of such a move, were again let down by ‘the system’ which again protected the guilty and of this opportunity for natural justice to see their harassers finally bought to personal account.  

As for me? I more interested in the statements made by the institutions involved as the PR damage limitation 101 pronouncements offered in reply did not even come close to holding themselves to account for systemic failures that allowed (and still allows) for these perpetrators to continue to ruin the careers of people they interact with in science. 

And if fear of litigation is the only currency to be spent in these systems….perhaps the ‘customers’ of academia, the students, need to start some organised sabre rattling of their own, like these US Students fighting back against the unwitting exposure to such perpetrators. 


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