Unit 9: “He Fell in Love With His Grad Student, Then Fired Her For It” Reading Response

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Seems like we can't go more than a couple of days without a new sexual harassment scandal appearing in the news. In this essay, Azeen Ghorayshi asks whether science is a place where women can thrive, after multiple lawsuits, investigations, and resignations associated with sexual harassment surfacing at high-profile institutions.

In many ways, of course, the climate has become more welcoming to young women who want to study science and math. And yet, as recently as 2013 researchers at Yale published a study proving that physicists, chemists and biologists are likely to view a young male scientist more favorably than a woman with the same qualifications. Presented with identical summaries of the accomplishments of two imaginary applicants, professors at six major research institutions were significantly more willing to offer the man a job. If they did hire the woman, they set her salary, on average, nearly $4,000 lower than the man’s.

What's going on here? Is science just another male-dominated field, or is the experience of female scientists unique? How should universities and organizations address this problem, and how can women advocate for each other?

Write your response in a comment to this page.




31 thoughts on “Unit 9: “He Fell in Love With His Grad Student, Then Fired Her For It” Reading Response

  1. Olive Hager

    Women taking interest in the scientific field is fairly recent. This field likely already has a culture established, one that clearly needs to change. Universities and organizations should have regular sexual harassment courses and ways for students or employees to leave anonymous tips in case there are incidents. Women can help other women by listening and offering emotional support to one another.

    1. Christina Beaver

      I like how you put that, ” …already likely has a culture established”. That was what I was thinking, but couldn’t figure out how to word it precisely. I agree though there does need to be a regular sexual harassment course for people to take in a way where they feel okay to do so.

    2. Jessica Hernandez

      I agree with you completely that it is culturally established that men rule the field. Also, women are becoming more intrested into this field since we were given more opportunities to show a difference with our gender.

    3. Lane Ito

      I agree that the scientific field should be more open for women, and there should also be courses in case of sexual harassment. Additionally, emotional support is also a good idea in order for women who are interested in the scientific field.

  2. Christina Beaver

    It all comes down to stereotypes. Within the past decade women have been making great strides in fighting for equality, but with the evidence to back it up, it’s hard to push through. It’s like how jobs want experienced workers, but how can you get the experience if no one will hire you? For a female scientist, it’s a hard field to get into without being harassed. I think it is mainly seen as a man-dominated field, making it hard for women to make it.

    I think universities and organizations should have a safe place where women or even men in certain incidences can go to talk and get help as well as maybe a short course every year or to what sexual harassment is and how they can stand up and defend there selfs.

    1. Miranda Jackovich

      I thought you had a good example about how women (and men) are fighting for equality. I also agree that having evidence to back anything up is important. It’s great that society is more accepting of those who come forward about being sexually harassed but it’s important to have valid evidence before we chastised an individual for a crime. Do you think universities and organizations should handle these situations like this privately first before releasing the information to the public? Or do you think the publics opinions and comments will help for an appropriate consequence? These situations are very hard to navigate because you could be doing the right thing or ruining and individuals life and reputation. Great ideas!

    2. Jerry Carroll

      I think that a safe place, or even a phone number to call at anytime, would be a great idea for any campus or organization.

  3. Miranda Jackovich

    Many females have shied away from the field of science due to their experiences of being put second place to males. Unwritten exceptions within the education system has led some males to act inappropriately towards females without appropriate repercussions. The high school dress code in many schools is a valid example of how females are held responsible for some males lack of self restraint. This can lead to an unhealthy relationship between sexes later in life whether its an academic setting or the workplace. Attention was brought to Christian Ott, a professor at Caltech for firing a graduate student because he was unable to control his feelings for her. “Almost immediately after these conversations began, Gossan said, she felt emotionally distraught by them, often working on her supernova research at home rather than at the office, and switching her chat setting to “invisible.” (Ghorayshi 237) Ott was placed on nine months of unpaid leave while the two females had to find a new professor to practice under. Cases like this were mishandled, but moving forward when evidence is present it is important for women and peers to press universities and organizations to follow through with proper consequences. Options and resources should be available for students and employees to privately report any sort of concern towards an individual that isn’t performing their job properly.

    1. Olive Hager

      This story made it sound like the University was siding with the professor who harassed his students!

  4. Jerry Carroll

    I think that most people are too scared to talk about sexual harassment, which is why most places aren’t very big on the sexual harassment courses. I do feel that men are more sought after in the science field, and it’s wrong that they have lower salaries for women. The women can do just as much work, or even more, than men can.

  5. Travis Winterton

    I feel like that the main crux of this issue mainly stems from the personal biases of the individuals who are already working or hold a high-position of influence in the field, rather than any systemic one. Mostly in today’s society, there isn’t really anything that is holding back or preventing women to let themselves into the fields and pursue interests. I think the root of this problem mainly comes from the attitudes of those who work in the field already and how they personally see and feel about women working in these fields

    In the case of Christian Ott, it was obvious that he had an extremely hard time working with his female protégées due to him seeing them in a extremely romantic way rather than as simply students. But from the reading i can’t help but feel that his feelings were more than just romantic. It was revealed during an investigation that Ott had created “a stack of 86 poems “ that “Ott had posted about her on his tumblr page.” Not only that but from what was presented in the article, I get the impression that Ott may have some behavior issues (but this is pure speculation). First, during his exchanges with Gossan he talks to her about his feeling and issues he says the following “Do you think I am a shady person because I let myself be emotionally involved with my student… I think i may actually be prone to this sort of thing.” (237) and later goes on to say that “It’s not good if a person in power is out of their fucking mind.” We also know that out of all of the students Ott has had over the years, only 2 of them completed their degrees and the rest leaving the group for “a variety of reasons.” It’s these excerpts like these that leave me the impression that Christian Ott may have some pent up sexual frustration and or personal problems that he needs to deal with (Again, this is purely conjecture).

    The reason that I bring this all up is that its people like Ott that often create or give the impression of an unsafe or non-welcoming environments that often lead to females not wanting to be in these fields or feel welcome into these communities. While I can’t offer an one and done solution, I think the best course of action Thant not only women helping other women, but for any one to do is to simply be vigilant and learn when and how to spot these issues and situations and learn how to properly deal with them efficiently and effectively, weather it be simply reporting it to proper athrourites or simply acting as support for the victim. Especially in a case like with Christian Ott and the 2 female students as there was a potential for the situation to escalate quickly. This doesn’t only include sexual harassment like in the case of this article but with any other sort of harassment and discrimination that is shown, as I feel that issue like this have the potential to happen to anyone. As for what universities can do, I’m not sure there is much that they can do without heavy policing which could come off as authoritarian, but I’m open to see what other solutions that others in the class can think of.

    1. Conall Birkholz

      Great Response! I also think that barriers to women in fields like science are mostly due to the views of the men who have already been in the field for a long time. While it’s hard to teach or change an old person to think a different way then how they were raised, I think the best course of action like you said is to punish and call-out unacceptable behavior like in the case of Christian Ott. Making an example of individuals who act inappropriately can in the short term discourage other officials from thinking their immune from punishment and acting however they wish.

    2. Olive Hager

      That professor clearly had some obsessive tendencies! It’s so unfortunate when someone so troubled makes their way into a position of power. It can really shed a bad light on the whole community. However, the community can always show what it really stands for by educating themselves and taking the correct action when incidents like these happen.

    3. Briana Shaffer

      This was a very well put responsive. My assumption on reading on Ott was that he had a few screws loose. I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t have a few heads in the freezer. Who writes 86 poems about someone? I am having trouble understanding why the University decided to keep him around with his track record, and then I start speculating that there is something deeper going on.

      1. Travis Winterton

        I was honestly shocked too. Agian we can’t say too much about his mental health or well being with the Infomation that was giving but I beivle that Christian Ott is obviously not suited to be working in a professional environment (or atleast in his current state of mind). I believed at most the university should had required Ott to receive some sort of counseling or anger management class before he was allowed back onto campus.

  6. Conall Birkholz

    In research today, while it is much more diverse than what it was 100 years ago, stereotypes and unconscious biases still exist within it. Throughout history scientific research has primarily been a male dominated field, but after the civil rights movement where a lot more women began doing the same jobs as men and becoming college graduates and having careers, the research community now has a fair share of both genders participating in science. While looking at the studies that showed that men were hired and preferred over equally qualified women applicants, it’s just a reminder that not just in the science field, but in all workplaces, there are gender biases present.

    I think this issue is generational, as every previous generation retires and a new generation takes control, it progressively gets better. The way to continually create change is too educate the younger generations on equality and gender bias, so when they become the experts in the field, these issues will no longer exist. Education through universities, workshops, classes, courses, or certifications, are good ways to make sure people are aware of subconscious biases that they may act one when they don’t mean too. In the article one of the quotes stated that, “the culture needs to change if we want women in this country to reach their full potential as scientists.” Which I fully agree with. While progress is slow, there is still progress. The more that people are aware of gender biases and workplace harassment, the more change that can happen resulting in there being recognizable change.

    1. Amber Wofford

      I completely agree that the issue was created in a certain generation. You make great examples.

    2. Briana Shaffer

      My social worker for the VA told me something the other day that blew my mind. We were discussing sexual harassment and assault in the military and sharing stories of when we each served. I served recently and she first served over twenty years ago. She told me times have changed so much not only in the military and in the workplace. She told me when she first joined the military, It was expected that if you were a woman you were going to be eventually raped. Now, she told me that the VA takes workplace harassment seriously. If she were to even accuse someone she works with of inappropriate behavior, true or not, the accused would immediately have a permanent mark on their record and removed from the work place. While there are still some cases of false accusation of rape or harassment, we cannot let those voices speak for the men and women who get violated in their schools and jobs. I feel like all workplaces, schools, and institutions should have a strict policy of removal and a record like the VA does.

  7. Amber Wofford

    Being a woman myself, it’s enraging to hear stories like this. I would like to think that when being compared to a male with the same achievements and being judged as not as valuable is mind boggling. Growing up it never occurred to me that gender bias still happened or even racism and they are still alive today. It still doesn’t make it any easier when it happens to you. I believe there is a difference between men and woman and the way we think and even though some may think would be a weakness, a different perspective is not a weakness. Woman can advocate for each other by sharing experiences and having safe environment to express themselves. It’s important for woman and men to feel safe where they spend all their time.

  8. Rebekah Ulrich

    This was quite infuriating to read but unfortunately it is not surprising or uncommon since more reports every year are coming up like this, where male superiors are harassing or belittling their female subordinates. For centuries now, women were and still today are being placed second to the male. The scientific research field has predominately always been a male dominated area, even though most women researchers have accomplished the same amount of studies or even more are easily being overshadowed. The publics eye instinctively turns to the male researcher and their praise. Universities and organizations can address the problem by not overshadowing the women researchers accomplishments and giving crepitation where it is due. More women over the years have don’t an outstanding job advocating for each other, standing up and recognizing each others accomplishments and not letting the male dominated population overshadow the talents that are being recognized.

  9. Lane Ito

    Before I read He Fell in Love with His Grad Student-Then Fired Her for It, I was immediately displeased by the title and knew the story would have terrible events. However, I was unaware of how many cases of sexual harassment have occurred before the article was published in 2016. This detail made me dread the story I was going to read.

    As stated in the title, an investigation at the California Institute of Technology reveals an astrophysics teacher named Christian Ott fell in love with a female graduate student and expelled her due to his feelings. Additionally, confirmation of Ott confessing his actions to another female graduate student was found within twenty-one months of intimate chats from BuzzFeed News. When I read these instances, my only response to the scenario was, “Gee whiz, that is just wrong!”

    “The university investigation, which concluded in September, found that Ott violated the school’s harassment policies with both women. Ott, a 38-year-old rising star who had been granted tenure the year before was placed on nine months of unpaid leave. During that time, he is barred from campus, his communication with most of his postdoctoral fellows will be monitored, and with the exception of a single graduate student, he is not allowed to have contact with any other students. Before returning he must undergo what a school official calls “rehabilitative” training (pg. 234).”

    “The sanctions were imposed quietly, but after an inequity from BuzzFeed News about Ott’s case, the university’s president and provost emailed a statement to the entire university on January 4 (pg. 234).”

    When I read the sentence stating Ott broke rules against sexual harassment, I was sickened. I have taken online courses in high school regarding sexual harassment, and the content was full of unsettling stories. What makes this case worse, is the fact Ott has tenure position, and has done similar acts to students prior to Kleiser just because he holds a rising star position. So I find it understandable for him be barred from campus, and reprimanded with an unpaid administrative leave for nine months.

    “Over coffees at a Peet’s just off campus, Kleiser recalled, Ott broke the news that he no longer wanted to work with her, meaning she would have to find another advisor to finish her graduate studies. The change totally upended he research plans, but she said she didn’t really understand why he was firing her. He mentioned an email that she had not responded to a few weeks earlier, she recalled, and said he “couldn’t emotionally deal with” her anymore. She had no idea that he had any romantic feelings for her. She just thought she had failed at her job (pg. 237).”

    “Five days later, around 1 a.m., Ott messaged her online. “Of all my students I cared most about you and I failed in the worst way,” Ott typed. “My problem is that I don’t want to be in a power position, but I factually am. (pg. 237)”

    “Around the same time Ott began chatting online with another of his female graduate students, 23-year-old Sarah Gossan, to confide in her about the situation with Kleiser. One evening Ott asked Gossan to switch from chat to Skype. “I can’t even write this stuff down,” he typed (pg. 237).”

    These paragraphs show the case in the article were a separate acts of sexual harassment. The two graduate students involved in the incident, Io Kleiser (the student Ott fell for) and Sarah Gossan (who Ott confessed his feelings to), were completely taken advantage of, and neither of them were aware of Ott’s reasons aside from his position as a instructor. Ott personally told Gossan how he would email, chat, or Skype Kleiser at 1 a.m., often drunk but she did not respond, as she was concerned about her classwork at the time and did not know of his affections. Ott’s emails also stated he did not want to be in a power position and just wanted romance.

    “Science students go to college to study astronomy, chemistry, or physics, not their professors’ sex lives.” Speier told BuzzFeed News by email. “Sexual harassment in science is pervasive,” she said, and “the culture needs to change if we want women in this country to reach their full potential as scientists.” (pg. 236)

    This paragraph made me feel both depressed and slightly upset because I still find it hard to believe how genders are still not treated equally, even though they are making progress. I found it additionally upsetting to hear about how in the past, speaking up to people with power resulted in expulsion. Being treated in this fashion was especially hard on the graduate students, as they paid good money to attend those courses, and would lose some of their credits after being expelled. Finally, to find out sexual harassment in science is spreading like a disease was equally upsetting, meaning there would be less female graduate students in the science fields.

    Overall, I am utterly displeased by the way some people with power abuse it just because they want to. It reminds me a lot of how nations around the world do not see their own people as their equals, as well as lack of gender rights. Given the events from the article, and past historical events, how will society change abuse of power and prejudice against other people?

  10. Jesse Coulman

    I think its a cultural thing, for hundreds of years the scientific community has been male dominated and its only recently that this is starting to change. In recent years this has been changing and more and more woman have begun working in the scientific field. As time goes on this will continue to change until male and female are equally integrated into the field. In order to address this problem universities and organizations should continue to educate about this recurring problem and continue to support women who push for more jobs and equal pay. Increased importance also needs to be placed on sexual harassment training to educate those in the workplace on what is acceptable behavior.

    1. Logan Borger

      I agree that this is a cultural and that the treatment of women will get better as change ensues. You raised some good points to address the problem such as education.

  11. Jessica Hernandez

    I personally think that it is on perception, I understand that we see lawsuits and sexual harassment cases, which is serious, but we notice this because people like to see science as a male dominate field. I definitely see that women has a different and unique experience. Universities can strive to bring more women into the field to be sure that people do not only see it as a male dominated field. See as women are becoming for independent in there careers, we all can push for more change and safety in the field.

  12. Briana Shaffer

    Strong women intimidate weak men. In all my experiences in a male dominated field and what I’ve been told by friends who are women working in the trades, weak men do not like it when a woman out preforms them. Culturally, it is my belief that women are drug down from birth. Being told they are less, being told they are to serve the home, being told their opinion or views do not matter. Only within the past couple of years, we seen female empowerment rise and strong men join by supporting their friends, sisters and daughters. Culturally there are still of hurdles for women, and biologically there are still of hurdles for women; but times are changing. During my time in the military, I spent three years as the only female in the platoon and one of five in my company. During my time, I was challenged to keep up with the men physically. Once operations picked up and our military occupation specialty job skills were put to the test I out performed even senior non-commissioned officers. No, I could not power lift 300 lbs or do 100 push ups in a row, but I could out distance run any of the meat heads in my platoon and that was a problem for them. My skills within my job led to recognition from generals, exclusive temporary duty assignments to Hawaii, Seattle and other places to work for a month or so. Then the rumors started. A few of the men I intimidated in my platoon started spreading lies on how I was getting to lead projects or getting duty assignments by saying I was sleeping with officers. When they were intimidated by me they chose to tear me down the only way they knew how, by attacking me as a woman. One of my friends works on the pipeline and stays at pump stations for months at a time. Her fellow apprentices and coworkers are predominately male. She scores higher on exams and outperforms her male peers as well. It did not take long for the rumors to start for her as well.

    Good men still exist, and are going to outnumber the weak men. Until then, it is up to women to empower and look out for each other. It doesn’t matter if you are a Scientist, Soldier, Surveyor, or housekeeper, we need to empower each other and encourage those who are weak or suffering from some mental trouble like Ott was. How they allowed him to stay with his track record was probably a similar situation on how my leadership tried to sweep a sexual harassment complaint under the rug. A men’s club of individuals looking out for each other, hiding each other’s weakness.

    1. Seth Packer

      As a weak man, I am offended and intimidated. As a person that likes to nitpick at arguments, what are you defining as a weak man or strong woman, are we talking just physical strength or some other parameter? Nitpicks aside, I appreciate you sharing your story and while that kind of behavior is terrible I can’t say that I’m surprised and that says something about me and the society we live in, the day these accusations become a thing of the past is a day we can all look forward to. But, I fear that even if that day passes those at the top will always suffer from the jeers of those at the bottom. It is human nature to look for excuses for why one of us is better off than another when the answer so often( but not always) is that the people that are doing well try harder and have better problem solving skills (through practice) than those who are content to do the bare minimum.
      Side note* How an investigation into Ott’s track record wasn’t launched sooner is something I would love to hear an explanation for.

  13. Logan Borger

    What happened to these students is rather unfortunate. I’m not inclined to presumptuously generalize the “culture of science” over a Buzzfeed article that was published 6 years ago. There are going to be a handfuls of bad bosses that could potentially be nut-jobs, condescending, or/and aroused, and make extremely poor decisions based on their overall lack of character and judgement. There will always be these kinds of people. It is unfortunate that these people are seen as the face of “the field of science”. I know for a fact, that while there are a lot of garbage people, there are a lot of good people out there as well. As much as I believe everyone should have an equal opportunity, life doesn’t always hand out one. This said, I want to just say that I don’t want to brush off misconduct in the workplace. There should be little to no tolerance towards unprofessional behavior. Historically, stem fields have been predominantly male due to social norms of a nuclear family, but times are changing and the integration of woman into stem fields should be facilitated and supported by all of those who are able to.

  14. Xiaofei Zhang

    For centuries long, women had been subject to discrimination in a variety of social roles, including education. They have been traditionally under-represented in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) education due to prejudice and stereotyping. Despite the current access to STEM studies, science remains a male-dominant field. In this context, the case highlighted in the newspaper article is a vivid illustration of the continued discrimination of women that frequently leads to sexual harassment. The experience of two female graduate students at Caltech is not unique or extraordinary. Instead, their experience is another piece of evidence of the discriminatory treatment of women at education and employment. Indeed, the STEM education has long been closed for women, which meant that their intellectual capacities were inconsistent and inadequate to contribute to scientific discovery. Neither women were regarded as emotionally fit to cope with the workload associated with scientific research. Given the historical privilege, many male members of the scientific community continue treating females as aliens or guests in their area of authority.
    As the case described, men do not even consider it worth giving explanations or justifications of their actions. In their turn, women may not attribute firing or other penalties imposed on them to gender discrimination and sexual harassment. As a rule, they quietly perceive their destiny and follow the male supervisor’s instructions. From this stance, the problem requires a two-fold address. First, it is essential to raise the female public awareness of the issue and encourage them to report about any unexplained firing or punishment imposed by male managers or supervisors. There is a need for utilizing various online communications platforms to provide women with an opportunity to share their experience with others. It is likely to promote female unity and reinforce their advocacy for their civilian rights. Second, universities and organizations should toughen policies and monitoring mechanisms to detect gender discrimination. It means that any failed contract between a woman and a male supervisor should be subject to precise investigation.

  15. Lindsey F Paulsen

    Math and science are commonly dominated by men, and sadly I myself am an awful contradiction to this statement, me being horrible at math. Things have come a long way in the past hundred years, but the dominance of males in our society is still somewhat apparent. This shows in the work place mostly, as sexual harassment is monitored more, but still commonly occurring. The past has made eminent that men disprove of or feel threatened by powerful women with more capability and talent in the field. This, I believe, stems from the sexualization and objectification of women not only in the workplace, but in everyday life. Many men, including some I’ve met, see women as “a dime a dozen”, only viewing them as sexual servants or “baby-makers” (I’ve literally heard this come out of a man’s mouth). This oppression of women is awfully concerning, and I almost feel uncomfortable talking about it due to the fact that complaining can make us women seem even more weak. I have always had a pet peeve of being treated as less-than or as if I am stupid. This being said, I also have instinctive sexist views on myself that have been reinforced by today’s mind-set, which I am working on eliminating and softening.

  16. Seth Packer

    This was by far the strangest entry we have read in TBASNW, if you had told me before I picked this up that scientific writing could be a buzz-feed level of click-baity I would’ve called you a liar. But, I suppose that’s not the point. Oddly enough Ott seemed entirely self-aware of his situation, he knew that he was doing something wrong but either he couldn’t figure out what it was or he couldn’t figure out how to stop, or both. His emotional issues aside he strikes me as a man that has no idea how to be in his position and even laments the power that he has, yet is either unwilling or unable to give it up. For those who think this is a defense of Ott, I will remind you there is a difference between understanding one’s position and supporting it. To answer the prompt: what’s going on here is a man who doesn’t have the slightest clue how to deal with his own emotions has been put in a position of authority and to make matters worse he’s an eccentric narcissist that even attempts to pass the buck on to the university committee for the firing of Kleiser. Science is certainly a male dominated field, but without real reason, in time things will balance out but before that can happen those in the community need to learn to accept the coming change and frankly they need to learn that gender has nothing to do with ones ability or aptitude in the field of science. Women can advocate for each other by doing just that; there needs to be a unified stance among all of the scientific community that this kind of behavior will not be tolerated.

  17. Daniel Allred

    In many ways, of course, the climate has become more welcoming to young women who want to study science and math. And yet, stories like “He Fell in Love With His Grad Student, Then Fired Her For It” continue to come out. Science has traditionally been a male-dominated field. I’m sure stories like this do nothing to encourage young women to pursue their passions in this field.

    It is disgusting to know that women are still being treated like this. Person’s of power are supposed to sculpt those around them. “It’s not good if a person in power is out of their fucking mind,” (237) is never something that a professor should say to any student, especially one they’ve already told ” the reason he had fired her was because he was concerned she was using her sexual influence over him to not do any work.”

    This essay also shows a major flaw in the education system. To offer someone a permanent post even when they are taking advantage of their post is just wrong. He was a “rising star who had been granted tenure the year before” is not a reason to allow a person to belittle and abuse their students.

    From the very start of this essay, I knew that it would make my blood boil. Azeen Ghorayshi does a wonderful job of packing a lot of information into such a quick read. She also left me wondering just enough about the story to read the BuzzFeed on it. In the end, this was very well written about a very real and terrible subject. No women should have to endure something like this out of fear for their career.

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