If you’re wondering what’s keeping women out of STEM, don’t discount sexual harassment

by | March 10, 2016 | Working for Justice Blog

Recently a vibrant debate about increasing the number of women in STEM fields has been taking place in academia, the private sector, and even the federal government. One of the biggest problems is ensuring that young women interested in the sciences stay in STEM fields throughout college and the rest of their careers. Currently, women are entering college STEM programs at a rate equal to or greater than men, but are leaving these fields at greater rates once they reach graduate school and academic professional roles. Most of the discussion has focused on creating a welcoming environment and providing plenty of opportunities for mentorship. However recent articles and studies have suggested that the lack of mentorship is only one factor contributing to the loss of female talent within the STEM community. Rampant sexual harassment also plays a significant role.

Dr. Kate Clancy, a professor at the University of Illinois, and a team of female scientists from other institutions published a study based on a survey of 666 field scientists from 32 disciplines and found approximately two-thirds of the scientists had “experienced some form of sexual harassment, including inappropriate sexual remarks, comments about appearance, or sexist jokes.” One fifth reported being the victim of sexual assault. Furthermore, 71% of women surveyed reported being harassed compared to 41% of men. The majority of female victims were harassed by their direct supervisors. Ninety-six percent of female victims were trainees or employees at the time of the harassment/assault. Five of the victims were still in high school.

Furthermore, the type of harassment women receive regularly might not necessarily the type of harassment most people envision. Dr. A. Hope Jahren, a geochemist and geobiologist at the University of Hawaii, recently wrote an article for the New York Times detailing an ongoing discussion she has been having with a former student regarding a particularly uncomfortable and inappropriate situation the former student is facing. Her former student received an email from a senior colleague in which he detailed his romantic feelings for her at length. He ended the email by saying, “That’s just the way things are and you’re gonna have to deal with me until one of us leave[s].” This is not a one-time incident either. Dr. Jahren notes that since she started writing about women in science, “[My] colleagues have been moved to share their stories with me; my inbox is an inadvertent clearinghouse for unsolicited love notes.” Additionally, the student first told Dr. Jahren about this incident “a month ago.” Dr. Jahren published this article on March 4, 2016, and according to her, the student is “still receiving late-night emails, notes and presents left on her desk, and her co-worker is still insisting that they should meet ‘outside of the hectic hours of work.’” According to Dr. Jahren, in her experience, though she always hopes that it will stop, “it never, never stops.”

Though the STEM community has plenty of problems with the more overt and recognizable types of sexual harassment, it is important to recognize how widespread and damaging this more insidious brand of harassment truly is. An important step in combatting this type of harassment is actually educating people about the fact that it is harassment, and that it causes very real damage. As explained by Stassa Edwards of Jezebel Magazine, “it’s the kind [of sexual harassment] that prioritizes men’s feelings, and their expression of them, over the simple act of treating a woman as a professional colleague.”  Citing Dr. Jahren, Edwards explains that the “persistence of this kind of behavior—the constant demand from both male colleagues and academic advisors that their feelings be acknowledged and legitimized—is one of the reasons women leave STEM fields.” In fact, the former student upon whom Dr. Jahren based her article told Dr. Jahren that she was also considering quitting the field.

The advice that Dr. Jahren gives her students is equally sobering. Dr. Jahren advises her female students to draw strict professional boundaries and to enforce them “because nobody else will.” They must document everything “because someday he will paint this as a two-way emotional exchange.” She then urges them to “stick it out” with science, presumably in part because they love the material, but also in part because she “cannot promise that other fields aren’t worse.” Dr. Jahren states that this type of behavior has been experienced by every single woman she knows. Notably, she did not qualify that last statement by saying every single scientist.

One of the few positives that can be drawn from the study of this troubling phenomenon is that increased attention to gender diversity in STEM fields has brought increased attention to STEM’s culture of persistent sexual harassment. It also appears that this is empowering more women to speak up and confront the problem head-on. When news broke of former Berkeley professor Geoffrey Marcy’s ongoing history of sexual assault and harassment, the famed astronomer received a vote of no confidence from an “overwhelming majority” of Berkeley’s astronomy department. He was ultimately forced to resign. A petition collected thousands of signatures in support of his victims.

There is value in speaking out, and there are resources out there that can help.  Some of those resources can be inside your organization or profession – particularly where there are women’s professional associations that are active in your area.  However, other times, it can be necessary to go outside for help.  It never hurts to at least have a private consultation with a lawyer.  Many firms don’t charge for that sort of advice, and may not charge an upfront fee for representing someone in a matter like that at all.  Whatever the circumstance, simply suffering in silence isn’t likely to work, particularly if Dr. Jahren is right that, more often than not, it never stops on its own.