The Frightening Extent of Sexual Harassment in STEM

In light of the #Metoo movement, the results are as hard-hitting as ever. (Photo: Pixabay)

Well it’s 2018 and although we’ve been fighting for equality of the sexes for decades, sexual harassment in the sciences remains highly prevalent and largely unchanged. A chunky 311 page report was published on Tuesday detailing the frightening extent of sexual harassment, bullying, and ostracisation of women within the scientific world.

In 2016, National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM), set out to collaborate with university researchers and policy experts with an aim to review existing research and supplement it with several new studies and public input. In light of the #Metoo movement, the results are as hard-hitting as ever.

In a recent survey of students attending The University of Texas system, it was found that 20% of female science students, and 40% of female engineering students had encountered harassment.

“I guess if you weren’t sure that sexual harassment is a problem, now you know. And if you weren’t sure that its existence was having negative consequences, now you know that, too,” says study co-author Beth Hillman, President of Mills College.

But why is sexual harassment so rife in the sciences?

The research suggests that the STEM environment has four main characteristics that create a high level risk for sexual harassment:

  1. Male-dominated environment, with men in positions of power and authority
  2. Organizational tolerance for sexually harassing behaviour (e.g., failing to take complaints seriously, failing to sanction perpetrators, or failing to protect complainants from retaliation).
  3. Hierarchical and dependent relationships between faculty and their trainees (e.g., students, postdoctoral fellows, residents).
  4. Isolating environments (e.g., labs, field sites, and hospitals) in which faculty and trainees spend considerable time

Proving Gender-Discrimination In Science

The paper described three variations of sexual harassment, stating that the most common form was “gender harassment”: objectification, exclusion, or hostility that conveys the impression that women do not belong in the workplace or do not merit respect.  Now you might think that this type of harassment is minor compared to the other two varieties, unwanted sexual attention and sexual coercion, but all three types can seriously affect the well-being of the targeted person.

One of the major takeaways from co-author Kate Clancy is, “We would like to see people stop focusing on the Harvey Weinstein–type of sexual harassment—unwanted sexual advances—as the main type of sexual harassment. What is far more common is gender harassment,” she adds. “Making people feel like they don’t belong…excluding people from projects, e-mails or talks or making people feel less competent because of their gender—that’s all part of the legal definition of sexual harassment,” she says.


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Let’s not forget that men also experience sexual harassment too, albeit at a lower rate than women. However, the effects remain the same and it’s important that we recognise that as we move towards true gender equality.

The report also outlined a list of 15 recommendations to combat the issue including:

  • Incentivising change to develop a diverse, inclusive, and respectful environments
  • Conveying the notion that reporting sexual harassment is an honourable and courageous action
  • Acting to reduce the power differential between students and faculty members
  • Prohibiting confidentiality in settlement agreements, so that harassers cannot switch jobs without their new employer knowing about past behaviour
  • Treating sexual harassment at least as seriously as research misconduct

As the most comprehensive study of its kind, it’s a great effort from NASEM. However, many scientists, including Alessondra Springmann, a planetary scientist at The University of Arizona, have been critical of how NASEM itself has approached harassment within its own ranks.

“The NASEM study is a good step forward, especially toward providing concrete actions for departments and institutions to take, because many of them can barely muster ‘cover your butt’ policies to reduce their liabilities,” Springmann, told Gizmodo.

“When will the NASEM begin removing known harassers from their membership? Doing so would send a strong signal to institutions around the country and world about ways to move forward, and how established harassers won’t be tolerated”.

Last May, neuroscientist BethAnn McLaughlin of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, launched a petition requesting that the National Academy of Sciences expel people who have been sanctioned for sexual harassment, retaliation, or assault. The petition now has over 3,500 signatures.

As a young woman in science myself, this is quite a distressing reality, but one that I believe we must approach with optimism and with a vision for change.

“I don’t feel hopeless,” Hillman says. “I feel there is actually meaningful action we can take from this. It’s not a single policy we can announce where everything will be fine, but it is entirely possible to change and the steps to get there are pretty clear.”