How Women Are Harassed Out of Science

The discrimination young researchers endure makes America’s need for STEM workers even greater.

When Joan was an undergraduate, in the 1970s, she asked her boyfriend why one of his roommates was finishing up a Ph.D. while another, in the same department, still had several years left.

“Barbara’s rigid,” her boyfriend said. His other roommate, Karen, had slept with her advisor, but Barbara refused to sleep with hers. Chuckling with approval, the boyfriend recounted how Karen had asked to use his waterbed, and left a pair of sexy underwear scrunched in his sheets.

Today, this kind of quid pro quo may be less common, but sexual harassment at universities persists. The spate of lawsuits, investigations, and recent resignations at the University of California, Berkeley, University of Chicago, and UCLA, accompanied by older cases leaked to the press and an increase in women going public about their experiences, have made that clear. Graduate students and postdocs are particularly vulnerable, because their futures depend so completely on good recommendations from professors. And STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) students are more dependent than others. Their career progress hinges on invitations to work on professors’ grants or—if students have their own projects—access to big data sets or expensive lab equipment controlled by overwhelmingly male senior faculty.
A 2015 report that one of us co-authored found that one in three women science professors surveyed reported sexual harassment. There’s been a lot of talk about how to keep women in the STEM pipeline, but it fails to make a crucial connection: One reason the pipeline leaks is that women are harassed out of science. And sexual harassment is just the beginning.

* * *

We recently spoke with a group of senior scientists who confirmed the prevalence of sexual harassment. Kim Barrett, the graduate dean at the University of California, San Diego, said she did not know of a single senior woman in gastroenterology, her subfield, who had not been sexually harassed. Margaret Leinen, of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, described a conversation she once overheard between one male and five female scientists at a meeting where harassment was being discussed. “I don’t see what the fuss is about,” said the man. “I’ve never met anyone who has been sexually harassed.” The women just looked at each other. “Well, now you’ve met five,” they said.

Another established scientist—who, like several women we interviewed, spoke on the condition of anonymity, fearing professional repercussions for speaking out—expressed specific concern about sexual harassment in the summer training courses that feed into prestigious academic jobs. She recalled the lead professor of one such course taking photos of a student, zooming in on her breasts, and making jokes about her. In another course, a different lead professor hand-fed ice cream to a graduate student. “It can be devastating,” she said. “[It happens] at the moment when a woman feels she is finally getting to be a real scientist and one of the gang.”
Other scientists worried about harassment at annual conferences. Leinen, who was president of the AGU (American Geophysical Union) last year, said that shortly before their annual conference a young woman scientist—emboldened by a resolution widely seen as censure of Berkeley astronomer Geoffrey Marcy—came forward with a report. A colleague had sexually harassed her during graduate school, and continued to do so at AGU’s annual meeting. The AGU sprang into action by holding a town-hall session at the conference, and is now discussing concrete steps to address sexual harassment at its next meeting, according to Leinen.

“Are you sure? … women in your condition have pregnancy brain and can often misinterpret situations.”
The American Association of Physical Anthropology was similarly rocked by a sexual assault allegation at its annual conference last year. The women we spoke with in that association agreed that conferences, fieldwork, and business travel are the worst. One recalled a male colleague who once said the only reason to go to conferences is to have an affair. A 2014 study of anthropologists and other field scientists found that 64 percent of 666 respondents had experienced some sort of sexual harassment while doing fieldwork.

Then, there’s pregnancy harassment. One former doctoral student recalled having her job at a large research center cut due to “lack of funding” when she told her advisor she was expecting, only to see the position offered the next week to one of her friends. “I confided in my department chair that I believed I had been fired and discriminated against due to my pregnancy,” the student wrote. “She replied (and I can quote from memory verbatim because I was so horrified) ‘Are you sure? Because women in your condition have pregnancy brain and can often misinterpret situations.’ I realized I was screwed. No job, no support, and no health insurance for my upcoming delivery.”

Joan C. Williams
Described as having “something approaching rock star status” in her field by The New York Times Magazine, Joan C. Williams has played a central role in reshaping the conversation about work, gender, and class over the past quarter century. Williams is a Distinguished Professor of Law, Hastings Foundation Chair, and Founding Director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law. Read More >>

Leave a Comment