Two-Thirds of These Female Scientists Say They’ve Been Sexually Harassed

A new study reveals sexual harassment and abuse of women are alarmingly widespread in science, technology, engineering, and math.

Alex Williamson/Getty

In the comments section of her blog, in private missives sent to her inbox, and whispered to her at academic conferences, Dr. Kate Clancy had been hearing an alarming—and increasing—number of personal stories from women scientists detailing their experiences with sexism, harassment, and sexual assault.

So in January 2012, the science writer and professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois turned her online column at Scientific American to guest bloggers to tell their stories.

One of them, “Hazed,” wrote about doing fieldwork in a foreign country:

“My professor often joked that only pretty women were allowed to work for him, which led me to wonder if my intellect and skills had ever mattered. He asked very personal questions about my romantic life, often in the presence of the male students. His inappropriate behavior was a model for them, making it not only acceptable, but the norm. My body and my sexuality were openly discussed by my professor and the male students. Comments ensued about the large size of my breasts and there was speculation about my sexual history. There were jokes about selling me as a prostitute on the local market. Once I mentioned that I admired a senior female scientist and they began describing scenarios in which she and I would have sex. Pornographic photos appeared daily in my private workspace. What started out as seemingly harmless joking spiraled out of control. I felt marginalized and under attack, and my work performance suffered as a result.”

Other women in the field identified and said so in the comments section. Clancy knew the incidences weren’t isolated, so she and several colleagues at other institutions—Katie Hinde at Harvard, Robin Nelson at Skidmore College, and Julienne Rutherford of the University of Illinois at Chicago—got together and did what good scientists do: they investigated.

Their study, published today in the journal PLOS ONE, shows the remote sites far from their universities where scientists do their most important work may be at best difficult, and at worst dangerous places to work for women, who report experiences there ranging from hostility to unwanted sexual advances, and even sexual assaults, including rape.

The researchers surveyed 666 field scientists from 32 different disciplines (mostly anthropology and archaeology) and found roughly two-thirds have experienced some form of sexual harassment, including inappropriate sexual remarks, comments about appearance, or sexist jokes. One in five reported being the victim of sexual assault—defined as physical sexual harassment—and unwanted or nonconsensual sexual contact.

Incidences were much more common with women: 71 percent of women reported harassment and 26 percent reported assault on site, compared to men’s 41 percent and 6 percent respectively.

Clancy and her colleagues also reported that the majority of women victims were subordinates who oftentimes worked directly under their perpetrators, while harassment aimed at men usually came from peers. Similar to existing harassment research that shows the most vulnerable are often predominantly targeted, 96 percent of women reported they were trainees or employees at the time of unwanted sexual attention. Five were still in high school.

“We know empirically from past research that when it comes from up the hierarchy, when it comes from superiors, it has a potent effect of psychological well being, work productivity and motivation for work,” coauthor Dr. Katie Hinde told The Daily Beast. “This should be part of the conversation that’s being had about why women aren’t staying in STEM fields.”

Though an equal or greater number of women to men enter college STEM programs, they also leave academia in greater rates at the post doc and faculty stages. In fact, in 2013 women made up less than a quarter of all full-time professors in STEM fields.

The age and experience level of the women who reported harassment and abuse in the field can be especially damaging to budding scientists, according to Clancy.

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“It’s often their very first exposure to doing science,” Dr. Clancy said. “It’s one thing to learn about science, it’s one thing to analyze some stuff that somebody else collected, but when you’re collecting your own data, that’s the transformative, positive, amazing moment where you feel like you are a scientist. And it’s such a shame that an experience that should be burning in their minds that they want to be scientists forever, could actually be driving women out.”

“I loved being in the field,” Dr. Hinde said. “I’ve been to Indonesia and Puerto Rico, in Namibia and South Africa and I’ve only had the most excellent field experiences. So it’s devastating to me that my junior colleagues are not guaranteed to have that same experience without risks of harassment and assault from inside the research team. We prepare ourselves to go to a different culture and all of that, but this is from inside the research team, and that’s a betrayal.”

Most women never reported the incident, and most who did described dissatisfaction with the eventual outcome of the reporting.

From the study: “Aspiring academics are exquisitely aware of the realities of finding and securing a position within small, highly specialized disciplines; as a result, targets and bystanders may be especially inhibited from reporting…Reporting can retraumatize the victim, precipitate retribution, and negatively affect job performance.”

The survey does have limitations. First, the sample size is too small to determine the overall prevalence of harassment or assault. The study also suffers from a type of selection bias; since the surveys were voluntary, people with stronger negative experiences in the field could be more likely to participate.

Limitations aside, the survey is the first attempt at collecting data on sexual harassment and assault in fieldwork. “It would be hard for us to say that it was ‘common,’ but we know it is pervasive in the STEM workplace across all sectors and all disciplines,” Julie Utano, associate executive director for The Association for Women in Science, the largest advocacy organization for women in STEM fields, said in an email.

Though the researchers are careful to warn against drawing conclusions on overall prevalence from the small sample size, their findings are consistent with other studies that highlight the continuing problem of sexual harassment and assault. A 1993 study in The New England Journal of Medicine found three-quarters of women medical students were sexually harassed during their residency. And on college campuses, the imperfect, but much cited, 2007 Campus Sexual Assault Study shows that one in five women are victims of actual or attempted sexual assault while in college.

For their part, the research team sees the response from the scientific community as hopeful. In fact, they said, several scientists and administrators have already reached out for assistance in overhauling their university’s codes of conduct and sexual harassment policies for the field.

“What’s been heartening, is the huge number of fellow scientists who are absolutely rooting for this research and want to see a change in how science is conducted,” Clancy said.