Harassment and Gender Inequality in Science

A recent article in the New York Times has brought fresh attention to the issue of sexual harassment in US universities, among scientists in particular. While campus activists have recently focused on sexual assault by other students, Christie Aschwanden’s piece shines a light on a less dramatic but equally destructive problem – the sexual harassment of students by professors.

Aschwanden’s article starts with her own experience as an undergraduate in biology – she went on a fieldwork trip to Costa Rica where her (older) graduate student companion had only arranged a single bed for both of them. While he never made any physical advances, she writes that she felt utterly unprepared for the situation – she was in another country where she didn’t speak the language and had received no guidance about how to deal with this kind of behaviour.

The highest-profile faculty-student sexual harassment cases recently have been in the humanities, particularly in the field of philosophy. Aschwanden’s is a stark reminder that there is a big problem in the sciences, too: a survey published in the journal PLOS-ONE earlier this year found that 64 per cent of the women surveyed had been sexually harassed while working at field sites, and one in five had been victims of sexual assault.

The data surrounding sexual harassment is thin, so we can’t say for sure that the plight of women in science is worse than other fields, but there are some factors that might increase the prevalence. Fieldwork is one: the distance from the rules and authority figures of campus may well encourage harassers to make a move.

Another is the underrepresentation of women: women account for only 27 per cent of PhDs in the physical sciences and 18 per cent in engineering. A male-dominated culture has often been shown to isolate younger women, making it easier for a culture of discrimination to take hold. This is made worse by high rates of female attrition: there are fewer women at each stage of the hierarchy, meaning that more junior victims of harassment have restricted access to mentors and supporters who can help them navigate the system of complaints and redress.

Sexual harassment of students by professors has been clearly and flagrantly illegal for 40 years.  In many ways it’s hard to believe that male professors haven’t gotten the memo.  My reaction to these cases is usually, how could the professor possibly justify what he’s doing, or think he could get away with it?  But a lot continue to.  Most universities now have grievance procedures for dealing with sexual harassment complaints, though many of these remain very difficult for victims to use.  But what I think is needed is a much more comprehensive approach.  Students and professors need to be trained and retrained to understand what harassment is, how to avoid it, and how to complain about it.  There should be role-playing and refresher courses, and because university populations are transient, this needs to be repeated.  As Christie Aschwanden suggests, the problem “will not be solved with new rules archived on unread websites.” Enforcement can make a difference, of course, but it has to be accompanied by universities deciding that they want to be proactive about changing the culture.