Why aren’t there more women scientists? Surely, societal expectations and gendered educational opportunities play a large role in keeping women out of laboratory environments, but sadly an even harsher factor might be keeping them at bay: rampant sexual harassment. New research has uncovered that over two-thirds of women scientists have been sexually harassed while on the job.
Researchers from the University of Illinois, Harvard and Skidmore conducted a study of hundreds of scientists across a spectrum of disciplines, with the majority being archaeologists and anthropologists. The results were startling: 71 percent of women scientists reported being sexually harassed by colleagues while at work.
It doesn’t stop there, either. While sexual harassment covers things like sexist jokes, sexual advances and objectification, 26 percent of women in science fields have been the victims of even worse: sexual assault. The fact that one in four females have been subject to unwanted physical sexual contact from fellow scientists spells systematic trouble.
More often than not, the sexual harassers/assaulters were superiors to these women. They used their seniority and elevated position to make the females feel uncomfortable without facing repercussions. According to many of the harassed women, their workplaces don’t even have a policies regarding this type of behavior.
Unfortunately, most of the women scientists don’t attempt to report the misconduct, which is perhaps why these staggering harassment rates have gone unnoticed for so long. Those women who indicated they had reported instances of wrongdoing said they were dissatisfied with how the outcome and how the manner was handled. “People are being told ‘what happens in the field stays in the field,’” said Dr. Kathryn Clancy, lead researcher on the project. Apparently, in that respect, scientific fields are no better at handling offenders than the United States military.
Fair or not, it’s especially disheartening to see this despicable behavior occurring within academic communities. Evidently, even educated men are susceptible to the boy’s club mentality and PhDs don’t necessarily teach men how to respect their female counterparts.
The data further shows that sexual harassment is experienced most commonly amongst women who are just beginning their careers. This could, in part, explain why new women are more likely to quit science and technology jobs. A study from earlier this year revealed that new female scientists abandon their fields 45 percent more often than men who are new to the job. When the retention rate is just as poor as the recruitment rate to these fields, it’s clear that women aren’t exactly being made to feel welcome.
Another researcher on the study, Dr. Katie Hinde, said she had been fortunate to not experience harassment when she started out. “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,” she said. “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.”
Hopefully, seeing this news of frequent sexual harassment won’t contribute to more women avoiding the field. Dr. Clancy is optimistic that publicizing this study will have the opposite effect. “As horrifying as this data is, I’m really excited to have it out there. Every person who has had this experience will be validated and know there are others out there who have their back,” she said. “If this keeps just one more woman in science, it is absolutely worth it.”
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