Confronting Sexual Harassment in Science

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If anyone thought scientists were somehow different from ordinary people—nobler, more ethical, more pure—then events over the past two years have been a sharp wake-up call. As with just about any area of human endeavor where men hold the lion’s share of power, the world of science and technology is plagued by sexual harassment. Women in STEM fields have long known this, of course. But just as in Hollywood, where the predatory behavior of producer Harvey Weinstein was long whispered about but never discussed openly, the phenomenon of professors and researchers hitting on undergrads, grad students, postdocs and colleagues has mostly been hushed up—not only by victims fearing retaliation but also by institutions determined to keep their good name untarnished and their superstars happy.


But thanks to a handful of (mostly) female scientists who have been brave enough to speak out and name names, the conspiracy of silence has become impossible to ignore in this publicity-driven age. A sea change has swept through science’s highest ranks, forcing institutions across the country to take more visible and aggressive actions to crack down on unacceptable conduct, push for improvements in the classroom and the workplace, and encourage victims of harassment to come forward. 


“I’ve asked myself, ‘Why did it take until now for all of this to come out?’ I find it totally appalling that it has taken this long for all of these women to feel comfortable coming forward,” says geophysicist Marcia McNutt, the first woman president of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.


In one of the strongest statements to date on the seriousness of such behavior, the 60,000-member American Geophysical Union adopted an updated 33-page “Scientific Integrity and Professional Ethics” policy in September that for the first time defines harassment as scientific misconduct. This puts it “on equal footing with fabrication, falsification and plagiarism in a research environment,” AGU President Eric Davidson, President-elect Robin Bell and past-President Margaret Leinen said in announcing the new policy. “We have broken new ground that takes this issue to a new level of importance. It is already having a ripple effect in terms of broadening the discussion in the scientific community,” Davidson added in an interview


The AGU is also part of a new collaborative research project, funded by a $1.1-million, four-year grant from the National Science Foundation Foundation, that will update the teaching of research ethics by addressing sexual harassment as scientific misconduct. Led by University of Wisconsin–Madison researcher Erika Marín-Spiotta, the project will produce more effective training materials in Earth, space and environmental sciences that may serve as a model for other STEM fields. This includes development of tested bystander intervention workshops to help academic leaders respond to and prevent sexual harassment. There is limited data on the effectiveness of existing training programs and a sense that many were designed primarily to meet legal liability concerns.


These efforts are among a host of recent efforts to combat sexual harassment in science, including major revisions of sexual harassment and ethics policies at universities and other scientific institutions; more research documenting the extent of the problem; and, hardest of all, the ongoing challenge to create a more welcoming culture for women in male-dominated research disciplines.


One of the most prominent efforts is a two-year study under way for the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, which provides guidance to public and private institutions on issues of critical importance to science. A 21-member committee is examining the impact of sexual harassment in academia on the career advancement of women in the scientific, technical and medical workforce. It has commissioned research to conduct detailed interviews with women science faculty who have experienced sexual harassment and has also held a series of workshops around the country. The committee expects to issue a comprehensive report by mid-2018


The cause célèbre for sexual harassment in science was the revelation two years ago of shocking charges against world-renowned University of California, Berkeley, astronomer Geoffrey Marcy, whose pioneering exploration of exoplanets was considered Nobel Prize–worthy. An October 9, 2015, investigative story in the online media outlet BuzzFeed News reported that a leaked report of a six-month university investigation revealed four female students alleged Marcy had “repeatedly engaged in inappropriate physical behavior” between 2001 and 2010, “including unwanted massages, kisses and groping.”


The controversy forced Marcy to step down from his university post (Marcy wrote an open letter apologizing for his actions). It also  led to disclosure of other sexual harassment cases at Berkeley, changes in leadership and pressure for more aggressive action at not only Berkeley but throughout the U.C. system. “We’ve made a lot of progress over the past two years,” U.C. Berkeley Chancellor Carol T. Christ, the first female to hold the post, said in an interview. “We’re setting a tone at the top that there is zero tolerance for sexual harassment in the workplace, classroom, or in the laboratory.”


Christ, a former president of the all-women Smith College, named a special faculty adviser, reporting directly to her, to lead campus efforts against sexual violence, sexual harassment and gender-based discrimination. Earlier a 15-member university task force drew up recommendations that include a streamlined investigation process, more transparent monitoring and accountability, improved training and better care for survivors.


The Marcy revelations had a domino effect across the country, triggering widespread publicity about other alleged cases of sexual harassment by well-known male scientists in numerous fields including a California Institute of Technology astrophysicist, a University of Chicago molecular biologist, a University of Washington microbiologist and an American Museum of Natural History paleoanthropologist. . More recently, Boston University has been investigating formal complaints by two former graduate students that geologist David R. Marchant allegedly abused and belittled them, physically and verbally, on research expeditions at a remote Antarctic field research site starting two decades ago, according to Science Magazine, which broke the story in early October. Major media outlets such as The Boston Globe, Washington Post, and the Atlantic have since covered the story. One of the complainants, Geologist Jane K. Willenbring, now a Scripps Institution of Oceanography associate professor, reportedly waited to file her October, 2016 complaint until after she got tenure, fearing professional repercussions. But she has now gone public, including tweets (@jkwillenbring) on media coverage of sexual harassment scandals in science and the entertainment industry. When asked to comment for this story, Marchant replied by email: “As you know, Boston University’s investigation into these allegations is ongoing.  I have cooperated fully in that investigation. I do not wish to compromise the integrity of that investigation by making any comments before the investigation has been completed.”


A prominent case at the University of Rochester in New York state, meanwhile, involves sexual harassment complaints filed in late August with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) by eight current and former members of the university’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. They accused T. Florian Jaeger, a professor in the department, of a “long pattern of sexually predatory behavior” and also contended the university has retaliated against Jaeger’s accusers. Two earlier university investigations concluded the allegations against him did not violate the law or university policy.


Mother Jones broke the story in September and local and national media outlets like The New York Times followed up. Widespread publicity, reaction among alums and campus protests, including a student’s hunger strike, spurred the University’s board of trustees to take action. It appointed a committee to oversee an independent, comprehensive investigation” into the EEOC complaints and the university’s sexual harassment procedures. Jaeger is on administrative leave pending the outcome. According to the Times, Jaeger told the Rochester faculty that his accepting the leave was “in no way an admission of guilt with respect to the allegations publicized about me.”


 “These big stories in science have served to increase public awareness of this problem. It’s not as if the problem didn’t exist before,” says BuzzFeed’s prize-winning science reporter Azeen Ghorayshi, who broke the initial Marcy story and has tenaciously pursued numerous sexual harassment cases since then. After the Marcy revelations, “it snowballed and more people came forward,” in part because they “felt let down by their institutions,” Ghorayshi says.


THE PREVALENCE OF SEXUAL HARASSMENT


Vindicating the experiences of many women scientists, studies across a variety of settings—from campuses to companies—confirm the prevalence of sexual harassment of all forms is high. Research presented at a two-day workshop of the National Academies’ Committee on Women in Science, Engineering and Medicine found that “somewhere in the range of 40 to 70 percent of women had experienced sexual harassment during their careers or as students. This range of prevalence was strikingly consistent across different studies.”


Self-reporting in anonymous surveys makes it difficult to quantify sexual harassment with any certitude; only a small percentage of victims report sexual harassment, largely because of embarrassment, fear of not being believed and concern about retaliation by superiors.


Sexual harassment is generally defined as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature that tends to create a hostile or offensive work environment.” It is worse when it is the boss, a faculty supervisor or teacher because a quid pro quo arrangement may be offered or implied.


In the U.S. workplace discrimination, including sexual harassment, is prohibited under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which affects any federally funded education program or activity. (The Trump administration announced it is pulling back from Obama-era sexual harassment guidelines.)


While not all individual complaints violate the law, many may violate workplace or academic codes of conduct. Most victims are female and perpetrators male, but sexual harassment also affects LGBTQ individuals and men victimized by women or other men. Cultural norms and individual perceptions also affect whether a given behavior is interpreted as “unwelcome” or “hostile.”


DANGER ZONES IN SCIENCE


“To my mind, there are still ‘bad neighborhoods’ ripe for sexual harassment. Dramatically tilted sex ratios in some fields signal a potential problem,” says senior research social scientist Christopher Krebs of RTI International.


Potential sexual harassment danger zones include field research; remote science sites such as observatories; isolated or smaller laboratories; professional travel and meetings; medical training; and predominantly male fields, according to research and interviews with scientists, graduate students and science educators.


Double jeopardy. A recently published, internet-based survey of 474 astronomers and planetary scientists found women of color in this sample faced the greatest risk of “feeling unsafe in their workplace” due to gender (40 percent) and race (28 percent). Nearly 20 percent of women of color and 12 percent of white women scientists said they skipped professional events because they felt unsafe. Anthropologist Kathryn Clancy of the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign and colleagues concluded: “Never has awareness of hostile workplace behaviors in the sciences been so strong, and the possibility for change so great.”


Field research. Another internet-based Survey of Academic Field Experiences (SAFE) conducted by Clancy reported widespread sexual harassment of students or trainees working in anthropology, archaeology and life science field research sites. Nearly two thirds of 666 field science respondents, mostly American women, said they had experienced sexual harassment, inappropriate or sexual remarks, or jokes about physical beauty and cognitive sex differences. More than 20 percent reported they had been sexually assaulted. Trainees were particularly vulnerable to harassment by senior managers or scientists.


Medical training and practice. Nearly one in three women in medicine say they have experienced sexual harassment, compared with 4 percent of men, according to a 2016 study in JAMA The Journal of the American Medical Association. A 2015 compilation of surveys in Australia, the U.K., Sweden, Canada and the U.S., published in the The Medical Journal of Australia, found that sexual harassment in training or practice ranged from one quarter to three quarters of respondents.


Fields with lower numbers of women. A University of Washington study in the journal Psychological Bulletin concluded that large gender gaps in disciplines such as computer science, engineering and physics may be related in part to more “masculine cultures that signal a lower sense of belonging to women than men.”


Scientific travel and conferences. The informal atmosphere at professional meetings, particularly larger conferences with an ample supply of alcohol-fueled social gatherings, is another danger zone—particularly for students and younger researchers looking for jobs.


Scientific meetings have increasingly featured sexual harassment sessions for students, early-career scientists and senior professional leaders. A recent AGU meeting featured prominent anti-harassment signs, “Safe AGU” buttons, and a #SafeAGU social media campaign. “If it’s unwanted, it’s harassment” warn red-and-white signs posted at meetings of the American Astronomical Society (AAS), which recently strengthened its code of ethics and anti-harassment policies. Novel efforts such as Astronomy Allies have also provided a volunteer network of scientists to mentor or advocate for individuals who encounter sexual harassment.


Whatever the setting or field of science, the modus operandi of sexual predators is often the same. One former Harvard University science graduate student recalled being hit on at a social event by a distinguished male scientist. After some initial research talk, the elder scientist began to “say some inappropriate stuff, such as ‘you’re really smart and beautiful. I want to know more about you’” and, at one point, “he hugged me…. It was very uncomfortable,” she recalled.


SOME QUESTIONS GOING FORWARD


The challenge ahead is how to move beyond rhetoric and individual cases to implement more effective strategies to combat sexual harassment and hasten women’s advancement and equality in science. Success in doing so will be measured by how well the scientific community writ large responds to tough questions those on the front lines of anti-harassment efforts are asking. They include:


  • Will publicity and punishment in egregious cases have a deterrent effect?
  • Will stepped up efforts by professional science societies help shift the culture toward “zero tolerance” for sexual harassment?
  • Will mandatory sexual harassment reporting to federal science funding agencies be instituted?
  • Will federal funding agencies such as the National Science Foundation take more aggressive action by terminating funding to institutions that do not comply with Title IX nondiscrimination regulations?
  • Will there be more transparency about sexual harassment cases, to the degree possible under privacy laws, to discourage job-hopping by sexual harassers who do not disclose their history to future employers?
  • Will development and implementation of better training programs help prevention and reporting of sexual harassment?
  • Will colleges and universities greatly improve their formal and informal systems for reporting and acting on sexual harassment complaints?
  • Will more female scientists in leadership roles change the dynamics and add more clout in terms of preventing and handling sexual harassment in the workplace?
  • Will more family-friendly policies help women in science move up the career ladder in academia, research or business?
  • Will changes at the bottom create a female-friendly climate for science students in male-dominated fields that will help keep more women in science?

Frustrated at the pace of change, three generations of women scientists are pushing hard to speed up efforts to reduce sexual harassment and gender discrimination in science. “You get discouraged. You know the hill you are climbing is going to be steeper,” says one 20-something Yale University physics graduate student. Says another, “It’s a cycle. We need more women, but we need to create a better environment to do that.”


“I’m inherently an optimist. On the one hand, there’s been tremendous progress. But we clearly have not done enough,” says Yale astrophysicist and former AAS president Meg Urry, a longtime champion of women in science.


“People feel the momentum right now. With more public attention to this issue, there are a huge number of radicalized people ready to move, ready to be loud, to change policies on sexual harassment,” University of Illiniois’s Clancy says.


Accelerating efforts to combat sexual harassment takes on more urgency, given the national need to recruit and retain a diverse STEM workforce in the 21st century. To do so, the message to end gender discrimination and sexual harassment may indeed need to “go viral” to keep media attention—and public pressure—on both individuals and institutions to create a more welcoming climate for women and minorities in the global science community of tomorrow.