Sexual harassment in STEM

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“Sexual harassment: unwanted behaviour that has the effect of violating your dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.”

We scientists are usually very good at understanding the importance of correct definitions.  For example, referring to photosynthesis as the process in which plants ‘make’ energy is, in fact, incorrect. Anyone familiar with the first law of thermodynamics will be aware that energy cannot be created, nor destroyed – only transferred from one form to another. Therefore, it would be wrong to communicate the idea that plants can ‘make’ energy.

However, it appears that even the most meticulous people in the industry have some confusion defining and comprehending the term ‘sexual harassment’. With Hollywood’s Weinstein and Spacey scandals unfolding, it only seems right that we try to raise awareness of how unfortunately common sexual harassment is, to both men and women, across all career sectors – STEM being no exception.

With Hollywood’s Weinstein and Spacey scandals unfolding, it only seems right that we try to raise awareness of how unfortunately common sexual harassment is…

Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) are all male dominated subject fields. The latest WISE campaign figures from 24 October 2017 reveal that women only account for 24% of employees in STEM industries. This means that for approximately every one woman in STEM, there are three men standing beside her. With women in STEM so shockingly outnumbered, unfortunately it is clear to see how some men wrongfully feel that they are allowed to enforce their power.

This 1:3 ratio is replicated in our current Prime Minister’s cabinet. Theresa May’s leading politicians constitute of 17 men, and five women, another massive female underrepresentation. Surprise, surprise! Parliament has recently been exposed for its horrendous sexual harassment claims, involving a list of male politicians abusing their power and dominance. Could the statistical similarities shed light on the behavioural parallels between our government and STEM?

Parliament has recently been exposed for its horrendous sexual harassment claims, involving a list of male politicians abusing their power and dominance…

In recent years, high publicity sexual harassment cases have encouraged many STEM employees to come forward and speak about their personal experiences. Victims of indignity are empowering one another to seek justice, and unmask the predators that have blended in with our society for too long. Witnesses of harassment are also following the movement, and stepping up to support claimants- perhaps fuelled by the guilt of once turning a blind eye to acts that have since become strongly recognised as unacceptable.

David Marchant, from Boston University, is currently being investigated after several accusations were made towards him. Marchant, a chair at Boston University, has been accused of being verbally and physically derogatory to many of his former university students that accompanied him on expeditions to Antarctica. Jane Willenbring, who joined Marchant on a field trip to Antarctica during her Masters in 1999, has described horrific details of how Marchant would call her a “slut” and a “whore”, throw rocks at her when she urinated, and blow hot ash into her eyes. Jane even felt pressured to wait until 2016 when she had received academic tenure to talk about her experiences, in fear that Marchant would use his power to repress and damage her professional career. Claims from other victims of Marchant’s abuse, as well as witness statements, are all contributing to a strong case which should hopefully see Marchant face appropriate consequences for his actions.

David Marchant, from Boston University, is currently being investigated after several accusations were made towards him…

While this may be the most recent high profile case of sexual harassment within STEM, the sad truth is that abuse is far too commonplace. In a 2014 survey published in PLOS ONE, 71% of 512 female respondents reported being sexually harassed during fieldwork; bringing a concerning reality to attention. A quick, yet unpleasant, Google search brings up all manner of testaments from victims from numerous areas of STEM. University lecturers Tim Hunt, Geoff Marcy and Tim Slater, have all been outed as sexual harassers in recent years.  However, perhaps just as worryingly, is the lack of work being done to combat this issue. While the ‘calling out’ of culprits is invaluable for achieving justice, incidents are ‘brushed under the rug’ all too often. Many claim that after being harassed at university, the offending academics were allowed to keep researching, or are able to be hired by other institutions without hassle. Surely this isn’t the example universities should be setting?

It is imperative that sexual harassment is not dismissed, no matter its ‘severity’. Many forms of sexual harassment can be well disguised, and therefore, well defended – but this does not make any of them okay. I, myself, have experienced derogatory comments in the workplace, most recently from a group of male colleagues on collecting some laboratory equipment: “If you go and ask, they’re more likely to give it to us,” insinuating my female sexuality would reward me with higher priority. Unless, of course, they were complimenting me on my intelligence and social skills, but the fact that the same group of men talk over me, dismiss me, and interrupt my conversations daily makes me think otherwise.

Many forms of sexual harassment can be well disguised, and therefore, well defended…

Victims shouldn’t have to justify that they have been discriminated against to the extent that they are often forced to. This has set a harmful precedent of victim blaming concerning sexual harassment that needs to be demolished. Members of all industries, STEM included, must educate themselves, support those who are bravely sharing their stories, and be proactive in preventing instances from recurring. So, let us return to our definition, to help crystallise things for the former, current, and (unfortunately) future offenders: “Sexual harassment: unwanted behaviour that has the effect of violating your dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.” In short, don’t do it.

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Comments (1)

  • Robert Newsom

    Your statement that “University lecturers Tim Hunt, Geoff Marcy and Tim Slater, have all been outed as perpetrators [of sexual harassment] in recent years” publishes a damnable, libelous lie. Sir Tim has never been accused of harassment against women or anybody else. Five minutes searching would have shown this. He was asked to resign his honorary position at University College, London following a report of a silly joke he made in Korea before an audience of women journalists about people falling in love in labs and the ensuing problems. A recording of his remarks later proved the unethical, unprofessional and inaccurate misreporting that led to his being asked to resign. Many women, colleagues and former students – including his first and present wives — came forward to defend Sir Tim as in fact a champion of women in science. No women came forward to accuse him of harassment or any kind of discriminatory behavior. The reporter who filed the original story about Sir Tim’s remarks, Connie St. Louis, was later shown to have wildly inflated her academic credentials and was, in her own words, “bundled out” of her teaching position.

    Sir Tim and your readers are owed a retraction and an abject apology. This is disgraceful.

    Professor Robert Newsom
    University of California, Irvine

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