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Studies reveal sexual harassment in STEM isn’t just about sex

Sexual harassment and violence, whatever its origins, is undoubtedly a huge societal problem; with movements like #metoo and #timesup, discussion of sexual harassment is rife – we want to talk about and empower the survivors as well as condemn the perpetrators. However, this invokes a wider discussion about why people perpetrate such awful and invasive crimes. Rather than being put down to the circumstances of the individuals, it’s worth discussing whether this is a problem imbued in society which gives perpetrators that dangerous sense of entitlement, or is it simply to do with that individual being overcome with sexual desire.

New research from a recent report published by the National Academics of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine supports the former theory – sexual harassment isn’t just about sex, but rather a pervasive and damaging ‘gender harassment’ which aims to belittle and alienate women, creating a sense that they have a lack of belonging with the use of sexist comments and demeaning jokes.

Sexual harassment isn’t just about sex, but rather a pervasive and damaging ‘gender harassment’ which aims to belittle and alienate women

The report, entitled Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, is based on statistics derived in the female science and medical student community. The data reveals that between 17% and 50% of students reported harassment from members of the opposite gender in major university systems that span across 36 campuses. Anthropologist Kate Clancy, the author of the report, reveals that this largely comes in the form of sexist hostility and crude behaviour from men towards women in the faculties. She suggests that this is the baseline of sexual harassment for the students; the female students are very likely to receive this treatment, and this can either remain exclusive or progress into more serious forms of harassment or abuse, for example, unwanted sexual advances.

Despite the fact that civil law has made sexual harassment illegal in America, the report implies that more is needed to be done in order to curb sexual harassment totally, calling for a significant change in culture – the legal system alone is clearly inadequate for addressing these issues. The thing which emerges most in the science faculties is sexist and demeaning jokes towards women, which make them feel excluded and alienated from the field they share with the perpetrators. In particular, 25% of female engineering students and 50% of medical students reported that they had been on the receiving end of jokes or comments that women are not smart enough to succeed in science, according to a survey conducted in the Texas university system. Specific sexual coercion was reported to be less common; in Texas, the statistics for this were between 2% and 5%, while in Pennsylvania a mere 1% of survey participants said they had experienced sexual coercion. However, as aforesaid, this hostile and alienating environment for women overall makes the likelihood of sexual coercion more likely because there is that initial exertion of power and belittling of women.

The data reveals that between 17% and 50% of students reported harassment from members of the opposite gender in major university systems that span across 36 campuses

As the report focuses on particular in women in science, it overall contributes to a discussion as to why there are fewer women in leading roles in science, engineering and medicine; the report suggests that this ‘gender harassment’ may cause students to abandon opportunities in order to dodge its perpetrators. Clancy concludes by saying that in order to eradicate this issue, and thus retain the talents of women in science, a ‘true cultural change’ is required along with compliance with civil rights laws.

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