For Women in Science, Harassment is in the Job Description

Recent campaigns to raise awareness about and combat sexual assault on college campuses have seen some success, but the pervasiveness of sexual violence as a form of discrimination against women in the U.S. has yet to be fully revealed.

Image © iStockphoto/mrloz

Image © iStockphoto/mrloz

Many people still have misconceptions about the severity of the problem. From columnist George Will’s wildly offensive op-ed denying the problem entirely, to Senator Mitch McConnell’s recent comment that sexism in the workplace is totally over, it’s obvious that we still have a long way to go in combating sexism—and that starts with acknowledging the problem.

While rape-apologists and sexism-deniers still exist, we’ve got the facts and the numbers on our side.

Last week, Kate Clancy, a professor of anthropology and the University of Illinois published a study examining the experiences of geologists, archaeologists, anthropologists, and other scientists while doing fieldwork. While her work shows that sexism in the workplace is alive and well, it also sheds some light on some of the reasons why women are underrepresented in the sciences.

The study revealed a lack of respect and a hostile climate towards women scientists. Among participants in the study — which was a voluntary online survey — a whopping 64% had experienced sexual harassment and 20% reported being sexual assaulted.

One participant in the study reported,

My professor often joked that only pretty women were allowed to work for him, which led me to wonder if my intellect and skills had ever mattered. He asked very personal questions about my romantic life, often in the presence of the male students. His inappropriate behavior was a model for them, making it not only acceptable, but the norm…There were jokes about selling me as a prostitute on the local market.

Unsurprisingly, the participant also stated that “I felt marginalized and under attack, and my work performance suffered as a result.” When women are sexually objectified, harassed, and assaulted by their coworkers, it’s no wonder that their performance suffers.

Far from an isolated incident, the study demonstrates that this marginalization and hostility is pervasive.

Clancy reports that “Our main findings—women trainees were disproportionately targeted for abuse and felt they had few avenues to report or resolve these problems – suggest that at least some field sites are not safe, nor inclusive.”

While men reported being harassed by their peers, for women, the perpetrators of this harassment were most often their superiors. While sexual harassment and assault is always unacceptable, it especially harmful when the perpetrator is someone who is supposed to be a leader, a role model, and a mentor.

It seems like the more we look for it, the more we find toxic sexism inhibiting women from doing their best and achieving their dreams.

While the results of this study are upsetting and discouraging, to address sexism, we need to know exactly what we’re up against. We need to have an honest conversation about the reality of sexism and harassment in the workplace, and this study is a good first step.

So sorry, Mitch, we’re not quite there yet.

6 Responses to “For Women in Science, Harassment is in the Job Description”

  1. briahn kelly-brennan

    I have a degree in Mechanical Engineering. I worked for about a year and a half. I felt I would be physically injured by the “pranks” played on me ( but not the male engineers) in the shop and decided the endless harassment was not worth it. I loved being an engineer, and in the short time I was I received two patents for my employers. I became a teacher.

  2. LH

    As a woman in science, yes, I did experience sexual harassment. Heavy breathing on phone, pinch on butt, massage of shoulders, rub arms, sexual innuendos. Etc.

  3. e.k.

    Time to get into action, and create a visible grouping of lawyers who specialize in issues like this. Time for making a media presence for the lawyers. Just like there are groups of Christian lawyers who specialize in supporting Christian clients and their rights at school and in the workplace, we apparently need something for our girls and women.

  4. Dawn Conti-Jordan

    Girls. This stuff goes on because WE fail to address it IMMEDIATELY.
    When someone does this to you .
    Embarrass them right then.
    AND mean it.
    Do it in a viscous way.
    Say something like” Don`t you EVER touch me again or I will call the cops.
    THEN follow up on your threat.
    Right here right now.
    It happens because WE take a namby pamby attitude and let it slide hoping it will stop.
    MOST women are non confrontational.
    AND the guys KNOW it.
    WE MUST CHANGE and become assholes like THEM..

  5. Alice

    ‘It’s obvious that we still have a long way to go in combating sexism’- so true, a lot of people are not aware of this problem. Sadly, this scenario plays out every day in offices, in hospitals, universities and in stores around the world. Recent statistics on sexual harassment at workplace shows that 79% of the victims are women and 21% are men.
    Check the link bellow:


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