Every couple of years, the media drums up the widely publicized fact that there is a dearth of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, and national pundits and ivory tower elites pontificate and theorize about why more women aren’t establishing long-term careers in STEM subjects.
The disparity between men and women in the sciences is well known, with women making up only a quarter of the labor force in STEM fields, according to census data. But women still enter STEM fields in high numbers, which means many are leaving before completing their doctorate or attaining professorship.
A new study published in PLOS ONE has delivered some concrete numbers behind one reason for many women’s exodus from STEM fields during their graduate years. The study’s four female authors crunched the numbers of reports of sexual assault and harassment in field research work, and discovered a glaring reality that is seldom mentioned in the national media.
According to the study, 64 percent of researchers said they had experienced sexual harassment during field research. Of the 600 men and women surveyed, those who reported accounts of sexual harassment or assault were mostly women, with most cases involving younger undergraduate or graduate student “trainees,” for whom field research is crucial to future success. A full 20 percent of those surveyed said they were sexually assaulted in the field.
The study was conducted throughout 2013, during which respondents from more than 30 countries answered questions online. The survey was distributed through social media sites and research associations. Of the 600 respondents, 516 were women.
The findings were not only quantitatively different between men and women respondents but qualitatively different as well. The majority of men reported experiencing harassment from their peers, while the majority of women reported becoming the target of harassment and assault from their superiors in the field.
“Our findings were simultaneously not surprising and shocking,” said Julienne Rutherford, assistant professor at the University of Illinois and a co-author of the study. “The sense of not being able to work freely and to reach one’s full potential because of this constant, sort of, social negotiation to protect oneself is something that I think [all the study’s authors] all felt at one point or another.”
Another troubling finding of the survey was that respondents were rarely aware of how to report incidents — or even that any mechanisms exist for them to do so. Most respondents who did report abuse said they were unsatisfied with the outcome. The authors of the study consider these findings key to opening up conversations and taking measures that could offer one solution: codes of conduct and sexual harassment policies that explicitly outline reporting mechanisms for victims of abuse.
Since the study was published, these conversations are already beginning to happen, with some field instructors drawing up and implementing explicit field conduct policies. Other professors are beginning to have conversations with their academic superiors about having policies and implementing mandatory sexual harassment education training for incoming students.
While the researchers have received a mostly positive reception from academics, the public and news outlets since the study was published, the authors say they haven’t been contacted by many mainstream publications covering higher education. The silence could simply be due to the slower news pace of the summer, but the authors still find the dearth of academic news coverage disappointing.
Breaking the Silence in Science
The lead author of the study, Kate Clancy, professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois, was motivated to conduct the research after hearing from various women about their experiences in the field. In 2012, Clancy publicized one woman’s story on her blog at Scientific American.
The young woman wrote that her colleagues and superiors joked about selling her as a sex worker, and openly discussed the size of her breasts and speculated about her sexual history. She also writes that pornographic images were sent to her private workspace almost daily.
“When the most egregious acts are to some extent passively condoned by silence, then the less egregious but still damaging biases or tendencies to discount, or marginalizations, are going to continue to happen,” said Katie Hinde, co-author and assistant professor at Harvard University.
The study’s authors point out that the nature of field sites make women even more vulnerable to sexual abuse because in many cases researchers are in foreign countries or far from home, and often must live and work in close quarters with colleagues and superiors.
“We already have institutional review boards … that already have to approve your study before you can receive any funding,” said Robin Nelson, co-author and assistant professor at Skidmore College. “For people who study animals, there’s a review board … that makes sure that no harm is being done to the animals. And so with those kind of safety mechanism already in place, it shouldn’t be too challenging to also include an additional kind of protocol that ensures folks know how to identify sexual harassment and how to report it.”
The authors said they experienced some nervousness about publishing the findings of their research on the subject, as four non-tenured women professors who could be potentially vulnerable to backlash. But they felt the move was necessary to shed light on an issue that has been known about for some time in academic circles but rarely acknowledged.
“We’ve been sitting with this for about a year and a half, since we started the project back in 2013. So we are more comfortable looking at these findings and saying, ‘OK, what’s the next step?’ I think the silence from some parts of the academic world has actually reflected some folks looking at it and being a little bit stunned,” Nelson told Truthout. “[The study] means on a certain level that business as usual is not acceptable, and we need to change our culture. Folks can be resistant to that.”