Why do most academic fields, and science in particular, have such significant gender and racial imbalances? This so-called “leaky pipeline,” where women disproportionately leave scientific and academic careers, is well documented; but the role played by sexual and racial harassment in this process has received little attention. Sexual misconduct is prevalent in any industry where men hold a disproportionate amount of power and women are systematically underrepresented; academia and science are no different. Women in science are therefore not surprised by the scale and scope of recent reports of sexual misconduct by powerful men in politics, in the media, and in Hollywood, because so many of us have our own stories of sexual harassment. Additionally, women of color also encounter racial harassment—a double jeopardy that the current moment of reckoning with sexual misconduct has not addressed with equivalent rigor and reflection. To address and root out the rampant sexual and racial harassment in science we must enact individual, institutional and policy changes.
Why We Are Long Overdue for a Reckoning
Almost every woman in science has either personally experienced or knows someone who has experienced sexual harassment or assault. In our broader society, the recent resurgence of Tarana Burke’s “Me Too" movement has illustrated just how prevalent and deep-rooted these issues are. In science and academia, as a result of women speaking out and journalists reporting concrete evidence, many egregious stories of alleged sexual harassment and assault have recently been brought to light. The stories are barely the tip of the iceberg—an iceberg of sexual harassers in science and academia floating in an ocean of enablers supported by a system that is all too willing to look away. How many victims of such harassment have been driven out of science as a result? What contributions to science have been lost?
In addition to individual stories, there have been scientific surveys and studies of harassment in science and academia. In a remarkable study, Clancy et al. recently surveyed 474 astronomers and planetary scientists on their experiences with sexism and racism in the last five years. They found that harassment and assault were more prevalent for women of color, who reported feeling unsafe in the workplace as a result of their gender or sex 40 percent of the time, and as a result of their race 28 percent of the time.
Their study quantified the fact that women of color, in addition to having to deal with sexual harassment, have to deal with racism; this cannot be neglected in our larger conversation about sexual misconduct. They also found that 18 percent of women of color and 12 percent of white women lost career opportunities because they did not feel safe attending events where they experienced harassment by other colleagues. Another Clancy study in 2014 found that 64 percent of scientists engaged in fieldwork had experienced sexual harassment and 20 percent sexual assault. Sexism and racism are alive and well in science and are likely strong contributors to the leaky pipeline.
If so many women in science have personally been subject to harassment or worse, why aren’t more women openly talking about it and naming their offenders? The answer is surprisingly straightforward: victims do not hold the power and therefore live in fear of retaliation. In the academic and scientific world, this retaliation can hamstring the necessary ingredients for a successful career: interfering with a victim’s grant funding, preventing publication of peer-reviewed articles, and negatively impacting a victim’s job opportunities, which in small and insular academic fields are heavily reliant on formal and informal confidential recommendations.
Retaliation can be effective because of the entrenched hierarchy of the overwhelmingly white, male academic network and its outsized influence. Adding to the danger of direct retaliation, accusations from women who speak out are often dismissed as false or worse; the women who speak out have to live with the professional consequences of being an accuser and being labeled as someone difficult to work with. One such instance of retaliation was recently highlighted by Sarah Gossan.
As a way to cope with the imbalance of power, many women are forced to resort to whisper networks, sharing the names of offenders and institutes that willingly harbor them. But many young women don’t get access to this kind of information until it is too late, and these networks are never 100 percent effective against preventing harassment. Even with access to information, we can never truly prepare for the experience of being harassed and the professional aftermath. What do you do if you are a young graduate student presenting a poster at a major conference and a famous older man in the field you hope is impressed by your work is instead more interested in staring at your chest? What if this older man follows you to your hotel, or even worse, up to your room? What if your harasser is your thesis supervisor, a person who has the power to destroy your career? What if your harasser happens to be your supervisor and you are working at a remote field site, where you’re stuck for weeks or months? What if your harasser is an academic peer, and the authorities refuse to take action to save your harasser’s career from ruin? Is his career more important and valuable than yours? The manifestation of the existing power structure, where we have to weigh our careers and professional reputations against our health and safety is deeply unfair; we must shift the burden of those decisions and their consequences onto those with the power, not the victims.
Our Institutions Have Failed Us
What the countless appalling harassment and assault stories have in common, in addition to stalling or ruining the careers of the victims, is a shocking lack of action from academic institutions. Instead of protecting and supporting the victims, institutions are too often using ineffective anti-harassment policies largely designed to protect the institutions’ reputations. As much as Title IX is supposed to support victims, the process most often protects the offenders and the institutions. For instance, in the U.C. Berkeley astronomy case, victims were told that nothing would happen unless they personally filed formal, on-the-record complaints at the Title IX office—a harrowing process that places an undue burden on the victims to prove their case before an investigation is even initiated. Worse, the “prestige” and grant funding that these powerful harassers bring to universities have historically weighed more than the lives and careers of women who have been and continue to be harassed. In the current system, every institute’s primary incentive is to protect their reputation and secure their funding. The safety and careers of women are sadly often last on their list of priorities. Even if complaints are filed and investigations ensue, the offenders are allowed to move from institute to institute, leaving behind sealed records of sexual harassment complaints.
For every publicly acknowledged incident that lies at the tip of an iceberg, there are a thousand victims under the water level who speak out and whose cases are buried while the perpetrators go unpunished; even more worrisome is that most cases of sexual harassment will never be documented. For instance, a recent study found that 38 percent of female graduate students surveyed experienced sexual harassment by a faculty member, but only 6.4 percent reported the harassment. Another study revealed the prevalence of repeat offenders in academia, and that in general, only a handful of harassers were found guilty of misconduct. This recent informal survey by the The Professor Is In blog highlights the heartbreaking reality of sexual misconduct in academia: the sheer number of stories, the number of “elite” and not-so-elite institutions where these incidents took place, the lack of action ranging from women being to afraid to report anything to their stories simply being dismissed, and the ends of many promising careers. These blog posts by Gina Baucom show how widespread the systematic devaluation of women in science and academia is. We absolutely can, and do, blame the perpetrators, but we must also blame our institutions: without their protection and enabling, perpetrators would not be able to get away with their actions.
In addition to the slow and disappointing actions taken by institutions, scientific societies have also been slow to respond. Those in astronomy were hopeful that this case and subsequent media attention would be a turning point, finally prompting a revised code of conduct and anti-harassment policy from the American Astronomical Society (AAS). But little has changed in practice for victims of harassment. The process for reporting complaints is outsourced to an external agency; the burden of proof is on the victim, who has likely suffered significant trauma. There are no set standards on how to handle offenders, and any action is entirely subjective and left to the best judgement of the AAS president and executive officer. While a few scientific societies have adopted changes to their code of conduct regarding sexual harassment with tangible penalties, others have made no change. This is similar to other institutions; there has been no discernible policy shift on the whole on how universities deal with sexual misconduct complaints, and if anything the current administration’s gutting of Title IX offices’ authority has moved us backwards.
We are tired of relying on whisper and support networks to navigate through the system. We are fed up with hearing story after story of colleagues who did the “right” thing by lodging complaints with the appropriate authorities, only to have those complaints be dismissed for lack of proof. We are tired of losing brilliant women who decide remaining in academia is not worth enduring ongoing harassment. The recent stories from Hollywood, the media and politics show that we as a society are finally waking up to the insidious reality of sexual harassment, that women are finally being believed, and that male harassers no longer have the benefit of the doubt. It is past time to move beyond informal and imperfect whisper networks—for institutions to create an environment where we can be believed without fear of repercussions—and advocate for real institutional change.
Changing Our Institutions
So what can we do? Here are concrete actions that can be immediately taken by you, your institution, your science society and your lawmakers:
What individuals can do:
- Women, especially women of color, are entitled to have fulfilling, healthy careers in science and in academia. Believe women and protect us from potential retaliation when we speak up and speak out; risking our careers and reputations is possibly the hardest thing we’ve ever done in our professional lives. We have everything to lose with little guarantee of justice or even a fair process.
- Be an ally to women and men who have experienced harassment and assault; do not immediately dismiss allegations of misconduct against your colleagues and friends simply because it makes you uncomfortable. Don’t be this person.
- To those in power, hold your colleagues accountable and call out and report unacceptable behavior. Question those who blackball specific women for no legitimate reason. Many abusers and harassers operate under a cover of progressivism and supporting women’s rights, which can serve to confuse victims as well as other colleagues; this has been apparent in the last few weeks.
What institutions can do:
- Provide mandatory education and seminars that go beyond the click-through online sexual harassment training such as in the College of Science and Mathematics at Auburn University. Trainings should include role playing activities and discussions of real cases and how they were handled by the Title IX office. Academia can learn from industry where some harassment trainings include day-long workshops by trained facilitators. Trainings should include clear reporting guidelines because victims are more likely to report when clear reporting procedures are outlined. Finally, training should specifically target department chairs to ensure everyone understands university policies and reporting channels.
- Universities should subscribe to Callisto, an online sexual assault reporting system that allows students to create a time-stamped electronic record of assault that they can choose whether or not to report to the University. It also allows for the detection and reporting of repeat offenders.
- To avoid hiring repeat offenders with documented histories of misconduct, hiring committees should be trained and institutions should carry out the background checks into potential sexual misconduct allegations from candidates’ past institutions.
What professional organizations can do:
- Change codes of conduct. Recently, the American Geological Union (AGU) announced a change in their scientific code of conduct - sexual harassment is now labeled as scientific and academic misconduct. This means that AGU now claims to hold the offenders accountable. Other scientific societies and institutions have also adopted various codes of conduct. The American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Astronomical Society, Entomological Society of America, Society for the Study of Evolution and the Western Society of Naturalists have also adopted codes of conduct that specifically address sexual harassment.
- Hold these institutions accountable to their stated policies and advocate for more stringent policies if needed. For instance, implement periodic surveys of members assessing the impact of these policies and regularly audit these policies.
- Professional societies must also assess the gender and racial distribution of their leadership: who gets to prioritize what is necessary and important for their organizations? Whose voices are heard the most? Who sets the agenda?
Policy actions: What changes we can enact
- Support Rep. Jackie Speier’s Bill to Stop Rampant Sexual Abuse, Harassment in STEM Research. This bill was introduced in the last session of Congress and never passed; call your representatives and advocate for its passing.
- Implement fines or other penalties for universities that fail to step in and stop sexual harassment from repeat offenders. These will need to be enforced by federal funding agencies, and will need action from Congress. Individuals who engage in these activities should also face repercussions and penalties from those with the most power: funding agencies.
- Run for office. The best way to implement legislative change in a way that supports and respects women’s rights is to elect more women across a range of racial and ethnic backgrounds. So run for office if you can, or support a candidate who best represents your views!
There is a deeper, more disturbing question that many of us in academia and science must grapple with: what is the scientific value of the research done by perpetrators of sexual misconduct? Is it ethical to continue to cite the research led by these people and what context should be provided for their work? Is it ethical to encourage our students and mentees to apply to programs in institutes that have had terrible records of dealing with sexual misconduct? Is it ethical to continue attending meetings and conferences with long running records of sexual harassment? Is it ethical to encourage young women to pursue science when we know that there is a reasonable likelihood that they may face harassment? The only plausible answer to many of these questions is to change our institutions and norms, now.
Ultimately, two things need to change: our laws and our social norms. Thanks to the flood of brave women who have publicly shared their experiences of sexual misconduct in various fields, the latter is starting to happen (yet we must always be wary of a backlash). The former will take time and dedication: we at 500WS will remain committed. Sexual and racial misconduct has played a huge role in pushing out women, especially women of color, from science and academia. We can no longer tolerate this: we are valuable and necessary to science, and deserve to—are entitled to—have fulfilling careers free of harassment and abuse. Science, academia, and society will be better for it.