Science magazine has just summarized this massive report on sexual harassment in the sciences. Really, it’s a big file that will cost you $59 if you order it as a book, but it’s offered as a free PDF by National Academies Press, so you have no excuse for not getting it, but the short summary is appreciated.
The report, Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, noted that many surveys fail to rigorously evaluate sexual harassment. It used data from large surveys done at two major research universities—the University of Texas system and the Pennsylvania State University system—to describe kinds of sexual harassment directed at students by faculty and staff. The most common was “sexist hostility,” such as demeaning jokes or comments that women are not smart enough to succeed in science, reported by 25% of female engineering students and 50% of female medical students in the Texas system. The incidence of female students experiencing unwanted sexual attention or sexual coercion was lower, ranging in both Texas and Pennsylvania between 2% and 5% for the former and about 1% for the latter. But the report declares that a hostile environment—even if it consists “more of putdowns than come-ons,” as Johnson puts it—makes unwanted sexual attention and coercion more likely.
The report says women in science, engineering, or medicine who are harassed may abandon leadership opportunities to dodge perpetrators, leave their institutions, or leave science altogether. It also highlights the ineffectiveness of ubiquitous, online sexual harassment training and notes what is likely massive underreporting of sexual harassment by women who justifiably fear retaliation. To retain the talents of women in science, the authors write, will require true cultural change rather than “symbolic compliance” with civil rights laws.
I have a prediction: there are going to be people who are only going to see the 1% number and are going to argue that because it’s so low, sexual harassment isn’t a problem. Except that’s the number for actual sexual coercion of female students, and would you go into a field where there’s a 1% chance you’ll be raped or your advisor was going to pressure you for sex? The key numbers are that between a quarter and a half of all women students are going to face sexist discouragement, and that’s a huge pressure to turn away and turn off qualified prospective scientists. It has to be called out and ended.
Also note that those numbers are affected by a serious problem with underreporting.
Read this Twitter thread by Jennifer Raff on her experience as an undergraduate looking for advice on grad school, and being actively discouraged by a faculty member. It’s the opposite of what I experienced in a similar situation. The only difference I can see is that her undergrad GPA was a bit higher than mine, and she’s a woman.