Breaking down the barriers


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.

Comments

  1. Danny Husar says

    >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.

    Similarly some people will choose to ignore it and continue to yell ‘rape culture’.

    I think the numbers are optimistic. Demeaning and sexist jokes and comments can be cleaned up. Academia will have to adopt more corporate-like professional standards, and that’s a good thing overall!

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    … 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?

    In what fields do women not face that risk or worse?

  3. Saad says

    Danny Husar, #1

    Similarly some people will choose to ignore it and continue to yell ‘rape culture’.

    What would these people be ignoring exactly?

    And why should a drop in the percentage of rape/sexual assault stop people from “yelling”?

  4. jack lecou says

    Similarly some people will choose to ignore it and continue to yell ‘rape culture’.

    This is a rather bizarre comment in response to a study comprehensively documentating the pervasive sexual harassment and assault in these fields, including how perpetrators are largely tolerated even as victims suffer widespread personal and career consequences.

    I don’t think it’s the people ‘yelling rape culture’ who are ignoring the implications of the study…

  5. microraptor says

    If 1% isn’t an alarming number, would you be willing to get on an airplane if 1% of flights crashed?

    That’s roughly 260 commercial flights ending in fiery wreckage per day.

  6. npb596 says

    My guess is that these numbers are extremely conservative and that the amount of sexist hostility and sexual harassment is far higher than they found. Rape culture should not be underestimated.

  7. says

    Similarly some people will choose to ignore it and continue to yell ‘rape culture’.

    Or you can just admit you don’t know what rape culture actually is and refers to.

  8. militantagnostic says

    That 1% sexual coercion and 2-5 % unwanted sexual attention is going to have a much lager (than 5%) second hand deterrence effect.

    Is the higher rate of sexist comments in Medicine compared to Engineering is due to the much larger portion of women in Medicine? Women are not gong to be “taking over” Engineering any time soon while they are a much greater threat to male privilege in Medicine.

  9. Danny Husar says

    >Or you can just admit you don’t know what rape culture actually is and refers to

    The phrase is designed to be outrageous and inflammatory … and lazy. Everyone agrees that rape is an abhorrent crime, so activists chose to simply piggyback on that sentiment to push a completely unrelated ideological idea. Also, the term itself is meaningless – if the most egalitarian societies (as represented by all ‘first world’ democracies) in the history of mankind are a ‘rape culture’ then what isn’t a ‘rape culture’? And if everything today, and in all of history was a ‘rape culture’ then what is it that activists want to shed light on?

    >If 1% isn’t an alarming number, would you be willing to get on an airplane if 1% of flights crashed?

    We’re not talking about plane crashes – we’re talking about messy human social interactions with many degrees of grey areas and with each having their own specifi context. Having said that the high-level view is that there’s no reason why Academia cannot be cleaned-up in the same way that most corporate environments were and adopt similar clear standards of conduct. It’s taken a while for Academia to catch up to the rest of society because it was always a little bubble onto itself. That is going to change.

  10. says

    Wow, Danny @1 sure is missing the point with that ‘yelling rape culture’ bit.

    That’s 1%, or one of every hundred, female students experiencing sexual coercion, or rape, from their faculty. Which is almost certainly under reported.
    Presumably that’s current students, so some who have been there a short while and some years. And isn’t covering how often it happens; some students may have to deal with it repeatedly.
    And this isn’t including the risks from fellow students and whatnot, just from the faculty they rely on to teach them.

    Not to mention the effects on students who hear of what happened to one of those victims and suffers more fear or stress trying to avoid the same.

    And Danny somehow thinks this is a small number that should convince people there isn’t a culture that is far too permissive of rape?

    Like microraptor refers to, 1% can be a pretty large number in practice. The school I went to had nearly 20k students at a time, and it’s not huge.

  11. jack lecou says

    Everyone agrees that rape is an abhorrent crime

    Yep! Including rapists and those who shelter them. This might suggest that the question “is rape an abhorrent crime?” is not a very illuminating way to find out what your culture’s actual attitudes toward rape are.

    if the most egalitarian societies (as represented by all ‘first world’ democracies) in the history of mankind are a ‘rape culture’ then what isn’t a ‘rape culture’?

    Precious little. Kind of fucked up, isn’t it?

    And if everything today, and in all of history was a ‘rape culture’ then what is it that activists want to shed light on?

    All of the people getting raped and the rapists not being held accountable for it!

    Harder questions, plz.

  12. microraptor says

    Or you can just admit you don’t know what rape culture actually is and refers to

    The phrase is designed to be outrageous and inflammatory … and lazy. Everyone agrees that rape is an abhorrent crime, so activists chose to simply piggyback on that sentiment to push a completely unrelated ideological idea. Also, the term itself is meaningless – if the most egalitarian societies (as represented by all ‘first world’ democracies) in the history of mankind are a ‘rape culture’ then what isn’t a ‘rape culture’? And if everything today, and in all of history was a ‘rape culture’ then what is it that activists want to shed light on?

    Or you could actually look up the definition, which is easy to find and really not ambiguous.

    We’re not talking about plane crashes – we’re talking about messy human social interactions with many degrees of grey areas and with each having their own specifi context.

    And you specifically said that 1% wasn’t a big number so it wasn’t really a problem.

  13. militantagnostic says

    Danny Hussar @13

    Everyone agrees that rape is an abhorrent crime

    Not if the rapist is on the swim (or insert sport of your choice) team. Then it more a case of drunk boys will be boys and we wouldn’t want to their lives now would we. ” Everyone” certainly doesn’t consider the more “grey area” sexual assaults abhorrent and that is where rape culture has its’ most insidious effect by minimizing the seriousness of rape by acquaintances.

  14. says

    “Or you can just admit you don’t know what rape culture actually is and refers to.”

    To show you how wrong you are, I will now write a paragraph showing how right you are!

    Well, I have certainly been pwned by that wordy demonstration that I am correct.

  15. Porivil Sorrens says

    @9
    The intense irony of showing how little you understand the concept of rape culture in response to someone claiming that you don’t understand what rape culture entails really made my morning.

  16. Khantron, the alien that only loves says

    Contrapoints video on rape culture is pretty good.

  17. Khantron, the alien that only loves says

    The “>” before quotes is a dead giveaway for a redditor.

  18. unclefrogy says

    if there is anyone who doubts that there is such a thing as “rape culture” I give you as simple example this thread as an indicator of it’s existence.
    I suspect that the controversy over the existence of rape culture resides in the fact that rape culture is but one facet of our general sexual attitudes and practices. At the risk of sounding insensitive or sexist I would bet good money that if the shame and condemnation put on the victims of rape did not exist there would a far different kind of problem and focus and a completely different response to rape.

    uncle frogy

  19. unclefrogy says

    if the most egalitarian societies (as represented by all ‘first world’ democracies) in the history of mankind

    while these might be the most egalitarian societies in history, I would need some way to verify that however,
    they still have some way to go before that description can be accurately applied, see the many racial, cultural, economic and class barriers to large portions of the populations to participate fully at all levels of society. Other wise it just sounds like someone proclaiming how wonderfully refined the Antebellum South was while disregarding what it’s wonderfulness rested upon.
    uncle frogy

  20. jack lecou says

    while these might be the most egalitarian societies in history[…], they still have some way to go before that description can be accurately applied

    I’ve noticed this same logic error with some of the James Damore / Jordan Peterson types when they talk about e.g., gender gaps in Scandinavia. Somehow they’ve decided that phrases like “most egalitarian” actually mean “the most egalitarian culture that can ever possibly exist”, when obviously it’s just short for “most egalitarian culture that happens to be available for study” and is more or less just a nice way of saying “slightly less backward in some ways than the other bozos”.

    You can imagine some Upper-Paleolithic dude deploying the same logic to turn an observation about how his microlithic scraper tool is the most advanced tool in history to ‘prove’ that humans have therefore learned everything there is to know about tool making — and further advancement is both impossible and unwise.

    Danny’s “we’ve always had rape culture, so why could you possibly want anything different” has a similar vibe to it. A sort of “if we’re the most advanced civilization in history and we sleep on damp, moldy straw, and damp, moldy straw is the most common bedding material throughout history, then what possible problem is it that you ‘dry straw’ activists could want to shed light on” feel, if you will.

  21. monad says

    @9 Danny Husar:

    We’re not talking about plane crashes – we’re talking about messy human social interactions with many degrees of grey areas and with each having their own specifi context.

    Indeed we are. Plane crashes are generally obvious, but the 1% rate of sexual coercion would refer to only cases that got reported and recognized as such. There are also going to be cases where someone suffered sexual coercion, but others decided it didn’t really count because human social interactions are messy and have grey areas.

    So it’s more like if there were a 1% chance of your plane crashing, plus some unrecorded percentage of “improper landings” that may or may not be just as damaging but get recorded differently. If you think that wouldn’t discourage people from taking planes, you’re lying to yourself.

  22. chris61 says

    The incidence of sexual coercion or unwanted sexual attention appears to be about the same for male and female students. Clearly not strictly a female student problem.

  23. raaak says

    I think the numbers are optimistic. Demeaning and sexist jokes and comments can be cleaned up. Academia will have to adopt more corporate-like professional standards, and that’s a good thing overall!

    I don’t see how you can be optimistic given the fierce backlash against diversity and inclusion both in the academia and in the workplace that threatens to undo any progress that has been made over many decades.

    Take the James Damore case. Those who ultimately want to see women back in the kitchen were powerful and influential enough to make a celebrity out of an employee who was fired for disrupting the workplace. If this was a woman or member of a minority group, the only rhetoric we would have seen from those guys was how ungrateful and incompetent the person was and how free market tossed them out! On the other hand, Damore was given a large audience to preach to about how it is in fact the men who are being oppressed! This is not just a fringe movement anymore. The fact that this happened is a bad sign in itself.

    And the #metoo movement started and got traction only because corporate-like standards for behavior failed to provide the safe environment for women in the workplace. If anything, academia should try NOT to adopt a corporate-like culture. To the degree this is happening, it is another bad sign for the future.

  24. emergence says

    That claim about “everyone thinking rape is abhorrent” is laughable when you consider how many caveats it has:
    – People will simply redefine certain behaviors as not being rape, like a husband raping his wife, someone getting someone else drunk so they can’t object, buying into “no means yes” crap, etc.
    – People will blame the victim because she was wearing a short skirt, went out alone at night, willingly went somewhere alone with the rapist, “led him on”, owed the rapist sex because he bought her something, etc.
    – People will call the victim a liar if her rapist is well-liked in the community, or if she doesn’t fit into the unrealistic cartoon image of a rape victim people have in their heads.

    That’s what rape culture is; refusing to acknowledge rape as rape, treating victims like they’re at fault, and sweeping rape cases under the rug.

  25. chrislawson says

    chris61@22–

    The incidence of sexual coercion or unwanted sexual attention appears to be about the same for male and female students. Clearly not strictly a female student problem.

    1. You can’t draw that conclusion from the data. I presume you’re taking this from the results of the U Texas survey (figure 3-3 on page 60). But the report doesn’t break down the data in fine enough detail. The figures show there is a huge increase in sexist hostility and crude behaviour for women relative to men (from 1.3 to 2.8x) but appears to be similar for the unwanted sexual attention and sexual coercion numbers (around 2-3% and 1% respectively for both sexes). The problem with this is that these latter numbers are so small and quoted to only one significant figure so it’s impossible to to tell if they are really the same underlying numbers or rounding artefacts/sampling variations.

    No doubt the UT researchers have the data and could crunch it, but that was not the point of the exercise. In the absence of clear evidence on this specific hypothesis, I would point out that where the percentages are larger and therefore differences more noticeable on the presented scale, they are always much worse for women than for men, so it’s a stretch to believe women get harassed way more than men on every scale except the ones that are hard to measure for differences.

    (To give an example where we can access the figures: in Australian intimate partner homicides 2012-14 there were 27 male and 99 female victims. In other words, women were 3.7x as likely to be victims of intimate partner killings as men. As a percentage of the Australian population that’s about 2.1 per million compared to 7.9 per million, which to the nearest round number percentage, i.e. the level of detail provided in the U Texas survey graph, would be reported as “0%” or maybe “<1%" for both; this does not mean they're about the same.)

    2. Nobody said harassment was strictly a problem for female students. But it’s a much greater problem for female students. And the recommendations would help protect males from harassment as well. (It shows the truth in the saying that unravelling patriarchal power structures is good for men as well as women.)

  26. chris61 says

    Nobody said harassment was strictly a problem for female students. But it’s a much greater problem for female students.

    But is it more of a problem for female students because female students are subjected to more harassment or because female students are more sensitive to sexual harassment? (i.e. are harassers preferentially harassing female students or not?)

  27. chrislawson says

    Porivil@27–

    yeah, after that last reply I’m sorry I bothered to engage with the sea lion.

  28. DrVanNostrand says

    Slightly off topic, but not that far since the topic is sexual harassment, Richard Carrier has lit up a ‘bat signal’ for his legal offense/SLAPP fund. Unfortunately, his comment policy is such that only his sycophants are allowed to reply.

  29. methuseus says

    @chrislawson #25:

    Nobody said harassment was strictly a problem for female students. But it’s a much greater problem for female students. And the recommendations would help protect males from harassment as well. (It shows the truth in the saying that unravelling patriarchal power structures is good for men as well as women.)

    Also, guess what? If the problem is fixed with respect to female students, we will reframe the discussion to bring the concerns about men to the forefront. Do people really think individuals like PZ (and everyone else commenting here, of course) is going to stop talking about problems with harassment just because it stops happening to women? And to be clear, I think it will be a long time before women are less affected by this than men, possibly longer than I will be alive.

    yeah, after that last reply I’m sorry I bothered to engage with the sea lion.

    I’m only partially sorry. I enjoyed your long comment, and it gives me another way to answer others who think women aren’t more targeted.

  30. cartomancer says

    So “corporate standards” are the answer to rape culture and sexual harassment in the workplace?

    Big fat no on that one I’m afraid. In fact, it’s the fundamental structure of capitalist corporations that makes the problem so much worse. Such institutions are arranged pretty much as feudal hierarchies, where higher-up individuals have quite excessive compulsive power over their subordinates. Any social arrangement where one group of people has considerable and unequal power over the lives of another is open to exploitation by abusers – sexual and otherwise.

    The solution is to break down power differentials, such that abusers have nothing to hold over the heads of their victims.

  31. call me mark says

    So Danny Husar thinks there’s no such thing as rape culture but also thinks that there are “grey areas” when it comes to consent and harassment.

    OK.

  32. chrislawson says

    methuseus@30–
    Thanks for the encouragement.

    cartomancer#31–
    Not just capitalism, but as you say, any rigid hierarchical system. The success of abusive power structures under capitalism shows that they are highly adaptable. (Of course, if capitalism really worked the way cheerleaders like Hayek say it did, then abuse in the corporate sphere would be almost unheard of.)

  33. rietpluim says

    You know, every time I read a comment like #1 I doubt myself and think I misunderstood something – and then it turns out the commenter is simply full of shit.

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