Take a look at media reports of why women opt out of science and engineering careers and you will find a list of reasons such as personal choice, lack of LEGOs as a kid, and a desire for better work-family balance. However, one thing rarely on that list is sexual harassment. Over the summer, former BIRCWH fellow Julienne Rutherford and her colleagues, Drs. Kathryn B. H. Clancy, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign; Robin Nelson, Skidmore College; and Katie Hinde, Harvard University, published a paper in PLoS ONE based on a survey of 666 scientists whose work requires them to be in the field, and found an astounding two-thirds had experienced some form of sexual harassment, including 20% who were assaulted . This shocking finding resulted in an avalanche of press hits ranging from The New York Times to Truthout, including:
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. – Candice Bernd in Truthout, July 29, 2014
A major step in decreasing these occurrences is shifting cultural awareness. Campus assault doesn’t only happen in house parties or dorm rooms—it can also take place anywhere. The foremost goal is to communicate to predators not to sexually harass, assault and rape, but beyond that, a great course of action is to collectively push for straightforward sexual harassment policies in the workplace. – Claire Hannum at The Frisky, July 17, 2014
Psychologist Rebecca Campbell, who studies the effect of sexual harassment on communities, says that while all workplace harassment is harmful, it can be particularly damaging when coming from a superior. She also says these findings should be incorporated into the broader discussion about campus sexual harassment and violence. – Kara Manke at NPR.org, July 17, 2014
Whether harassment or discrimination takes place at a field site in Costa Rica or in a conference room, the problem will not be solved with new rules archived on unread websites. The responsibility for pushing back should not rest solely with the victims. Solutions require a change of culture that can happen only from within. – Christie Aschwanden in The New York Times, Aug 11, 2014
So far on Twitter, the combined reach of the paper has approached 2 million users, and the paper has been viewed on the PLoS ONE website nearly 48,000 times. California Rep. Jackie Spearer cited the study extensively in her letter to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) [PDF LINK] about its use of sexualized and dehumanized images of transsexual sex workers on the cover of Science. The Twitter hashtag, #Safe13, is being used to connect women and men concerned about sexual harassment and assault in the sciences. It has become one of the more prominent emblems of gender equity on Twitter. Clearly this issue is of great importance to people outside of academia. Alas, while some academic media outlets have run op-eds that cite the report, none have reported on the survey itself.
Dr. Rutherford thinks few academic outlets are reporting on the survey because academics themselves are still processing the results. We reflected on the issue of romance in the lab, and professors dating students. During our training as students, we both knew of fellow students who dated professors. How much consent can any student give to a professor in their field, especially given how small subfields can get, and how a bad breakup can have an impact on professional standing? Dr. Rutherford said she was spending a lot of time reflecting on her own experience as a student, and felt that others are doing the same, as Aschwanden suggested in her New York Times essay. Not to excuse any of the harassment or assaults reported, but when one is in a system where these behaviors are tolerated, or willfully ignored, it may be difficult to read survey results that suggest one’s tolerance of past behavior may have harmed another person’s life, much less their career.
Where the paper has made an academic splash is at conferences and at the department- head level. Rutherford and colleagues wanted it to get out to fellow scientists to start changing the culture of doing science. But the response was beyond anything they imagined. They didn’t expect it to be so rapidly incorporated into lab meetings and syllabi. They didn’t expect it to so quickly make it into the hands of department heads, deans, chancellors, and program officers. Dr. Rutherford and her three co-authors have spent a lot of time on the phone and Skype in a daze, and sometimes in tears, since the paper came out, because the data have resonated so strongly with so many people—because people have written them, called them, and walked up to them in meetings to thank them for this work.
Rutherford was recently at a conference that brought together young scientists from many disparate disciplines. The subject of the paper organically came up in a number of conversations and it was an incredible experience to note the part she played, and then personally engage with men and women she hadn’t known before, about how they wanted to help make the change. One woman told her that being able to hold the paper up at meetings in support of the arguments she’s been making at her institution has allowed her to move beyond being “that feminist,” because it’s not easy to ignore solid evidence of the problem. Empowering others to transcend institutional barriers has been so far the most rewarding, exciting, and humbling experience in her career.
Another place of change is with those charged with administering field sites. In light of the paper, Rutherford knows some colleagues who have drafted their own field-site-specific policies of conduct and reporting mechanisms, and think that idea is catching on. The study findings suggest that principal investigators, site managers, course directors, and advisors have a lot of agency to make actionable changes, and we are seeing that happen. Rutherford thinks that change at the level of the professional society will come, but it will be somewhat slower. After the preliminary data were presented at the American Association of Physical Anthropologists meeting in April 2013, the American Anthropological Association issued its “zero tolerance” stance on sexual harassment and assault. We know of other professional associations that have circulated the paper and have been holding internal discussions, and there are some ethics committees within associations that have been rethinking their policies. Some professional conferences already have sexual harassment policies for the duration of their meetings. Rutherford and her colleagues think this is really important and want to see more of that, as it reinforces that these places are still workplaces, and as such, all members of the workforce are entitled to safety and dignity.
So what is next for this group of women who are opening up conversations about harassment in the sciences? They are working on a second paper analyzing dozens of detailed follow-up phone interviews of a subset of their survey respondents. They are conducting thematic analysis to determine characteristics of respondents who indicated they were targets and characteristics of the sites where they were targeted. This deep contextualizing of the phenomenon will point the way to more ways the culture of harassment and disenfranchisement of our most vulnerable scientists can be changed for trainees at the earliest stages of their careers. Both targets and bystanders suffer from these environments and Rutherford and her colleagues hope to present a cogent analysis of the emotional and professional consequences. Rutherford and colleagues are also hearing from other researchers from numerous fields who are launching their own studies. All four coauthors have advised colleagues who are moving forward with this kind of work.
Sexual harassment and assault are issues that are far too often whispered about or discussed in ways to avoid the instigator (e.g., “Don’t be alone with him!”). Dr. Rutherford and her colleagues collected those whispers and painted a picture that appears bleak. But from that bleak reality is a growing conversation that is long overdue and creating positive outcomes. The more light we shine throughout the sciences, the better we can make the work and social environment, and the better and more innovative we can make scientific endeavors.
Read more about what the UIC Center for Research on Women and Gender is working on in our Fall 2014 newsletter in PDF format.
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