Kelly J. Baker

Editor at Women in Higher Education

Science Isn’t the Problem; Scientists Are

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Image: Pearl I. Young at the NACA Langley Instrument Research Laboratory

If you want recent evidence of the attitudes male scientists have about women, look no further than #shirtstorm. Last week, in a scientific first, the Philae spacecraft landed on a comet. What should have been a celebration of science turned into a discussion of sexism because of Rosetta research scientist Matt Taylor’s shirt. He wore the offending shirt emblazoned with scantily clad ladies to a press conference, and, unsurprisingly, faced public criticism of his sartorial choice. When a science writer tweeted her mild criticism of Taylor’s shirt, she was bombarded by comments to “get back in the kitchen” and “kill yourself.”

In September, writing in The Guardian about the culture that women often encounter in the tech industry, Jess Zimmerman wondered what the real problem might be for retaining and promoting women in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). After all, much attention has been directed toward the “leaky pipeline” and the well-documented gender gap, and many programs directed at girls and women are seeking to fix both. The American Association of University Professors promotes recruiting girls for the “STEM pipeline” while admitting that there are still barriers to women’s progress including persistent gender bias and unfriendly workplaces. We now know that even when women get degrees in those fields, they don’t stay.

The question becomes: Why? In her commentary, Zimmerman suggested that “lazy, retrogressive attitudes about how women should behave” were part of the reason women opt out of STEM. Recruiting women and girls for these fields is touted as a social good, and I (mostly) support these efforts. But like Zimmerman, I worry that the real change that is needed is not about promoting STEM fields to women, but rather a change in the culture to make those fields more welcoming. The pipeline is leaky due to the attitudes and toxic work environments that women in science and technology encounter both in their training and later in their work.

Taylor, the scientist sporting the questionable T-shirt, later apologized, as he should. A male colleague noted that Taylor was “no misogynist.” Yet men (and women) can perpetuate sexism without meaning to, and wearing a sexist shirt does not suggest a welcome environment for women in STEM. It is disturbing that apparently no one at the European Space Agency found the shirt objectionable either.

That is why I found a recent essay in The New York Times about how academic science isn’t sexist so remarkably frustrating. Rather than identifying the barriers women face in pursuing STEM careers in academe, the authors (two Cornell University professors, one of them a woman) blame the shortage of women in math-based fields on “women’s earlier educational choices” and “women’s occupational and lifestyle preferences.” In short, they lay the blame for the lack of women in STEM on the women and the choices we make.

Blaming women is an easy strategy, the harder one is to meaningfully engage the myriad of factors that lead women to avoid or drop out of STEM. Like many others, I was pretty shocked that anyone could claim that science, or any other field of human endeavor, wasn’t sexist. After all, sexism is stealthy and structural, and just because you don’t notice it, Cornell professors, doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

Sexism often appears normal and unobjectionable precisely because it is so pervasive. Over the last year, female scientists have openly discussed gender discrimination, sexual harassment, and sexual assault. Granted, those problems have been around for awhile, but the renewed attention is heartening. Projects like #ripplesofdoubt, curated by Karen James, a staff scientist at Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory, provide ways for women and men to discuss how harassment affected their careers and their lives. James wrote about the toll of harassment, including self-doubt, concerns about how physical appearance played into career advantages or disadvantages, guilt over staying quiet about harassment, and the deep regret over choices made under duress. The #ripplesofdoubt campaign garnered national attention, as did several high-profile incidents, including allegations of sexual harassment by three women that lead Bora Zivkovic to step down as blog editor of Scientific American and disgusting treatment of Danielle Lee by a now former editor of Biology-Online.

In The New York Times, geobiologist Hope Jahren wrote eloquently about being sexually assaulted during fieldwork and how that experience changed the course of her career. In July, Lilith Antinori, an undergraduate math major at Pennsylvania State University, and her professor and adviser, Nate Brown, created the Everyday Sexism in STEM project to collect anecdotes from women in the sciences about sexism, with the specific goal of documenting just how common it is. The project is a riff off the Everyday Sexism project, and contributors post stories, often anonymously, that range from microaggressions to harassment.

Part of what motivated Antinori to start the project, she said in an email, was the skepticism or silence that she received from peers when she described her own experiences of gender discrimination. They wondered why she was so “sensitive” -- an accusation that places the blame on the targets of discrimination rather than on the perpetrators. Antinori wants Everyday Sexism in STEM to counter the isolation and show “how intractable and ubiquitous gender discrimination in STEM still is.”

Her adviser, Nate Brown, said the website also has the potential to challenge men in science, “who hold the lion’s share of senior positions and power,” to realize that sexism in academia is a not a “thing of the past.” The women sharing their experiences on the site alongside high-profile allegations demonstrate that sexism and harassment still very much exist in science and in academia more broadly.

Yet anthropologist Kate Clancy knows that scientists (and the larger public) aren’t always moved by qualitative data, including tweets, stories, and personal anecdotes. Now, however, we also have data to document just how pervasive sexism is.

After hearing so many stories of harassment and assault from colleagues, Clancy decided she need quantitative data to convince fellow scientists of the problem. She enlisted her fellow anthropologists -- Robin Nelson, Julienne Rutherford, and Katie Hinde -- to create an Internet survey, which was completed by 666 field scientists. In July, PLOS ONE published their study about sexual harassment and assault in STEM fields entitled “The Survey of Academic Field Experiences” (SAFE).

What Clancy and her colleagues uncovered is disturbing, if unsurprising. Some 64 percent of the respondents personally encountered sexual harassment: inappropriate jokes, commentary about their sexuality and/or appearance, and claims about how their gender related to their intelligence. Over 20 percent of those surveyed reported sexual assault.

Most important, gender was a key factor in predicting who actually faced harassment and assault. Women (71 percent) were much more likely to experience both harassment and assault than men (41 percent). Women were about four times more likely to be sexually assaulted on site. Distressingly, many field sites and labs lacked codes of conduct, sexual-harassment policies, or effective reporting tools. Only 18 percent of those surveyed were aware of mechanisms to report assaults. Of those who did report an assault, the majority said they were dissatisfied with the results.

The power dynamics of harassment were also different for women and men. The SAFE study documented that harassment and assault were aimed primarily at trainees, including students (undergraduate and graduate) and postdocs. Meanwhile, the harassers were at different ranks: Men were targeted by their peers, while women faced harassment and assault from superiors.

What is important to note here is that the abuse happened at the early career stages for women, a period when they are the most professionally vulnerable. In an interview with Harvard Magazine, Katie Hinde suggested that the pipeline could be leaky because of the “egregious sexual behavior” faced by female scientists.

The study’s results were shocking to me, even though I’ve heard many stories of harassment and experienced it firsthand. Clancy explained that my reaction was not uncommon: “Something about seeing those numbers is really hard, even knowing the stories.” What she wanted to make sure I knew was that the numbers actually match the “wider world.” In other words, SAFE is consistent with other studies of workplace harassment. Women are harassed no matter where we work. SAFE received plenty of media attention (here, here, and here), as it rightly should, because it starts an important conversation about the prevalence of harassment and assault that happens even in academia.

Writing in The New York Times, Christie Aschwanden notes that the findings of SAFE are “depressingly similar” to responses of an online questionnaire of 502 science writers -- most of whom were women. Nearly half experienced sexual comments while 20 percent encountered unwanted physical contact. Over half also noted that their gender meant they were not “taken seriously.” Women science writers, like women scientists, encountered harassment and assault, too.

When I first started researching this column, I wondered if there was something particular about STEM that created cultures of harassment and gender bias. Deluged by personal narratives and data, it seemed that an indictment of STEM was building, and I worried about the campaigns that directed girls and women to these fields. However, the more time I’ve spent with this essay (and I’ve spent way too much time with it), the more I realize that my first impressions might have been wrong.

Science isn’t the problem; scientists are. Male-dominated fields seem prone to harassment, as Rebecca Schuman deftly shows in her discussion of how philosophy’s bro culture can breed discrimination, harm, and abuse. The problem, then, is not inherently science, tech, or philosophy, but the men (and women) who populate those fields and create toxic work environments. The problem is unchecked sexism. The problem is teachers and professors who discourage women from majoring in science. The problem is the protection of harassers, rapists, and abusers. The problem is claiming that somehow your research is more important than the lives you’ve ruined, and your colleagues letting you get away with it. The problem is being a bystander and allowing someone to make hurtful comments with impunity. The problem is that you might benefit from sexism while others always lose. The problem is that some field sites and labs create inhospitable spaces and protect the space rather than their colleagues and students. The problem is that shirts with busty ladies seem OK until someone calls you on it, Matt Taylor.

So, how are we going to fix it? It is 2014. Are we still going to be having these conversations in 2024? Or can we make the culture of labs, fieldwork, and science writing more hospitable to women? The SAFE study recommends training programs on sexual harassment and assault as well as viable reporting mechanisms as first steps to dealing with the problems. Let’s start there and go much further.

Correction (November 24, 2014 9:14 a.m.): The original version of this article incorrectly named Lilith Antinori's and Nate Brown's institution. They are at Pennsylvania State University, not at the University of Pennsylvania. The text has been corrected.

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