Half of women in science have experienced harassment, study finds

Half of women in science have experienced harassment, study finds
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More than half of female faculty members in the sciences have experienced harassment based on their gender, according to a study released Tuesday by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM).

The report also finds between 20 to 50 percent of female students in science, engineering and medicine have experienced sexual harassment, with female medical students being the most likely to experience harassment by faculty or staff.

The report uses survey data from more than 10,000 female undergraduate and graduate students, as well as faculty members at the University of Texas and Pennsylvania State University school systems. It also compiles insights from over 40 qualitative interviews with women in the sciences.


The male-dominated sciences have long been a focus of efforts to make the workplace more hospitable to women. Though women make up half of the total U.S. college-educated workforce, they are only 29 percent of the science and engineering workforce. The study says that dynamic is a predictor of the likelihood of sexual harassment. 

“The reason you see [high levels of sexual harassment] in the sciences — as well as politics and the military ... has to do with the way the sciences are male-dominated and are organizationally tolerant of sexual harassment,” Dr. Kathryn Clancy, a member of the committee that wrote the report and an anthropologist at the University of Illinois, said to The Hill. 

The report identifies policy recommendations at the institutional and federal levels. 

“I think what is really different about this study is that there’s a real focus on prevention of sexual harassment,” committee co-chair Paula Johnson, a physician and the president of Wellesley College, told The Hill.

Using a broad definition of sexual harassment that includes gender harassment, which Johnson describes as “put-downs as opposed to come-ons,” the report finds that prevention of harassment cannot rely solely on the justice system. 

“The legal system is wholly inadequate to handle issues of sexual harassment in the workplace,” Clancy said. “Given that three-quarters of women who report harassment are retaliated against, no one is ever satisfied by the outcome of reporting of sexual harassment. We need to find ways to change the environment, not just bring individuals to justice.”

Nearly half of the women labeled their harassment as physical abuse but even more explained the harassment they experienced as sexist with inappropriate comments and environments.

Several high-profile scientists have been accused of sexual harassment by students and colleagues over the past several years.

Paleoanthropologist Brian Richmond resigned from his position at the American Museum of Natural History after he was accused of sexual assault in 2014 and sexual harassment in 2016. Richmond has denied the allegations.

A 2017 investigation of Boston University geologist David Marchant concluded he was guilty of sexually harassing a graduate student. Marchant also denies the allegations.

Astrophysics professor Christian Ott resigned from Caltech in 2017 after an internal investigation found he harassed two female graduate students.

Yet Clancy and Johnson say the problem is larger than individual bad actors. It is also about the social norms in the workplace, and whether they allow for degradation or disrespect of women. 

The final version of the report, titled “Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine,” will be available in August 2018. 

"The cumulative effect of sexual harassment does significant damage to the research and academic enterprise," Johnson said. "Sexual harassment puts at risk research integrity and leads to a loss of talent. This is important not only for women - it’s important for the larger academic enterprise and what we achieve in science."

The study offered 14 recommendations to address the issue, ranging from diversifying leadership to creating more transparency and incentivizing change.

Miranda Green contributed

--Updated at 3:31 p.m.