In January 2016, Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) took to the House floor and delivered a blistering speech on a topic not often discussed outside the towers of academia: sexual harassment in the sciences.
“When I was made aware of it, I was astonished and disgusted,” Speier told Wired about the case she presented on the floor, based on a leaked report on harassment at the University of Arizona. But she wasn’t surprised: “It was consistent with what I have seen in science for a long time.”
As Speier notes, the idea that science has a sexual harassment problem is hardly new — particularly for female scientists, who’ve been dealing with and fighting against it for decades. But until recently, it didn’t get a lot of attention. Speier’s speech helped open up a dam, as female scientists came forward in droves to share their experiences with sexist discrimination and harassment.
And this week, new survey data confirms what the anecdotes told us: Women, and particularly women of color, working within the astronomical and planetary sciences are vastly more likely than their male colleagues to experience a hostile work environment based on their race or gender.
A series of scandals
Speier her speech began by referencing two high-profile cases that had shaken the world of astronomy and first brought the issue into the spotlight, the first of which centered on world-famous astronomer, tenured professor, and, as it turns out, serial sexual harasser Geoff Marcy.
Marcy had repeatedly violated the school’s sexual harassment policy and engaged in inappropriate behavior with female students, including unwanted massages, kisses, and groping, as a Title IX investigation leaked to Buzzfeed revealed. According to subsequent reports, his behavior dated back to previous academic posts and had gone on for decades with little consequence, despite numerous reports from women.
Despite the extensive documentation and report, Berkeley did not hand down punishment for Marcy. He resigned from his tenured position down after pressure from his colleagues.
Then, a similar story broke at Caltech, where newly-tenured astrophysics professor Christian Ott was suspended for inappropriate behavior toward two female graduate students — one of whom he fired after he fell in love with her, upending her research plans and ultimately causing her to leave the university to finish her studies elsewhere.
And on the floor, Speier outed yet another instance of harassment within astronomy: Timothy Frederick Slater, a professor at the University of Wyoming who obtained the post despite a documented history of sexual harassment at his previous job at the University of Arizona.
As the topic moved out of the shadows and into the mainstream, women from all across the sciences came forward with their own stories of gender-based discrimination and harassment.
Reformers, however, still faced a classic problem when it comes to sexual harassment: disbelief. Were these anecdotes just isolated incidents, or particularly high-profile examples of a widespread epidemic?
Now, new survey data published in the Journal of Geophysical Research is helping confirm that it’s the latter — and illustrate that when it comes to harassment and hostile workplace behavior, women of color, as a double minority, are the people at the greatest risk.
A culture of sexism
Researchers surveyed 474 astronomers and planetary scientists in an internet survey, asking about their experience with harassment over a period of five years. As they were particularly interested in the experience of women — who experience the majority of sexual harassment and gender discrimination in the workplace, and who also form a minority group within the scientific field at issue — they specifically targeted recruitment so they would be oversampling women relative to their numbers in the field.
They found that overall, women were more likely than men to experience a hostile work environment, and were far more likely to experience sexism and harassment.
“The results were initially worse than expected, as somebody who’s been working in and around these issues for some time,” study co-author Christina Richey told Inside Higher Ed. “It’s a little disheartening, but at least as we present this information it’s an opportunity for that gut-check moment. It forces conversations to start.”
Seventy-nine percent of women surveyed reported hearing at least some sexist remarks from their peers, and 44 percent reported hearing them from their supervisors. Women were also more likely than men to hear remarks about their physical ability or disability. Seventy-five percent of women reported hearing remarks from others about their mental abilities, as compared to 48 percent of men.
And in nearly every significant area, the researchers found that “women of color experienced the most hostile environment, from the negative remarks observed to their direct experiences of verbal and physical harassment.”
Forty percent of women of color reported feeling unsafe at work because of their gender, and 28 percent reported feeling unsafe because of their race. They also observed the highest frequency of problematic remarks, as compared to white men and men of color and white women, and were the most likely to report harassment based on their race.
White women and women of color experienced verbal harassment related to their gender about equally — with 43 percent and 44 percent reporting it, respectively.
Read #astroSH to see what women are expected to endure just to do astronomy. This is not a few isolated incidents. It's a rotten culture.
— Janet D. Stemwedel (@docfreeride) January 14, 2016
Overall, the study paints a picture of endemic hostile experiences predicated by race, gender, and their intersections.
And this culture has an effect: Thirteen percent of women reported skipping at least one class, meeting, fieldwork, or professional event due to feeling unsafe, as compared to 3 percent of men. Twenty-one percent of women of color reported skipping professional events due to feeling unsafe, as did 18 percent of men of color. Only 2 percent of white men reported skipping at least one event due to feeling unsafe.
This result underlines a common theme with workplace sexual harassment: Often, when men in power harass their employees, it’s the women on the receiving end whose careers pay the price.
A discriminatory environment creates a leaky pipeline
This study specifically focused on astronomy and the planetary sciences — one area within the sciences where women are particularly scarce, and where some of the highest-profile scandals have occurred.
Reports indicate, however, that the problem stems across disciplines and even across academia. According to a 2015 report, one in three female science professors reported experiencing sexual harassment at some point in their career.
One likely reason sexual harassment in the sciences is prevalent is because of gender imbalances in the field: While women now outnumber men in social and some biosciences, they remain drastically underrepresented in engineering, physics, and computer science.
Academia is also a world where length of career matters. For decades, women weren’t even accepted to technical or scientific degrees. Now, that legacy still lingers in the ranks of those who lead University departments or who built powerful research legacies — and therefore are in charge of the course of young careers. That means that more often than not, even as more women are being encouraged to choose STEM careers, those in charge of mentorship, funding, and career opportunities are men.
All of this has a perpetuating effect: Women remain stubbornly underrepresented in the sciences, and part of that is because the pipeline is leaky.
In engineering, for example, women earn only 19 percent of bachelor’s degrees, and then on top of that 40 percent of female degree earners leave the field, citing hostile work cultures, limited advancement opportunities, and unsupportive supervisors.
That’s a problem not just for women, but also for science in general, because it means that fields are missing out on bright minds.
The authors of the study offer several suggestions for remedying the environment for women and women of color in science — including adopting codes of conduct protecting vulnerable populations, providing diversity and cultural awareness training, and helping women and women of color to build communities of peers.
They also recommend that when abuse is reported, that the perpetrators be sanctioned swiftly, justly, and consistently, “as this is the only way to signal consequences to the target and the broader community.”