Women in STEM Fields Facing Sexual Harassment

Amiel Gregorio Female Empowerment

With the predatory behavior of Hollywood hot shot Harvey Weinstein making headlines, the inappropriate behavior of men towards their female colleagues has been in the limelight.

But it’s not just in Hollywood and politics that degrading behavior towards women is rampant. Women in (STEM) fields, including the field of medicine, are no strangers to sexual harassment. Many victims keep silent for fear of retaliation and institutions choose to brush the matter under the rug to maintain their untarnished reputation and keep superstar professors happy.

But with all the publicity the issue has garnered in recent times, numbers of female scientists have started coming forward to tell their own stories of sexual harassment in the workplace, which is forcing academic institutions to take stern action against unacceptable conduct by putting in place policies and procedures that encourage victims of sexual harassment to speak up.

As an example, the American Geophysical Union (AGU) has issued an updated integrity and ethics policy which, for the first time, has labeled sexual harassment as a type of scientific misconduct on equal footing with plagiarism, falsification, and fabrication. Leaders hope that this new policy will have a ripple effect and reopen the discussion on tackling harassment head on within the scientific community.

Many scientific and academic institutions are following suit with renewed efforts to combat sexual harassment, including major policy revisions and further research into the extent of the problem. The biggest challenge, however, is to create a culture where women do not feel threatened to work in male-dominated scientific disciplines.

That sexual harassment in the scientific community is prevalent has been confirmed by a number of studies ranging in setting from offices to campuses. A Committee on Women in Science, Engineering, and Medicine by the National Academies conducted a two-day workshop and discovered that 4 to 7 out of 10 women had experienced harassment of a sexual nature at some point during their careers or student years. Many studies over the years consistently revealed the same range of prevalence.

The internet-based SAFE (Survey of Academic Field Experiences) found that out of 700 American female participants, more than 60 percent more than 60 percent reported experiencing inappropriate behavior, remarks, or jokes during field research in archaeology and anthropology. Even more shocking, two in ten women reported being victims of sexual assault in their work environments, most often as trainees by senior scientists or managers.

You’ll see the same story in other parts of the globe as well. A worldwide compilation of surveys from the United States, Canada, Australia, U.K., and Sweden revealed that 25 to 75 percent of respondents had experienced sexual harassment during training or the practice of medicine.

With so many women speaking up about their experiences, we must look this truth in the face. We must be better. We must challenges ourselves to develop strategies to prevent sexual harassment and promote the careers of women in science for an equal future.

Accelerated efforts are needed if the workforce needs of the 21st century in STEM are going to be met. Combating sexual harassment is key to recruiting and retaining the best minds in the field. The issues of sexual harassment and gender discrimination must be kept in the public mind with social media campaigns. We must be leaders in creating a safe atmosphere in the scientific community that is welcoming to both women and minorities.