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New study confirms widespread reports of science’s sexual harassment problem

Tuesday, July 11th, 2017

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.

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.”

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on July 11, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laurel Raymond is a reporter for ThinkProgress. Previously, she worked for Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and served as a Fulbright scholar at Gaziantep University in southeast Turkey. She holds a B.A. in English and a B.S. in brain and cognitive sciences from the University of Rochester, and is originally from Richmond, Vermont.

Andy for the Win!

Monday, September 26th, 2011

Jaclyn WestLitigation Value: More fodder for everybody’s negligent retention suit as Dwight shows more predilections toward violence in the workplace, but otherwise, not much litigation expected from this episode – just a host of employee morale issues. I’m sure Robert California will be harassing someone before long, though.

Well, friends, the wait is finally over – last night we met the new Sabre Scranton branch manager! The selection committee chose Robert California, played by James Spader… but after one look at the office he drove straight to Florida and talked Jo into giving him her CEO job instead. That’s one persuasive guy. I guess I can see why the selection committee liked him… well, maybe liked is too strong a word. I can see why they were intrigued. California then chose an internal candidate to fill the manager’s seat – none other than that singing phenom, Andy Bernard!

Of course, California’s reign as CEO gets off to a rocky start. After zeroing in on Erin for an intense small-talk session, California leaves his personal notebook open at the reception desk. Naturally, Erin looks at it and what she finds is a list of all the employees in the office, divided into two columns. Soon the entire office is buzzing – what does it mean? Dwight gathers the employees into two groups and prompts the left side of the column to “Attack!” – starting a minor workplace brawl, which could have been worse if anyone other than Kevin listened to Dwight. I’ll say it again. Between stashing weapons around the office, nearly shooting one of his co-workers, and now trying to start a brawl in the middle of the workplace (which is only appropriate if your workplace is a hockey rink), why is Dwight not fired yet? The guy is a negligent retention lawsuit waiting to happen. Given that he has shown, not signs, but actual acts of workplace violence, it’s only a matter of time until he seriously hurts someone – and then Sabre is going to have a big litigation bill, and maybe even a bigger settlement, on its hands.

When California invites the left side of the list – including Jim, Dwight, Oscar, Angela, Phyllis and Kevin – out to lunch and tells him that he thinks they’re “winners,” the tension escalates. If the left side of the list are winners, does that mean the right side of the list are losers? Well, yes, evidently that’s exactly what it means. The list seems to be some kind of twisted motivation tool, as California urges the “winners” to prove him right and the “losers” to prove him wrong.

As we’ve seen time and time again (i.e. with Michael Scott), so many workplace problems are caused by a lack of common sense. As lawyers, we often focus on the legal ramifications of a particular action. And while the legal ramifications are important, it’s also important to consider things like how a particular action by a manager will appear to employees. Using common sense can avert a lot of problems in the office, while failing to use it can cause them. Union organizing campaigns can often be traced back to an abrasive manager, for example. Employees who feel respected and valued are most likely to work hard, be productive, and perform well. Employees who feel disrespected and undervalued often don’t give their best efforts, and quite a few of them get litigious.

Not a good way to start off your CEO-ship, Robert California. Did you miss the day of kindergarten where you were supposed to learn the golden rule? Think of how you’d respond if you spotted your name on a list made by your boss, and didn’t know what it meant. Would it be a delightful puzzle or a source of added stress? And then, if you found out it was because your boss thought you were a “loser,” would you be trying to prove him wrong, or would you be polishing your resume? I’m not talking about writing a note to the file of an employee you think shows great promise, to watch out for advancement opportunities for the person – that’s fine. But the list was immature, in poor taste, and set up a possibly serious workplace morale problem.

One good thing did come out of the whole debacle, though – Andy got to show what kind of manager we can expect him to be. Although he was understandably nervous around the new CEO, he went to bat for his team and showed California exactly why he shouldn’t leap to conclusions about people before getting to know them. Andy even found kind words to say about Meredith. He showed, dare I say, a Michael Scott-esque commitment to his people. I’ve always thought Michael’s best quality was the way he valued his team, and Andy showed that he values them just as highly and is just as willing to stick his neck out for them. Good on you, Andy. Ezra Cornell would be proud. And so would Michael Scott.

This blog post originally appeared in “That’s What She Said” on September 23, 2011. Reprinted with permission.

“That’s What She Said” is a Ford & Harrison blog about labor and employment issues revolving around themes from the hit TV show, The Office. Ford & Harrison “is a labor and employment law firm with a national practice in all aspects of labor and employment law.  Close to 200 labor and employment lawyers in 21 offices across the country, as well as 3 of counsel affiliate offices, strive to provide clients with sound legal advice, practical counseling and excellent client service.”

About the Author: Jacyln West concentrates her practice on labor relations and employment litigation representing management. Her practice encompasses all areas relating to the counseling, training and representation of management clients in federal and state courts, as well as before state and local agencies and in arbitration.

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