Science Has a Sexual Harassment Problem – Here’s What’s Being Done About it

Sexual harassment has been a big focus in the news as of late, but much of this focus has been primarily concerned with the harassment issues in Hollywood and the political sphere. However, the scientific community has long been criticized for being a hostile environment for women as well. There have been numerous complaints that it is a culture that harbors prevalent sexism and ignores sexual harassment, but there has been considerably less attention given to it.

Although efforts have been made to combat this problem as of late—including some success in this area thanks to the #MeToo movement—it still remains a prominent issue and a heated talking point. There is still a large number of people who don’t think sexism is that big of a problem in the community. Quite a few scientists even refuse to acknowledge that they may have sexist biases, despite being shown research that suggests otherwise.

A rampant problem

While a lot of the sexism that women face in science is often unpronounced, if not even a subconscious act, there is still a large amount of blatant sexual harassment that goes on as well. According to a survey conducted by the University of Texas System, 20% of women pursuing either an undergraduate or postgraduate degree in science have faced sexual harassment from faculty members or staff.

Another survey that was done in 2014 found that 64% of women doing scientific fieldwork experienced sexual harassment and 22% experienced sexual assault while working in the field. This creates an unsafe environment for women who end up having to fear going out into the field in order to do their work.

These two studies are among many others that have shown similar rates of sexual harassment as well, showcasing just how bad the sexual harassment problem is in the scientific community.

With statistics like these, it’s no wonder that so many women feel like they aren’t welcomed in the community. This inevitably leads to fewer women participating in scientific research as well as fewer women interested in STEM fields in general, and it harms those who are already involved with science. Many who experience sexual harassment end up dropping out of science completely.

What’s being done

Luckily, more people have begun taking notice of this problem and have started working towards enacting change in hopes of making the scientific community a more egalitarian and welcoming place for women.

Most recently, a number of leaders in the scientific community have been proclaiming the need for systemic change in the community and calling for strict policies to help fight the sexual harassment problem that plagues science. In specific, several leaders of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) wrote an editorial pointing out the need for action.

A few organizations have already begun enacting such policies, including the AAAS themselves. AAAS’s new policy gives them the ability to revoke the membership of elected fellows in the case that they violate a set of professional ethics, of which sexual harassment would be one such violation.

Likewise, the National Science Foundation has established its own policy that will require all organizations that receive funding from the NSF to report any cases of sexual harassment. From there, they could take action against these organizations by cutting funding. It is their hope that this will help lower the amount of sexual harassment in the scientific community by punishing organizations who harbor such attitude.

Although these policies certainly won’t completely rid the scientific community of all cases of sexual harassment, they are a good first step among many that will be required. What is most important here is that large organizations, and the leadership at the head of them, are finally taking notice of a problem that has long plagued the community and have decided to take actions to help reduce it.

Future efforts

Along with organizations enacting new policies that target sexual harassment, raising awareness and making efforts to change workplace culture will go a long way to combating this problem.

However, tackling sexual harassment is but one piece of the puzzle. Even with harassment out of the picture, women in science still regularly deal with discrimination that is rooted in sexism. The only way to change this is by focusing on inclusion, diversity, and instilling a welcoming attitude throughout the entire scientific community.

More efforts need to be made to help women feel included and safe in the scientific community, as well as help inspire young girls to someday pursue science. The combined effort of sweeping culture change and including more women in science will be a required endeavor in order to solve the problem for good.

Click here to get the latest life sciences news straight to your inbox. Subscribe now to our FREE newsletters

Back to news