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An Obstacle For Women In STEM That We're Only Beginning To Talk About

It's hard to lean in when self-preservation tells you to lean out. A new survey examines sexual aggression on scientific field sites.

An Obstacle For Women In STEM That We're Only Beginning To Talk About

Painting: Paul Corio

In 2011, Dr. Kate Clancy, an assistant professor at the University of Illinois and regular blogger for Scientific American, sat down for a talk with a friend that she now remembers as a "wake-up call." From across the table, the friend, a female PhD student, confessed running into problems while finishing her dissertation. When Clancy asked why, the friend revealed that she had been sexually assaulted while doing her dissertational fieldwork.

The dissertation was stalled because the friend had trouble looking at the data gathered from that time. It triggered flashbacks.

As Clancy continued to explore issues related to the inclusion of women in STEM careers, she only came across more stories similar to her friend's. But this week, she and a group of three other collaborators were able to publish real, hard data about the incidence of sexual harassment and assault on scientific field sites in journal PLoS One. Out of a survey of more than 600 field scientists, ranging from high school students to retired faculty, more than two-thirds reported sexual harassment, with women 3.5 times more likely to report sexual harassment over men. Women were also more likely to report having been sexually assaulted: 26% of women in the sample reported the experience, as did 6% of men.

Credit: PLoS One/Clancy et al.

Hostile workplaces are often cited as one reason, among many, that could explain the perplexing drop-off in women pursuing STEM courses and careers past high school and college. But until Clancy started looking into the data, she never imagined sexual assault might play a role. If it does, it's no wonder: It's difficult to "lean in" when your entire sense of self-preservation is screaming at you to lean out.

In that way, some aspects of the report don't come as much of a surprise. The survey, generated by the outreach efforts of a variety of professional science organizations, arrives at a time when people are paying more attention to how regularly sexual violence occurs on college campuses and frat row, and how poorly schools deal with that sad fact. According to the most recent national survey on sexual violence, 18.3% of U.S. women report having been raped at least once in their lives, and nearly 80% of them before the age of 25. Dovetailing the national trend, Clancy and her co-authors found that the sweeping majority of those who had reported sexual harassment or assault on a field site experienced it in a trainee career position—ranging from high school student to junior employee.

The number of field scientists who indicated that they had been sexually assaulted was shockingly high, adds study co-author and Skidmore College assistant professor Robin Nelson. Part of the reason could be that field sites—like corporate off-site trips—engender a feeling of being distant from the regular social rules of an institution. But survey findings also turned up another dynamic at play: Of the men who reported having been sexually harassed or assaulted, the perpetrators were primarily listed as peers. For the women, the violation came down the chain of command: Nearly 50% reported assault by superiors in rank.

"There's been a lot of research that suggests that [vertical abuse] is more likely for women, and that it also creates a lot more psychological harm when the perpetrator has more power," Clancy says. "It also suggests that—also, researchers have been able to demonstrate time and time again that—these interactions are not about sex, but about power."

Credit: PLoS One/Clancy et al.

At the same time, with 87% of the survey's respondents identifying as white, and the majority of them women, survey respondents were far from a representative sample of field scientists. But there were also enough responses therein to suggest that the power dynamics present on these field sites could be part of a much larger problem.

After all, this kind of sexual aggression doesn't just crop up unheeded; it's hitched to the same kind of violence that plagues the rest of the general population. And leaning in isn't much of a solution for a structural problem that victimizes people with the least amount of power. A cultural issue as large and shame-filled as sexual assault, especially in STEM environments, requires that everyone—not just women—be aware and work to fix it.

Yet, on the researchers' behalf, Clancy says that the team wasn't trying to be prescriptive. Instead, they're still investigating the problem. With a follow-up study that will examine the qualitative data from 26 stories of field site sexual assault and harassment, it's a good place to start the conversation.