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Have the Sciences Had a #MeToo Moment? Not So Much.

In many fields, sexual harassers have lost their jobs. But in the sciences, they’re often still getting paychecks instead of punishment.

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When illustrator Cristiana Couceiro looked through stock photos of scientists, the images of men looked “credible and real,” while the depictions of women were “flirty and sweet.” That feeds a mind-set that promotes sexual harassment, Couceiro reasoned. So she designed this illustration to project “a feeling of fighting back.” Although it’s surrounded by threats and pressures represented by symbols of the sciences, the womanly mouth “is tired of the silence,” Couceiro says. “It’s finally screaming all the things that were kept quiet for so long.”
This story appears in the May 2018 issue of National Geographic magazine.

I have watched the #metoo campaign as avidly as anyone. I have gone to bed each night wondering who will be outed as a sexual harasser in the morning, whether it will be another one of my political heroes or someone we all recognize from mainstream media or Hollywood. We’ve seen many of these perpetrators lose jobs, be forced to resign, and face economic difficulty because of their abhorrent behaviors.

But I have not gone to bed a single night in all these months wondering what scientist would be sacked in the morning because of his transgressions—let alone be publicly outed—because scientist-harassers rarely lose their jobs.

I have not gone to bed a single night in all these months wondering what scientist was going to lose his job—because scientist-harassers don’t lose their jobs.

Allow me to explain. For the past six years I’ve conducted research on sexual harassment in the sciences and worked to raise awareness of it. I’ve surveyed more than a thousand people, conducted dozens of interviews, and collaborated across multiple disciplines. I’ve given lectures and delivered congressional testimony on the topic. Here’s what the research shows:

  • In our samples both sexual harassment and sexual assault were reported by more women than men—mirroring the situation in society at large.
  • Women’s experiences of sexual misconduct during scientific fieldwork were not just quantitatively higher but also qualitatively worse than men’s. Women victims were more often targeted by perpetrators above them in the hierarchy and felt they could not fight back or say no. Few individuals had any awareness of a sexual harassment policy or reporting mechanism; even fewer dared report their experiences.
  • Scientists who are harassed face significant career consequences, ranging from having to make lateral career moves to not feeling safe enough to attend professional events—or even stay in the field.

Too often the story is the same: A man sexually harasses a woman, the woman reports it, and she gets told that’s just how it is. There are variations on this theme: women harassing women, people harassing those they don’t think conform to their gender well enough, women of color receiving a toxic blend of racial and gender harassment. Want a story of women being mocked when they need to urinate and being body shamed if they eat dinner? I’ve got one of those. How about a man who has a mistress that students at his field site have to keep secret from his wife and kids at home? I’ve got a few of those. Nearly every person of color and white woman I spoke to for an astronomy and planetary science project had stories of being told by their colleagues that they were the affirmative action hire, the implication being that their science was no good.

In the past few years brave scientists have come forward to share their experiences: Several high-profile academics were accused of sexually harassing students or colleagues, were investigated, and then were put on leave or forced to step down. We know the names now: Geoff Marcy, Brian Richmond, David Marchant, Christian Ott, among others. These men were allowed to flourish while their victims struggled. Even after their abuses were reported, after their stories were made public, it took an interminably long time for them to face any repercussions. And perhaps more importantly, it was rare for the victims to get the resolution they deserved.

In the sciences a true reckoning about sexual harassment faces a number of roadblocks. The first is the myth that these perpetrators, mostly men, have exceptional abilities to offer science. Next is the idea that repercussions for the perpetrator may trickle down to his trainees, so we should avoid any consequences at all (I hear this one in particular when the perpetrator has a lot of federal funding). Finally, the way most universities interpret the legal definition of sexual harassment makes it hard for victims’ claims to prevail—so at the end of an exhausting investigation, many still have to endure a hostile workplace environment.

Let’s take these on one by one.

Are people who engage in sexual misconduct actually making scientific advances that would not be made without them? I’d say it’s more likely that swifter, greater advances would have occurred if there were fewer perpetrators limiting opportunities for their victims. When part of your brain has to be occupied with workplace stress—from unwanted sexual advances to witnessing abuse between colleagues—you have less to give to your science.

If we punish these perpetrators, especially by taking away their funding, won’t their trainees suffer? I wonder how many grad students would be better off, relieved of the pressures of working for a predator. As federal funding agencies grapple with this problem, they have begun to figure out solutions, such as assigning a new principal investigator if the original one can’t continue. It doesn’t kill the project or leave students and staff out of their jobs. Removing the perpetrator from a project also saves the pedigree of the trainees; few want their published work tainted with the name of a known sexual harasser.

The last concern is the trickiest: Why don’t we do anything when we know about the perpetrators in our midst? So far, consequences for scientist-harassers are few and far between. In academia it’s common to get sanctions like “no more female grad students” or “no more undergraduate teaching” or “please work at home for now.” These are mild punishments at best, but departments are unsure what other options they have—and universities don’t make it easy to fire professors. The institutions know that perpetrators generally have more resources than victims and are more likely to sue if they are fired. It is a good financial decision, then, to do nothing about a perpetrator, even if they are guilty.

So this is where we find ourselves today: In many professions sexual misconduct is now cause for dismissal. In the sciences, not so much. What’s more, many science workplaces use legal definitions of sexual harassment to set the standard for workplace conduct. If that is the bar that has to be met for a disgusting behavior to be considered actionable by a university, research institute, or field station, it is a high one. An enormous range of disrespectful and even frightening behavior can slip under that bar, even though it damages the careers of victims and bystanders, holding back scientific advancement.

We could settle for getting rid of only the most egregious, the Harvey Weinsteins of our profession. Or we could take this opportunity to set real change in motion.  

Here’s the real question for scientists today: What’s the culture we want to create? We could settle for getting rid of only the most egregious, the Harvey Weinsteins of our profession. Or we could take this opportunity to define problem behaviors more clearly. Let’s make it unacceptable to behave with bias toward gender, racial, and sexual minorities. Let’s make it OK to call out those who use their rank to overpower and exploit, rather than to encourage and mentor.

My research suggests how we can set this change in motion. When the leaders of science workplaces sit down with their workers and trainees to create a code of conduct, and then enforce it with real consequences, the result is less harassment—and better resolution for victims when harassment does occur.

If we really want a meritocratic space where the most interesting, insightful, and life-changing science gets done, we must build a culture that makes room for more types of people. To tackle the complex challenges of the 21st century, we’ll need every scientist’s best work. That will happen in the best workplaces.

Kathryn Clancy ( @kateclancy) is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois.


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