Study: Women In STEM Careers Are Facing Sexual Harassment During Fieldwork

As tough as it can sometimes be to foster young women’s interest in the science, tech, engineering and math (STEM) fields, an even greater struggle awaits once they begin a career there. According to a new paper published in the journal PLOS ONE called “Survey of Academic Field Experiences (SAFE): Trainees Report Harassment and Assault,” women in the STEM fields are likely to face sexual harassment by their superiors while doing fieldwork, especially in the most formative years of their careers.

For the study, Drs. Kathryn Clancy, Robin Nelson, Julienne Rutherford, and Katie Hinde surveyed 666 people (516 women and 150 men) working in the social, life and physical sciences. The team also conducted 24 interviews with scientists in fields like biological anthropology, in which fieldwork is required to get started professionally.

I recently spoke with several of these women on a call about their study. As Dr. Hinde of Harvard University explained:

“Many of the disciplines, in particularly STEM fields, require a field research component in training or to successfully launch a research career and we’d become increasingly aware of people having particularly negative experiences with sexual harassment and sexual assault in the course of their fieldwork. We knew about that anecdotally from personal conversations and from quietly whispered networks and things like that. “

Through their research, Hinde continued, they discovered:

“… [O]verwhelmingly for both men and women, these events and experiences were occurring during their formative trainee years. So as graduates, as undergraduates, and as postdocs. We even had some respondents who experienced these things as high school students.”

The numbers are pretty horrifying. Of the survey respondents, 64 percent said they’d experienced sexual harassment in the field — 70 percent  of women surveyed and 40 percent of men. Additionally, 72 percent had witnessed or been told of harassment in their field. Even more sobering is that over 90 percent of the women and 70 percent of the men who experienced harassment were trainees when it happened, so the experience was one of their earliest impressions of their field.

It gets even worse: 26 percent of the women surveyed and six percent of men experienced sexual assault in the course of their fieldwork. Women reported that the mistreatment was mostly carried out by their superiors — the very people they should have been most able to trust.

There’s a low retention rate of women in STEM careers and these findings undoubtedly point to a reason why. Women tend to outnumber men in the earliest stages of many science fields, only to become the minority once they reach a professional level. According to previous studies, assault or harassment by a supervisor has more damaging effects than the same abuse by a peer or client, and leads to less satisfaction and commitment in the workplace.

The research team also found that at many field sites, respondents had never been told of any sexual harassment policies in place. Most victims had been unsure of how to report the harassment and were dissatisfied with the response they received when they did take action.

A major step in decreasing these occurrences is shifting cultural awareness. Campus assault doesn’t only happen in house parties or dorm rooms — it can also take place anywhere.  The foremost goal is to communicate to predators not to sexually harass, assault and rape, but beyond that, a great course of action is to collectively push for straightforward sexual harassment policies in the workplace. Nobody should have to leave a field they love because of a hostile work environment.

In spreading the word of their findings, researchers hope to show scientists that they’re not alone in experiencing workplace aggression. As Dr. Clancy of the University of Illinois told me:

“What’s been really exciting about this work…has been the huge amount of support we’ve gotten from so many scientists. What this signals to me is a real positive shift in the number of scientists who want to see and are demanding a safe, inclusive environment for their trainees and themselves. So for me, it’s a really exciting time to be a scientist.”


[Image of a scientist via Shutterstock]