By: Sam Ernst

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Women - especially women of color – have historically been a minority across numerous scientific disciplines. In 2015, women filled 47% of all U.S. jobs, but only 24% of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, & Mathematics) jobs. Even though women earn 57% of bachelor degrees and half of science and engineering degrees, they are still missing from the STEM workforce.  The lack of women is even more pronounced when you look at leadership and tenure positions.

Why are so few women pursuing careers in science?

Sophia Nasr, an astrophysicist, argues that one of the key barriers is the lack of a safe and supportive environment for women scientists.  She recently tweeted:

  “Let’s talk about the so-called need to “get women interested in science”. The thing is: we  are  interested. We’re everywhere. The problem is  keeping us here . Creating a safe environment for women, esp. women of color, is the problem.”

“Let’s talk about the so-called need to “get women interested in science”. The thing is: we are interested. We’re everywhere. The problem is keeping us here. Creating a safe environment for women, esp. women of color, is the problem.”

Nasr later adds that although there has been a positive (yet slow) shift in the narrative from “women can’t do science” to “we need to get women interested in science” - she argues that this is a distraction from the truth. The truth is that women are interested in science (although admittedly there is still work to be done to encourage girls to study STEM).  Rather, women often leave science because of the work environment.

The scientific community and major media outlets have already described common barriers women face when deciding whether to pursue and remain in science.  These factors include the lack of self-confidence in women’s science/math abilities instilled by early education experiences, unconscious gender bias in hiring practices, and barriers to childcare.  However, regardless of whether or not women have children, women are also more likely than men to receive less salary and fewer promotions.

But perhaps the real elephant in the room – that not enough people are talking openly about – is that women are more likely than men to experience toxic work environments due to sexual harassment and violence.  The #MeToo movement has propelled this issue into the mainstream, raising awareness of the prevalence and consequences of sexual harassment and gender inequalities that exist in the workplace.

But has the #MeToo movement spread into the sciences? Only mildly.

Over the past few years, even before the #MeToo movement began, there have been dozens of stories emerging about well-known researchers who were accused of perpetrating sexual violence. Sexual harassment and violence against women is a plague that has crept into every scientific discipline: from anthropology to geology to astronomy and astrophysics.

A report published just last week reported that half of women in the sciences have experienced sexual harassment. In Academia – which includes the sciences but also other areas of academic studies, such as the humanities – the prevalence of sexual harassment is even higher at 58%, which is second only to the military, where more than two-thirds of women report having experienced some form of harassment. Within academia, women trainees are the primary targets of sexual harassment and assault, and their perpetrators are often senior to them, wielding power over their career progression and their work.

The #MeToo movement has helped to start a conversation about what it means to create safe environments for women. However, action against sexual harassment perpetrators in the sciences has been weak at best. Senior male researchers are continuing to stay in positions of power, even though their behavior is costly to both society and the integrity and health of women.  As Professor Kathryn Clancy from the University of Illinois wrote in a National Geographic article:

“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.”

So, then what?  How can we create a better environment for women in STEM?

 Simply put, it’s a matter of changing the system, not the women in it. But changing a system is challenging and involves cooperation at every level. Dr. Carol Bates, the associate dean for faculty affairs at Harvard Medical School, noted that “none of it is easy or we would have fixed it already. We haven’t fixed it in any other domain in society either”.

In order to create a better working environment for women (and frankly for men too), sexual harassment policies need to be reevaluated and the perpetrators of harassment need to face stiffer consequences. We can no longer turn a blind-eye to these bad behaviors, even when they are perpetrated by those who are valuable to their institution, including professors who bring in large grants to a university or hold senior leadership positions. In the academic environment, students can be expelled for cheating on an exam.  Faculty can lose their jobs for engaging in scientific misconduct, like plagiarism or fraudulently manipulating their data. Why should sexual harassment be any different? 

All in all, women are interested in the sciences.  So, let’s do more to stop the things unrelated to science that push women out of STEM.

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