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Study: Over half of women in STEM academics are sexually harassed

If you get a job in a STEM field -- science, technology, engineering or math -- you should be set for life. There is a nationwide push for students to focus on STEM fields because these are some of the fastest growing career fields in the United States. They are also some of the most desirable in terms of pay, benefits and interesting work.

Unfortunately, there appears to be a serious sexual harassment problem in some STEM jobs. According to a recent study by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine found that 58 percent of female academics in these fields and up to 25 percent of female students say they have experienced sexual harassment or misconduct. That translates to a rate second only to the rate of sexual harassment and misconduct in the military.

The misconduct ranged from lewd and demeaning comments to outright sexual assault:

  • One study participant described male colleagues as “shutting her up in the workplace, demeaning her in front of other colleagues, telling her that she’s not as capable as others are, or telling others that she’s not [as] sincere.”
  • Over 25 percent of female engineering students and over 40 percent of medical students reported sexual harassment by members of the faculty or staff.
  • 50 percent of medical students reported experiencing sexual harassment of some form.
  • As many as 20 percent of female science students have been sexually assaulted by someone in their program.
  • The sexual harassment problem is even worse for women of color.

The landmark study was done in partnership between the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine and RTI International. It incorporated data from previous surveys, such as those performed by Penn State and the University of Texas. It also involved direct interviews with women who reported sexual harassment in the last five years.

According to the research, there are four major factors that contribute to the prevalence of sexual harassment in these fields:

  • Male-dominated environments
  • Organizational tolerance for sexually harassing behavior
  • Hierarchical, dependent relationships between faculty and the students they train
  • Isolating environments

Science, engineering and medicine are currently quite male-dominated. For example, in the 2013-2014 academic year, women accounted for only 1 in 6 department chairs and deans in medical schools. Unfortunately, those considered distinguished in their fields -- often white men -- excuse sexual harassment and its contributing factors far too often.

One study respondent said that the excuses made her feel as if she had to continuously confront and keep pushing against discrimination.

The study also found that academic institutions often fail to implement punishments of consequences when offenders are identified. Instead, the offense simply becomes an open secret. Caring colleagues pass on warnings to avoid being alone with the offender.

If the United States is to remain competitive in a global economy, we need to continue graduating substantial numbers of students from STEM programs. When sexual harassment or misconduct go unaddressed, it can give the strong impression that the academic program tolerates the behavior.

Sexual harassment, misconduct, and hostile environments in academic programs are illegal because they disrupt women’s equal access to education and violate workplace legal protections. Colleges and universities have a legal responsibility to investigate allegations of sexual harassment or misconduct promptly, fairly and thoroughly. When the investigation indicates that harassment or misconduct has occurred, the program is legally obligated to take immediate, effective steps to end the behavior and prevent it from reoccurring.

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