Editor’s note: In a study reported in the journal Physical Review Physics Education Research, nearly 75% of 471 undergraduate women in physics who responded to a survey offered during a professional conference reported having experienced at least one type of sexual harassment – mostly gender harassment – in their field. U. of I. anthropology professor Kathryn Clancy, a co-author of the report, talked to News Bureau life sciences editor Diana Yates about the study, which also examined the respondents’ feelings of belonging and legitimacy as scientists and scholars.
Why did this survey focus on young women in physics?
We were curious about the extent to which sexual harassment occurs in a setting like physics that is so strongly male-dominated, compared even with other science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines. Across North American workplaces, male domination – there being more men than women, more men in power, or even the job being historically a male one – has been shown to increase the risk of sexual harassment. We suspected this would continue to be the case in the physics environment.
What types of harassment did the respondents say they had experienced?
Women in this sample overwhelmingly reported that they experienced gender harassment in a physics context. Gender harassment involves the sexist, contemptuous behaviors women often have to navigate in the workplace. Sexist gender harassment tends to involve put-downs about aptitude (for example, “Women can’t do physics!”) or belonging (“You’re just the affirmative-action hire!”). It also involves more subtle behaviors, like excluding women from equal opportunities, declaring a woman will quit science as soon as she has a baby, or other demonstrations of contempt for the presence of women.
Sexual gender harassment tends toward crude behavior – for example, making inappropriate sexual comments or sexual jokes, or displaying sexual images that are unrelated to the scientific context – that creates an uncomfortable environment without necessarily being part of an attempted sexual advance.
Gender harassment is so frequent and pervasive in many science environments that many people think it’s normal. But just because something happens frequently doesn’t mean that it is OK. Many large studies have shown that gender harassment causes more professional and personal harm than more sexual forms of harassment because these contemptuous behaviors make women and gender minorities feel like they aren’t good enough or they don’t belong.
Was there any relationship between the women’s experiences of harassment and their feelings of belonging or legitimacy as scholars in physics?
Women who reported that they experienced sexist gender harassment were more likely to also report that they had a lesser sense of belonging in physics than those who were not harassed. Women who experienced sexual gender harassment also were more likely to attribute their success to good luck or the perceptions of others, and less likely to credit their own abilities. We call this the “impostor phenomenon.”
How do these results compare with previous surveys of women in science?
We can’t seem to get away from this 75% number! Across many male-dominated environments, the amount of sexual harassment that women report tends to be about 75%. You can see it in my previous papers on sexual harassment in the field sciences – anthropology, geology, biology – and in astronomy and planetary science.
I was on a committee convened by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine to report on the sexual harassment of women in academia. We reviewed 30 years of data on the science of sexual harassment. We saw that in male-dominated environments, the percentage of women who report experiencing sexual harassment seemed always to fall somewhere around 75%.
This would be a good time to point out that the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is one of the more male-dominated environments in the Big Ten when it comes to the overall graduate and undergraduate student population. Our physics Ph.D. program is doing a good job of addressing the imbalance – it has the largest percentage of women in the Big Ten – but we have a lot of work to do at Illinois to create a more equitable environment for women of color, white women and gender minorities more generally. This is the best way to ensure that we are making our workplaces safe for everyone.
What are next steps? What can be done to prevent sexual harassment of women in science?
The first step I tell everybody is: “Read the National Academies report!” We spent two years reviewing the data and brought in dozens of experts to come up with specific findings and make recommendations. Let us be of use to you.
Our main finding was this: Since gender harassment is a more pervasive problem than other, more sexual forms of harassment, then absolutely everything we do to try to prevent harassment is wrong. The training programs, official reporting mechanisms and overly legal definitions of sexual harassment are akin to mapping only the tip of an iceberg and then thinking you can navigate around it. The most treacherous part – the gender harassment – is hidden.
We need to address the mismatch between what institutions say they value and what individuals experience in those institutions. We need to have frank conversations about why our incentive structures encourage selfishness and cruelty. And we ought to stop looking the other way when star scientists abuse women.
Every institution should ask itself, “What do we need to do to get on the right side of history? What do we need to do today that will make us proud in 10 years? What would it look like to make decisions in line with our values rather than our fears of being sued?” When institutions can answer those questions, I will be confident in their commitment to create an inclusive climate for science where everyone can thrive.