Reconstructing the STEM Hierarchy

How the #MeToo movement has helped spark a fervent effort to transform the structure of scientific laboratories

Sexual harassment has been a constant in Blair Schneider’s career since the very beginning. As a female scientist in a male-dominated field, she says she’s targeted on what seems like a daily basis. 

Blair Schneider
Blair Schneider

“At my first-ever conference, while presenting a poster, some faculty member came up to me,” she says, “looked me up and down, and told me ‘You know no one is coming here to look at your poster, right?’”

While experiences like Schneider’s aren’t uncommon for women in STEM, they have become the object of increased scrutiny thanks in part to the #MeToo movement. Launched in 2006 as a way to help survivors of sexual violence know they’re not alone and popularized by the hashtag used in response to Hollywood sexual assault scandals last fall, the #MeToo movement has spurred self-reflection and action in the scientific community as well.

“As the #MeToo movement has spread, it has opened up several new doors that allow us to search for solutions to remove sexual harassment as a barrier for women in STEM,” says Schneider, who is a postdoctoral fellow and TRESTLE Program Manager at the University of Kansas Center for Teaching Excellence.  

The need to eradicate such barriers has never been greater as the U.S. faces a shortage of approximately 1 million educated STEM workers, according to a 2016 White House report. But recently released data reveal the magnitude of sexual harassment’s impact on women in these fields and how much work there is to do to tackle this issue. 

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine released the findings of a report in June indicating that nearly half of all women in science and 58 percent of women in academia experience sexual harassment, including 43 percent of female STEM graduate students. This is coupled with the fact that, according to data published by the nonprofit organization Catalyst, women hold only a quarter of all U.S. STEM jobs. In academia, the National Science Foundation (NSF) reports that they account for just 30.9 percent of full-time science and engineering professors. 

This is an issue that affects the U.S. on a global scale. 

“If you have women who are experiencing sexual harassment who are already disproportionately represented in these fields [leave], … then that is going to have a huge impact on our economy and global competitiveness,” says Deborah Vagins, senior vice president of public policy and research for the American Association of University Women (AAUW), a nonprofit that advances equity for women and girls through advocacy, education, and research. 

Indeed, research shows that women are less likely to enter and more likely to leave STEM careers than their male counterparts. While their low numbers are the result of a number of factors — from a lack of engagement in STEM at an early age to gender discrimination and bias once employed in the fields — sexual harassment is believed to play a significant role in many women’s decisions to divert their careers. 

Janet Bandows Koster
Janet Bandows Koster

“What happens to all the women and the brilliant minds that we’re training is that they leave [the field], and they leave because every step of the way there is some form of harassment,” says Janet Bandows Koster, executive director and chief executive officer of the Association for Women in Science (AWIS), a leading advocate for women in STEM. “It’s like death by a thousand cuts — if … you don’t see people who are like you and you’re put in scenarios where you feel threatened physically, at some point it adds up and you leave.”

In addition to giving an overview of sexual harassment’s reach in the sciences, the National Academies report offered recommendations for tackling the issue. These focus on improving transparency in the reporting and investigating process, improving support for targeted individuals, and updating ethics policies to regard sexual misconduct the same as any other professional malfeasance.  

AWIS advocates for many of these approaches. Koster notes, however, that bringing about such changes in higher education won’t be easy as much of this issue is due to the inherent structure of the research environment, which often precipitates this type of misbehavior. 

“I think it’s the very nature of how science in particular is done. It’s very hierarchical; you’re dependent on the principal investigator (PI) … for future reference. You rely on their expertise to provide you with the context that you need to get future funding, to get future collaboration, to publish. And publishing of course is all-important in science careers,” Koster explains. “So it’s an odd codependency that I think we don’t often see in other workplaces.”

And institutional policies, she adds, often have minimal effect on the intimate culture of labs in particular. “The lab is its own ecosystem,” says Koster, “and that ecosystem is not necessarily impacted by the best practices of the university or … the department, but very much by the PI or chair of that department.”

Aware of the impact these experiences can have on a woman’s career trajectory, AWIS advocates for increasing transparency, ensuring stronger leadership that is aware of issues, recruiting more allies, and improving diversity, especially among leadership. Toward these ends, the organization works with individual members, university and corporate partners, federal agencies, and Congress to provide resources, training, and best practices in order to change the structure and culture of STEM workplaces.

“We do everything from consulting to workshops on best practices in climate and culture,” Koster says, adding that a lot of AWIS’s work revolves around meetings and conferences. “A lot of sexual harassment happens at professional society meetings, and these are [events] where young professionals make their connections for future collaboration and funding.”

Recently, associations and institutions have caught flack for their erratic handling of sexual harassment cases. The House of Representatives Science, Space, and Technology Committee tasked with investigating how federal science agencies and universities handle such complaints announced in February that it found significant inconsistencies in how these entities mitigate sexual harassment, with many having unclear policies and procedures in place. 

Chairwoman of the committee Rep. Barbara Comstock said this situation leaves victims unsure of how to proceed and creates cultures where “institutions [are] more interested in checking the boxes of compliance rather than doing the right thing.” 

That much more work remains to improve the climate for women in STEM is a given, but as Koster notes, that doesn’t mean there aren’t currently exemplars. Take LeHigh University, a private research university in Bethlehem, Pa., for example. Discussions about sexual harassment in the STEM workplace — particularly in higher education — are commonplace at Lehigh, and a focus on recruiting male allies is encouraging the development of best practices and the creation of a more equitable environment there.

Another leader in addressing this issue is the American Geophysical Union (AGU), a 62,000-member organization of earth and space scientists that has worked with AWIS to develop resources and better policies. AGU now offers guidance to other organizations and institutions, holds workshops and bystander trainings, and will soon offer additional support via its new Ethics and Equity Resource Center. 

Additionally, the Safe AGU program is focused specifically on ensuring that members feel safe and respected at national meetings. It’s designed to reinforce AGU’s support of victims and its zero tolerance for harassment. 

“We train staff who are willing to be a contact, … and those people, including myself, wear a button that tells our attendees that if they feel unsafe or they’re being harassed, bullied, or discriminated against, they can find any one of us, and we will address the situation for them depending on the particular circumstances,” says Christine McEntee, AGU CEO and executive director.

Christine McEntee
Christine McEntee

According to McEntee, AGU already had in place many of the recommendations cited in the National Academies report prior to its publication — the most significant of which is a strong policy regarding sexual harassment and clear processes for reporting and adjudication. 

In 2016, following the publicizing of several high-profile sexual harassment cases in higher education, AGU reviewed and updated its ethics policy with particular attention paid to this issue.

“What’s significant about that policy is that it identified harassment, bullying, and discrimination as scientific misconduct, and it lays out a process for our members and others to bring forward allegations against an AGU member if they’re in violation of that policy,” says McEntee. “I think it’s important because research and evidence show us it’s damaging to someone’s scientific career — just as damaging as [if someone] plagiarized.”

Two AAUW interns attend a demonstration protesting the recission of guidance around gender equity law Title IX by the U.S. Department of Education.

Labeling sexual harassment as scientific misconduct is important to female scientists as many take issue with the fact that the men who commit these acts continue to lead successful careers that include serving as peer reviewers, holding membership in professional societies, speaking at national conferences, and receiving research funding. Defining it as such helps ensure accountability and affects how an individual will be disciplined.— which could include the revocation of grants. “If you are a PI and have significant grant funding from a federal agency, you should be held to a certain standard,” says Koster. 

McEntee says an ethics task force charged with periodically reviewing and proposing updates to policies helps AGU stay on top of ethical issues as well as ensures that the organization is continuing to abide by its strong code of conduct. 

“We’re for diversity, we’re for inclusion, we’re for intellectual freedom and scientific integrity,” she says. “Those are the basic values of our organization, and you can’t meet those values if you have 50 percent of scientists saying they’re operating in an environment that isn’t upholding [them].”

AGU is now seen as a leader in this area and often works with other organizations to help them institute similar policies and best practices. It also partners with others to improve the climate for women in STEM. 

The ADVANCEGeo Partnership is a collaboration between the Earth Science Women’s Network, the Association for Women Geoscientists, and AGU created to address the problem of sexual harassment in the earth, space, and environmental sciences. Made possible with a four-year, $1.1 million grant (2017-2021) from the NSF ADVANCE program, it aims to improve workplace conditions via “bystander intervention workshops for department heads, chairs, faculty, and grad students to appropriately respond to and prevent sexual and other types of harassment on campus and in the field,” according to the project’s website. 

Schneider is co-PI on the project, which is currently studying how harassment affects women in different settings in order to develop appropriate bystander intervention materials. “This includes fieldwork, lab work, attending conferences, even just the daily office setting,” says Schneider. “Our project team has spent the past year reviewing different types of trainings and literature to help us identify the strategies that we believe will be most effective for the earth science community.”

As of the beginning of August, the ADVANCEGeo team had led 10 workshops on campuses including Colorado State University, Boston University, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the University of South Carolina as well as for professional societies such as the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans. 

“The goal of our workshop is to empower individuals to walk away with intervention strategies — I like to call it my intervention ‘tool box’ — that they can use if they see someone being sexually harassed,” she says. “If someone is being sexually harassed, it’s hard to come up with an appropriate response in that moment — and even if you do, what is classified as ‘appropriate’? On an individual level, the appropriate response will be different for everyone.”

Some resources are also available via the project’s Online Community Resource Center. These include an overview of harassment, bullying, and discrimination; intervention strategies; recommendations and templates for creating an effective code of conduct; resources on how to report; and more. 

At the institutional level, Schneider believes universities should implement comprehensive codes of conduct and host preventative trainings — “and not just the poorly put together 30-minute online tutorial that you can click through in five minutes,” Schneider says. She also emphasizes that these trainings need to be offered to all members of campus.

“Sexual harassment doesn’t just happen to one level of individuals, or at only one stage of your scientific career.— it happens at every level,” explains Schneider. “It seems like every day there is a new story out about some faculty member or administrator accused or found guilty of sexual harassment. These same [people] have graduate students and are teaching them that this behavior is normal and OK, perpetuating the cycle over time.”

ADVANCEGeo advocates for the inclusion of this topic in university courses about ethical research conduct. “We have to recognize that an individual who sexually harasses other individuals is not an ethical scientist,” Schneider says, “so including these materials in courses that discuss ethical research conduct is a natural step forward.”

Policies, education, and trainings are meaningful steps on the road to both preventing the sexual harassment of and improving the climate for women in STEM. But having a network of peers and allies who are fighting the good fight with you has its own unique power.  

“One way of overcoming [this] has been support groups — in particular, close friends and counselors on campus. This project, working with this amazing group of leaders, feeling like we are doing something to help others, has all been incredibly healing in its own way,” says Schneider. “I have intervened on a friend’s behalf when someone wouldn’t leave them alone, and most importantly, I am feeling more empowered to be able to teach my own daughter how to protect herself in the future.”●

Alexandra Vollman is the editor-in-chief of INSIGHT Into Diversity. This article was published in our September 2018 issue.