Harassment and bullying continue to be pervasive in male dominated STEM environments due to long standing biases and outdated norms. AWIS believes that organization leaders must create and enforce policies to mitigate power dynamics, toxic cultures, and systemic issues so that women can reach their full potential.
Why is this still an issue?
Harassment does not have to be sexual to be damaging and disruptive. By definition, harassment is defined as any unwanted behavior whether it is physical or verbal that makes a person feel uncomfortable or distressed. Harassment includes more subtle or even unseen activities such as being excluded from an email or meeting, being passed over for promotions, and/or sabotaging of equipment.
As a result, many victims either continue to work in an unsafe environment or they resign and allow their abuser to remain unchallenged. Harassment has been a long-standing issue deterring women in STEM disciplines from pursing their career goals and has taken a heavy toll on those within the scientific community.
"I was demoted after speaking up against sexual harassment of an employee in my team. The case was hushed up, the girl left the company, the perpetrator was promoted." - AWIS Member
“I was sexually harassed for a few years in grad school. The instructor was a dean at the time. Initially it seemed like his intent was to provide scientific support. It started with lunches or casual conversations on the campus. But as you can imagine, it escalated. Being so young, naive, and focused on my work I didn't recognize what was happening. I had to put in that much more work to rebuild my reputation as a serious scientist in a field where women are already at a disadvantage” - AWIS Member
"A pregnant post-doc was harassed and bullied to the point where she nearly lost the baby and her life. I brought it up to my boss and nothing happened. I have since been promoted and am doing my best to make changes, but it isn’t fast enough for my liking. I still don't feel safe to get pregnant in my current work environment. I would like to create a formal complaint, but I risk losing my job and my future career by doing that." - AWIS Member
"During my PhD, I was date raped by an MD doing his residency. At my school, reporting these incidents was common, making it easier to fight back but the burden is still on the victim. I chose not to work in a university environment due to the continued sexist behavior allowed by professors at both public and private universities that I've attended." - AWIS Member
Impacts on victims
Women who have been sexually harassed are prone to anxiety, depression, sleep disorders, and lowered-self-esteem. They also experience job dissatisfaction, decreased morale, and career derailment. Even subtle acts of harassment cause similar suffering.
Women of color, women with disabilities, and LGBTQ+ women are more likely to experience harassment and to feel unsafe at work.
Many women experience fear and frustration due to unfair treatment and ultimately choose to leave science after completing their degree. Victims of sexual harassment lose from $125,000 to $1.3 million in legal fees and lost wages after leaving their jobs.
Those that stay have reported the toll that cumulative gender discrimination takes on them. Watch this AWIS webinar replay to learn about the harassment experiences of three women in the scientific community.
Impacts on the organization
Harassment and bullying lower morale and productivity. Victims and witnesses are more likely to leave their jobs. Higher employee turnover increases the hiring and training costs of the organization.
Organizations can spend thousands settling harassment cases or even millions. One Fortune 500 Company spent 6.7 million dollars per year.
Organizations that receive federal funding are under strict reporting requirements regarding sexual harassment. The organization must report the incident immediately to the funding agency and place the harasser on administrative leave while investigating. If not reported, the organization could lose funding and jeopardize their projects. Kristen Schwendinger, a senior counsel involved in litigation and government investigations, discusses these requirements and ways to implement them in this AWIS webinar replay.
Impacts on society
Studies have shown that diverse teams drive better outcomes and yield greater innovation, yet less than 30% of researchers are women. Women have different lived experiences than men and therefore bring unique perspectives and discoveries. For example, bird song research was dominated by men who studied male birds. When women moved into the field, they began looking at female birds and discovered the females had unique songs as well.
A McKinsey report found that promoting gender equality could add $13 trillion to global GDP in 2030. We need to increase women in science and ensure safe, inclusive environments to retain them — and allow them to focus on their work. Nancy Hopkins, PhD, a biology professor at MIT, estimated she spent 20 hours a week (in addition to her job) fighting for equity when all she wanted to do was be a scientist!
Actions for individuals
- Victims should report inappropriate behavior so that abusers can be held accountable.
- Bystanders who witness inappropriate behavior should intervene and prevent harm to the victim.
- No one should make excuses for the offender. Confront them directly or let your employer know.
- Document the incident including date, time, location, and person/persons involved.
- If needed, contact your local governing agency (U.S Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) So that they can resolve the issue with your employer regarding the harassment.
Actions for HR/leaders
- Bystander training and the documentary Picture a Scientist should be required for everyone in the organization.
- Establish effective complaint procedure that employees can use to report incidents of harassment.
- Adopt, communicate, and enforce anti-bullying and anti-harassment policies.
- Encourage employees to come to you for help involving any problems at work, including incidents of harassment/bullying.
- Quickly investigate any reported cases and document everything while protecting the victim’s identity.
- Listen to the victim. Believe them. Protect them from retaliation.
If you or someone you know has experienced sexual harassment or bullying, here are some resources that may be useful:
- American Sociological Association Harassment Resources
- Harassment Prevention Resources (OCR)
- Resources to Fight Harassment in the Workplace(Project WHEN)
- Sexual Harassment & Violence Victim Resources
- U.S Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Harassment Webpage
- societiesconsortium.com – AWIS is a member
- Adapting Sexual Harassment Prevention and Response during a Pandemic
Decades of (slow) progress
Nancy Hopkins, PhD, was frustrated with discrimination she was experiencing in the biology department. She shared her concerns with other tenured women professors and found they had similar issues. They reviewed the treatment of women faculty in the School of Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and why women faculty numbers were dwindling. They collectively approached the Dean regarding their concerns: less lab space, salary inequities, lack of childcare access.
MIT President Charles Vest endorsed the report and commented, “I have always believed contemporary gender discrimination within universities is part reality and part perception, but I now understand reality is the greater part of the balance.”
Women in other universities spoke up as well. Nine other research universities formed an ongoing collaboration to address issues of gender equality. At MIT, a daycare center was built, and women faculty doubled in numbers!
In 2018, the National Academies released a report that concluded gender harassment does real harm to individuals and STEMM fields, posing barriers to inclusion of all talent, causing many women (and some others) to leave the fields, and undermining excellence. [Note that harassment includes but is not limited to sexual harassment.]
As a result, the Societies Consortium on Sexual Harassment in STEMM was formed. Currently, the organization is hosting events including the upcoming Chat & Collaboration Session, where members discuss possible solutions to breaking the barriers that many STEM professional’s experience. AWIS is a founding member of the organization. AWIS also endorsed the Combating Sexual Harassment in Science Act.
Be part of the solution!
Share what your organization does to prevent and address harassment. We will continue to update this page with advice and tools to help create safer, more inclusive organizational systems and cultures.