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As Calls Grow for More Women in STEM Fields, Sexual Harassment Complaints Increase

An effort to increase diversity in science and technology is spurring a wider conversation about sexual harassment and discrimination against women in those fields.
Photo via National Eye Institute, National Institutes of Health

A spate of sexual harassment allegations against prominent scientists and academics over the past six months has thrust the hermetic worlds of astronomy and biology into the forefront of a national conversation about gender disparity in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math — popularly known by the acronym STEM.

This week, reports surfaced that Jason Lieb, a distinguished molecular biologist at the University of Chicago, resigned in January after being investigated for violating the school's sexual misconduct policy. The New York Times obtained a university investigation letter recommending that he be fired after it was determined that he had approached female graduate students in an unwelcome sexual manner and engaged in sexual activity with a student who was "incapacitated due to alcohol and therefore could not consent" while they were at an off-campus retreat.


Lieb was also found to have had a history of sexual harassment complaints against him at other universities that were not made known to the University of Chicago before he was hired, according to the report.

He is the latest prominent scientist to leave his position after a history of sexual harassment was made public. The famed astronomer Geoffrey Marcy resigned from the University of California, Berkeley, in October after four women whom he had taught accused him of sexual harassment. Last month, it was revealed that Christian Ott, a young astrophysicist, was suspended without pay for a year after the California Institute of Technology determined that he had harassed two female graduate students. It is believed to be the first time Caltech has disciplined a professor for the offense.

Also last month, Timothy Frederick Slater, an astronomer currently working at the University of Wisconsin, was publicly outed as having a history of harassment claims at his former post at the University of Arizona when California Congresswoman Jackie Speier spoke about his case on the floor of the House, announcing her intention to introduce legislation forcing universities to be more transparent about faculty members' records of harassment.

"The Slater case, while lurid, is just a symptom of a much larger problem — how to prevent harassment, and effectively deal with it when it occurs," Speier wrote in a letter to the Department of Education that was highlighted by Mashable. "Dr. Slater states that he is now reformed, but there are still few consequences for faculty members who sexually harass students."


Speier cited a peer-reviewed study that found that over a quarter of women surveyed had been sexually assaulted while conducting scientific field work, while 71 percent of women and 41 percent of men also reported that they were sexually harassed. But the four recent cases represent something of a turning point in the issue.

"STEM fields are having a bit of reckoning right now," said Lisa Maatz, vice president of government relations at the American Association of University Women, an advocacy group.

Maatz and several women working in the field said that while sexual harassment is likely widespread throughout the business world and academia, especially departments where men tend to dominate the leadership roles, the sciences are seeing an uptick in the number of cases being reported largely because of an ongoing discussion about how to include more women in the fields, and what the barriers are to doing so.

"Astronomy, like all sciences, is a field dominated by men, especially at the high levels," said Joan Schmelz, an astrophysicist at the University of Memphis and a former chair of the American Astronomical Society's committee on the status of women.

"Sexual harassment isn't unique to the sciences or academia," she added, "but the story gets more intense in academia because professors have tenure, and some universities think it's impossible to fire someone with tenure."

Related: Pentagon Says Increase in Reporting of Sex Assaults at Service Academies Is a Good Sign


C. Megan Urry, a Yale astrophysicist and the president of the American Astronomical Society, said that because academia is both hierarchal and dominated by men, the environment is ripe for sexual harassment. But she believes astronomy is one of the leaders in gender inclusion, and that reports of discrimination and harassment are coming up in that field first as a result.

"I would say there's a community of women in astronomy who are trying really hard to get toward gender equity," she said.

Increasing awareness of the need for gender diversity has come with outside pressures, including from the government and from the business community, which have stressed the need for an increase in the number of women and people of color to join STEM fields for national productivity, competitiveness, and security. That pressure has led to greater efforts within university departments to diversify, which has led in turn to more women being willing to come forward and address discrimination and harassment.

"People are wising up to the fact that as a country, for our place in the global economy, for homeland security, and for the notion of America as an innovative engine, we can't continue to exclude half the population from innovation in those fields. We know that when we do the product is inferior," Maatz said. "So people have begun to look at these fields and ask why women and people of color aren't going into them. And for women one thing we find is the male-dominated, 'bro-grammer' culture of the sciences is not conducive to women being in the field."


We can expect to see more women to come forward, she said, as they grow increasingly confident that their allegations will be taken seriously and that they won't face career-threatening repercussions by going public with their complaints.

"I think we're going to see increased reports and recognition that this is a problem, but also protocols being put in place by the Department of Education and schools and the White House that we do not accept this behavior," Maatz said.

Related: Hundreds of Women Want to Sue Canada's National Police for Alleged Workplace Harassment

The Department of Education's civil rights bureau has been more proactive on discrimination, sexual harassment, and sexual assault issues under the Obama administration than in prior years, she noted, and there has been renewed focus on Title IX officers on campuses who are responsible for investigating discrimination complaints.

Schmelz worked with the four accusers in the Berkeley case to encourage them bring their accusations to the university.

"They really were not interested in filing a complaint because they would get labeled as troublemakers, their careers would be affected — there's retribution," she said, noting that there had been some retaliation. "It seems like it makes the lives of people who come clean quite miserable."

"These are academic rock stars," Maatz remarked. "Sometimes they are Nobel laureates or winners of other scientific prizes, and to get ahead, to get a job, or even sometimes to clear your dissertation defense, you have to have these people on your side. What's been happening up until now is a kind of whisper campaign in which the few women in the fields say to avoid Dr. Smith or Dr. Jones. But the problem is, if he's the best, you don't want to avoid him. You need his mentorship and advice to be successful."

Though there is risk of retaliation, Schmelz said that the women who came forward at Berkeley received an outpouring of support for their claims, including a vote of no confidence by Marcy's colleagues in the department and online petition that collected thousands of signatures in support of the women.

"The culture is changing slowly as more women come into he field," she explained. "There was a time when people would say things out loud and now they won't, and that is changing. It's gone from this overt discrimination about 'women can't do science,' to this gender dynamic that we haven't really worked out yet."

Speier is now working to craft legislation that would establish a reporting system for universities to document an employee's conduct record and make sure it is shared with other potential employers in the future. Maatz said she expects it will be introduced either this year or in 2017.

Follow Colleen Curry on Twitter: @currycolleen Photo via Flickr