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More than half of women in STEM academics have been sexually harassed, report finds

That’s second only to the percent of women who report harassment in the military.

Women in academic science, engineering, and medicine are turning down projects, skipping meetings, and even leaving jobs to avoid rampant sexual harassment, a new study from the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine found.

In those fields, 58 percent of female academic faculty and staff and up to 25 percent of female students said they experienced sexual harassment of some kind, according to the landmark study. That’s second only to the percent of women who report harassment in the military. The women reported not only sexual assault and unwanted sexual advances but also lewd and demeaning comments and interactions.


For example, one respondent described her male colleagues “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.”

And because of the lack of diversity in the field, sexual harassment is even worse for women of color, according to the study.

The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine partnered with RTI International to conduct interviews with women who had been sexually harassed in the last five years. The study also incorporates previous surveys, such as those conducted by the University of Texas and Penn State.

The treatment is also worse in some fields than others, according to the survey:

  • 20 percent of female science students experienced sexual assault.
  • More than a quarter of female engineering students and more than 40 percent of medical students experienced sexual harassment from faculty or staff.
  • 50 percent of medical students experience sexual harassment.

Four major factors contribute to the levels of sexual harassment for women in these fields, according to the study: “a male-dominated environment,” “organization tolerance for sexually harassing behavior,” “hierarchical and dependent relationships between faculty and their trainees,” and “isolating environments.” For example, as few as one in six department chairs or deans in medicine were female in 2013–2014, according to the study. In fact, women in academic medicine experience even more harassment than women in science and engineering.

To make matters worse, distinguished thinkers in the field, often white men, frequently excuse the contributing factors. “I felt like I had this type of plague or something …. It’s forcing the person who was victimized to keep confronting and keep pushing,” one respondent said, according to the study.

Institutions also don’t frequently punish or implement other consequences for offenders. And when they are identified, it’s considered an “open secret,” according to the study. In many cases, respondents and their colleagues knew the offenders but simply passed on warnings to not get too close to the them.

Cover image: AP