A recently published PLoS One article on sexual harassment of trainees in scientific fieldwork is getting a lot of social media attention according to Altmetric. Clancy et al. report in “Survey of Academic Field Experiences (SAFE): Trainees Report Harassment and Assault” (DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0102172) that a majority of fieldwork participants have experienced sexual harassment, with women being 3.5 times more likely than men to report harassment in the survey (p.4). Even more disturbing is the result that 90% of the women reporting were students, postdocs or employees at the time, and the most likely perpetrator was a supervisor (p.4).
Before anyone jumps to the conclusion that I’m picking on scientific disciplines that conduct fieldwork, the researchers state their results are “generally consistent with other studies of workplace harassment in other professional settings” (p.5). And, according to Talking about Leaving: Why Undergraduates Leave the Sciences by Elaine Seymour and Nancy Hewitt, the hostile environment extends to STEM labs and classrooms, but perhaps in a more subtle manner. In interviewing hundreds of students who stayed in or left STEM majors, the researchers heard frequent reports of female students being belittled, stereotyped, or alienated by male peers and faculty (Chapter 5: Issues of Gender).
Maybe subsequent research will prove that sexual harassment does not have significant bearing on whether young women leave the STEM disciplines. However, since STEM education already has characteristics that discourage many women (competition, weed-out system, lack of relationships with faculty), then sexual harassment may become a factor that tips the balance in favor of leaving STEM. So when university administrators are looking for ways to improve STEM education, creating an accepting and safe environment for female students must be a component of a successful initiative.