Sunday, April 14, 2013

Sexual harrassment: Women scientists face abuse by their supervisors or having careers ruined

Scientific American   Another day, another story. Again I’m out of town to give a talk, and an acquaintance and I are borrowing someone’s office for a meeting. This person is eager to meet, bright and interesting and motivated to do her research. There is a shift in her research trajectory, and I ask about it. Without skipping a beat, she explains the systematic sexual harassment she experienced at her field site, and the ways in which her lack of complicity led to her not being welcome there. There were obvious ways in which her departure from this field site has hurt her career. I was struck by her furious, fiery expression. [...]

But we also wanted to know who perpetrated these acts. In academia, it is normal for there to be a hierarchy from undergraduate, to graduate student, to postdoc, faculty, and tenured faculty. And people above you in the hierarchy can have control over your success in your career. For both harassment and assault, we found most of the perpetrators were individuals superior in the hierarchy than the victims – so for instance, a faculty member harassing a graduate student. [...]

 We found that many victims identified themselves as “young,” “naïve,” or “green,” and also questioned or blamed themselves at some point during or after their harassment. Both victims and witnesses to abuse, harassment and assault described themselves as paralyzed or scared. Several female respondents described feeling targeted or under scrutiny due to their gender. And sadly, many respondents expressed frustration that issues of abuse, harassment and assault interfered with their work, expressing different refrains of “I just wanted to do my science!”

One male participant detailed systemic, institutional abuse that happened at his site, with too many graphic, potentially identifying stories to impart here. But again and again, he came back to the awful helplessness he felt at having to bear witness to constant attacks on his colleagues, and his understandable fear of the consequences:
“As a man who was ambitious at the time and didn’t know how to intervene, it was a weird place to be because these are my friends. We spent time in the field so you can’t build friendships anywhere else and I was unable to, or paralyzed for fear that my dissertation would be shut down. I relied on the site and access would be shut down, my career would have been shut down, if I was going to stand up to this guy.”
In fact, fear of retribution, and in some cases, stories of retribution for speaking up, were common among witnesses and victims.[...]

Too many of us, the authors of this study included, have told ourselves and others that we just need to “suck it up,” just endure one more day, to keep our heads down and power through. Survival in field-based academic science can’t just be about who can put up with or witness abuse the longest – that is not an appropriate metric to measure who is the best at their science [...]

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