Women and Science: Harassment and Dropping Out

A few weeks ago, I wrote a well-read blog post about girls and science. Apparently, we’re still debating whether it’s nuture or nature that drives women to choose professions other than science.

Two recent pieces in the national media provide more evidence for the ways that women get driven out of the scientific profession, as well as the continued questions of the meaning of that evidence.

First, from the New York Times, a piece on harassment in science. It begins with the author relating her experience (a senior prof booking a hotel room with only one bed for the two of them), then continues:

I’d forgotten about this experience from two decades ago until I read a report published July 16 in the journal PLOS One. Kathryn Clancy, an anthropologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and three colleagues used email and social media to invite scientists to fill out an online questionnaire about their experiences with harassment and assault at field sites; they received 666 responses, three quarters of them from women, from 32 disciplines, including anthropology, archaeology, biology and geology.

Almost two-thirds of the respondents said they had been sexually harassed in the field. More than 20 percent reported being sexually assaulted. Students or postdoctoral scholars, and women were most likely to report being victimized by superiors. Very few respondents said their field site had a code of conduct or sexual harassment policy, and of the 78 who had dared to report incidents, fewer than 20 percent were satisfied with the outcome.

Fieldwork, it is clear, is a dangerous place to be a woman. It’s also where you make your break your career and take your first steps. The piece ends with a powerful call for clear standards, pre-emptive anti-harassment policies, and most of all, people to be willing to call out their friends and colleagues. We cannot rely on the victim of harassment to challenge the system herself.

And yet, I suspect many people will not heed the call. NPR has a new piece on women in engineering.

Over the course of three years Nadya Fouad, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, surveyed 5,300 women who earned engineering degrees within the past six decades in order to figure out why so few stayed in engineering. Fouad reported that only 62 percent of respondents were currently working in engineering. Those who left the field provided their reasons for doing so in the survey.

“It’s the climate, stupid!” she said during her presentation, referring to the “old-boys club” workplaces that she says still exist in many engineering organizations.

Respondents in her study reflected her sentiments, with many calling the engineering workplace unfriendly and even hostile to women. They also said that they felt many of these companies did not provide opportunities for women like them to advance and develop.

“Women’s departure from engineering is not just an issue of ‘leaning in.’ ” said Fouad, lead researcher of the study. “It’s about changing the work environment.”

Changing the work environment, not just individual women taking action. What I thought was especially important, if depressing, was this response to her work:

Not everyone agrees with Fouad’s findings.
“Women aren’t leaving engineering to go and hide in a corner. They are leaving for many reasons which a study like this may not find,” said Elizabeth Bierman, president of the Society of Women Engineers and an aerospace engineer for 20 years. “The work environment may be one reason but for the majority it is not the case.”
Her organization recently conducted its own retention study and found that although women do leave the engineering workplace faster than men, they do so for a variety of reasons. Many of those reasons, such as lack of a work/life balance, also resonate with men, Bierman said.
The bigger problem facing women and engineering, she said, is getting more women into the engineering pipeline. Bierman says companies looking to retain both women and men should improve their work/life balance policies.
“We’ve found that women stay in engineering because they want to make sure they are making a difference,” she says. “If women feel they are making that difference, retention levels will be higher.”

Yes, make a difference. And how do they make a difference?

Well, first we have to change the climate so that women’s work is valued, women are protected from harassment (oh, the stories I have heard from a few aerospace engineer friends, now all working in other fields), and we change the culture.

Choice is fine. Choice is stressed by everyone defending the lack of women in sciences. But when the pressure is coming at women through harassment, through bias, through diminishing women’s work, through all the factors we know that run rampant in our patriarchal society, there is no real choice. You either go with the flow and find something else to do, or spend your life spitting into the wind (warning, mixing metaphors!). It’s no surprise so many women drop out.

To end on a good note, for the first time in 80 years, the winner of the Fields Medal in mathematics, the “Nobel prize” for the discipline, is a woman! May there be so many more that it’s no longer news.

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