How Women Are Harassed Out of Science

The discrimination young researchers endure makes America’s need for STEM workers even greater.

Graduate students at University of California, Berkeley, after they filed complaints of sexual harassment against a professor  (Jeff Chiu / AP)

When Joan was an undergraduate, in the 1970s, she asked her boyfriend why one of his roommates was finishing up a Ph.D. while another, in the same department, still had several years left.

“Barbara’s rigid,” her boyfriend said. His other roommate, Karen, had slept with her advisor, but Barbara refused to sleep with hers. Chuckling with approval, the boyfriend recounted how Karen had asked to use his waterbed, and left a pair of sexy underwear scrunched in his sheets.

Today, this kind of quid pro quo may be less common, but sexual harassment at universities persists. The spate of lawsuits, investigations, and recent resignations at the University of California, Berkeley, University of Chicago, and UCLA,  accompanied by older cases leaked to the press and an increase in women going public about their experiences, have made that clear. Graduate students and postdocs are particularly vulnerable, because their futures depend so completely on good recommendations from professors. And STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) students are more dependent than others. Their career progress hinges on invitations to work on professors’ grants or—if students have their own projects—access to big data sets or expensive lab equipment controlled by overwhelmingly male senior faculty.

A 2015 report that one of us co-authored found that one in three women science professors surveyed reported sexual harassment. There’s been a lot of talk about how to keep women in the STEM pipeline, but it fails to make a crucial connection: One reason the pipeline leaks is that women are harassed out of science. And sexual harassment is just the beginning.

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We recently spoke with a group of senior scientists who confirmed the prevalence of sexual harassment. Kim Barrett, the graduate dean at the University of California, San Diego, said she did not know of a single senior woman in gastroenterology, her subfield, who had not been sexually harassed. Margaret Leinen, of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, described a conversation she once overheard between one male and five female scientists at a meeting where harassment was being discussed. “I don’t see what the fuss is about,” said the man. “I’ve never met anyone who has been sexually harassed.” The women just looked at each other. “Well, now you’ve met five,” they said.

Another established scientist—who, like several women we interviewed, spoke on the condition of anonymity, fearing professional repercussions for speaking out—expressed specific concern about sexual harassment in the summer training courses that feed into prestigious academic jobs. She recalled the lead professor of one such course taking photos of a student, zooming in on her breasts, and making jokes about her. In another course, a different lead professor hand-fed ice cream to a graduate student. “It can be devastating,” she said. “[It happens] at the moment when a woman feels she is finally getting to be a real scientist and one of the gang.”

Other scientists worried about harassment at annual conferences. Leinen, who was president of the AGU (American Geophysical Union) last year, said that shortly before their annual conference a young woman scientist—emboldened by a resolution widely seen as censure of Berkeley astronomer Geoffrey Marcy—came forward with a report. A colleague had sexually harassed her during graduate school, and continued to do so at AGU’s annual meeting. The AGU sprang into action by holding a town-hall session at the conference, and is now discussing concrete steps to address sexual harassment at its next meeting, according to Leinen.

The American Association of Physical Anthropology was similarly rocked by a sexual assault allegation at its annual conference last year. The women we spoke with in that association agreed that conferences, fieldwork, and business travel are the worst. One recalled a male colleague who once said the only reason to go to conferences is to have an affair. A 2014 study of anthropologists and other field scientists found that 64 percent of 666 respondents had experienced some sort of sexual harassment while doing fieldwork.

Then, there’s pregnancy harassment. One former doctoral student recalled having her job at a large research center cut due to “lack of funding” when she told her advisor she was expecting, only to see the position offered the next week to one of her friends. “I confided in my department chair that I believed I had been fired and discriminated against due to my pregnancy,” the student wrote. “She replied (and I can quote from memory verbatim because I was so horrified) ‘Are you sure? Because women in your condition have pregnancy brain and can often misinterpret situations.’ I realized I was screwed. No job, no support, and no health insurance for my upcoming delivery.”

This student’s experience is far too common. Pregnant undergraduates and graduate students are frequently told that their only option is to withdraw from their programs, with no guarantee of readmission. Withdrawing can mean losing academic progress, tuition, fellowships, on-campus jobs, health insurance, and sometimes housing, according to the university policies we have studied and the people we have spoken with. (We currently have a National Science Foundation grant to work on this issue; the views expressed in this article are our own, and do not necessarily reflect those of the NSF.)

Postdocs, who fuel scientific research in the U.S., are equally at risk. For years, we’ve heard stories of Principal Investigators (PIs) who insist that pregnant postdocs return to the lab weeks after giving birth. A 2009 survey of postdocs by the social welfare researcher Mary Ann Mason and her colleagues found that of the women who entered their postdoc program intending to be research professors, 41 percent who had children during their postdoc decided against that career. By contrast, men who became fathers during their postdoc years changed their trajectory half as often—roughly the same rate as childless postdocs with no intention of having kids.

Our forthcoming report, Parents in the Pipeline, discusses postdocs’ experiences of parenthood. Nearly 20 percent of the roughly 1,000 postdocs who responded to our survey said their PI’s response to their parenthood had a negative impact on their training experience overall.  According to our preliminary results, only 59 percent of postdoc women respondents said their institution had a maternity leave policy that applied to them, and just 15 percent of all respondents had access to a parental leave policy that covered care taking. Nearly one in 10 of the postdoc respondents were denied leave altogether. “No one explicitly said ‘Do not take leave,’” reported one scientist, who instead faced “threats of pulling funding, constant pressure and reminders mere weeks after birth … insulting remarks about my inability to complete deadlines and astonishing hostility as if having a child equals slacking off.” We have heard many similar stories through our website that’s dedicated to this issue.

Why don’t women just wait to have children until they get their first professor jobs? They can’t: The average age for getting a doctorate in science and engineering fields is nearly 32, right when female fertility significantly decreases. Even after graduating, researchers spend upwards of five years as a postdoc before moving into faculty positions, and there is evidence that those who spend more time as a postdoc are the ones who advance into tenure-track research positions.

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Wherever it occurs, sexual harassment of students or professors is a violation of Title IX when there’s federal funding involved. There almost always is. Sexual harassment of professors, students, or postdoc employees may violate employment laws as well. Moreover, it’s profligate as public policy: The U.S. faces a projected deficit of 1 million college-educated STEM workers in the coming decade, according to a recent White House report. Women can fill that gap; nationwide, educators, activists, politicians, and celebrities are all scrambling to encourage girls to choose STEM careers. Yet once those girls reach the final stages of their education—after dedicating over two decades of study—we lose them. The sunk cost of training a postdoc, conservatively, is $500,000—much of it public funds.

Here’s how we can stop harassing women out of science—two easier steps and two harder ones. The first is to break the silence surrounding sexual harassment. The decade-long behavior of Marcy, the Berkeley astronomer, was an open secret in the field until other astronomers finally organized in support of his victims, leading to his resignation. After molecular biologist Jason Lieb was found to have sexually assaulted a student and harassed others at the University of Chicago, the university came under fire for hiring him because it had received warnings that Lieb had been accused of harassment at two other universities.

“Reputation is the way we control behavior,” points out Ben Barres, a Stanford neurobiologist and trans man who has been vocal about the treatment of women in STEM. “These are serial perps. They go to another school, and the same behavior starts at the next school. Why don’t we make this public?” In Congress, Representative Jackie Speier is calling for a requirement that universities report findings of sexual harassment to federal funding agencies.

The second easy step is for funding agencies to send a clear message, backed by Title IX enforcement: Universities need to stop harassment and other illegal behavior towards students who become parents. Our preliminary survey data show that 53 percent of postdoc women report that their PI was very supportive of their pregnancy or parenthood; clearly, hounding mothers out of science is not mandated by the nature of scientific research. Discriminating against women based on pregnancy, or against either parent based on family responsibilities, is illegal sex discrimination. The lack of codified leave policies at institutions leaves the door open to unbridled discretion. Institutions need formal policies, if only as a risk-management measure.

The first hard step: Universities need a best-practice sexual harassment policy that protects the rights of survivors while also giving alleged harassers due process—not immunity. The hysteria suggesting that these two goals are irreconcilable is unjustified. Many advocates are working on this, from well established national groups like American Association of University Women to grassroots efforts such as Know Your IX.

The final step is hard because it involves our wallets. The National Science Foundation provides supplemental funding for graduate students and postdocs working on NSF-supported projects who need parental leave. This funding makes it possible for PIs to cover both the parental leave and the salary of a temporary replacement. Yet these programs typically only apply where an institution has a formal leave policy. They also need to be adopted by more funding agencies.

“Don’t bother doing a postdoc,” a male neuroscientist advised aspiring postdocs who want to have kids. His advice? “Work at McDonald’s, which would pay you equally or more, would give you more respect, and [offer] a ray of hope through promotion.”

If the U.S. wants to compete in a globalized world, where science and technology are developing at warp speed, we can’t afford to keep harassing women—or anyone—out of science.