Fighting sexual harassment in science may mean changing science itself

A recent report highlights just how prevalent harassment is in academic science

photo illustration of chess hierarchy

KINGS OF SCIENCE Modern academic science is built as a hierarchy, with experienced, powerful professors leading labs full of younger people — a situation primed for abuse of power.


The #MeToo movement has revealed sexual and gender harassment in every corner of American life. Science hasn’t been immune. High profile cases — such as decades’ worth of complaints against astronomer Geoff Marcy, and allegations that geologist David Marchant verbally and physically abused women scientists in Antarctica — make headlines. But it is the often underreported gender harassment, both serious and subtle, that contributes most to the scope of the problem. And efforts to recruit more women into scientific fields fall awfully flat when those women end up harassed out of their careers.

A report published on June 12 by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine offers an exhaustive, 311-page look into just how pervasive the problem really is: More than 50 percent of women in academia say they have experienced sexual harassment. “I am sure that many were aware of the issue, but were perhaps surprised by the magnitude of the problem,” says Marcia McNutt, president of the National Academy of Sciences.

The report offers a list of recommendations to combat harassment, many of which are focused on changing the culture of science to create an environment where there is more civility and safety. But when the entire scientific training system is based on huge power imbalances between professors and trainees, creating that environment will involve more than team-building exercises and casual Fridays.

Real change may mean changing everything about the way scientific training works. 

Feudal lords of science

One of the most shocking statistics out of the report was actually an old number. It was from a 2003 review estimating that 58 percent of academic employees had experienced sexual harassment. The only field with worse numbers? The military (at 69 percent).

That number may be 15 years old, but Kathryn Clancy, an anthropologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a member of the committee responsible for the NAS report, is confident it’s still accurate. “People have been doing this research for 30 years,” she says. “Generally, in male dominated work environments, about three-quarters of women experience harassment. That hasn’t changed.”

The reason the military and academia top the list for prevalence of sexual harassment isn’t just because academia and the military are both male-dominated professions. Instead, it’s because they both work in similar ways.

Both have a hierarchical structure in which someone has a lot of power over someone else. In the military, that’s the commanding officer. In academic science, for undergraduates, graduate students and postdocs, it’s the professor. That professor is responsible for training and guiding the trainee’s research. But that leader is also, often, paying the student’s tuition and stipend through research funding.

“I fund my grad students through National Science Foundation grants,” explains Erika Marín-Spiotta, a geographer at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. “[Trainees] contribute to the research, and [the research grant] pays their health insurance, access to the field and access to conferences.” It may also pay a trainee’s tuition and stipend. The research grant technically goes to the university, but from there, it goes to the professor. “I hire and supervise the students,” she says. “It’s dependent on me.”

Medicine can be similar, notes Reshma Jagsi, a physician and social scientist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. But, she notes, hierarchies can serve a crucial purpose. “It’s very important for patient safety to have a clear line of command. In some ways medicine is like the military: It requires some degree of hierarchy.”

The model can be extremely positive. “A good mentor is out in front of the students saying ‘this is what the path looks like for you and these are things that should be on your radar,’” explains Sarah Myhre, a paleoceanographer at the University of Washington in Seattle. The right mentor can make a good young scientist into a great one. “The mentorship I had, particularly from women scientists, has fundamentally changed my career. It has made my career and built my career.” But the system also ends up being “very personality-driven,” she notes. “People build their own fiefdoms.”

And if the mentor/mentee relationship goes sour, a trainee is stuck. It’s not just her career or her current research project, but potentially her rent check at stake. “The way in which a student’s entire career success rests on a single person causes a lot of problems,” agrees Clancy. The relative powerlessness of trainees can silence victims of sexual harassment. Even when the perpetrator isn’t your direct boss, is filing a complaint worth the potentially career-ending reprisals?

Most of the time, that abuse of power is not sexual coercion or unwanted sexual attention, as the report points out. Instead, it’s sexist hostility and crude behavior creating an unfriendly environment. In a 2015 survey of the Penn State University system, almost 31 percent of undergrads, 41 percent of graduate students and 50 percent of medical students reported experiencing sexist hostility from faculty and staff — nasty jokes or comments about how women aren’t smart enough to succeed, for example. Between 13 and 23 percent of women reported crude behavior (such as sexist insults). Each instance may seem relatively minor, but together they contribute to an environment where women feel devalued and unwelcome, the report concludes. 

That hostile environment is perpetuated by a focus on the science — and not on the people doing it. “We think we work with data, not with people, but we work with [other] people all the time,” Marín-Spiotta notes. “We haven’t been trained in how to manage people; we’re training how to analyze stats and run instruments. We never receive mentoring or management training.”

Granted, mentoring and management training may be on offer through a university or institute. But why take time from the lab to do it? Managerial skills aren’t how scientists get promoted — research is. “It’s not how good of a mentor are we but how much money and how many publications we’re producing,” she explains. “It is a system where people are bodies to produce data.”

But scientists are people, not robots. And people live in a culture that has its own biases, notes Myhre. Biases — such as sexism and racism — that seep into the ivory tower. “I have a deep love and affection for my colleagues and friends who are scientists. But I think the culture has a lack of civility. It is a culture of abuse of power,” she says. “I think if institutions don’t actively counteract these forces, if there’s no active participation and counteraction, then of course these dynamics of power and abuse play out.”

When scientists train in tiny, all powerful fiefdoms, it’s easy for those power abuses to persist, Marín-Spiotta says. “Often we’re like, ‘I’m not going to be involved in how my colleague is treating his or her students, it’s not my business,’” she explains. “We need to make it our business.”

Flattening the org chart

Creating a better environment, the National Academy of Sciences report concludes, involves breaking down the feudal system. The report offers 14 recommendations to reduce sexual harassment in academic science, engineering and medicine. Some of the recommendations promote civility. Others note that accountability belongs to everyone and reporting needs to be transparent.

But recommendation five is a single sentence: “Academic institutions should consider power-diffusion mechanisms (i.e., mentoring networks or committee-based advising and departmental funding rather than funding only from a principal investigator) to reduce the risk of sexual harassment.”

That would mean a fundamental change to the way students are mentored, funded and advised. Currently, graduate students in the sciences generally have a single primary mentor, and a committee of other professors that oversees their progress and (in theory) diffuses the mentor’s influence.

In reality, though, those committees may meet only once or twice a year. “The input of the other faculty members varies a lot,” says Marín-Spiotta. In the face of a powerful, charismatic professor, the suggestions of the committee may be toothless. And at the postdoctoral level, the trainee often works for one professor — no committee involved.

To make sure the student has people other than their adviser to turn to, graduate students and other trainees may need to have more than one adviser — a situation that is relatively uncommon, especially at the postdoctoral level. “Students should have academic advisers as well as research advisers, to broaden the people to whom the student has access,” says Sheila Widnall, an aerospace engineer at MIT and cochair of the committee that issued the report.

It would also mean formalizing many of the informal arrangements that make up graduate and postdoctoral training structures. It might involve adding professors to a mentorship team, and making sure those extra people aren’t only mentors on paper. “If we could institutionalize it, [if] it’s a team of mentors so [the trainee] always has more than one person to go to, they’re not at the mercy of one particular person,” says Marín-Spiotta.

Even in medicine’s traditional hierarchies, such a change would also benefit everyone, Jagsi says. “We’ve seen medical care teams where multiple providers are working together. It can be very effective in creating an environment less conducive to a single individual’s bad behavior,” she notes.

The report also recommends funding students through departments or institutions, not the professor’s pocket. This would change where young scientists look for their paychecks. About one in five young scientists are paid for by their professors’ grants, a 2015 survey of science and engineering graduate students and postdocs showed. In biomedical fields funded by the National Institutes of Health, 59 percent of trainees, including both graduate students and postdocs, were supported by their professor’s grants that same year.

If funding comes from departments or institutions, and not from the professor, “I think that gives a lot more leverage to funding institutes,” says BethAnn McLaughlin, a neuroscientist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. Then, she says, if harassment occurred, the funding institute — such as the NIH or NSF — could swoop in and take away the university’s money. “It would send a message that would be heard immediately by every other training program that if you don’t get these bad actors out, you will lose all your money, and don’t bother coming back for more.”

Changing the existing system will take time. “I want to burn it down,” Clancy says. “But I also recognize that would be harmful to the people I’m trying to help.” Efforts to encourage the careers of women and people of color in the existing system would have to be built into any new architecture. “Dismantling the system immediately, given the way sexism and racism still operate, means we wouldn’t have a clear lane for success,” Clancy says.

Changing the power structures — the structures in which science functions — is a big enough change. But it’s also a change within a bigger context. Academic science, engineering and medicine can change their funding and mentorship, Myhre says, “but changing how men behave? That would solve a lot of the problem.”

Bethany was previously the staff writer at Science News for Students. She has a Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology from Wake Forest University School of Medicine.

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