Congress Takes On Sexual Harassment in the Sciences

Female scientists were reporting sexual abuse and harassment by professors years before the #MeToo movement exploded in the public eye last fall. From unwanted comments and weird texts to missed promotions and direct assaults, female graduate students and postdocs are often vulnerable while working in male-dominated field camps, laboratories, or remote observatories where there are few places to turn for help.

In recent years, big-time academic stars have been removed from UC Berkeley, CalTech, and Boston University, but only after months or years of official complaints to university administrators.

These administrators have often balked at firing a tenured faculty member whose federal research money may support a lab that employs dozens of young scientists and brings prestige and international recognition to the school. But in the wake of #MeToo scandals in Hollywood, the media, and on Capitol Hill, some members of Congress say the federal science agencies need to do more to protect female scientists from both harassment on the job and retaliation when they speak up.

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At a House subcommittee hearing Tuesday, Representative Barbara Comstock (R-Virginia) said that women are being pushed out of science and technology jobs that the United States needs to remain competitive with other nations. “Women in science are particularly vulnerable,” said Comstock, chairwoman of the House subcommittee on research and technology. “Scientists who manage grants exert significant control over the training and education of young scientists. How does a university respond to this when a harasser is a rainmaker for the university? How many brilliant scientists and their ideas have been lost in the STEM fields because of this? When they are harassed many don’t return. How many women have given up these long term high paying jobs?”

Comstock said that the committee that she chairs has been investigating inconsistencies in how universities and science agencies like the NSF, NASA, and NOAA deal with sexual harassment complaints since October. Committee staff members have asked National Science Foundation officials to give them the number of complaints lodged by women against their academic supervisors, but so far haven’t received the data.

In the meantime, the Government Accountability Office and the National Academies of Science are both investigating the issue of sexual harassment in science, and how it affects America’s research capabilities. “I have stories of sabotaged lab equipment, rumor-mongering, sexual assault, and rape,” said Kathryn Clancy, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois, who has been surveying women in science fields about their experiences. She says the problem comes in two forms: come-ons and put-downs. A put-down could be as innocuous as asking a female colleague to make coffee or take notes at a faculty meeting, or as serious as having an principal investigator throw rocks at a female scientist while she is trying to use the bathroom at a field camp in Antarctica (yes, that happened).“It’s like we think rudeness and cruelty are the same things as being smart,” Clancy said about the attitude of some older male scientists who harass younger women.

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