It’s familiar knowledge that women are underrepresented in the sciences. Despite the fact that girls express equal interest in math and science to their elementary school classroom counterparts and women enroll in undergraduate and graduate programs in equal numbers to men, STEM programs, more than others in academia, have a harder time retaining women.
“The absence of women within STEM programs is not only progressive, it is persistent,” Hope Jahren writes in a recent essay in the New York Times. And STEM’s retention of women has shown few signs of improvement despite, as Jahren notes, “more than 20 years of programs intended to encourage the participation of girls and women.”
Indeed, despite programs designed to interest girls in STEM, GoldieBlox, and supermodels celebrating the virtues of coding, the fields are still overwhelmingly male and seem virtually resistant to change. Jahren, a geochemist and geobiologist, argues that the problem is hardly one of enthusiasm, but rather widespread sexual harassment in the fields that, unsurprisingly, goes unpunished.
She writes about a disturbing, familiar pattern:
Since I started writing about women and science, my female colleagues have been moved to share their stories with me; my inbox is an inadvertent clearinghouse for unsolicited love notes. Sexual harassment in science generally starts like this: A woman (she is a student, a technician, a professor) gets an email and notices that the subject line is a bit off: “I need to tell you,” or “my feelings.” The opening lines refer to the altered physical and mental state of the author: “It’s late and I can’t sleep” is a favorite, though “Maybe it’s the three glasses of cognac” is popular as well.
The author goes on to tell her that she is special in some way, that his passion is an unfamiliar feeling that she has awakened in him, the important suggestion being that she has brought this upon herself. He will speak of her as an object with “shiny hair” or “sparkling eyes” — testing the waters before commenting upon the more private parts of her body. Surprisingly, he often acknowledges that he is doing something inappropriate. I’ve seen “Of course you know I could get fired for this” in the closing paragraph; the subject line of the email sent to my former student was “NSFW read at your own risk!”
The kind of sexual harassment Jahren describes is hardly that of a Mad Men episode: groping and outright dickishness are easier to label and condemn as sexual harassment (and it’s worth noting that STEM has a problem with that too).