Persistent Sexual Harassment Is a Primary Reason Women Leave STEM

Illustration for article titled Persistent Sexual Harassment Is a Primary Reason Women Leave STEM

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).


Rather, it’s the kind that prioritizes men’s feelings, and their expression of them, over the simple act of treating a woman as a professional colleague. Jahren persuasively argues that the persistence of this kind of behavior—the constant demand from both male colleagues and academic advisors that their feelings be acknowledged and legitimized—is one of the reasons women leave STEM fields.

An email forwarded to Jahren by a former student asking her advice typifies the problem:

[The student] forwarded an email she had received from a senior colleague that opened, “Can I share something deeply personal with you?” Within the email, he detonates what he described as a “truth bomb”: “All I know is that from the first day I talked to you, there hadn’t been a single day or hour when you weren’t on my mind.” He tells her she is “incredibly attractive” and “adorably dorky.” He reminds her, in detail, of how he has helped her professionally: “I couldn’t believe the things I was compelled to do for you.” He describes being near her as “exhilarating and frustrating at the same time” and himself as “utterly unable to get a grip” as a result. He closes by assuring her, “That’s just the way things are and you’re gonna have to deal with me until one of us leaves.”


It’s hard to imagine that the sender of the email thought that it would earn him the romantic admiration of his female colleague, coupled as it is with a vague threat likely meant to convey the authentic intensity of his attraction. And yet, as Jahren writes, this behavior has “been encountered by every single woman I know.”

From my own experiences in academia, I imagine that women outside of STEM and in nearly every academic discipline could tell similar stories. And frankly, that’s why Jahren’s essay is simultaneously so enraging and depressing: if academia is supposed to be home to philosophically liberal and enlightened values, then how has the broader project of feminism failed to find much traction?


Over the weekend, I watched a handful of men—men who have PhDs from top universities, who are studied in feminist theory and teach at highly respected universities, defend sending so-called “love notes.” The foundation of their defense was a kind of misplaced, yet fundamental belief, that a man expressing his feelings is an inherent compliment and should be taken as such. The grand romantic gesture, after all, is the stuff of good movies and better novels. But that, of course, is fiction and, to borrow Anne Eliot’s words, “[they] were all written by men.”

Female colleagues aren’t simply sitting around waiting for a romantic declaration, which is what both the offenders and the defenders seem to believe. The expression of romantic feelings, without consent or encouragement, has little place at work, ultimately. While an unexpected passionate love letter might flutter hearts on screen or page, in real life, it tends to be demoralizing and creepy. But, as Jahren argues, it’s typical of being a woman in STEM; enduring such declarations is part of the unwritten job description.


Jahren advises women to, “draw strong professional boundaries and then to enforce them, not because she should have to, but because nobody else will.” She further suggests that women “document everything” so that male colleagues cannot present harassment as a “two-way emotional exchange.” Beyond that, she advises women who seek her advice, “to stick it out in science, but only because I cannot promise that other fields aren’t worse.”

Frankly, it’s no wonder so many women leave STEM. With an already heavy workload, the addition of constant tactical monitoring and emotional negotiation sounds exhausting.


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Image via Getty.



I can’t tell you how many women I know in STEM have at least one anecdote of an extremely inappropriate situation like this...its horrifyingly ubiquitous from a lot of these older male PIs.

It will continue to happen until universities take accusations seriously, rather than allowing PIs to transfer jobs without mentioning anything and then they continue to harass women. Just look at what happened with Jason Lieb recently...that is a textbook example of these types of men and how easily they get away with it for so long.

PhDs and research techs especially are completely at the whims of their PI and I know plenty of women (including myself) who have left positions under threat of “ruining your career,” which can easily happen in early stages of your career.

The system is broken.