Sexual Harassment in the Sciences

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  • Nancy Hopkins, PhD, a geneticist and cancer researcher who served as Professor of Biology at MIT for 40 years [1], was sexually harassed by Nobel Prize winning British molecular biologist, Francis Crick OM FRS, one of the two men credited with discovering the structure of DNA [2][3A]. Crick casually placed his hands on Hopkins’ breasts while inquiring about her research, as if that were a normal thing to do.
  • Jane Willenbring, PhD, a geomorphologist and Assoc. Professor of Earth Sciences at Stanford University, winner of the prestigious Antarctica Service Medal [4][5], was sexually harassed by glacial geologist, David Marchant, PhD after whom the Matataua Glacier was originally named [3B][6][7]. Marchant expressed open hostility toward Willenbring, repeatedly referring to her by such derogatory terms as “slut”, “whore”, and “cunt”; denigrating her work; tormenting her with painful practical jokes; and ultimately denying her funding.

As of 2017, women constituted only 29% of the STEM (science/technology/engineering/mathematics) professionals in the United States [3C].

As research has now objectively demonstrated, major factors in this are the implicit and explicit gender discrimination and sexual harassment women face in these male dominated fields.

False Assumptions

The assumption has been that the sciences are apolitical, and free of bias; that sexual harassment does not exist in the sciences.  The assumption has been that women are simply unsuited for STEM; that they lack the necessary interest, dedication, and intellect to succeed; that their very biology makes them somehow inadequate to the task.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Prevalence of Harassment

Fully 50% of women in STEM experience sexual harassment.

At times, this comes in the form of sexual coercion [8][9].  More often, it involves consistent, subtle exclusion from communication and collaboration among colleagues – even inappropriate language, and shabby treatment.  Both, however, have the same impact.

Experience of Harassment

A violation occurs.  Partly out of humiliation and confusion, partly out of the desire not to embarrass a male staff member who is your senior, you pretend nothing happened and go about your business.  After all, your professional future rests in his hands.  But the experience rankles.

You swallow your pride.  You hide your distress.  You try to laugh it off; try crafting a witty response for use the next time.  You put your head down, and keep working.

You hope that things will get better; that the system, itself, will change with time.

But you see little improvement.  Your hireability, your salary, your laboratory space are all inferior to those of male colleagues whose achievements are comparable.

Your competency is routinely questioned till you begin to doubt it, yourself.

You have trouble getting credit for your work.  When you do achieve success, your reputation is undermined by allegations that you used sex to advance your career.

Finally, your discouragement becomes overwhelming, and you pursue another field of endeavor.  Your talent is lost to STEM.

Activism

Women are socialized to be “nice”, to be “pleasant”.  Few of us want to be characterized as angry or militant.  Most of us do not seek out activism.  Frequently, it is thrust upon on us by circumstance.

Nancy Hopkins initiated a landmark 1999 study on sexual harassment known as the MIT Report [3D][10].  Jane Willenbring brought a successful Title IX complaint against David Marchant, who was later fired by Boston University.

The Bible teaches the equality of men and women [11].  But the challenges for women remain.

So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (Gen. 1: 27).

[1]  MIT Biology Dept., https://biology.mit.edu/profile/nancy-hopkins/.

[2]  Wikipedia, “Francis Crick”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francis_Crick.

[3A – 3D]  PBS, Nova “Picture a Scientist”, S48, E3, https://www.pbs.org/video/picture-a-scientist-rlnmdy/.

[4]  Wikipedia, “Jane K. Willenbring”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jane_K._Willenbring

[5]  Stanford University Profiles, “Jane Kathryn Willenbring”,  https://profiles.stanford.edu/jane-willenbring.

[6]  Wikipedia, “David R. Marchant”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_R._Marchant.

[7]  Science, “A Cold Case:  Disturbing allegations of sexual harassment in Antarctica leveled at noted scientist” by Meredith Wadman, 10/6/17, https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/10/disturbing-allegations-sexual-harassment-antarctica-leveled-noted-scientist.

[8]  Stat, “Sexual harassment is rampant in science – and current policies aren’t cutting it, landmark report finds” by Megan Thielking, 6/12/18, https://www.statnews.com/2018/06/12/sexual-harassment-science-nasem-report/.

[9]  Sexual Harassment of Women – Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Science, Engineering, and Medicine, A Consensus Study Report of the National Academies of Sciences/Engineering/Medicine edited by Paula Johnson, Sheila Widnall, and Frazier Benya, National Academies Press (2018).

[10]  MIT News, “3 Questions:  Nancy Hopkins on improving gender equality in academia” by Raleigh McElvery,  9/30/20, https://news.mit.edu/2020/3-questions-nancy-hopkins-improving-gender-equality-in-academia-0930.

[11]  CBE International (Christians for Bible Equality), “The Bible Teaches the Equal Standing of Man and Woman” by Philip Payne, https://www.cbeinternational.org/resource/article/priscilla-papers-academic-journal/bible-teaches-equal-standing-man-and-woman.

FOR MORE OF MY ARTICLES ON POVERTY, POLITICS, AND MATTERS OF CONSCIENCE CHECK OUT MY BLOG A LAWYER’S PRAYERS AT: https://alawyersprayers.com

12 Comments

Filed under Abuse of Power, bullying, Justice, Law

12 responses to “Sexual Harassment in the Sciences

  1. Sexual harassment is and should be something intolerable in all fields, professions and groups. There is simply no need for that.

  2. Unfortunately, gender-specific treatment for men and women is still far too common. Only when a woman dares to act against it and manages to encourage other women to defend themselves as well, as in the case of the “me too” movement, is greater public awareness aroused.
    I wish you the very best, stay healthy, greetings from your friend Marie

  3. Anna,

    Sad but enlightening that even at their level of scientific achievement, these women were subjected to sexual harassment by men like Francis Crick who are still in a position of power. Changes in work culture are apparently not making their way past political posturing.

    pax,
    dora

  4. This is an eye-opener for me, dear Anna. I have been among those who believed that science is a neutral territory, so to speak.

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