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How can we fix sexism in science?

It's time for universities to step up and take real responsibility

By Jennifer Harrison January 16, 2016

A friend once told me: “Of course science has a sexism problem. Society has a sexism problem!” True, but there’s definitely more to it than that. I follow a lot of kickass women in science and half my Twitter feed is filled with wonder, passion, progress, and safety goggles. The other half is filled with bullying and harassment. Here at Gadgette you can read about the problems women face working in tech journalism and other areas of the tech industry. That same cultural sexism pervades scientific academia. The structure of academic progress in science allows harassers to abuse positions of power and leaves some women feeling they have to put up with abuse or ruin their career. Despite the undeniable fact that women are discriminated against in academia, most people have come to accept that it’s just a part of life.

Twitter is buzzing with sexism in science this week as Buzzfeed reported details of a harassment investigation at Caltech. The investigation revealed that astrophysics professor Chistian Ott was guilty of discrimination and harassment of his graduate students. Ott had fallen in love with graduate student Io Kleiser, and then sacked her for it. With 9 of his students moving on and only 2 receiving their degrees over the years, alarm bells should have been ringing long before now. His students reported bullying, obsessive behaviour, and outbursts. Like many supervisors, Ott branded students uncommitted if they didn’t work 80 hours per week. I imagine some readers will find those hours incredible but it’s very common for students to be told they have to put the rest of their life on hold in order to succeed in their career. There are examples of entire student bodies being told by universities that they should be working 80-100 hours and they should want to do it.

Caltech has received praise for investigating the allegations against Ott and suspending him, but it’s only temporary. He’s a man in a position of power who has described himself to his students as insane. He claims to be prone to falling in love with his students. He bullies and harasses students to the point of forcing them to quit. Ott would be fired from a normal job but he will be back working with graduate students after some “rehabilitation”. Io Kleiser said it best speaking to Buzzfeed: “Because Christian still has a place at Caltech, I feel that I don’t.” Browse Twitter after stories like Christian Ott and you will find a litany of tweets from women sharing similar experiences. Take a look at the #AstroSH hashtag being used for discussing sexual harassment in astrophysics.


Follow women in science on Twitter and it won’t be long before you hear of other incidents. Last June, Nobel prize-winning Sir Tim Hunt stood before the World Conference of Science Journalists in Seoul and joked about women: “Three things happen when they are in the lab: you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them they cry.” Last October, Berkeley found that famous astronomer Geoff Marcy had a long history of sexual harassment including kissing and groping students. He recently resigned. This week, Republican Congresswoman Jackie Speier stood at the US House of Representatives and discussed sexism in science. She talked about Timothy Frederick Slate, who violated sexual harassment policy at the University of Arizona and now happily mentors graduate students at the University of Wyoming.

This is a big problem in scientific academia where research-led teaching is considered vital. University lecturers and project supervisors are often experts in their fields, meaning students are learning from the very people doing the cutting-edge research. The top professors have been promoted into their position based on their ability to obtain grants and conduct top quality research. Many of the worst harassers in academia get away with what they do because they are so good at research. Note I don’t say “good at science,” because part of being a scientist is collaboration with other human beings. If training graduate students is part of being a professor, surely you are a terrible professor if you cultivate a toxic workplace.

It’s clear from speaking to many women in science that the increase in news coverage doesn’t mean harassment is new or becoming more common. It’s always been there. The difference is that more people are speaking out more than ever before. Social media can be depressing as it becomes easier to learn about dreadful things happening around the world at any given time, but I love that it cultivates discussion. On Twitter, responses to these incidents allow women to find people with similar experiences and support each other. Sexism isn’t going away any time soon, but it’s great to see people coming together and inspiring others to speak out.


If sexism isn’t going away, what can we do? For starters I think we need to send different messages. When a male professor is forgiven for sexually abusing a female student because he’s good at research, it sends a message: women, just deal with it, boys will be boys. However, discussing sexism in science at the House of Representatives sends a very different message. More university investigations into harassment of students sends a positive message. Maybe we can’t beat sexism overnight, but universities can send a clear message that it will no longer be tolerated. There should be a day when a young girl reads about a sexist pig in science and the story is about how it will not be tolerated by the university, the students, or society. Science should be welcoming. Today, we still have tweets like this:


I’ve witnessed sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and ableism in different fields of science but it’s interesting that most of the recent widely publicised incidents involve physicists and astronomers. At first glance, astrophysics seems to be the worst. Are students particularly at risk in this field? The Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy (CSWA) recently surveyed 400 astronomers and found that over 75% had been harassed and were afraid to speak out and risk ruining their careers.

The affected astronomers included women, people of colour, and LGBTQ-identifying people. It certainly seems to be worse than other fields, but perhaps it’s the opposite. Maybe we’re seeing all this harassment being exposed in the media because astrophysics is a field where the times are changing. Perhaps we aren’t reading about prestigious computer science or chemistry professors because students in those fields aren’t speaking out and those university departments aren’t taking harassment as seriously.

A study by Clancy et al (2014) in PLOS surveyed 666 fieldwork students and found that 26% had been sexually assaulted. They reported that: "Women trainees were the primary targets; their perpetrators were predominantly senior to them professionally within the research team." Also: "Few respondents were aware of mechanisms to report incidents; most who did report were unsatisfied with the outcome." (http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0102172#pone.0102172-McGuire1).

It’s vital to realise that speaking up isn’t only about victims of harassment looking for help. Sometimes they can’t come forward because it’s unsafe to do so or they feel it could cost them their career. All of us need to speak up when we witness harassment of any type in academia. Some of the harassers mentioned in this article have mentored many students over the years. They’ve collaborated with colleagues. They’ve likely shared lab space at times. These professors are constantly surrounded by people yet were able to sexually harass students for years before being caught. Why didn’t people speak up? Why didn’t other men speak up? Why didn’t the universities step in years earlier than they did? It has to change.

We can tweet and write blogs all we want but the universities need to make the real-world changes. We can’t change the way people think but we can improve sexual harassment policies, make it easier for people to come forward when abused, and take these incidents seriously. Most of all, being a good professor shouldn’t only be about the quality of your research. Universities shouldn’t be promoting people to be professors if they are the type of people who require training and rehabilitation to make them decent human beings. There will be talented people who don’t treat students and colleagues with respect and they shouldn’t be promoted to a role that gives them power over the people they’re likely to harass. I don’t disagree that research-led teaching is useful, but we must not tolerate sexist creeps just because they have a good track record of publications.

Last year I met a girl from Edinburgh named Angela. She was no older than 10 and utterly obsessed with space. She built toy rockets, owned a NASA t-shirt, and played Kerbal Space Programme with her father. He told me she became obsessed with space when they watched a documentary about NASA. She was particularly impressed by the Mars rovers. Part of me was ecstatic when she passionately told me she was going to work hard in school so she could study planets. Another part of me thought about how quite a few women go to university to study STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths) but only 20.5% of professors in the UK are women. I thought about how those professors don’t receive as many grants as men do. I imagined her being lucky enough to get a job, only to find she’ll likely be paid less than men in the same role. Perhaps worst of all, I thought about how it will be other women as well as men who discriminate against her.

With so few professors being women, some people ask what we can do to get more girls interested in science. I don’t think that’s the problem. There’s nothing intrinsic about science that means it only appeals to boys. If science didn’t appeal to girls, they wouldn’t go to university to study it. What we see is women leaving science the further they climb in academia, ultimately resulting in relatively few women at the very top. Do women gradually lose interest in science itself when men don’t? Or is it something to do with academic culture? Angela has caught the science bug and I would bet good money that she’ll be studying a science or engineering subject at university someday. I desperately hope her passion for the science itself won’t be crushed by the hostile culture of academia. She’ll have to put up with sexism in science – I know this – but hopefully she’ll know an academic world where it’s never ever tolerated.


Main image © iStock/mayrum

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