Sexual harassment in STEM: ‘It’s tragic for society’

“Conversations became increasingly sexual and they eventually progressed to physical touching, like skin on skin on my neck.”

“He would actually come up to where I was staying at the observatory at 11 p.m. at night, and knock on the door and wait on my porch as I would hide under my bed with all of the lights off.”

“It became clear that he actually wanted a sexual relationship. … He got very drunk and physically separated me from the group.”

These are the experiences of three women who spoke to CNN about a culture of pervasive sexual harassment in academia, especially in the sciences. They were harassed by different men, throughout different parts of their education and careers.

“We see it in anthropology, we see it in philosophy, we see it in physics, we see it in the humanities, we see it in the social sciences. We see it in engineering in particular. Astronomy just happened to be, sort of, first” to get attention, said Alessondra Springmann, a rocket scientist at the University of Arizona who studies asteroids and comets.

Distinguished scientists in the field of astronomy have been making headlines for harassing students they are supposed to be advising.

And it’s happening at the same time as a nationwide push to get more American women into science careers. Young girls are increasingly encouraged to embrace STEM — the acronym for science, technology, engineering and mathematics — in elementary and middle school.

Undermining praise, confidence

A peer-reviewed study of harassment and assault experiences in the scientific field found that 71% of the women surveyed were sexually harassed while conducting fieldwork and 25% were sexually assaulted. The study was published in the journal PLOS ONE.

“To be told for so much of your life that you are wanted in these fields and then to show up and made to feel profoundly unwelcome, I think is really — it’s a terrible thing we do to people,” Springmann said.

And it cuts right at their confidence.

“You question any praise that your work gets because this person said they were praising your work but it was actually a ruse to get you alone,” said Jessica Kirkpatrick, an astrophysicist who works in the private sector.

Sarah Ballard, who studies planets in other solar systems and has discovered two new worlds, says reflecting on her career fills her with mixed emotions.

Ballard, now at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was first harassed as an undergraduate at a different institution and says “it was a pattern that escalated in a way that I couldn’t make sense of at the time because of my youth and innocence.”

Protecting victims

U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier of California announced this week she is sponsoring a bill that would force institutions that receive federal grant money to report harassment investigations. She says universities are continuing to cover up the actions of their faculty even as sexual assault and harassment are driving women out of STEM.

“Many (victims) have left the field and that’s tragic. It’s tragic for society, it’s obviously tragic for the young women who don’t get to pursue their careers and it’s because someone was given the license to conduct themselves in an egregious manner.”

“If you’re going to use mice in your research, there are all these federal requirements that have to be complied with,” Speier told CNN. “And yet, when it comes to your teaching assistant (there is) no such requirement that you treat them in a humane way.”

The bill comes nine months after Speier took to the House floor and made a jarring speech exposing an astronomy professor who was accused of sexual harassment but allowed to keep working, and was later hired by another university.

Universities can be hesitant to fire offenders and lose researchers who bring in federal funding. When a university does take action, harassers are often allowed to leave for another institution with an unblemished record — a practice known in academia as “passing the trash.”

That’s where Speier’s bill might make a difference. “If someone is discriminating, if someone s a sexual predator, they should not have access to federal dollars. If the grant money dries up for that professor, he’s not going to be as successful at the university. He’s not going to be as sought-after.”

Often, women are caught in difficult positions — reporting their adviser would mean abandoning their research and years of hard work. It can derail careers before they even start.

“It would be pretty much impossible to report your adviser for harassing you and then continue to work with them being your thesis adviser,” Kirkpatrick said.

“When I finally did report it, I was told that nothing could be done about sexual harassment because it just turns into ‘he said she said,'” Springmann said.

“I also had the comment of, ‘How do you feel about ruining a man’s life?'” Kirkpatrick said.

The Berkeley case

“Departments implicitly will dismiss the claims of younger women who are most vulnerable and instead take the word of their older, male, tenured colleague,” said Ballard. She attended Berkeley and was part of the Title IX case against well known astronomer Geoff Marcy.

Marcy was once held in so much esteem he was considered for a Nobel Prize. He was found responsible by Berkeley in the Title IX case and retired last year following the allegations.

Marcy released a statement at the time that said, “I never intended to cause distress and I apologize deeply for having done so. I take full responsibility and hold myself accountable for the harm done.”

Berkeley was harshly criticized for allowing the professor to retire instead of firing him, but the school said tenured professors cannot be fired — and Marcy quit before disciplinary procedures could begin. Berkeley also says it is “taking a comprehensive look at our processes” regarding “sexual harassment and assault cases involving faculty and staff.”

Marcy’s attorney told CNN in a statement, “Throughout his career, Dr. Marcy has been committed to and been an activist for the advancement of women in science. He has also demonstrated a vigorous and unwavering support of the long overdue efforts to eliminate sexual assault and sexual harassment from all work places, including academia.”

Speier says she hopes to make a difference by tying grant money to sexual offenses. “I have had it with the culture that allows for sexual harassment to continue to fester,” she said. “It’s sending an important message to universities across the country that you can’t hide and you can’t brush these cases underneath the proverbial rug.”