Sexual assault and harassment in STEM: we can no longer afford to be silent

Last summer, I wrote a blog post about my 20th anniversary of attending the Joint Statistical Meetings (JSM) for the first time, in which I alluded to the fact that I had been sexually assaulted during the meeting. I made the comment in passing, but didn’t give it much attention. Until now. I share my story, in hopes that it will prompt others to do so. Without knowing the depth of the problem, we cannot solve it.

Before I tell my story, I want to provide some definitions, so we’re on the same page. Sexual harassment, as defined by the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, includes “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.”  The Department of Justice defines sexual assault as “any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient,” although legal definitions may vary by state and are subject to interpretation.

During my first JSM, one of the sessions I attended was presentations by students who had won travel awards. As I was currently a student, I was interested in how I could eventually win one of those awards. So after the talks ended, I went and spoke to the session organizer, who happened to be a very well known statistician, who I’ll call “Dr. X.” Dr. X was very kind and told me about the process by which the student travel award winners were chosen – we had a nice conversation about recognizing student work at the meetings, and I left and went to the next set of talks (likely about statistics in sports). And that was that. Throughout the rest of the day, I kept running into Dr. X around the conference – not surprising since it a relatively small conference.

Later that day, I went to the conference Expo, a collection of agencies, companies and publishers who are interested in advertising to the attendees at the conference. I had a goal – I was interested in learning about summer internships at the CDC. I spent a while speaking with the guys at the CDC table about what opportunities they had available, how you apply, and other details about what a CDC internship would entail. It was exciting and I was all ready to apply!

Each year at the JSM, there is a dance. I always try to attend it, initially because it was quite entertaining to watch a bunch of old white guys trying to dance, but more recently because there are a lot more young folks who come to dance and it’s fun! This being my first JSM, I had no idea what to expect at the dance, but my classmates and I attended. During the course of the evening, I happened to run into the guys from the CDC, who happened to be talking to Dr. X. I said hello, and stood and listened to their discussions. Apparently, Dr. X was coming to give a short course at the CDC, and they were discussing the details.

The tone of the conversation changed when Dr. X started asking about which strip clubs they would be visiting during his trip to Atlanta. Never one to keep my opinion to myself, I quickly spoke up and suggested that maybe that wasn’t an appropriate conversation to be having. Dr. X smiled at me, patted me on my ass, and walked away. I was stunned… I had no idea how to react, what to say. The guys from the CDC were astonished. “How do you know Dr. X?” they asked me. “I just met him this afternoon,” I replied, still stunned. And that was that. I knew I wasn’t going to apply to their group for an internship at the CDC. I knew that they were judging me based on the actions of Dr. X. Even though I didn’t ask for it. Even though I didn’t invite it. Even though I was just being curious and thoughtful. I was being judged by his actions. And I was lucky – I’ve now worked over 20 years in a field in which I am sometimes still the only woman in the room, and this is the only time that I’d experienced that kind of unwanted physical interaction. It could have been so much worse, and for many women it is.

The ramifications of that seemingly minor incident were broad. I was on guard the rest of the conference, skulking away if Dr. X approached, afraid of appearing as if I were inviting him to treat me as he had. I ruled out applying to a very good PhD program because he was on faculty at that institution. Statistics is a very small world, though, and other occasions to encounter Dr. X would arise. In fact, when I did start my PhD the following year, Dr. X came to give a seminar. At my request, several of my classmates and I staged a quiet boycott and did not attend his talk; however, I never told any one with any influence what had happened. I know of others who have encountered similar sexual assault, seemingly minor yet having major impact. All seemed to be in situations where the man had power over us – Professor/Student types of dynamics. We all felt that we were helpless, and that any action we took could result in repercussions in our career.

These feelings are not unusual among women in science who experience sexual harassment or assault, and reports of sexual harassment in science are rampant. An Atlantic article quotes one source that indicates 1 in 3 women science professors report being sexually harassed. In another article, over a quarter of women who responded to a survey regarding sexual assault and harassment during field experiences reported being sexually assaulted, and this occurred much more frequently among female trainees than faculty. While there are clear limitations to this research, it does speak to the problem of the mistreatment of women in STEM fields, particularly when the women is in a subordinate role to the man. A recent sexual harassment case at UC Berkeley has shined even more light on this issue, highlighted in an NPR story which also reinforces the idea that women, especially students and trainees, are afraid to report these instances of harassment and assault because of fear of career repercussions, fear of retribution, fear of being labeled. A quick Google search shows numerous articles that tell the same story – women are afraid to report harassment and assault because of jeopardizing their careers. The same reasons I was silent.

What can we do to improve the situation for women in STEM fields? First of all, we must no longer be silent. We all have a responsibility to report harassment and assault, to stand up for those who are vulnerable. We must have a zero tolerance policy for these actions. No matter how impressive their research, we cannot continue to allow people who harass and assault others to remain in their positions, particularly if they are in positions of power. We must train faculty in appropriate workplace conduct, and insist that they uphold our standards. Finally, we must insist that people with influence – Department Chairs, Deans – take allegations of sexual misconduct seriously, and take swift and appropriate actions.

In retrospect, it’s hard for me to believe that this actually happened to me. I like to think of myself as a strong, independent woman. I like to believe that I think quickly, and all these years later, I’m still disappointed that I didn’t react. I hope that in the future, should I be in a similar situation, I’m able to react in some way, either verbally or through a physical response (e.g. a swift kick to the balls). My lack of reaction or response could have signaled to Dr. X that it was okay to behave in this fashion, and encouraged him to act this way towards others. I think I was just so caught off guard that a prominent person in my field would think to treat me like that, and to do so in the presence of others. As I my presence and reputation grow in my field, I hope that I am never perceived as taking advantage of my position of power over another person, and I hope that I’m able to use my position to protect others from these types of interactions.

Many stories of sexual harassment and assault among women scientists end with: “And that is why I am no longer in my STEM field.” That could have been me. I could have dropped out of my program, or decided not to pursue my PhD. I could currently be blissfully planning weddings for bridezillas, or teaching math to moody high school students. And what a shame that would be – I love what I do, and would have missed the opportunity to positively influence others in my field. But as long as we allow sexual misconduct to continue in the sciences, we will continue to lose our future leaders.

If you’ve been the victim of sexual assault, you can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-4673 or chat online at online.rainn.org,

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