End Sexual Harassment in Academia

Graduate Division

Over the last month or so we’ve witnessed a wave of sexual harassment cases popping up in the media and on social media.

The viral hashtag #MeToo prompted those that have been sexually harassed or assaulted to identify themselves in attempt to raise awareness of the magnitude of this issue and elevate the conversation surrounding the allegations against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein.

It didn’t take long for masses of people around the world to begin publicly sharing personal stories of sexual harassment and assault, many for the first time.

Since then, the cascade of allegations has been continuous, with more and more people feeling empowered by others who have decided to speak up and boldly coming forward to share their stories.

The ubiquity of this issue was not at all a surprise to me, as nearly every woman I know (and some men) have experienced episodes of sexual harassment and assault repeatedly from a young age.

For me this began around the age of 14, when I would walk home from school and men in passing cars would honk or make inappropriate gestures as they drove past.

I have personally experienced and listened to friends share stories of being catcalled, touched inappropriately, and objectified. This just hits the tip of the iceberg; many of these stories are too horrific and personal for me to share without the consent of the victim.

So, the sheer number of people this issue affects did not surprise me, but what did surprise me is the number of people who were seemingly unaware of the extent of the problem.

Many are shocked at how systemic and architectural this problem really is and are only now contemplating how they might have contributed to the culture that allows this to occur, even if they’ve never harassed anyone.

Recently, a peer dismissed feelings I expressed regarding an objectifying comment made on social media. The comment was posted on an announcement congratulating two successful female PI’s at UCSF for receiving highly prestigious and competitive grant awards.

Admittedly, my reaction to this felt a bit silly, after all it was just a Facebook comment — why was I getting so worked up?

I was upset that a comment about their physical appearance was the first response, overshadowing their accomplishment.

I was upset because I don’t think the commenter had a clue how degrading it is to remark about someone’s attractiveness in response to an achievement they made; likely thinking it was a compliment.

I was upset because I have personally encountered comments about my appearance made in negative association with my intellectual capability.

I was upset because it became clear that the man who trivialized my reaction could not relate or empathize yet ironically fixated on the fact that this does not exclusively happen to female targets.

While I agree that this is not an issue that only affects women, the #metoo movement has made it unmistakably apparent that the majority of women have their own stories of similar, if not much worse, incidents.

Having my private objection to this minor grievance be diminished by someone I respected only fueled my rage.

This viral movement has shed light on sexual predation being prevalent not only from strangers, but from people in positions of power across all professional fields, including academia.

A New York Times article published last year written by A. Hope Jahren, professor at the University of Hawaii and author of Lab Girl, calls out the issue of sexual harassment within scientific research environments.

In this article, Jahren suggests that one explanation for the profound “shedding” of women in STEM fields could be the pervasive nature of sexual harassment within academia and the predictable nature of how these incidents are usually handled.

Spoiler alert: they are handled unjustly.

It’s no secret that there is a hierarchy of power that exists within academia that allows harassment to be pervasive. But don’t take my word for it, just google “sexual harassment in science” and discover the reservoir of articles on this topic.

Several public cases have been exposed across many disciplines of science including human origins curator Brian Richmond of The American Museum of Natural History, astronomer Geoff Marcy from UC Berkeley, Ebola researcher Michael Katze of the University of Washington, biologist Miguel Pinto of the Smithsonian, microbiologist Jason Lieb of the University of Chicago, and astrophysicist Christian Ott of Caltech among others.

These allegations are as recent as last month with geologist David Marchant of Boston University being accused of harassment of multiple graduate students while performing field work in Antarctica.

Yes, this even happens in Antarctica.

Despite this clearly being a rampant and systemic problem, there is a profound lack of data on how prevalent this is within biomedical research.

One study of field researchers conducted in 2014, found that 64% of all respondents had personally experienced sexual harassment (i.e. inappropriate or sexual remarks, comments about physical beauty, cognitive sex differences, or other such jokes) and 21.7% had personally experienced sexual assault (i.e. physical sexual harassment, unwanted sexual contact, or sexual contact in which they could not or did not give consent).

The large majority of those who were harassed or assaulted were trainees of their assailants. The same group published a follow-up paper this month, interviewing participants from their 2014 publication.

Of the 26 people interviewed, eight said that their careers stalled because of their negative experiences, four changed their research plans and five left their careers in science behind.

As leaders in science, I believe it’s on us as a community to prompt a positive change in the cultural malfunction that perpetuates this injustice.

I feel lucky to be at an institution that cares about this issue, but I would be naive to think that harassment could never occur here.

UCSF has platforms in place to report harassment and assault and you can even report anonymously.

However, there is still work to be done to try to shift the culture that allows this to continue to happen.

Victims need to be taken seriously and there must be real consequences for assailants. 500 Women Scientists has identified some things you can do right now to help:

  1. Listen to victims. Believe them. Share the evidence.
  2. Know resources for victims.
  3. Speak up when you witness harassment.
  4. Refuse to work with sexist colleagues.
  5. Challenge your own sexism.
  6. Push for policy change.
  7. Know your Title IX rights.
  8. Organize.

Despite some people missing the point or redirecting the conversation, the overwhelming response to this uproar that I have witnessed has been positive.

We are starting to have a more open dialogue surrounding this issue. I am seeing gratitude being expressed for those who are openly sharing their stories. I am seeing pleas for others to share the responsibility and call out harassment when they witness it.

Victims are feeling empowered and less alone. I can only hope that this outcry transforms into something more than a hashtag.

I hope this conversation does not end after this outrage fizzles out but instead translates into meaningful action.

Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.