How Sexual Harassment Affects Women in STEM

Jun 20, 2018

A new study shows that experiences of sexual harassment in the workplace have a long-term, negative impact on women faculty in sciences, engineering and medicine and diminish both their scientific productivity and opportunities for advancement
Credit Chris Gunn / NASA/GFSC

The number of women in STEM is growing, but large barriers remain. A new study shows that experiences of sexual harassment in the workplace have a long-term, negative impact on women faculty in sciences, engineering and medicine and diminish both their scientific productivity and opportunities for advancement.

The research from RTI International surveyed 40 female faculty members who experienced one or more incident of sexual harassment in past five years. According to the study’s co-author Christine Lindquist, the mentor-mentee dynamic within STEM fields; the often isolating nature of work; and the fact that men still hold many leadership positions makes for a climate in which many women are hesitant to speak up about harassment. The study shows that of those who did speak up many felt their concerns were dismissed and minimized.

Host Frank Stasio speaks with Lindquist, a senior research sociologist at RTI International, about how particular power dynamics in STEM fields put women at risk of suffering professional consequences if they speak out about sexual harassment.
 

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS

Christine Lindquist on the emotional impact of sexual harassment:

Women reported feeling anger, fear, anxiety. Some women blamed themselves either for the incident or for not reporting it — and diminished self confidence. And a lot of these consequences lasted for years, and this was pretty striking when you consider these are highly educated women working in very prestigious fields and many were mortified that their experiences had such an impact on them.

On how sexual harassment impacted women’s work and careers:

A lot of the women who experienced sexual harassment found themselves making changes that affected their careers in one way or another. So for example, many women changed their work habits. They tended to not meet with people behind closed doors. Some stopped attending social events. Some even stopped attending professional conferences. Some were less trusting of potential collaborators and became more reserved in general with their colleagues. Not surprisingly, most women avoided interactions with the person who was perpetrating the sexual harassment. For some women, though, this meant actually changing fields or even leaving their institutions.

On how the structure of STEM fields contributes to prevalence of sexual harassment:

Working in a male-dominated field does put women at a greater risk for sexual harassment and then having men in positions of power is a risk. And then also within academic institutions you have this issue where more junior staff members — be they postdocs, or residents, or junior faculty — they sort of have this really intense mentoring and advisory relationship with a senior person such as a chief resident, or attending physician, or their mentor or advisor. And that can be really problematic when the person who's harassing them has such power over their career. So many women do not want to come forward and report their experiences because they know it will hurt them in terms of their career advancement and give them a bad reputation. They are seen as not being a team player, seen as a trouble maker.