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Science’s Sex Problem Is Getting Harder to Ignore

“We really do want to help," one House Republican said. "This has to stop.”

William West/AFP/Getty Images

At a hearing of the House Science Committee on Tuesday, Republican Representative Roger Marshall recalled the moment—33 years ago to the day—when he decided to become an OB-GYN. “What I didn’t realize when I became an obstetrician was I’d be spending 95 percent of my time with women,” he said. But that surprising statement led to a more empathetic one: “I saw the world through their eyes.”

The world Marshall saw was one of spousal abuse and rape. He said he performed “over 100 rape exams one year as a resident.” He also saw a world of sexual harassment that prevented women from doing the jobs they loved. He recalled speaking with patients who would say they were “perfectly happy” working at a good job one year, and the next year, tell him they had quit that job. “They’d beat around the bush,” Marshall said, but eventually they would admit that the reason they quit was because of sexual harassment in the workplace.

Marshall looked at the four women sitting front of him—women who had been asked by the House Science Committee to testify on the widespread problem of sexual misconduct in science—and asked, rather genuinely: “What are we doing to get at these institutions where [harassment] is a socially accepted norm? What can we do to be more proactive, rather than waiting for a complaint to be filed?”

The problem of sexual harassment in science—in academia, government, and nonprofit institutions—has always existed. But in recent weeks, it has become harder to ignore. Accusations against high-profile, celebrity scientists have started to pile up; Last week, Buzzfeed News revealed claims against the acclaimed physicist Lawrence Krauss, the author of The Physics of Star Trek and the face of the controversial “Doomsday Clock.” The accusations against him include “groping women, ogling and making sexist jokes to undergrads, and telling an employee at Arizona State University, where he is a tenured professor, that he was going to buy her birth control so she didn’t inconvenience him with maternity leave.”

Krauss disputes the accusations. Nonetheless, they mirror situations women scientists say they’ve been subjected to for their entire careers. Science, they say, is a deeply hierarchical environment in which low-level researchers depend on mostly male later-career scientists to advance. The professional culture glorifies high-profile male scientists as gods to be protected at all costs. Academic institutions, where most research occurs, have control over their own sexual-harassment investigations and therefore the incentive to sweep them under the rug. Between 40 to 70 percent of women in STEM fields have been sexually harassed during their careers or as students, research shows. Research also shows that only 23 percent of women with STEM degrees are actually using their degrees to work in science.

At the hearing, Republican Representative Randy Hultgren asked: How many women with STEM degrees don’t work in science because the culture is so hostile to women? “Unfortunately, I think it explains most of it,” replied Kate Clancy, an anthropologist at the University of Illinois who studies workplaces in the sciences. “It’s the daily indignity of being told that you are less than.” Kristina Larsen, an attorney who often represents women in science, chimed in: “I’ve never met a woman who said she left science because it just wasn’t for her.”

“Then we are losing the very best and brightest,” Hultgren said. “We really do want to help. We need you. We need your brilliance and expertise. This has to stop.”

Tuesday’s hearing appeared to be a genuine bipartisan effort to address a legitimate problem in the sciences. (This is a welcome change from when Republicans on the House Science Committee subpoenaed climate scientists’ emails in an attempt to prove the field is a hoax.) Both Democrats and Republicans agreed that Congress should be doing more to change the male-dominated, harassment-friendly culture of scientific institutions. And they agreed that Congress has the ability to do this, because the U.S. government is the largest funder of research in America. Want money to do your research? Stop sexually harassing people.

“People don’t change because they see the light; they change because they feel the heat,” Larsen said. “There is no heat in academics.” Under Title IX, scientists employed at universities receiving federal grant money are technically not allowed to discriminate against colleagues based on gender—which includes sexual harassment. But universities are in control of their own sexual-harassment investigations, meaning they willingly risk their own funding if they make a finding of wrongdoing against a scientist. Even when there is a finding of wrongdoing, Larsen said, “There is no one to follow up and enforce that the department is making any cultural changes.”

Larsen argued that the federal government must play a larger role in enforcing punishment against universities with bad researcher behavior or a poor research culture. “I would like to see federal agencies actively saying that, if we don’t see changes, we’ll pull funding,” she said. Along with sexual harassment against underlings, she said, she has seen principal investigators—senior-level scientists who oversee research projects—abuse grant money by not allowing female underlings to use certain equipment. Lower-level scientists need to be able to report that directly to the federal agencies, Larsen said.

The National Science Foundation (NSF)—an independent government agency and one of the largest funders of research in the United States—has already taken some steps toward this. Under a new policy, universities must report all sexual-misconduct findings directly to the agency. Rhonda Davis, the head of the NSF’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion, talked during the hearing about a new “web portal” where researchers can report misconduct directly to the NSF. That portal isn’t up yet; the NSF promises it will be next week.

The NSF’s new measures, however, stop short of prescribing punishment for those who do not comply—and that’s where it falls short. When the NSF announced its new policies, female scientists told me that far more would have to be done in order for the scientific community’s culture of sexual harassment and sex discrimination to be eradicated. America’s two other major science-funding agencies—NASA and the National Institutes of Health—each told me earlier this month that they’re considering anti-harassment policies similar to the NSF’s. But they haven’t announced anything yet. Congressional attention to the issue can perhaps provide some motivation, but until then, those who benefit from science’s culture of sexual harassment will continue to benefit without fear of losing their funding.