PBS recently aired a NOVA episode about women and women of color in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). It focused on the reasons why there are still few women and women of color in science.
It featured the courageous story of Dr. Jane Willenbring who, as a graduate student, had been sexually harassed by her professor on a research expedition in Antarctica. Dr. Marchant, who has since been fired, called her a slut, whore, and the “c” word. He made it clear that women didn’t belong in the field and physically harassed her and openly speculated about her sex life. He was a world-renown scientist and in order to get her degree she kept quiet, finally getting her master’s degree and going to another University to get her PhD.
She waited until she had a tenured position before filing a Title IX complaint 17 years later.
My first thought upon seeing this, was “why did she wait so long?” But then I remembered what I did. I kept silent.
I experienced dozens of incidents of serious sexual harassment (a professor closing his office door, leaning close to me, putting his hand on my knee, and telling me that if I didn’t “cooperate” I would not be getting my degree). I kept quiet and switched majors. Unlike her, I never spoke out.
Why did I keep quiet? There were a lot of reasons. At the beginning of my career, there was no such thing as sexual harassment. There were few women in STEM, and I feared that if I spoke out, I would lose everything that I had worked for. These incidents were always deliberately ambiguous. Being a powerless graduate student, I imagined my complaint would go something like this:
Professor: I can’t believe that you thought that I was coming on to you. I was just being friendly. Grad students are always complaining about professors not being friendly. Do you want me not to be friendly?
Me: Well, uh, no, but…
Professor: If you recall, I closed the office door because there was a lot of noise in the hallway. You don’t remember that?
Me: Well, uh, uhm…
Professor: And cooperate, how could you misinterpret that? I meant that you should cooperate more with your fellow graduate students, I was trying to help you.
Me: I, I, I didn’t know that I had a problem with other students. I’m sorry.
Professor (turning to the other professors): These feminists, always trying to find a problem, aren’t they? (Male professors nodding their heads.)
Being on the wrong side of the power equation, I acted like it didn’t bother me. I believed that I must be doing something wrong (not smart enough, too conspicuous, too confident); so I kept quiet, not wanting everyone to see my limitations.
In the 1990s a tenured professor at MIT, Dr. Nancy Hopkins, asked other tenured women STEM professors about their experiences. To her surprise, everyone indicated that they had experienced some level of sexual harassment. They produced a well-known report documenting the level of sexual harassment in STEM at MIT.
But research has shown that this problem is resistant to change. There is not only explicit bias (outright harassment) there is also implicit bias against women in STEM fields. Our view of gender roles has been shaped by a lifetime of associations. (If you don’t believe that you have these biases, take the Implicit Association Test (IAT) available on the Internet.)
Researchers at Skidmore sent a resume to a representative sample of STEM faculty. The professors rated a resume of an applicant for a Laboratory Manager position. Half of the professors got a resume with a woman’s name on it; the other half got the same resume with a man’s name. The resume with a woman’s name was judged as significantly less competent in all areas. Even though it was the exact same resume.
And that is the problem called the leaky pipe. While women enter science programs in Universities at similar rates to men; by the time they obtain their PhDs, etc., only 29% remain. There are many reasons for this sharp decline, but one of them is sexual harassment. Not the overt kind, that is obvious, it is the more insidious kind that causes one to lose confidence: unpleasant jokes, being ignored, being left out, name calling, given lesser responsibilities, research undervalued.
Things are changing, during the COVID crisis, we have been seeing more and more women scientists and doctors who are leading agencies, task forces, and being a spokesperson. More and more women and women of color are successful in STEM fields.
Over the years, the sexual harassment I experienced became less overt.
One day, I finally reported it. I had a boss who was demeaning and abusive, and I reported him for creating a toxic workplace. I don’t know why I did it, I think that I just couldn’t take it anymore and it was late in my career.
When I let one of my directors know that I had identified her as a witness; her immediate response was “that is going to cost you your career.” I shrugged.
That director called me two weeks later. “You are not going to believe this; but everyone is telling the truth; women are telling their stories.” My silence had made me believe that I was alone. But I wasn’t. HR uncovered over a dozen women who had been similarly abused, and he was dismissed.
And that is the learning, if you are experiencing abuse, speak up. It is unlikely that you are being singled out. I just hope that it doesn’t take you 35 years to learn that.
Angela Rieck, a Caroline County native, received her PhD in Mathematical Psychology from the University of Maryland and worked as a scientist at Bell Labs, and other high-tech companies in New Jersey before retiring as a corporate executive. Angela and her dogs divide their time between St Michaels and Key West Florida. Her daughter lives and works in New York City.