Sexual harassment in science: Why so few report it and what happens to those who do – Science News


When Amy* sat beside a friend at a conference dinner, it didn’t take long for the two very senior, well-respected scientists sitting across the table to start leering at and demeaning her.

The men started by asking: How could a young woman like her ask such an intelligent question at a conference session early that day?

They then eyed her up and down, making “vile” comments about her appearance and making her “feel incredibly uncomfortable”, she said.

“They left me feeling like I wanted to take a shower because they were being so gross.

Disgusted, Amy stood up and left.

She’s far from alone. High-profile cases of sexual harassment in research are starting to bubble to the surface.

Terry Speed, a statistician at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne and winner of the prestigious 2013 Prime Minister’s Prize for Science, was recently found to have violated the University of California Berkeley’s sexual harassment policy in the early 2000s, where he was a professor at the time.

The object of his attentions was a junior colleague.

In 2015, sexual harassment and assault was brought to light in astronomy circles in the US — and, in 2016, uncovered in the CSIRO’s astronomy department.

Indeed, surveys of researchers — mostly conducted in the US — routinely find high rates of sexual harassment and assault.

There’s a good chance that self-reported and voluntary surveys are not a reflection of the wider experience. (Those who have experienced sexual harassment might be more likely to respond to a survey about it.)

But surveys can highlight patterns. A 2014 survey of researchers who conduct field work found “women trainees were the primary targets; their perpetrators were predominantly senior to them professionally within the research team”.

In Australia, no large independent surveys about sexual harassment rates in science exist.

The Australian Human Rights Commission conducts a telephone survey about sexual harassment every four to six years, but with only 2,000 people or so in the survey, there simply aren’t the numbers to reliably give accurate figures for specific occupations.

Sexual harassment points

Sexual harassment, according to Australian law

  • Sexual harassment laws can vary between states and territories
  • The federal Sex Discrimination Act 1984 makes sexual harassment unlawful in many areas of public life, including employment
  • It defines sexual harassment as an unwelcome sexual advance, unwelcome request for sexual favours or other unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature which makes a person feel offended, humiliated or intimidated, where a reasonable person would anticipate that reaction in the circumstances
  • It is also unlawful for a person to be victimised for making, or proposing to make, a complaint of sexual harassment to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission

Across Australia though, the most recent survey, conducted in 2012, found a quarter of women had been sexually harassed at work in the preceding five years, Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins said.

And the Australian Human Rights Commission has heard “extensive anecdotal accounts of sexual harassment occurring in particular industries”, she said — including science, technology, engineering and mathematics, collectively known as STEM.

While some high-profile scientists have been put on notice in recent years, sexual harassment in research is not a matter of just a few bad apples, according to RMIT University’s Sara Charlesworth.

Professor Charlesworth, who has spent more than 25 years researching gender inequality in the workplace, said the science sector has key ingredients likely to produce a culture of harassment.

“You’ve got senior men in positions of power — not just hierarchical power, but with the power to affect peoples’ ongoing employment,” she said.

Even cases when men report sexual harassment, she said, they have an underlying gender power imbalance: “Usually, they are seen as not having the requisite masculinity for that workplace. It really has that gendered dimension.”

Very few formal complaints

The 2012 Australian Human Rights Commission survey showed that only one in five people who experienced sexual harassment made a formal complaint or report.

“Common reasons for not reporting were that they thought it was not serious enough, that the perpetrator was too senior or that it would be easier to keep quiet,” Ms Jenkins said.

Another reason, Professor Charlesworth said, is “they don’t think they’ll be believed or that anything would be done about it, so what’s the point?”

The Community and Public Sector Union’s What Women Want 2017-18 survey found a similar figure: less than a quarter of women who experienced sexual harassment reported the incident.

And of those that did speak out, three in five found management’s response unsatisfactory.

For people who report sexual harassment, it can be the beginning of a long, sometimes expensive and — for some — devastating process.

What happens to whistleblowers?

Amy is one of the minority to make a formal complaint to the scientists’ university.

She gets hit on at conferences a lot, she said, usually by interstate or visiting attendees who use social gatherings to prey on women.

The reason she reported the two senior scientists and their comments, she said, “is because of who they are”.

“They set the culture. All the young scientists and PhD students, they look up to [those senior scientists],” she said.

But in the 12 months or so since pursuing the matter with the university’s HR department, she’s yet to find satisfaction.

“I just want them and senior management in a meeting, acknowledge that what happened was wrong, and the steps they’re taking to stop that behaviour,” she said.

“They’re treating it like it’s me, it’s my problem. They want it to be about me. It has to be about them, and what they’re doing to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Sexual harassment complaints typically go one of two ways, Professor Charlesworth said.

“They want the behaviour to stop and they want something to be done about it.”

Unfortunately, there is a big problem — not just in science — of big organisations “wrapping themselves around powerful men”, Professor Charlesworth said.

Senior scientists often bring in big research bucks. Getting rid of them means the institution, then, loses that money and the prestige that comes with successful grant applications.

This is just one reason that some organisations might be less inclined to investigate a complaint against a senior staff member, or punish them if they’re found to breach sexual harassment policies.

And it’s when internal processes break down or the person who made the complaint leaves the organisation — voluntarily or not — that the matter escalates.

Katherine Morton is at this stage.

She’s taking her former employer, the CSIRO, to the Federal Court for unfair dismissal in October this year.

In a statement of claim, she alleged that while working as a marine researcher between 2012 and 2016, she was subjected to bullying, sexual harassment and assault by some senior colleagues, including being slapped on the bottom with a riding crop.

One of the alleged perpetrators has since moved overseas.

“In addition to the emotional and psychological toll, to be perfectly blunt, the financial one is just unbelievable as well,” she said.

“You have to pay for it all yourself. CSIRO has a public purse to defend themselves.”

So far, she estimated she’s spent around $80,000 pursuing the matter. The Federal Court trial, she said, will cost her a further $400,000.

The CSIRO could not comment on the case as it is before the courts, but said in a statement to the ABC: “We take allegations of harassment, bullying or discrimination very seriously and have procedures in place to address complaints and support our staff.

“Since 2016, [when the allegations of bullying and sexual harassment arose in the astronomy department,] CSIRO has reinforced its procedures by reminding staff about how inappropriate conduct can be raised, and recognised that it might be difficult for employees to come forward.

“The astronomy department also has a very active diversity committee, which has been working hard to provide support and assistance to staff.”

Turning the tide lies with research organisations and institutes

Soon, we may have some idea of how prevalent sexual harassment is in science and research circles.

The 2018 iteration of the Australian Human Rights Commission’s telephone survey has expanded to 10,000 and will provide information on broad industry sectors, such as education and training.

Even now, under the Sex Discrimination Act, employers must take all reasonable steps to stop harassment from happening.

“Employers needs to proactively promote equal workplaces, where sexual harassment and discrimination are not tolerated.”

Professor Charlesworth agreed: “We need, from the highest echelons, a very clear, no-tolerance policy.

“It needs to be loud and clear.”

This includes direct training for anyone who’s in a position where they are shaping peoples’ academic career and empowering bystanders to call out unacceptable behaviour, she added.

Addressing the inherent gender and power imbalance, too, will go a long way.

Accreditation from gender and minority equality programs could help on this front, Professor Charlesworth said.

Athena SWAN — a UK program which aims to address gender equity and diversity issues within research institutions and universities — is being trialled in Australia.

Some funding bodies, such as the UK National Institute for Health Research, only provides funding for organisations with sufficient Athena SWAN accreditation.

When it comes to handling sexual harassment complaints, Professor Charlesworth said “if I could give one piece of advice … it’s you’re better off believing the person [reporting the incident], than acting on it and working out what has to be done.

Since filing her complaint, Amy moved interstate and recently sought legal advice.

She’s still in research, but dealing with the university’s internal processes has made her “think twice about staying in academia … or going to another local conference again, because [the two senior scientists] will be there.

“If I do go, I definitely won’t be going to any of the dinners or social parts.”

Dr Morton hasn’t been so lucky. She’s suffered depression and anxiety and has all but given up working as a scientist again.

“I have three degrees, with 10 years of university education, that I can’t use. How do you start again?” she said.

* Name changed to protect identity

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