Female scientists were reporting sexual abuse and harassment by professors years before the #MeToo movement exploded in the public eye last fall. From unwanted comments and weird texts to missed promotions and direct assaults, female graduate students and postdocs are often vulnerable while working in male-dominated field camps, laboratories, or remote observatories where there are few places to turn for help.
These administrators have often balked at firing a tenured faculty member whose federal research money may support a lab that employs dozens of young scientists and brings prestige and international recognition to the school. But in the wake of #MeToo scandals in Hollywood, the media, and on Capitol Hill, some members of Congress say the federal science agencies need to do more to protect female scientists from both harassment on the job and retaliation when they speak up.
At a House subcommittee hearing Tuesday, Representative Barbara Comstock (R-Virginia) said that women are being pushed out of science and technology jobs that the United States needs to remain competitive with other nations. “Women in science are particularly vulnerable,” said Comstock, chairwoman of the House subcommittee on research and technology. “Scientists who manage grants exert significant control over the training and education of young scientists. How does a university respond to this when a harasser is a rainmaker for the university? How many brilliant scientists and their ideas have been lost in the STEM fields because of this? When they are harassed many don’t return. How many women have given up these long term high paying jobs?”
Comstock said that the committee that she chairs has been investigating inconsistencies in how universities and science agencies like the NSF, NASA, and NOAA deal with sexual harassment complaints since October. Committee staff members have asked National Science Foundation officials to give them the number of complaints lodged by women against their academic supervisors, but so far haven’t received the data.
In the meantime, the Government Accountability Office and the National Academies of Science are both investigating the issue of sexual harassment in science, and how it affects America’s research capabilities. “I have stories of sabotaged lab equipment, rumor-mongering, sexual assault, and rape,” said Kathryn Clancy, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois, who has been surveying women in science fields about their experiences. She says the problem comes in two forms: come-ons and put-downs. A put-down could be as innocuous as asking a female colleague to make coffee or take notes at a faculty meeting, or as serious as having an principal investigator throw rocks at a female scientist while she is trying to use the bathroom at a field camp in Antarctica (yes, that happened).“It’s like we think rudeness and cruelty are the same things as being smart,” Clancy said about the attitude of some older male scientists who harass younger women.
While on a research project in Sierra Leone last year, Nga Luong says one of her professors tried to climb into her bed. Luong was there as part of a team of international researchers studying the effectiveness of methods to reduce violence against women. Luong said she fled the room and spent the night in the hotel lobby. When she texted her professor that she felt uncomfortable and threatened, the professor dismissed her from the field project. Luong, a graduate student at Florida Institute of Technology, said she was left isolated from other researchers in the project and stranded in a dangerous part of the world.
“I was fearful that he was going to leave me in Sierra Leone to die,” Luong told WIRED in an interview after the hearing. Luong said she returned to campus on her own and later filed a formal sexual harassment complaint against the professor, who she declined to identify.
Despite stories like this, speakers at the committee hearing said they are making some progress. On February 8, NSF director France Cordova issued new guidelines stating that sexual harassment was not tolerated and that the agency would replace principal investigators who violated the new code of conduct. The NSF is also requiring universities to report how many complaints they get about NSF-funded researchers.
Comstock and other members of the House panel said they will consider new legislation once they get recommendations from the investigations underway. They want to make sure universities don’t continue to stifle complaints under the guise of due process for the accused. For her part, Luong said she’s not giving up. Despite suffering from depression that she blames on the stress of pursuing a complaint against the professor, she says she’s going to finish her master’s degree at FIT. She’ll pursue her doctorate somewhere else.