In early October, when the #MeToo conversation was just beginning to spark a public conversation about sexual harassment in the workplace, Science Magazine broke the disturbing story of a Boston University investigation into sexual misconduct complaints from former graduate students. After two decades of silence, two women had filed formal accusations against a prominent geologist for physical and verbal abuse at a remote Antarctic field station.
The abuser shouted curses, pelted rocks, and urinated on the women, leading one victim to abandon her career dreams and leave the academic field entirely. Similarly, Sarah Myhre’s telling account in Newsweek a few months later detailed months of sexual assault she experienced doing field research in the tropics.
In the sciences, it’s a common backdrop for harassment: a remote foreign field, stationed alongside a staff research scientist—a position currently dominated by older men—in a two-person research project. Or the quiet isolation of a laboratory, overseen by a tenured adviser who holds the power to determine the entire course of their graduate student’s career. Since these instances were often kept quiet, little was known about the prevalence of sexual abuse in STEM. But as the #MeToo movement launched, the tides seemed to change.
Last September, in one of the strongest statements it has made on sexual misconduct, the American Geophysical Union (AGU), updated its ethics policy to put harassment “on equal footing with fabrication, falsification and plagiarism in a research environment,” as the group’s president put it in the announcement. The National Science Foundation quickly followed suit, announcing a new set of measures that promised to suspend or eliminate vital grants to researchers if an institution finds evidence of harassment, the equivalence of a death sentence in a scientist’s career. And in February, the bipartisan House Subcommittee on Research and Technology held its first-ever hearing on sexual harassment and misconduct in science, featuring federal science-agency heads and experts like Kathryn Clancy, PhD, the author of a groundbreaking 2014 study that found 64 percent of scientists who engaged in field work have experienced some form of sexual harassment; 20 percent experienced sexual assault.
But among the applause-provoking comments NSF and AGU representatives made about rooting out inappropriate behavior, Clancy offered a different perspective: Harassment in the sciences, she pointed out, doesn’t only come in the form of neatly packaged Title IX reports of clear sexual abuse, but from the more loose and varied kinds of gender harassment that often precede them—“put downs,” as Clancy called them. While shining a spotlight on sexual harassment through strict punishment and consequence is a step in the right direction, “focusing on headline-making cases may avert attention from the underlying issues: institutional tolerance for patterns of behavior, legal or illegal, that create an unwelcoming environment for women and underrepresented minorities,” wrote biologist Katie Burke for American Scientist.