Why Are So Many Scientists Harassing Their Students?

There seems to have been a sudden scourge of prominent scientists embroiled in sexual harassment scandals lately. What gives?

A prominent scientist has stepped down from his position at a large research university after an investigation found he had been sexually harassing graduate students. Stop me if you've heard this one before.

Jason Lieb, a molecular biologist at the University of Chicago, recently resigned after an investigation uncovered inappropriate sexual advances he made to graduate students during a faculty retreat. But Lieb's case is just the most recent in a growing list of prominent scientists embroiled in accusations—and admissions—of sexual harassment and discrimination on the job. While sexual harassment in the workplace is a problem in many industries, it seems particularly insidious in the science community in recent years. Is harassment in science increasing or are we just starting to pay attention?

"There's no evidence that the incidences of harassment and discrimination are increasing. In fact, some of the senior women scientists I've interviewed insist that sexism was much more entrenched and blatant 20 years ago than it is today," Christine Williams, a sociology professor at the University of Texas at Austin who researches workplace sexual harassment, told me via email. "However, what is increasing is public acknowledgment of these problems—more people are aware of these issues."

In the past few months, there have been four separate cases of high-profile scientists accused of harassment, a first-person account of harassment published in the science journal Nature, and multiple cries for greater awareness and reform. There have also been a handful of alarming studies and surveys published in the last few months and years, outlining the extent of the problem.

Late last year, preliminary results from a survey by the Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy found 82 percent of respondents (men and women) had heard sexist comments on the job, while 57 percent said they had been personally harassed—9 percent physically so. A survey published in PLOS One in 2014 found 64 percent of science researcher respondents (77 percent of whom were female) said they had experienced sexual harassment during field research and more than 20 percent said they had experienced sexual assault. And all you have to do is talk to women who have worked in the field for some time to collect more evidence of a systemic problem.

Proportion of survey respondents, by gender, who said inappropriate or sexual comments occurred at their field site. Image: PLOS One

"There is an entire academic culture organized around professional privilege and imbalances of power and multiple harassers and assaulters are navigating these landscapes targeting vulnerable trainees," Katie Hinde, an evolutionary biologist at Arizona State University, wrote in a blog post last month. Hinde's research usually focuses on lactation biology, but she's done some work on sexual harassment in the sciences—including that PLOS survey—as well.

"In the midst of whispers, outright disclosures, and even confirmatory institutional investigations, some colleagues will continue to say 'well, no one can know what really happened' or 'well, he said/she said.' [...] Such responses reinforce power structures, protect predators, and perpetuate a culture of quiet," she wrote.

Though we've made progress in diversity, science is still predominantly white and male, particularly when you take a look at the top-tier jobs in STEM fields. This, combined with the competitive nature of academic research—hustling to get funding, to get published, to get tenure—has led to a culture in STEM academia where sexual harassment is swept under the rug and accepted as a necessary evil, according to Heather Metcalf, the director of research and analysis for the Association for Women in Science.

"Because women are the minority in many STEM fields, there is a very particular kind of culture there that does encourage looking the other way," Metcalf told me over the phone. "The power dynamics that are in place and the knowledge that women have about how important professional networks are for their career development creates an environment where people would be hesitant to [say anything] and ruin their professional network."

There's also been a historical lack of transparency from the institutions where these scientists work; many of the recent cases were only brought to light due to journalistic investigations. Metcalf said there is a degree of reputation protection happening in these situations, but also legal concerns when an investigation is still underway. An editorial published in Nature last month took a harsher view: "It is clear that the system is weighted towards protecting powerful faculty members at the expense of students and young researchers," the column read. "Although institutions proclaim that they have zero tolerance for abuse of the policies that they claim to enforce, too often their primary concern seems to be secrecy and reputation management."

So why are more cases starting to come to light now? Williams offered a few suggestions. For starters, the fields are growing more diverse, which naturally will start to shake up the culture. There has also been more focus paid to the issue of sexual harassment and assault at post-secondary institutions in general at a national level and at the campus level, Williams said. The Clery Act amendments in 2014, for example, tightened federal requirements for universities to report and prevent sexual assault on students, while students themselves have been raising greater awareness to rape culture on campus. Major scientific organizations, such as NASA, have also laid out more clear commitments to combating harassment in recent years.

"Finally, social media is playing a role in publicizing misconduct," Williams said. "Episodes of discrimination and harassment that may have once been quietly swept under the carpet and quickly forgotten instead can become instant internet memes that garner intense public scrutiny."

Sexual harassment and discrimination in science may not be a new problem, but it's now getting harder and harder to ignore. Metcalf said this is likely just the tip of the iceberg, and more cases will surface before real change takes place. There will also be pushback within the community, she said, something that's already started bubbling with an anonymous group called Astronomy Underground, which has questioned the potential damage to careers for individuals investigated for harassment. Eventually, though, Metcalf said more transparency, shifting culture, and clearer regulations will help to root out what has long been science's dirty little secret.

"We're just in the beginning stages of starting to uncover these things that have been happening for quite some time," Metcalf said.