Sexism in sciences: ‘She couldn’t say no’

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Dr. Kathryn Clancy from the University of Illinois talks to a crowded audience in the Murie auditorium on Friday, Sep 16 about hostile work environments for women in the sciences. Erin Granger/Sun Star


“I want to start my talk with a trigger warning,” Kathryn Clancy said as she took the stage in Murie auditorium Friday afternoon. “Today I will be talking about gender harassment, racial harassment, sexual harassment and sexual assault including rape. I want that to be clear.”

Clancy, an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Illinois, traveled to UAF to speak to graduate students about her research in gender related workplace harassment within Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) industries. Later that day Clancy gave an open lecture as part of the Life Sciences Hour lecture series.

While little is known as to why these women experience such inappropriate comments, gender bias, harassment and even sometimes assault, Clancy has her suspicions.

“There is a lot we can say about historical context, masculinized work places and academic freedom but I want to be very straight forward right now,” Clancy said. “It is not hard to say that a workplace should be safe, inclusive, explicitly anti-discrimination and promoting of a diversity of opinions… the hard part is giving up privilege.”

Clancy presented the audience with a set of conference rules for a field study conference she had been invited to, as an example of the vague and often irresponsible guidelines provided for science based workplaces.

Treat everyone decently, learn to laugh at yourself, know that everyone makes mistakes so get over it and don’t call the authorities unless there is fire or blood. According to Clancy these guidelines were disturbing in their nondescript nature.

“To those of us who’ve conducted field research, this doesn’t look unfamiliar as the broad cultural construct for our work. Essentially, be good but no one knows what you mean by this, don’t take things so seriously and don’t tell anyone what happened,” Clancy said. “The most pervasive phrase I’ve heard in my research on the field sciences is ‘what happens in the field stays in the field’.”

This was the thought that inspired Clancy and her colleagues to begin research on the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault at scientific field sites. Through a series of interviews referred to as the Safe study, Clancy’s central question was ‘Does sexual harassment and assault happen at scientific field sites and why?’

Clancy’s sample of more than 600 field scientists found an extremely high frequency both of observed and personally experienced inappropriate comments at field sites, as well as unwanted physical contact.

The statistics were taken from both men and women, however the research revealed women observe this behavior much more often than men. Of the women studied, 71 percent experienced harassment in the workplace and 26 percent were sexually assaulted by a colleague or superior. The majority of these women were trainees.

These instances shouldn’t exist in the first place, of course, but tend to be only more encouraged by a lack of regulation or follow up discipline for these issues, Clancy said.

She used an example of a curator, Brian Richmond, at the Museum of Natural History. Richmond has been accused multiple times of sexually assaulting other employees.

While investigations were conducted and evidence produced, there was a sever lack of decisive action which resulted in Richmond maintaining his job and research funding with the equivalent of slap on the wrist according to the Washington Post.

This happens all too often, Clancy said, with the lack of proper discipline only encouraging this culture of sexual harassment and assault further.

“Even with all of these frustrations, never has awareness of hostile work places in academia been so strong and the possibility for change been so great,” Clancy said. “This data points to a problem, but it also points to a solution. More than ever before, we have the opportunity to create conditions for the best possible research and education to happen. If we let go of privilege, if we stop protecting perpetrators, if we intentionally and actively move toward an inclusive, anti-discrimination culture we will create conditions to move forward.”

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