Shutting Down Sexism in STEM

It seems like it is now impossible to go a week without hearing about sexism in STEM in the news. Last year provided too many examples, whether it was Nobel laureate Tim Hunt attempting to humorously claim that girls are trouble in the lab who either cry or fall in love with you (and the amazing #distractinglysexy response from female scientists on Twitter) to the resignation of exoplanet researcher Geoff Marcey due to sexual harassment charges, it was hard to miss the discussion about sexism in STEM fields in 2015.

Even now, only a few days into 2016 there are more reports surfacing of sexual harassment in STEM fields against female graduate students. It is painful to read about women being pushed from STEM  due to this kind of treatment. This behavior must be addressed by both men and women working in STEM if we are to have any hope of more diversity.

We are beginning to have a strong public dialog about how to address this issue, which is a fantastic to see taking shape.  As both a woman and a STEM PhD candidate I can definitely get behind the need to address these issues; I myself have encountered instances of these sexist attitudes in the workplace over the years and it never ceases to be unnerving. It is a difficult and uncomfortable experience to go through, but I want to assure other women who experience gender-based harassment in graduate school that:

1)      You should not be subject to gender discrimination from anyone in the workplace.

2)      There are options for how to deal with these situations. You do not need to put up with the behavior in good humor.

As students it may not always be clear what is and is not appropriate behavior because graduate school (unfortunately) often gets treated as a limbo space between undergraduate education and the “professional” workforce. As a result it can be hard to know if what you are experiencing is harassment, or if you do know that you are being harassed it can be difficult to know how to handle the situation or who to talk to.

(Hint: If the behavior is preventing you from getting your education or completing dissertation work, such as interfering with your ability to work the same lab hours as that person because of their behavior then you’ve got a problem.)

Graduate school is a professional environment and should be treated as such. Just because you’re not wearing a tie and suit does not mean that you deserve any less respect than any other professional worker.   One easy tactic to address sexist comments is to ask the individual to explain what they meant or why the joke was funny. Look at them like they are trying to claim that 2+2=5 and see if they can explain themselves without getting flustered.

If you are not sure if what you are experiencing is harassment or unsure of how to address these comments/behaviors then start by writing the incidents down. Keep a log of exactly what was said by who and when and notes on why it was inappropriate. Better yet, write it down and email yourself the notes so that they are time and date stamped. If, over time, you feel that the behavior has not changed you can decide to either bring up the issue with the individual (if you are comfortable doing so, this is usually a good approach for dealing with other students) or approaching a trusted mentor or your adviser for advice on how to deal with the problem person (which is a better approach if the problem involves someone in a position of power). In both cases you will want the concrete record of what was said and/or done and when it occurred so that you can see any patterns and make your case. It is unfortunate that the victims of harassment bear the responsibility of reporting, but in many cases taking control of the situation yourself will be the only way to address what is happening.

If you do not have a trusted mentor or someone you know that you can go to professionally discuss or report sexual harassment don’t forget the Title IX office on your campus. As a student, Title IX guarantees you the right to reasonable changes in academic, living, transportation, educational, and working situations and applies to all federally funded institutions in the United States. So if you are having a problem with someone on campus (or in the field if you do program-based fieldwork) you have the legal right to have the university accommodate you so that you continue to get your education in a harassment-free environment.

Change will only come to the system when we act like it has changed and stop tolerating old sexist attitudes in the workplace. Scientific research and STEM is a community, and we can work together as a group to make it clear that outdated sexist attitudes are not permissible.  So if you are experiencing harassment based on your gender don’t despair; do not be afraid to stand up for yourself and shut down this kind of insulting behavior. It’s not your fault and no woman should have to accept this kind of treatment.

It can be scary and intimidating to be the person that speaks up and disagrees, but voicing our concerns and standing up for our right to a harassment-free education is worthy cause and, in time,  will hopefully make the STEM community more welcoming for everyone.

 Have you experienced gender-based harassment as a graduate student? How did you resolve the situation? Share your comments below.

[Image by PipetMonkey Blog and used under Creative Commons Licensing.]

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