Is the Science Biz Letting Women Down? I. Harassment- How Can We Still Not Know This?

So here we are in 2018, and sexual harassment is still a thing. I agree with Dr. Judith Curry, the atmospheric scientist, that part of the problem might be that different actions are lumped together under “sexual harassment” and that makes it more difficult to address. As she says here..

In the 1990’s there was growing awareness of sexual harassment in the universities. In the early 1990’s, I was on a university committee to evaluate new training materials on sexual harassment. I was astonished when I saw that ‘winking’ and ‘elevator eyes’ were on the same list as rape and quid pro quo behavior. There was simply no hierarchy of sexual harassment sins — a problem that continues to concern me as we hear the latest litany of accusations.

The most vexing issue was ‘hostile environment’ and the subsequent ‘backlash’ if you reported anything. This issue became very real to me when a female faculty member in my department complained about lewd and crude cartoons being posted on the walls of the Center administrative offices. She complained to the Center Director – he wouldn’t take them down. She complained the the Department Chair, essentially no response. But then the backlash began, with attempts to harm her career. She lawyered up based on the backlash, and after several agonizing years she apparently won her case (details were never made public) and managed to salvage her career at the same university and go on to have a very successful career. What was exceptional about this case is that her job and career were salvaged in the outcome — other successful litigants in such cases usually ended up leaving their university because the situation was too hostile and unsalvageable. I suspect that having a female Associate Dean helped this to happen.

The failure to discriminate among the hierarchy of sexual harassment behaviors is evident in the current round of accusations. Behaviors in the ‘hostile environment’ category are particularly vexing, as individual women have very different sensitivities and desires in context of their casual social interactions with men. However, assault, quid pro quo and backlash situations are very unambiguous, and we need to make sure that ambiguous hostile environment issues don’t detract from the most serious transgressions.

My question is that we have excellent thinkers and scientists of all persuasions, from social to physical. Here’s a simple question: are sexual harassment efforts more successful if they break down the different categories of harassment and address them separately?

We spend oceans of research money on all kinds of future problems (like climate change). How can we know so little about this problem and how to fix it? Are some institutions (universities and fire research funders) so run by men that this doesn’t seem worthy of attention? Do the answers to these problems involve the relatively uncool social sciences instead of the always cool physical sciences? Who determines that figuring out fixes of current real world problems is less important than running models to attempt to predict things in 2100?

What would a random mix of women scientists come up with as key areas of research if their own research was not included in the possibilities (to avoid conflict of interest).. what if they could think outside the box, not what can I get funded, but what does the world most need getting done?

1 thought on “Is the Science Biz Letting Women Down? I. Harassment- How Can We Still Not Know This?”

  1. I cannot answer your questions, Sharon. I can only say that respect must be in the foundation of any progress to be made. If respect does not exist, then it does not matter how much research is accomplished to help resolve this matter.


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