How Women Are Harassed Out of Science

Jul 31, 2016

By Joan C. Williams Kate Massinger

When Joan was an undergraduate, in the 1970s, she asked her boyfriend why one of his roommates was finishing up a Ph.D. while another, in the same department, still had several years left.

“Barbara’s rigid,” her boyfriend said. His other roommate, Karen, had slept with her advisor, but Barbara refused to sleep with hers. Chuckling with approval, the boyfriend recounted how Karen had asked to use his waterbed, and left a pair of sexy underwear scrunched in his sheets.

Today, this kind of quid pro quo may be less common, but sexual harassment at universities persists. The spate of lawsuits, investigations, and recent resignations at the University of California, Berkeley, University of Chicago, and UCLA,  accompanied by older cases leaked to the press and an increase in women going public about their experiences, have made that clear. Graduate students and postdocs are particularly vulnerable, because their futures depend so completely on good recommendations from professors. And STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) students are more dependent than others. Their career progress hinges on invitations to work on professors’ grants or—if students have their own projects—access to big data sets or expensive lab equipment controlled by overwhelmingly male senior faculty.


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