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Sexual Harassment in the Sciences

Posted by A. Lou Benassi | Dec 02, 2015 | 0 Comments

People have unfortunately experienced sexual harassment in any number of jobs. Recently, allegations of sexual harassment have brought to light the problem of sexual harassment in the sciences. Astronomy professor at UC Berkeley, Geoff Marcy, was involved in repeated sexual harassment, and sexual assault of multiple female students over a decade long period. Despite these findings from a formal investigation, Marcy was never fired from his job. This caused outrage from the academic and scientific community, eventually leading to Marcy's resignation.

The unwanted hugs, massages and lewd comments to female students only resulted in school officials suggesting Marcy change his behavior. The story then came out as the investigation was leaked to the public by an online news source. One of the students who encountered Marcy's inappropriate touching is now a postdoctoral fellow in astronomy at MIT. She said she did not want to report the incident out of concern that it would negatively impact her graduate school ambitions.

Another astronomy professor, and former student of Marcy's, John Asher Johnson, called Marcy's sexual harassment one of the biggest open secrets in astronomy conventions or meetings. Johnson claimed women in the astronomy field would share information about Marcy to junior scientists to try and keep them safe from Marcy's inappropriate actions.

This was not an isolated incident of sexual harassment in higher education. According to one survey, nearly 70% of female anthropologists and archaeologists reported sexual harassment, with 26% reporting sexual assault. Katie Hinde, a biologist in the science department at Arizona State University said failing to report the harassment is common in young women pursuing higher education. “Academia has a particular climate that allows sexual harassment and sexual abuses to persist,” Hinde said in an interview with National Public Radio.

Female students in online science courses may not even be safe from sexual harassment. Walter H.G. Lewin, a physics professor with MIT was recently found by the university to have “engaged in online sexual harassment in violation of MIT policies.” A number of women reported Lewin's inappropriate behavior, including online chats of a sexual nature, and asking for nude photos.

One of the problems that makes the sciences more prone to sexual harassment is the large disparity in the number of men and women in senior positions. Only about 15% of full professors in astronomy departments, and women make up less than 10% of the full time professors in physics departments.

With so few women in the sciences, many do not come forward with complaints of sexual harassment for fear that officials will not take their report seriously, or favor the word of a senior researcher over a student. Women are often encouraged to stay quiet about lewd comments and suggestive touching. Additionally, in order for science students to continue on in higher education, they may have to rely on the professor as a reference.

If you or someone you know has experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, you do not have to stay silent out of fear that you will lose your job. If you have suffered financial or emotional loss as the result of sexual harassment at work, contact experienced lawyers who have successfully represented their clients in sexual harassment cases.

About the Author

A. Lou Benassi

A. Lou Benassi was born and raised in Taylor Springs, Illinois, a small mining and farming community located near Hillsboro, the county seat of Montgomery County, Illinois...


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