When It Comes To Harassment, Stop Doing It, And We’ll Stop Complaining About It!*

While I was still mired in the quicksand of BigLaw, around year-end 2014, I posted on my employment discrimination blog about how women scientists and graduate students were treated in their professions and in their field work.  It was not pretty.

Have things changed since then?

Man, Woman, Coat, People, Laboratory

Maybe – but just a little.

An article just published in the online journal Science by Ann Gibbons and Elizabeth Culotta entitled “Anthropologists Say No To Sexual Harassment” gives us a glimpse of the state of things today.

But first a short refresher.

In late 2014, the New York Times published an op-ed piece entitled “Science’s Sexual Assault Problem,” by A. Hope Jahren, a scientist who was sexually assaulted 20 years ago while she was a science graduate student.

She said that “My story is not unique. In July, Kathryn B. H. Clancy and her co-authors Robin G. Nelson, Julienne N. Rutherford and Katie Hinde published a survey of 666 field-based scientists in the journal PLoS One and reported that 26 percent of the female scientists surveyed had been sexually assaulted during fieldwork.  Most of these women encountered this abuse very early in their careers, as trainees.  The travel inherent to scientific fieldwork increases vulnerability as one struggles to work within unfamiliar and unpredictable conditions, but male respondents reported significantly less assault (6 percent).”

Further, she said that “I know several women with stories like mine, but more often it is the men of one’s own field team, one’s co-workers, who violate their female colleagues. The women surveyed by Dr. Clancy’s team stated that their ‘perpetrators were predominantly senior to them professionally within the research team.’”

In my blog post of August 12, 2014 (don’t bother to find my byline there – when I left, my ex-firm inexplicably scrubbed my name from every one of my hundreds of posts) I commented about an article by Christie Aschwandenaug in the NYT, entitled “Harassment In Science: Replicated.

She wrote that “As an undergraduate student in biology, I spent several weeks in Costa Rica one summer with an older graduate student on a research project deep in the cloud forest.   It was just the two of us, and upon arriving at our site, I discovered that he had arranged a single room for us, one bed.   Mortified but afraid of being labeled prudish or difficult, I made no fuss.  I took the lodge owner aside the next day and requested my own bed.  The problem ended there, and my graduate student boss never made any physical advances.  Reflecting back, I’m struck by how ill equipped I was to deal with this kind of situation, especially at 19.”

The newly published Science article reports that “[a]n emotionally charged session on sexual harassment in anthropology [at a Presidential Panel of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (AAPA)] began with audible gasps last week when a young, untenured professor described to a standing room–only crowd how she had been humiliated recently when she participated in an otherwise all-male scientific workshop.”

While “few fields are confronting the problems as vigorously[as anthropology], perhaps because in this discipline women have reached critical mass,” nonetheless “The field has been convulsed by several cases, including that of paleoanthropologist Brian Richmond of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, who allegedly sexually assaulted a research assistant who worked for him and harassed trainees at a field school … His case came to light not long after an influential survey [Dr. Clancy’s study, cited above] revealed that sexual harassment is common during fieldwork (Science, 19 April 2013, p. 265). The study made it clear that trainees urgently need protection, especially in the field, where people live and work in close quarters.”

Dr. Clancy’s is a significant study, and this article in Science – and the professional panel which it reports on — is a significant addition to our understanding of the problem facing women in science.


*Quote attributed in the Science article to Susan Sheridan, University of Notre Dame




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Richard Cohen

Richard B. Cohen is a partner in the New York City office of FisherBroyles, LLP, a national law firm. Richard Cohen has litigated and arbitrated complex corporate, commercial and employment disputes for more than 35 years, and is a trusted advisor to business owners and in-house counsel both in the United States and internationally. His clients have included Fortune 100 companies, domestic and foreign commercial and investment banks, Pacific-rim corporations and real estate development companies, as well as start-up businesses throughout the United States. Email Richard at [email protected]