Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

For women in science, it's still chilly out there

By Rosemary Joyce

Biological anthropologist Kate Clancy -- who is getting media attention for a poorly acknowledged fact of life in field science: the chilling effect of sexual harassment -- writes as follows:

 Survival in field-based academic science can’t just be about who can put up with or witness abuse the longest – that is not an appropriate metric to measure who is the best at their science

Last October, an international study of women's participation in science, technology, engineering and math fields (collectively, STEM fields) found that women still are under-represented in such careers. In fact, the study found that participation by women in the US in STEM fields was declining:

even with improved access to science and technology education, women have not increased their numbers in the workforce.... In fact, in some countries including the US, the number of women in the science and technology workforce is declining.

Like a plethora of similar studies over decades, this one --  conducted for the Organization for Women in Science for the Developing World (OWSD) and Women in Global Science & Technology (WIGSAT) --  emphasized the failure of organizations in the US to create what at Berkeley we call family-friendly policies that support couples made up of two researchers and allow women to have families while also developing their careers.

There is no doubt that such policies are important; the 2012 study demonstrates that this is the major factor lowering the ability of the US, in particular, to improve, since the US has especially weak support in this area.

But this is not the entire answer to the problem. In 2004 a study published by the National Research Council of the US National Academy of Sciences, written by Shirley Tilghman, noted some troubling trends in the data on rising numbers of women completing the PhD and entering academic and research employment. She found that the "data state loudly and clearly that the professional experience of women in science and engineering is substantively different than it is for men":

Thirty-four percent of women scientists and engineers are unmarried compared to 17 percent of men. Ten percent of married women scientists and engineers have an unemployed spouse compared to 38 percent of men. Twenty-one percent of women scientists and engineers identified balancing family and work as a career obstacle compared to 2.8 percent of men.

Family friendly policies can provide women the means to address some of these differential obstacles. But Tilghman went on to discuss other factors, referring to a study by MIT scientist Nancy Hopkins that has become famous as an example of documenting what are called "chilly climate" issues. That MIT study and the steps MIT took after it came out have become legendary benchmarks for progress for women in science.

For me, though, the message of the MIT study was more ambiguous. The study found that

a common finding for most senior women faculty was that the women were "invisible", excluded from a voice in their departments and from positions of any real power. This "marginalization" had occurred as the women progressed through their careers .... Each generation of young women, including those who are currently senior faculty, began by believing that gender discrimination was "solved" in the previous generation and would not touch them. Gradually however, their eyes were opened to the realization that the playing field is not level after all, and that they had paid a high price both personally and professionally as a result.

What the study showed, in other words, is that women understand they are welcome, initially --  and then as they participate, find themselves increasingly alienated from the disciplines they have loved and, often, sacrificed to join.

Shirley Tilghman's 2004 study confirms that chilly climate issues persisted, and were second only to the issues of juggling family responsibilities in discouraging women from continuing in science. She wrote that in subsequent studies after the MIT breakthrough:

women in science and engineering faculty are more likely to report that they feel marginalized and isolated at their institution, have less job satisfaction, have unequal lab space, unequal salary, unequal recognition through awards and prizes, unequal access to university resources, and unequal invitations to take on important administrative responsibilities, especially those that deal with the future of the department or the research unit.

In 2009, Sue Rosser and Mark Zachary Taylor published an analysis of data collected by NSF on women's participation in science on the website of the American Association of University Professors. They noted that

data mask the attrition of women at every phase of the educational and career STEM pipeline. Despite grades and other academic attainments equal to or surpassing those of the men who remain in STEM fields, more women than men leave science and engineering.

This attrition has to be explained. Rosser and Taylor found two factors account for attrition: "the need to balance career and family and a lack of professional networks".

This attrition has to be solved. We know the answer to the first factor: introduce family-friendly policies-- which, if gender neutral (as they are at Berkeley) actually improve quality of life and work-life balance for men as well as women.

So what can be done about the lack of professional networks? Why do women report having weaker professional networks?

Here we step into less charted territory. Networks form through personal relationships, which in science fields often begin with collaborative participation in the data production enterprise.

In archaeology, my own discipline, that means being in the field, at the site of excavation. The same is true for many participants in biological or physical anthropology.

In 2006, an article published in the Duke Journal of Gender Law and Policy documented that in the physical sciences, laboratories-- the sites of not only data creation, but network-building-- are far from safe for women. Ellen Sekreta, the author of this analysis, found that

sexual harassment is both endemic to those institutions and that the response is inadequate.... the strictly hierarchical structure inherent to the world of science research makes women vulnerable to abuse, precisely because they tend to hold lower-ranked positions. Second, women researchers are also made more vulnerable by the intimate, one-on-one nature of research work, which can make it less clear whether harassment occurred, and subject women scientists to a dissection of their personal and professional lives when they make claims of sexual harassment. Third, institutions are deterred from taking action against scientists accused of harassment, because these scientists often significantly contribute to the reputation of the university, and thus, indirectly, to its financial well-being.

A new study by biological anthropologists Kate Clancy, Katie Hinde, Robin Nelson and Julienne Rutherford, presented at the recently concluded annual meeting of the American Association for Physical Anthropology, shows that the field can be as much a site of harassment as the laboratory.

It exposes how this crucial site of formation of professional networks can turn against women, when sexual harassment and sexual assault are present and tolerated. The quote that opens this blog post comes from Clancy's discussion of their results.

Toleration, and concealment, of harassment are both, it turns out, to be expected. Recent research has shown that people's predictions of how they themselves would act if harassed over-estimate their likely responses-- meaning people condemn others for not acting against harassment, because we falsely think we would have stood up to the perpetrators.

So women who enter a field site expecting it to begin forming their professional life may find that instead, it results in their being perceived as weak, as letting themselves be targets. And they may feel that way about themsleves as well.

Clancy and colleagues have pulled back the curtain --  now we need to see if other field-based disciplines have the courage to follow, and then to start saying no to a culture of going along with treatment that makes women less welcome where we desperately need the very best minds.

Cross-posted from What Makes Us Human, Professor Joyce's blog in Psychology Today.