What’s the Extent of the Problem?

I don’t usually recycle my posts, but the time seems ripe to repost this particular one appended below. I wrote it just over three years ago. It asks ‘Just how bad is it?’ referring to the issue of sexual harassment. The stories in Astronomy coming from the US currently make for sober reading. There is the case of Geoff Marcy, now no longer at UCB. This was a man whom the university initially did little more than tell off after various allegations were upheld, but who ultimately had to resign in the face of the barrage of criticism. Then further reports came out, from Caltech and (more historically dating back to 2004 and revealed on the floor of Congress by a Republican congresswoman) a third case of an astronomer who was allowed to leave the University of Arizona and take up a new faculty position at Wyoming without his track record following him (both stories reported here; I have to assume they are accurate in the absence of evidence to the contrary). These three stories all emanate from the field of Astronomy. Is this chance? Is this because, as I have seen posited, that Astronomy is ahead of other disciplines in rooting out and cleaning up its act, or is it in fact genuinely worse than other subjects? And, a question close to my heart, is it equally bad in the UK or is there something significantly different going on in the US?

I can’t answer these questions. For sure there is plenty of sexism out there: a generous helping of unconscious bias, unwelcoming climates and dollops of patronising comments are the lot of too many women in science as elsewhere. On university campuses the laddish culture is undoubtedly a major concern, fuelled by excessive alcohol. But how bad is actual sexual harassment, perpetrated by senior (and otherwise respected) academics?

Last time, when I brought these questions up I had been challenged by a philosopher as to what the situation was like in science because she knew how bad her own discipline was (again this may largely have been in the US, although she herself was UK based). So, let me try again to discover – through (anonymous if you like) comments below, or through private email to amd3@cam.ac.uk – what is the UK science situation like today. Last time very little came to light via either route.

What follows is the full text of my earlier post, to put this updated introduction into context.

How Bad is It?

Published December 4 2012

It is easy to think that science is uniquely bad amongst the academic disciplines in the problems that some women may face. In the past few weeks I have visited various Universities to discuss some of the relevant issues and give their management a nudge about what needs to be done regarding Athena Swan submissions. During one of these, to the University of Sheffield, I was delighted to meet Jenny Saul, whose research includes the study of stereotype threat and unconscious bias, issues that undoubtedly feed into the problems that many women in STEM may face. But Jenny is a Philosopher (indeed she is Head of the Sheffield Philosophy Department) and she has drawn my attention to the difficulties in her own subject, which is also male-dominated at senior levels (although not amongst undergraduates). It seems that this is another discipline in which there are endemic issues making things difficult for women, with some close parallels to the sciences but also other significant differences.

Since that first meeting a few weeks back, I have followed up with Jenny to learn more about the experiences for women in philosophy and how they compare with women in STEM. I will also be exploring any particular issues affecting Cambridge female philosophers with the local Women in Philosophy Group since, as Gender Equality Champion in Cambridge, my brief extends far beyond science: I need to appreciate what the stumbling blocks are in the Humanities disciplines just as much as in my own. (It is worth pointing out that my university is split into six Schools, four of which relate to the STEM disciplines including medicine, plus the Schools of Arts and Humanities and of Humanities and Social Sciences.)

Before I get into what seems to be the same and what different for Philosophy, let me start with a stark question. One of the first things Jenny asked me completely stopped me in my tracks.

‘Is sexual harassment rife within the sciences? It is in Philosophy.’

My immediate answer was: no, it isn’t widespread. My more considered answer is: perhaps I don’t know. Is it? If you are a young female researcher, are there senior researchers and faculty who prey on you in lecture theatres, laboratories or at conferences? Just how bad is it? I have asked other women in the intervening weeks and they have also said no it isn’t bad. But then they’ve gone on to qualify their responses with some anecdote which would seem to say the opposite.

That qualification I suppose ties in with my own experiences. On this blog I have previously posted stories about situations in the not too distant past which have made me very uncomfortable (e.g. here  and here, although in both cases they should probably be called ‘mere’ sexism rather than sexual harassment). I have tended to shrug these off as unpleasant but not really representing a fundamental problem in my discipline. But maybe I am being naïve, because I am to a large extent protected by my age and standing. Nevertheless, I do not hear more than the occasional horror story, and those usually occurring at conferences rather than in day to day workplace experience. Alcohol excuses nothing, but I am sure reduces barriers so that offensive behaviour is more common at the end of a heavy day of conference talks rather than when just going about one’s daily business in the lab or office.

So, my blunt question is – how bad is sexual harassment (as opposed to sexism of which there is plenty) in the sciences? I’d be interested to receive comments so that we can build up a snapshot of how people perceive things, in case I am just missing the hell that some people are being put through. I am particularly interested in the UK experience, since that is where I am based and where the schemes I am familiar with  – Athena Swan and the IOP’s Project Juno – offer scope to improve the climate at least at work (though conferences may be another story). For Women in Philosophy there is a website where individuals can post their stories anonymously – it makes for grim reading. For anyone who doesn’t want to add a comment on my blog because of concern around confidentiality issues, please feel free to email me (amd3@cam.ac.uk) your experiences so that I can add them as comments to this post without disclosing names or institutions.  If harassment is still rampant, it should be possible to discuss it collectively. Zero tolerance should be the policy everywhere, but it is hard for individuals on their own to achieve or enforce for all the obvious reasons. However harassment will thrive on secrecy and fear.

So that’s the heavy, depressing part out of the way! Moving on to consider the similarities and differences between the sciences and Philosophy, there is a useful status report prepared jointly by the British Philosophical Association and the Society of Women in Philosophy UK last year. It highlights the fact that, unlike in STEM where the problems for women have been discussed and explored for a number of years and initiatives such as Athena Swan and the IOP’s Project Juno developed to try to improve the culture, nothing similar exists so far in Philosophy. Indeed, the problem does not seem to have received much attention at all. As with Chemistry, the undergraduate population is fairly evenly balanced between the sexes; numbers fall off rapidly thereafter, with only 19% of professors being women (not much above the value in Biology, although this starts from an undergraduate base consisting of more women than men).

One factor that seems to be significantly different in Philosophy is the heavy dominance of male authors on typical reading lists and whose work is being cited. Or rather, that in itself isn’t different, but it matters in a much more deep-rooted way because these texts are analysed to a degree that would be unusual for a scientist reading a research paper or standard text. In general it isn’t the language or the manner of expressing an opinion that matters to an aspiring scientist, it is only the facts and the equations. So as scientists we are probably less likely to be influenced by or sensitive to the gender of the writer. A second factor is that philosophers – apparently – use styles of argument and language that are stereotypically male. To quote the MIT philosopher Sally Haslanger (and this is a quote I’ve lifted from a very informative and illuminating article  by Jenny Saul on her website)

As feminist philosophers have been arguing for decades, the familiar dichotomies with which Anglophone philosophy defines itself map neatly onto gender dichotomies – rational/emotional, objective/subjective, mind/body; ideals of philosophy – penetrating, seminal and rigorous; and what we do – attack, target and demolish an opponent, all of which frame philosophy as masculine and in opposition to the feminine.

I don’t personally think the language and process of science operates within such a linguistic and gendered framework. Although I have seen ardent feminists object to the language of physics, because concepts such as force are ‘clearly male’, for me this seems an artificial objection. A force is a force. But, I can see how a philosopher being told their argument is emotional or subjective might feel they were being devalued at a personal level, and it could be sufficiently off-putting to contribute to their desire to quit the subject. Thus it would appear that the very structure of philosophical thought and argument as currently practiced constantly reinforces potential gender differences and so contributes to stereotype threat. The report on Women in Philosophy I mentioned earlier suggests that this is both unnecessary and could be overcome, offering some practical suggestions to facilitate a culture shift.

I wish the philosophers all the best in their attempts to level the playing field. If, as is currently being considered and piloted, Athena Swan extends its remit to subjects other than STEM, then maybe philosophy will be a discipline that can particularly benefit.

Update 29th January 2016: I did indeed visit Cambridge’s Philosophy Department and talk to their students as well as the head of department. Clearly the issues are recognized and work is in hand to improve their specific local culture.

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31 Responses to What’s the Extent of the Problem?

  1. A week ago, Nature published an anonymous editorial, “Harassment victims deserve better”.

    This piece claimed that “Sexual harassment is rife in science.” And later on, “But one thing we do know is that sexual harassment is a serious problem in science.”

    No evidence whatsoever was provided to support these claims of widespread criminal activity in science, beyond the mention of a couple of cases. In fact it contradicted itself by mixing phrases such as “Nobody knows” and “We don’t know the answers to those questions” in among the statements of apparent certainty. Why is Nature magazine employing someone who is incapable of logical thought to write its editorials? Furthermore, the article is irresponsible and counter-productive, since inaccurate scaremongering of this type is likely to put women off careers in science if they read and believe this sort of nonsense.

    Something seems to be going badly wrong with Nature. Earlier this week they published an article claiming that open availability of data and transparency was damaging to science. Click on link for more discussion of this.

  2. Marnie Dunsmore says:


    Telling Stories:

    I attended the Royal Military College of Canada in the early 1980s. In fact, I was in the first class to graduate women. While at times, there was hostility from some of my classmates, and a few of my professors, there was a level of professionalism there that meant that many of my professors (all men) were actively interested in seeing us succeed. Of course, they struggled with their own biases, but you could see that most of them tried to compensate. There was also an amazing physical training program where women and men competed directly together in physical sports. As a competitive middle distance runner, I was able to outrun, in a three mile race, about a three quarters of my mostly male classmates. Some of my male classmates, who now run various engineering consulting businesses, still laughingly talk about the huge wake up call they got as they realized a woman was beating them flat out in a foot race. Other female classmates where hockey, fencing, biathlon and judo athletes. A lot of us could compete equally, and even sometimes beat, the guys. I think my male classmates sometimes struggled with having women compete with them, but there was a camaraderie there as well. Again, although I think there were instances of unconscious bias, many of the military staff, and most of the academic staff, strived to create an environment where women could succeed. While I heard a lot of fowl language, some of it very colorful, I never experienced overt sexual harassment.

    Fast forward to my experience at the University of British Columbia, where I got my Master’s of Applied Science degree in Electrical Engineering. Without going into a lot of detail, I would say that I experienced multiple instances of overt sexual discrimination. A group of administrative staff and some professors supporting the work station lab and electronics CAD platforms where also using this federally funded lab to run an automated pornography harvesting platform. But that was really quite mild to the overall climate of discrimination. Remarkably enough, Maria Klawe, the very well known women computer scientist, was in charge at the top. As her research was involved in trying to demonstrate that computer games could be created that would interest girls, and also encourage them to enter STEM careers, many other aspects of the computer and electrical engineering departments languished. In particular, the more traditional electronics and mathematical computer scientists seemed livid that Maria was ruling over them with an oblivious iron fist. Approaching some of the mathematical computer scientists as a women was an other worldly experience. All of their antipathy at Maria seemed to be instantly transferred onto me, even though all I wanted to know about were methods to treat Green’s function singularities.

    After running through two very sexist Master’s thesis supervisors (no I was not sexually harassed, but I was certainly heavily discriminated against based on repeated openly stated sexist comments about women), I found my third supervisor, who was wonderful and very open minded about women engineers. I did finish my thesis and was invited by some internationally known microwave and electrical power long distance transmission experts to continue on to a PhD. But I just couldn’t wait to get away from the overall hostile climate (the pornography in the CAD lab didn’t help), and I also couldn’t imagine myself spending another five to seven years earning $16,000/year.

    I joined a startup, PMC-Sierra. I loved this job for a short time. The startup got funding from Sequoia, a very well known venture capital firm headed by Oxford history grad, Mike Moritz. I toiled long and hard at PMC-Sierra. However, I soon found out that I was being dramatically underpaid compared to my male coworkers. I also got very tired of several influential engineers, one who was my boss, who made open disparaging comments about the technical abilities of women engineers. It didn’t help that I had beaten several of these guys in the company footrace. I noticed that the hostility stepped up after that.

    I left and moved to Silicon Valley, still foolishly looking for Nirvana where I would be treated respectfully and paid equally, After working at a startup, Intel, another startup, Synaptics, another startup, Avago, and than again another startup, I realized that sexism and discrimination were pervasive across the Silicon Valley workforce. Overt sexual harassment is less common, because company policies heavily discourage it. However, Katie Moussouris’ experience at Microsoft is absolutely typical of what I’ve experienced in my work career at virtually all Silicon Valley companies I’ve worked at since 1993.

    And that doesn’t even begin to describe the recent complexities heavily deployed since the 2001 dot com bust and later financial crisis. Now, outsourcing and indentured H-1B visa and OPT visa workers are used to displace highly trained engineers. Blanket layoffs by companies such as Intel, Microsoft, IBM, Qualcomm, HP, and Disney are routine. These companies will tell you that they are laying off only “older” poor performers, but that is not what is going on at all. For instance, my entire group at Intel was laid off in 2000. Our group had been one of the first groups in the world working on a precursor to the WiFi standard. We were asked to outsource our IP to a group that Intel created in Israel, and then were laid off. The same thing happened when I worked at LSI/Avago. We spent most of our engineering time being asked to take existing IP and outsource it to Shanghai. Then most of us were laid off. How long do you think, in this climate, an employee who reports sexual harassment or discrimination will last?

    So far, the lay offs have not come en masse to social media companies, but it is doubtful that Facebook and Google will continue to grow forever. The lay offs at Twitter have happened.

    All of this is to say that the current business model of most Silicon Valley companies, which are highly influential in setting the climate for STEM professionals, is destructive to the careers of most engineers and scientists. It is also a terrible place to try to establish a professional climate so that non-traditional scientists and engineers can be accepted. In my experience, we did better thirty years ago. Oddly, even at a highly conservative, very macho military college in Canada, the climate was more accepting to women than it is today in Silicon Valley, where Sheryl Sandberg and Susan Wojcicki caste a paper thin façade of equality.

  3. Raff says:

    Are philosophers particularly randy? Or is it likely that they are much the same as other people. If the latter, which seems likely, and if harassment is common in philosophy departments, it might be best to assume that it is equally prevalent elsewhere. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

    In Paul Matthews’ attack on Nature he blatantly misrepresents the article on transparency. The article does *not* say that open availability of data and transparency are damaging to science, but that we should not *allow* transparency to damage science. The article is very clear that data availability and transparency are good things that should be encouraged, but also like many good things they can be misused, in this case for malign purposes.

    Similarly, in his criticisms of the harassment article, he may not be in a position to know whether harassment in science is rife or not. If instead of being a male associate professor he was a female science post grad, his opinion might hold more weight.

    • I don’t think it is necessarily a question of whether philosophers are the same or different from other academics, I think it may be a question of disciplinary culture. If a department or discipline decides to look collectively the other way, those who have inherently ‘randy’ tendencies, as you put it, may be able to get away with it. If there is a focus on equality and treating people with respect, with people willing to speak out if they see others transgressing, then bad behaviour may be less common.

      Having talked to philosophers about gender issues it is clear that they have been slow to realise they have a problem, because undergraduate populations are often pretty evenly balanced. This is far from true at the more senior levels. In physics, the issues around gender are manifest from the first day in a UK lecture theatre: the numbers are far from equal by gender. So, physics has been considering the issues for longer than philosophy. Does that translate into a climate less likely to support harassment? That’s another question I don’t know the answer to. But unless evidence is sought about the prevalence of harassment we’re not likely to find out any answers to any of the questions I pose.

      • R. Wragg Sykes says:

        Thinking of the SAFE13 anthropology study on SH harassment in the field. Mostly female students experiencing from males I think (supervisors and other students). Anthropology has a high % of women students overall (as does archaeology), so potentially a similar situation to philosophy: lots of women being present doesn’t mean there aren’t serious issues occurring.

  4. It seems to me that there must be some fields of inquiry where objective arguments are valued over subjective ones and rational arguments are valued over emotional ones. People who value subjective and emotional experiences will, accordingly, find these fields “off-putting”. Much like people who don’t like jazz or poetry are unlikely to go into fields that are about these subjects. I don’t think that the value of “penetrating, seminal and rigorous” thinking is something that only (or even all) men can appreciate. But it wouldn’t surprise me if the appeal of that sort of work (like the appeal of nursing or firefighting) is differently distributed among the sexes.

    It got me thinking whether the “open sexuality” (to use a phrase from the Arizona case) of (some? many?) scientist might have a basis the “natural” perspective they apply to the world. There was that song we listened to when we were younger: “You and I, baby, ain’t nothing but mammals, so let’s do it like they do on the Discovery Channel.” It is possible that scientists think in greater proportion than the general population that sex is a natural part of the universe. They are resistant to thinking about it “moral” (and legal and “professional”) terms. They think it’s sort of comical at times, and not a “serious” matter. They don’t understand “ordinary people” who feel “uncomfortable” with it.

    This is just a hypothesis. But maybe the “naturalizing” attitude that attracts people to science, also fosters a particular kind of sexual style. Just like the “penetration” and “rigor” of philosophically thinking might appeal disproportionately to a certain kind of “male”.

  5. Jenneke says:

    It is indeed important to make that distinction between sexism and harassment, precisely because both are about the ‘climate’ in which we work, but the first can generalise more easily over a profession or area of research, whereas the latter concerns the direct enviroment in which we work. I thus wonder whether it is even productive to compare fields like astronomy and philosophy; this can certainly be done for sexism, but for actual harassment perhaps we might learn more by comparing universities, campuses, departments (and finding what practises work in places where there is mutual physical respect).

    Personally, I am very happy to be in the very gender-balanced department of Theoretical and Applied Linguistics, where I haven’t experienced or heard about harassment or indeed other disrespectful behaviour based on gender. Nevertheless, your post inspires me to find out more about the general situation in the field of linguistics – does my impression and experience in this field so far reflect the wider mindset in my field?

  6. AndyC says:

    John Hawks’ blog post http://johnhawks.net/weblog/topics/ethics/harassment/astronomy-harassment-look-money-2016.html showed the relationship between harassment and money in U.S. universities. When you bring in that much money, university administrators will turn a blind eye to all sorts of bad behavior.

  7. Rachel Berry says:

    Sexism, mysogynists, boys clubs etc… Are all things that pop up everywhere in society. I’m reading harassment in this context to be unwanted sexual attention or someone in seniority exploiting their position to that end. To be honest I think that kind of stuff has pretty much been eradicated in the IT industry, most work places and probably universities, by a culture of workplace regulation and folks speaking up. It’s years since I can recall a female friend complainng about harassment rather than the regular moans about sexism etc… The only context where I have had unwanted attention has been from the odd conference attendee usually at the bar or parties associated with the evening socials, ie indeed where there is a social element, alcohol … But never from a colleague at the same company and never aggressively, tried it on failed, accepted, no hard feelings. I’m not even sure if it isn’t ok for a single block to come onto a woman in that context as there is a social element. Is astronomy worse than other fields? I don’t knw but from my experiences as a phd student it’s a field where there is a fair amount of travelling to telescopes, people away from home observing, folk working in small intense teams on projects and quite a lot of socialising involving alcohol at the conferences and observing trips with lots of folk working remote and away from families and stability of home. I would say that there are probably more opportunities for stuff to happen in astronomy rather than if working in some other types of labs; ranging from a fair few affairs, marriage break downs and intense squabbling to lots of dual astronomy couples marrying and popping out babies… It’s also a field of physics where there are a lot of woman comparatively…when I did my phd lots of women in a few groups, astro, polymers and colloids and virtually none in Mott like groups, surface physics, magnetism, condensed matter… You’d be very hard pushed to find a woman in many physics groups to harass!

    • Marnie Dunsmore says:

      @Rachel Berry

      “You’d be very hard pushed to find a woman in many physics groups to harass!”

      I’m not a physicist, but I do work with in a field that touches on device physics: specifically, part of my job involves incorporating novel semiconductor devices in innovative ways in electronic analog/mixed signal designs. This is a sub field of electrical engineering as well as device physics.

      While I would agree with you that sexual harassment is largely a thing of the past in my field, gender related harassment is not. In early stage startups in Silicon Valley (less than 15 people) California EEOC employment law does not apply. It’s pretty much the wild west in terms of what goes on.

      Recently, I worked with a guy with a PhD in device physics who took to yelling at me in front of our colleagues for, among other things, not opening and delivering his mail to him. (While I do not have a PhD, my combined professional experience and MASc meant that I was at least as qualified, if not more qualified, than this guy.)

      He took to making daily hours long rants about topics unrelated to our work, attempting to disrupt me and sway the junior engineers and scientists in a negative way. At one point, speaking loudly near my desk, he described how he and his PhD supervisor had frequently discussed how to torture and kill someone in excruciatingly painful ways using hydrochloric acid and other acids.

      Another day, he described how he was tired of paying income tax and suggested that he would deal with the matter with an “AK-47”.

      Meetings were a nightmare. He pretty much interrupted me every time I tried to speak, even when I was responding to a technical question someone had asked me.

      He made many highly derogatory comments about visibly minorities.

      He referred to customers and collaborative third parties with derogatory language that would peel paint off the walls.

      Many other behaviors of territoriality toward me, the only woman in the startup, happened on pretty much a daily basis. Sabotage of my work on a continued basis, were tolerated by management.

      When I reported this to management, I was fired.

      This company is funded by DARPA.

      I have won my first legal round against this company with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing, so it appears that I have a credible legal case.

      While this is perhaps one of the more extreme places that I have worked, more muted examples of the territorial behavior toward women engineers, in my experience, are common in the Silicon Valley workforce, even in large semiconductor companies.

      So, while sexual harassment may be less common than in the past, I can definitely attest to the fact that gender related harassment, especially in early stage Silicon Valley startups, is still common.

      I note that someone has just done an assessment of venture funding in Boston:


      From the article: “Venture capital is taking it on the chin for fostering a boys’ club culture. Women’s share of the partnership at VC firms has actually declined over the past 15 years: The Diana Project at Babson counted 6 percent in 2014, down from 10 percent in 1999. Michael Moritz’s [Oxford history grad] foot-in-mouth December interview with Bloomberg made Sequoia the latest firm to blame it on a shortage of women in tech entrepreneurship and engineering.”

      And “As to why firms are giving such a lackluster performance, it’s not black and white. Some VCs may stick with the company line of “There are no female entrepreneurs for us to invest in.” But few people are buying that anymore, and the objective shortage of female partners could be a more likely culprit.”

  8. Anon says:

    I’m an organic chemist, and I can say my field’s not great for this. Although never heard of anything like the p0rn-harvesting comment above! I’ve never had anything exceptionally bad, although I’m still pretty young.

    Back in the USA, I worked for the only female professor in the department (now one of two). She used to look down on other people for being female, and would say in front of students that she would much rather hire a man because she thought they were “just better”. That judgment didn’t include herself, of course.

  9. Helen Cz says:

    When thinking about this, what really came home is how few women work in my field – there’s almost no-one to be harassed… I have experienced pretty explicit verbal sexual harassment myself in the UK. The worst case was at my previous university, who were pretty bad at dealing with it – the late-middle-aged women who were the sexual harassment officers basically said “oh well, it happens”. One admitted that the technicians knew that she was the harassment officer and would deliberately pinch her on the bum while walking down teh stairs to “tease” her about it. That was about four years ago. Also, I have been told of a case in my field (but at a European university, not the UK) where a PhD student is currently being pressured for sex by her supervisor (successfully, from his point of view), and is having her e-mails read by him. She is too scared to complain, although she has apparently talked to someone at the university and they did nothing. She blames herself and just wants to get through her PhD, so she is not going to say anything. I can’t do much – I’m too far removed- but I’m trying to find out whether anyone has had hints of similar behaviour from the same offender in the past – if there was a group, she might be more willing to complain. So it definitely happens. But PhD students especially are too scared to complain.

  10. Jenny Inglis says:

    I studied physics at Birmingham University in the late 90s. The professors were very supportive and respectful. I wouldn’t say that I experienced sexual harassment but I did feel uncomfortable at times. That was partly because of the gender imbalance – there were far more boys on the course than there were girls. Also, it only takes one or two incidents to leave a bitter taste…

    In one of the back rooms (a lab technician’s room) there were posters of scantily clad women on the walls, which I found offensive. It’s hard to have a conversation about what science equipment you need whilst faced with a Page 3 poster and a smirking lab technician. Sadly at that age, I didn’t have the nerve to comment; I just got out of there as fast as I could.

    In a different lab, the technician persistently made sexist comments (jokes?), for example, “Shouldn’t you be in front of a kitchen sink, not in here?” and “You’re far too pretty to be in a lab.” I laughed off the comments, whilst feeling awkward and affronted. When you’re a shy 18 year old and you’re in an almost wholly male-dominated room, it is hard to take a stance and make a scene, though looking back I wish I had.

    I’ve recently launched a gender-neutral science magazine for children, called Whizz Pop Bang. I’m hoping it will help to get across the message that science is for everyone. Part of the problem is that children are fed the message that pink princess-type merchandise is for girls, whereas science, vehicles and construction are solely for boys. If we can get across a positive, gender-neutral message to both boys and girls from an early age, then I’m hopeful that the next generation will be in a much better position to create a balanced and respectful environment in science in the future. And in the meantime, all we can do is to work towards that by calling out and not tolerating sexist behaviour whenever possible.

  11. Anon Archaeo says:

    My experience dates to early 2000s, as an archaeology undergraduate I had a very senior male member of staff (who was supposed to be my academic tutor) tell me that I was “showing a lot of flesh” because I was wearing a strappy vest. He then pinged the vest strap. This was in the university department, not the field, and while not directly in front of others, we were not alone. He never did anything like this subsequently. I felt very embarassed and slightly ashamed at the time, and it made supervision sessions uncomfortable.

    Later during my PhD I encountered supervisory issues that I believe now were exacerbated by a sexist attitude from the man in question, but nothing overt.

    After my PhD, I was a few months from starting a postdoc in 2012, when my new supervisor-to-be (again a very senior individual) started sending me “romantic” text messages totally unrelated to the project or funding application. They were not obscene but consisted of asking where I was, how I was feeling, telling me it was beautiful where he was on fieldwork, and sending photos of the view from his hotel. While individually innocent, together they appeared to be attempting to initiate some ‘off-the-record’ relationship, and they stopped when I replied explicitly stating I was on holiday with my husband.

    None of these things qualify as serious SH but I believe are indicative that there is an issue in archaeology, at least with very senior males.

  12. Anon Prof says:

    As a PhD student, my supervisor tried to kiss me within the first week. I made it clear I wasn’t interested, that I had a boyfriend. He stopped doing anything to support my research, didn’t read any relevant papers, had no advice for my project, wouldn’t speak to me in meetings. I was an Australian PhD student with my own funding, so he couldn’t take that away. I thought with time he might snap out of it, but did not. I ended up supervising my own PhD project, with some support from another academic in the department, and it taught me independence.

    My first post-doc was in the USA, and the first meeting with my supervisor we ‘accidently’ bumped knees. I quickly drew away and pretended nothing had happened. I was fired after 12 months, despite my work generating two high profile papers and earning the supervisor awards and further grants. Another post-doc in the lab never wrote a first author paper but she was there for more than ten years, having lunch with him every day. At least one sexual harassment suit was filed by a previous post-doc.

    My first UK faculty position, the head of the hiring committee in the first week called me into his office. ‘When are you planning to get married and have babies?’ He asked the question six times, as each time I tried to deflect the question. Eventually I said ‘I’m not’.

    I could go on. These stories are related to sexual harassment, but even more prevalent is bullying of those who are perceived to have no influence. Young women often have no influence, but sometimes young men or older women or non-alpha males do not either. This is dependent on the power networks within departments, fields, universities, societies, editors, grant committees, etc, and exacerbated by funding constraints. Senior people that condone such behaviour are complicit, and a drain on science. Athena Swan is changing structures and improving support networks, but there is backlash and still much to be done.

  13. Marnie Dunsmore says:

    In the UK, Wipeo is a leading employer of science and engineering graduates.

    Wipro is widely understood to be an IT outsourcing company for the banking industry, but it also has a significant interest in the electronics industry.

    If you’re interested, you can check into what it’s like for women at Wipro in the UK. The information quickly comes up on a Google search.

    Several of my former engineering colleagues at Intel ended up at Wipro. Let’s just say they were not paragons of professionalism.

  14. Anon Biology says:

    My former academic supervisor is a sexual predator of female students. During our PhD meetings, he would constantly remark on his sexual rumours, as if he was proud of them. He regularly made sexual comments to me and about me, and would never discuss my work or give feedback. The comments he made to female MSc students were shocking, and he often alluded that ‘pretty students’ would do better in their careers and he only helped them. He would ask for details about the sex lives of his students. His behaviours caused me to fall behind in my studies and I had to request a new supervisor. This was a very difficult decision and I did it with discretion. Still, I felt I was black listed after my supervisor transfer and would panic if I encountered anyone from his department. This has had a serious affect on my health and my career. I feel he took my excellent reputation and academic confidence away from me. He subsequently bad mouthed me in revenge; this was the only way he could justify why I was no longer his student. I became depressed, but somehow finished my PhD. His lab assistant of 20 years told me that I was not the first student this has happened to, and he said ‘sadly, you won’t be the last’. He continues to be ‘protected’ by this university despite annual serious group complaints about his predatory, inappropriate, sexist and sexual behaviour.

  15. Julii Brainard says:

    No sexual harrassment has ever happened to me in work environments.
    I want to say no harrassment of any kind… but I suppose grumpy customers count.

  16. Marnie Dunsmore says:

    I’m not sure that asking women to self report their experiences of harassment or sexism in the workplace is a particularly effective way of collecting “evidence.”

    For one thing, a woman’s experience in medicine, for example, where there have been women doctors and scientists for a long time, or in a government funded agency, where there is oversight, is likely to be very different from the experience of women working in academia in a more non-traditional field than medicine or dentistry. It’s also again quite different from someone working in the private sector where there is little oversight.

    Anecdotally, I suspect that things are better in medicine. I know several women with undergraduate degrees in engineering who then switched to medicine. They tell me that they experienced less sexism in medicine. But then again, there are some famous cases of women having had a tough time in surgery, so it cannot be said that universally, things are better in medicine.

    I think it is a lot to ask for young women to have to navigate around government policies that particularly distort the workforce against women in certain fields. Government policies change over the decades, thus making a good career choice for women become a bad choice later. For instance, it is well known and has been openly stated by a number of prominent electrical engineers, including Karen Panetta and Russell Harrison of the IEEE, that in the US, the H-1B visa is causing the workforce at companies like Google, Facebook, Intel, Microsoft and Apple to skew toward being younger and more male, as virtually all H-1B workers are young and male. Stacked ranking evaluation systems used in these companies are also known to work against women. The UK uses a similar two tiered immigration system that is popular with companies like Wipro, that have heavily skewed the work climate in this sector of the STEM economy toward men.

    (And no, I’m not against immigration. I just don’t think we should have an immigration system that heavily favors mostly affluent young men.)

    It’s simply not very meaningful to aggregate sexual harassment stories across all STEM fields and across academia, industry, startups, biotech, information technology and government. Policies and culture in each of these settings mean that the experiences of women in each of these settings play out very differently. Also, women mostly stay silent. It’s often too risky and exhausting to talk about. And why bother, because many will people will just tell you you’re making it up, or your complaining because you don’t have the skills to otherwise succeed. (Yes, I did notice Milo, Cambridge drop out from liberal arts program, suggesting several days ago, that women report harassment because they “can’t do math.”)

    Indicators such as relative attrition rates from undergraduate, to graduate, to post doc, to faculty position to tenure in specific fields and industries are better indicators of various forms of discrimination. Pay gap is another big indicator. Another indicator are rates of advancement of women over the decades. It is quite significant that the number of startups with women founders has dropped in half since 2000. That can’t be happening because women somehow became dumber or less ambitious in the last fifteen years.

    I think it is time for women in some of the more protected areas of the economy, such as government scientific careers, or women working at high visibility universities in high profile positions, or in medicine, to realize their relative advantage compared to say, women working in STEM in the private sector. Also, in California startups with less than 15 people, most people are not aware that California employment law does not apply. Little wonder that so many female founders are pushed out. Think Twitter.

    Of course, there will be, and has been, those who say, well, if the problem is bigger there, then women shouldn’t work in the private sector. But the fact is that the private sector is highly influential in the overall economy, and to not address sexism there is to simply brush the overall problem for women under the rug.

  17. Thank you to all of you who have replied both publicly here and privately. I really appreciate the raw honesty some of you have shown. I am still trying to assess what I have learned. I certainly cannot evaluate how often harassment as opposed to sexism occurs except that the answer, however low it is, is still too high. The really worrying thing to me, and the thing that means that harassment will remain a present threat, is that organisations do not respond sufficiently strongly nor make public enough pronouncements to stop actual or potential perpetrators. The Geoff Marcy case was a clear example of wrong doing being proven yet action being pathetically weak. I would like to think Athena Swan was changing this but clearly not swiftly enough. I heard from men too who had tried and failed to get strong action taken. I will continue to explore around these facts and take advice.

    Many years ago a case of harassment was brought to my attention – by a man regarding another man’s actions. I was incensed. I was also young and knew nothing about due process. I simply marched off to the management and asked them what they were going to do about it (note I did no fact-finding just assumed what I had been told was true). Management told more senior management who then marched off and told off the perpetrator who was told he’d be out of a job if it recurred. Also a course of peremptory action that would not be acceptable now: this was a very long time ago. However inappropriate my own or management’s actions, it cured the problem swiftly (the guy admitted his wrongdoing on the spot I believe, although I wasn’t present). So, a happy outcome to a way of doing things no one could imagine doing now.

    However, perhaps a key thing to take away was the reaction of the man who told me about the episode in the first place. He said the reputation of the perpetrator was well known and yet not one of the men who knew had thought to do anything about it. When he learned what I had done I think he was abashed never to have taken any action himself. I suspect – for him or for me – it was far easier to act than for the victim(s) concerned to act themselves. As I’ve said before, it is easier to stand up for other people than oneself. But, too often, victims never let it be known they are suffering either because of embarrassment or, worse, fear of reprisals. Again, the stories I have heard demonstrate such fears are all too often justified.

    We must do better. We must all think about how to stand up for ourselves and others. We must not let organisations get away with looking the other way or applying sanctions that are so weak as to be useless. And yes I know this is all easier said than done. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be attempted.

  18. Maria says:

    Thank you very much for doing this. It is absolutely not self-evident.

    The problem about collecting evidence is that most of the time, there is just no evidence. I have the impression that many bullies are experts in bullying. They will ask their victim to come to one-on-one a meeting at 7 pm, or behind walls, where no one else can see what happens.

    How do you want to provide evidence for unwanted touching? It does not leave any marks (normally).

  19. I’ve been thinking and discussing the problems further with others, including Sheffield’s Jenny Saul who first put the issue to me in the field of science. She has drawn my attention to an article she wrote a little while ago discussing some of the dilemmas faced. In particular she makes plain that she feels bystanders have a role to play, very much in line with my last comment. I found her article extremely helpful in helping to crystallise my own thoughts. I hope others will find it equally so.

  20. Marnie Dunsmore says:

    Jenny Saul’s paper is superb.

  21. Rashmi Tripathi says:

    Thank you very much Athene for making this forum, which is very useful to have.

    As an ex women’s officer at the Newnham MCR way back in 2009-2010, my job was to encourage women’s empowerment and women’s equality at Cambridge. I did try to encourage freedom of expression, professional thinking and gender equality during my tenure. However, unfortunately, I have also been on the receiving end of harassment twice. My personal story has been this..

    Regarding the first incident, I have never spoken out, but have kept a distance from the person. In some sense it’s a matter of my own perspective, whether I should view that as harassment or him providing emotional support. I am sometimes unsure, but have let the incident go.

    Regarding the second incident- at first I went into denial and refused to accept that the incident happened and tried to let it go, but the happenings lingered in my memory till I felt it was important to discuss the issue with my advisor. My advisor was thankfully very understanding and did raise the issue with the person, who unfortunately was also my research supervisor. His statement was that he did not remember that he ever said such a thing. Also, I was told by my advisor to take it as a joke, which of course was not possible at the time, since I do expect high standards of behaviour and humour at an Institution such as Cambridge. I currently choose to ignore my research supervisor who is still in the department. He unfortunately does not respond to my professional requests of supplying reagents described in his papers in reputed scientific journals, refusing to follow the reagent sharing policy that journals have. I have given up on making complaints about him and his collaborators in matters of science and behaviour, since I believe that they have not behaved ethically in the past and therefore cannot be expected to behave ethically in the future. I have also seen that the system has been unable to make them change. I fortunately have new, exciting collaborators. My advice to young women is to be honest, speak out, and seek people who treat you with dignity and respect. Women must have high professional standards for themselves and others around them and be around people who want you to succeed. I personally never had the time/resources/or the inclination to fight legal battles with respect to harassment, since I believed they might consume too much of my mental energy and time.However, I would recommend this to any woman who faces such stigma, if she has the time and the energy. I like doing science and the things that give me joy and that’s what I normally like to stick to. But yes, I am also someone who does take a stand for myself and others around me when the situation demands it, esp. in matters of dignity and respect, which are fundamental human rights, and women deserve it equally as men.

    • Maria says:

      That’s the problem. The university and the perpetrator know that it is much too difficult, time consuming and energy-consuming for you to come out. But your silence means s/he can harass 30 others after you.

      The other problem is that you can only take people to court for work-related harassment up to 3 months after it happens. Since the union and all university-internal advisers tell you to try to resolve the problem within the university first, this will take more than 3 months and therefore, you cannot seek legal action in most cases of harassment.

      • Marnie Dunsmore says:

        Under California employment law, the statute of limitation for filing a right to sue for harassment, discrimination or hostile work environment is one year.

        Given that people who experience these behaviors are often then in the middle of job changes, or a thesis supervisor change, and trying work through unofficial channels to report, which can be grindingly slow, a one year limitation is inadequate. A three month limitation on reporting is overwhelmingly inadequate.

        Generally, so long as there are notes taken close to the date of incidents, and emails, there is no reason why a two year statute of limitation on reporting should not be implemented.

        I do agree with Jenny Saul’s paper that unofficial channels should be used whenever possible. In my case, while dealing with Mr. Why-Aren’t-You-Delivering-My-Mail-To-Me, I attempted to use unofficial channels at least five times over the course of ten months. No go.

        One of the problems with the minimalist unofficial route is that “the management”, after a while, gets the idea that one will just politely report and then go away. All the while, behind the scenes, they can be planning to push you out or upping the attempt to find fault with your work.

        Going the official route can be extremely time consuming, especially if it requires extensive documentation. And if you are still working for that person, or doing your thesis for that person, I don’t see how this can work.

        In my experience, reporting even minor incidents of inappropriate behavior are almost always met with overwhelming affront and retaliation. Generally, the better course of action is to find a new supervisor and then report.

        So definitely, a three month reporting window is completely inadequate.

        • Maria says:

          The 3 months window is current UK law.

          Well, the problem is that anyone who might be the victim of harassment (PhD student, postdoc, visiting researcher) will leave the institute after a short while. The professor will remain there and continue to publish and/or earn the institute grant money.

          I am really surprised that managements all over the world seem to be heartless individuals. Same counts for senior staff. Senior staff needs to create a culture in which junior staff feels that senior staff is approachable. It takes one sentence or two to ensure everyone that you have an open ear.

          People don’t understand that by remaining silent, you allow someone to harass the 30 people after you. I never came across a case of harassment where a person only had one victim, even if each victim believes so and engages in self-blame.

          I can only explain the silence on the university’s part with:

          1. they are scared of losing face. I can only say that universities host people and where there are people, there is the potential for harassment. the problem is not so much that harassment exists, the problem is that universities do not follow up on it.

          2. Perpetrators are known in their social graph. People at the institute told me that they were surprised I had not heard of the psychopathic patterns of behaviour of the perpetrator, given that this was well known in the field. Well – I was a research assistant who just finished a MSc degree. Who am I to know such things?
          However, in this case, people who witness harassment are in a position to say that “she must have wanted it – why else would she take this job?”. What the fuck, I mean, seriously. I am getting really angry.

          • Marnie Dunsmore says:


            It’s not up to you to know who the “psychopaths” at particular institutes are.

            I just checked statutes of limitations for harassment and discrimination complaints here in California:

            Universities, which fall under the umbrella of Title IX, have a 6 month statute of limitations.

            EEOC law adheres to a 300 day statute of limitations.

            So, again, if the statute of limitations in the UK is only three months, it is easy to see why so few formal complaints are filed. It is virtually impossible to remove oneself, reestablish oneself in a new job or research position, put together a well constructed written complaint, research the mechanism to file a formal complaint, and then actually file, in three months.

  22. Maria says:

    @Marnie: No it is not up to me 🙁

    In my case, it took me 6 months to get a new position and establish myself. The 3 months refer to going to court to sue the university on the grounds of workplace harassment. To be sued is the last thing the university wants because most cases are settled outside court and end up in the university paying some thousand pounds. You are asked to use informal channels first, meaning that you have no way of using “formal channels” later. If you would like to address the problem with the university first, it will take you months and months, because they will send you a mediator who has nothing in mind but to silence you and stop you from wanting to file a harassment complaint.

  23. Marnie Dunsmore says:


    In general, under the law in Canada and the US, and it appears according to what you are saying, in the UK as well, one is expected to have shown a good faith effort to exercise one’s rights by reporting bad behavior through informal channels first, and then through higher levels of formal channels within an organization, before going the legal route. This process can take months if not years.

    I’m puzzled by this statement: “You are asked to use informal channels first, meaning that you have no way of using “formal channels” later.”

    I would not recommend using the university mediator. Mediation assumes that two parties are equal, but in professor-student cases, where there is an obvious power imbalance, mediation is obviously inappropriate.

    At the University of British Columbia, I found one avenue to be effective: At the time I was a graduate student there, they had an effective Status of Women Office. This was a result of a long history of advocacy on the part of the Vancouver University Women’s Club and other women’s organizations. My mother and grand mother were members of the Vancouver University Women’s Club. I’m not sure if there is an equivalent organization there in the UK. Regarding my own case with UBC electrical engineering, I did not involve myself with any mediation efforts and initially took my case to the Status of Women Office. Even there, I could see that the Status of Women Office itself was under attack by various smear campaigns, so they were limited in what they could do for me. However, the UBC Status of Women Office [Now called the Equity and Inclusion Office] did give me leverage to switch supervisors.

    The second thing I did, once I was finished writing my thesis, was write a report to the Dean of Graduate Studies describing my experiences at UBC EE. This did not result in any action toward improving the environment at UBC EE and I’m sure they just buried my report. The department of Electrical Engineering at UBC is still overwhelmingly male in composition. In retrospect, to me, this demonstrates that using internal reporting channels, whether through quiet negotiation with sympathetic parties, mediation or writing a report to the Dean, does not work.

    You’ve probably heard that US Congresswoman Jackie Speier has tabled a bill to make sure that internal reports of sexual harassment are not lost or hidden within universities. I think this is a good move, because although reports of harassment and discrimination often do not meet a legal standard, or the statute has expired and so a report cannot be processed legally, it is important to not hide these records. It makes it virtually impossible to follow the pattern of repeat egregious behavior. Perhaps the UK needs to implement a similar system so that a pattern of destructive behavior toward students is easier to detect.

    Again, the three month statute of limitations is completely inadequate, and actually might push people to go the legal route right off the bat, rather than trying to work within the university.

    Maria, I’m glad you found a new group to work in. I wish you luck in your future studies.

    • Maria says:

      @Marnie: You are asked to use informal channels, meaning that you go to the department etc., this will take more than 3 months. that would mean you cannot sue them.

      Yes, I have a new lab, but then, harassers rely on you giving up in the light of having found a new place, and then, to follow up on harassment is time, and energy consuming.

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