Fighting sexual harassment in science may mean changing science itself

A recent report highlights just how prevalent harassment is in academic science

KINGS OF SCIENCE Modern academic science is built as a hierarchy, with experienced, powerful professors leading labs full of younger people — a situation primed for abuse of power.


The #MeToo movement has revealed sexual and gender harassment in every corner of American life. Science hasn’t been immune. High profile cases — such as decades’ worth of complaints against astronomer Geoff Marcy, and allegations that geologist David Marchant verbally and physically abused women scientists in Antarctica — make headlines. But it is the often underreported gender harassment, both serious and subtle, that contributes most to the scope of the problem. And efforts to recruit more women into scientific fields fall awfully flat when those women end up harassed out of their careers.

A report published on June 12 by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine offers an exhaustive, 311-page look into just how pervasive the problem really is: More than 50 percent of women in academia say they have experienced sexual harassment. “I am sure that many were aware of the issue, but were perhaps surprised by the magnitude of the problem,” says Marcia McNutt, president of the National Academy of Sciences.

The report offers a list of recommendations to combat harassment, many of which are focused on changing the culture of science to create an environment where there is more civility and safety. But when the entire scientific training system is based on huge power imbalances between professors and trainees, creating that environment will involve more than team-building exercises and casual Fridays. Real change may mean changing everything about the way scientific training works.

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