Skip to main content

Male scientists, don't harass young female colleagues

By Meg Urry
updated 12:57 PM EDT, Sat August 9, 2014
Happy 107th Birthday, Grace Murray Hopper! The American computer scientist and U.S. Navy Rear Admiral (right) created Common Business-Oriented Language (COBOL.) She also coined the term "debugging" in reference to fixing a computer.<!-- -->
</br><!-- -->
</br>She paved the way for other females in computer science, including <a href='https://www.nersc.gov/news-publications/news/nersc-center-news/2007/prof-kathy-yelick-named-new-director-for-doe-s-national-energy-research-scientific-computing-center/' target='_blank'>Katherine Yelick</a>, left, a University of California, Berkeley, computer science professor, and director for the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center -- a high-performance computing facility that helps scientists run tests. One of the computers in the facility is named after Hopper.<!-- -->
</br><!-- -->
</br>Click through the gallery for more women pioneers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Happy 107th Birthday, Grace Murray Hopper! The American computer scientist and U.S. Navy Rear Admiral (right) created Common Business-Oriented Language (COBOL.) She also coined the term "debugging" in reference to fixing a computer.

She paved the way for other females in computer science, including Katherine Yelick, left, a University of California, Berkeley, computer science professor, and director for the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center -- a high-performance computing facility that helps scientists run tests. One of the computers in the facility is named after Hopper.

Click through the gallery for more women pioneers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
HIDE CAPTION
The historical analogs of brilliant women
The historical analogs of brilliant women
The historical analogs of brilliant women
The historical analogs of brilliant women
The historical analogs of brilliant women
The historical analogs of brilliant women
The historical analogs of brilliant women
The historical analogs of brilliant women
The historical analogs of brilliant women
The historical analogs of brilliant women
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Survey says it's the norm for older male scientists to hit on young female colleagues
  • Meg Urry asks, could this be why there are so few women in science?
  • She says male scientists viewing women as sexual targets is not new
  • Urry: Men who attend conferences need to act professional toward women

Editor's note: Meg Urry is the Israel Munson professor of physics and astronomy at Yale University and director of the Yale Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- Senior male scientists hitting on younger women colleagues appears to be the norm, according to a recent survey.

Could this be one reason why there are so few women in science?

Of the 142 men and 516 women surveyed, 64% said they had experienced inappropriate sexual remarks, comments about physical beauty, jokes about cognitive sex differences or other kinds of sexual harassment while doing field work in anthropology, archaeology, geology and related scientific disciplines.

Meg Urry
Meg Urry

More than 20% reported that they had been the victims of unwanted physical contact of a sexual nature, including touching, physical threats or rape. Women (26%) were far more likely than men (6%) to report these problems.

The study concluded, "Women trainees were the primary targets; their perpetrators were predominantly senior to them professionally within the research team. Male trainees were more often targeted by their peers at the research site."

Because survey respondents opted in, they may not be representative of scientists overall. (Indeed, the difference in the number of male and female participants suggests different outlooks toward this survey.) Those with serious complaints might been motivated to get the word out; on the other hand, several people told the authors they were too traumatized to respond. So we don't know how widespread these behaviors are. But 400 young scientists in training reporting unwelcome advances is 400 too many.

In my own field of astronomy, trips to the telescope -- often in remote locations -- are a critical part of training. On a typical night, a student will work closely with her adviser and perhaps a telescope assistant. Typically, they sleep in mountaintop accommodations and share meals in a communal kitchen. This might approximate a social situation, but it is unquestionably a professional situation. Professionals should behave accordingly.

Male scientists viewing women as sexual targets is not new. Richard Feynman, a famous physicist second only to Albert Einstein in the pantheon of 20th-century physics, was unusually candid about his womanizing in his popular memoir, "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman." For his male readers, there was the occasional tip about how to pick up women in bars. For female readers like me, there was only a sense of alienation.

It shocks me that in 2014, we see this kind of story, told to me recently by a young woman at her first scientific conference. Standing by her poster, which described work she did in her first research experience, she was approached by a more senior male scientist who listened to the student describe her poster and made her feel truly accomplished, like a real scientist. But then things got weird. There were some flirtatious remarks; he asked her out for coffee or dinner and pressed when she said she has other plans. After the man stalked her, she spent the rest of the conference dodging him. If it were not for his status in the profession, so much higher than hers, and if they were simply out in the social sphere, she probably would not have given him the time of day.

What is more damaging is that the woman realized he was interested in a date, not in the poster about her work. She could never have another professional conversation without wondering, Is this a professional conversation or a prelude to being asked out?

Though it might surprise some of the randier senior men, women generally don't go to these conferences -- or field trips -- to find a romantic partner. Rather, they are reporting on their work and learning from others. When these meetings were all male, that's mostly what went on.

When I was a graduate student at a scientific meeting, a postdoc I knew slightly remarked conversationally that some hotels will rent rooms out by the hour, for romantic assignations. (He didn't use that flowery language.) I had never expressed any interest in this guy, nor, for that matter, had he given me the time of day. What makes a person say such things to an acquaintance?

Things that happened to me or to other women in astronomy: being propositioned at the telescope; being propositioned at meetings; colleagues looking not at my face but about a foot lower (a friend dubbed this "the windshield wiper" problem -- back and forth, back and forth, back and forth).

No professor should date any undergraduate student. Full stop. Though professors may flatter themselves that their winning ways and killer bodies are the attraction, strangely enough, it's the mind that is attractive. And professors have way too much status mind-wise; it's not a fair fight.

A very good friend -- a female astronomer a few years ahead of me -- once mentioned a similar incident, being propositioned during what she thought was a business dinner. Since my reaction is usually anger, I asked her how she dealt with it. Oh, she said with a laugh, I just ignored it and talked about my science the entire time. That showed him! A proper price was paid.

That reaction was a huge positive lesson for me. Not only could you keep things light (important for one's success in the field, frankly), but you could use it to your advantage.

But while that may be a useful strategy, it is atrocious that any of this stuff still happens.

Going to a meeting? Act like a professional. Save your dating initiatives for the bar.

Read CNNOpinion's new Flipboard magazine

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:12 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
updated 10:13 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
updated 8:21 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
updated 5:56 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
updated 3:11 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
updated 8:45 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
updated 10:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
updated 12:59 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
updated 9:58 PM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
updated 4:41 PM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
updated 8:21 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
updated 7:16 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
updated 11:07 PM EST, Sun November 16, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
updated 8:21 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
America will have its hands full in the Middle East for years to come, writes Aaron David Miller.
updated 11:17 AM EST, Sat November 15, 2014
Gene Seymour says it's part of our pioneering makeup to keep exploring the universe
updated 12:42 PM EST, Fri November 14, 2014
Sally Kohn says the U.S.-China agreement to cut carbon emissions is a big deal, and Republicans should take note.
updated 4:29 PM EST, Sat November 15, 2014
S.E. Cupp says the Obamacare advisor who repeatedly disses the electorate in a series of videotaped remarks reveals arrogance and cluelessnes.
updated 5:00 PM EST, Fri November 14, 2014
Reggie Littlejohn says gendercide is a human rights abuse against women, with bad consequences for nations.
updated 11:57 AM EST, Thu November 13, 2014
The massing of Russian forces near Ukraine only reinforces the impression that Moscow has no interest in reconciliation with the West, writes Michael Kofman.
updated 9:55 AM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
It takes a real man to make the moves on the wife of the most powerful man in the biggest country. Especially when the wife is a civilian major general.
updated 8:47 AM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
Proponents of marriage equality LGBT persons have been on quite a winning streak -- 32 states and the District of Columbia now allow same-sex marriage.
updated 8:58 AM EST, Thu November 13, 2014
It has been an eventful few weeks for space news.
updated 3:14 PM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
It's too early to write the U.S. off, and China's leaderships knows that better than anyone, argues Kerry Brown.
updated 1:21 PM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
"How can Jon Stewart hire you to be 'The Daily Show''s senior Muslim correspondent when you don't even know how to pronounce Salaam Al-aikum?!"
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT