Male scientists, don’t harass young female colleagues

Published 12:57 PM EDT, Sat August 9, 2014

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
Courtesy James Porto
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.

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