How Sexual Harassment And Bias Undermine Women’s Access To Scientific Careers

29:22 minutes

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In February 2016, Science magazine reported that Brian Richmond, the American Museum of Natural History’s human origins curator, was under investigation for the sexual assault of a female research assistant at the museum. In December, Richmond—who had been banned from setting foot in the museum but who was still on the payroll—resigned from his position. His story isn’t unique. Famed astronomer Geoff Marcy of UC-Berkeley, Ebola researcher Michael Katze of the University of Washington, biologist Miguel Pinto of the Smithsonian, and more have been implicated in sexual harassment and sexual assault cases. A 2014 survey of field researchers found that 26 percent of female researchers had reported assault at field research sites, and another 71 percent reported harassment.

In response to the Marcy case and others, Representative Jackie Speier (D-California) introduced a bill last September requiring that universities report substantiated cases of sexual harassment to federal funding agencies, which would allow groups like the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health to consider behavior when awarding grants.

[Explore our short film anthology that follows women working at the forefront of their fields.]

But sexual assault isn’t the only problem plaguing women who pursue careers in the sciences. Studies find a host of disadvantages to being female: Women get fewer paper citations and are less likely to be cited as first author. There’s evidence that hiring committees are biased toward men. Women get less funding. They’re earning more science degrees than ever, but remain a minority of tenured faculty.

In this interview from last December, Buzzfeed reporter Azeen Ghorayshi and Verge reporter Michael Balter (formerly of Science) share their insights from covering stories of sexual harassment by prominent researchers.

Plus, former American Astronomical Society president Meg Urry, a professor of astronomy and physics at Yale University, talks about how to ensure that researchers who commit sexual assault or harassment face appropriate consequences.

And Cassidy Sugimoto, an associate professor of informatics at Indiana University-Bloomington, and Kuheli Dutt, the assistant director of Academic Affairs and Diversity at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, discuss the disadvantages that continue to stymie women in science, and the way forward from here.

Additional resources:

American Association of University Women

The Association for Women in Science

500 Women Scientists

American Astronomical Society Committee on the Status of Women

Know Your Rights: Title IX and Sexual Harassment

Segment Guests

Michael Balter

Michael Balter is a science reporter at The Verge. He’s based in Tarrytown, New York.

Kuheli Dutt

Kuheli Dutt is the Assistant Director of Academic Affairs and Diversity at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and co-author of Women in the Geosciences (American Geophysical Union, 2015).

Cassidy Sugimoto

Cassidy Sugimoto is an associate professor of Informatics at Indiana University at Bloomington, Indiana.

Azeen Ghorayshi

Azeen Ghorayshi is a science reporter for BuzzfeedNews in New York, New York.

Meg Urry

C. Meg Urry is a professor of astronomy and physics at Yale University, and the past president of the American Astronomical Society. She’s based in New Haven, Connecticut.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. The issues of sexual harassment and gender-related bias certainly are not new in science. But late last year, it seemed like you could hardly scroll through the news reports without seeing another story about harassment in the sciences.

There were accounts of several prominent cases– one involving an astronomer at UC Berkeley, another a curator at the American Museum of Natural History, another with an Ebola researcher at the University of Washington, and more. And Twitter hashtags like #astroSH and #bioSH brought a deeper conversation about sexual harassment and gender bias in the sciences into social media. We thought this issue is so important that we’re going to revisit it.

My guests are two reporters who have been covering stories like these– Azeen Ghorayshi, science reporter at BuzzFeed News, and Michael Balter, now at Verge, who first broke the Richmond story for Science magazine. Welcome to Science Friday. Michael, Brian Richmond is the story you broke in your reporting for Science. His isn’t the first case of sexual assault in academia. What made that one noteworthy?

MICHAEL BALTER: When we were discussing at Science whether to actually cover this story or not, we had to ask ourself that exact question– why cover this particular case when there were so many. I think that there’s a couple of reasons, at least. One is that this had become a very big issue in the anthropology community that Brian Richmond was part of. It was kind of an open secret in that community and people were trying to grapple with what to do about it. And so in a way, it was kind of a community story as well– looking at how scientists deal with this kind of situation, what they can possibly do about it.

The other thing is that, although I argue that how high profile a scientist is should not be a determining factor in whether we cover them or not, it was the case that Richmond was in a very high profile and public position as curator of human origins. Normally he would be giving talks and doing public outreach for human evolution for the entire American Museum. So I think that we felt that when you added those and some other factors together, that it was a story worth doing.

IRA FLATOW: Azeen, you reported on Geoff Marcy and Michael Katze among others– both star researchers at the time of the investigation, yes?


IRA FLATOW: What is the role of you as members of the media in reporting your stories if the institutions were already aware and disciplining these people?

AZEEN GHORAYSHI: I can speak to the cases that I’ve covered. I think in the Marcy case, these women had come forward after trying very many different approaches– going to the department chair, et cetera– and then had finally gone through the very taxing process of filing an official Title IX complaint and getting all of the complainants together.

And at the end of all that, they got a letter from UC Berkeley saying that the investigator had found that Marcy had violated sexual harassment policies, but that essentially, they weren’t going to do much about it. They were very vague on the details, but it was pretty clear that they were not going to discipline him, and that he was going to be able to keep his job, and that no one would know about it. And I think that these women decided to come forward after feeling disappointed by the process as it exists.

IRA FLATOW: System failed them, that’s what you’re saying. Michael, would you agree?

MICHAEL BALTER: Absolutely. I think in the two major cases that I’ve covered this year– the Brian Richmond case and also, very recently, a story I did for the Verge about the case of Miguel Pinto at the Smithsonian Institution– in both cases, the institutions involved had no interest whatsoever in revealing them publicly or even internally. Both institutions did as much as they could to try to keep things quiet.

I think to their credit that that’s beginning to change. A great deal has happened at the American Museum over the last year on the part of especially the women’s Science group there and other curators and faculty to try to make sure that this kind of thing can’t happen again or at least diminish the possibility.

IRA FLATOW: Do you think that women doing work in science and suffering from sexual harassment are any different than women in any other professions? What is there unique about this?

AZEEN GHORAYSHI: I think a lot has been said about whether this problem is unique to science and some prominent people have said that that’s not the case. But we’re never going to have the numbers to settle that debate. The reality is that we have only seen, probably, the tip of the iceberg, in terms of women who were brave enough to come forward about their experiences.

But what we do know is that the way science works, especially at research institutions like UC Berkeley or University of Washington, it’s set up differently than other workplaces. It’s extremely hierarchical. These graduate students or undergrads are extremely dependent on their relationship to their PIs, who are in a great position of power. They rely on them for data, for collaborations, for grants.

Basically, their whole career lies in the balance of this relationship that has to be appropriate. And if it’s not, the impetus is on the victim to really address that. And the institutions have vested interest in keeping that quiet.

IRA FLATOW: I want to turn now to Meg Urry, professor of physics and astronomy at Yale. She was the president of the American Astronomical Society when the story about UC Berkeley astronomer Marciy, a history of harassment first broke. Welcome to Science Friday.

MEG URRY: Thank you, Ira

IRA FLATOW: You were president of the AAS when one case of, as I say, Geoff Marcy came to light. What was your reaction as a leader in astronomy?

MEG URRY: Yes, well, it hadn’t been something that was a major focus at that time. But I realized immediately we needed to respond, that our professional society is a home for astronomers and we need to support astronomers to help them thrive in their research.

We already had a pretty effective anti-harassment policy, which works when we’re in charge of a venue, like at a meeting, for example, a scientific meeting. But I realized pretty quickly we needed to enhance our code of ethics to be a statement of what is OK behavior and what is not OK behavior in the professional sphere. And we’ve done that now and we’ve talked a lot about this issue, both within our society and with other professional societies in science.

IRA FLATOW: Dr. Urry, you’ve also been a woman working in astronomy for several decades. You have a large view picture of this. Has harassment of women by male scientists gotten worse since the beginning of your career?

MEG URRY: No, no. I’m sure it’s not any worse now than it was when I started. It might even be better. But it is very much a hidden problem. I’m grateful to Azeen and Michael for bringing some of these stories to light. I think the problem is, as they’ve explained, that your career is so dependent on your mentors that if one of them is harassing you, you complain about it at the risk of your career.

I personally didn’t know how pervasive this was. I thought it was terrible when it happened but that perhaps it was rare. I’m not sure why I thought that, maybe because we don’t hear about many cases. But I’ve learned– since the Marcy case broke really– I have learned from young women in astronomy that there are lots of people who have encountered sexual harassment.

IRA FLATOW: Yes, in fact, we have a clip of one anthropologist, Dr. Meredith Reiches, describing the disbelief she faced when she reported being assaulted by an advisor during a field research trip.


– Senior researchers and administrators came up with a variety of stories of how and what had happened. They said that I was either a lesbian or I had already been sleeping with the senior researcher. I requested two things– I requested that they acknowledge that something had happened and that some remedial action be taken with the person who had pushed me so inappropriately.

But instead, they told me to apologize to the senior researcher for the distress that I had caused him by my unfounded decisions. I apologized. He did not accept the apology and withdrew from the project, leaving a gap where his expertise had been.


IRA FLATOW: Wow. Dr. Urry, why aren’t women believed when they report these experiences?

MEG URRY: That’s an amazing quote. A lot of us were kind of jolted by a similar study in 2014, by Kate Clancy, also an anthropologist, who looked into how scientists who do their research in the field– so they’re away from home, staying remotely somewhere else– how they encounter sexual harassment.

And it was an extremely high fraction of both men and women. It’s about 70% of men and 85% of women were reporting that they were harassed or assaulted. It was happening everywhere. The difference– men were typically approached by peers and women were typically approached by superiors. So that was really an eye opener. And astronomers also go to– we do our research at telescopes in many cases, so very similar stuff is happening in the same way.

I think you need the combination of two ingredients to have a sort of a high potential for this bad behavior. One is uneven numbers. Women are pretty small fraction of many of the physical sciences for example. And then the hierarchy that Azeen mentioned, where somebody has a fair amount of power over their graduate students or their post-docs

IRA FLATOW: Azeen, what are the reforms you’ve seen proposed in the wake of this scare?

AZEEN GHORAYSHI: Sure. I just wanted to point out one thing– in terms of women being believed, I think that’s a problem that we see outside of science, across the board, in terms of these issues around sexual harassment, sexual assault, rape. And we’re seeing that national conversation really broadens in terms of figuring out why even police departments don’t believe women when they come to them with rape cases for example.

But as far as what’s being done, Meg addressed the professional societies. They, I think, have really taken on a lot of the responsibility in terms of a local approach to trying to address these problems and have more checks to supplement what the universities are able to do.

At a bigger level, I think, we have Congresswoman Speier, Jackie Speier, who has introduced legislation requiring universities to disclose if PIs have had a sexual harassment complaint lodged against them, if there was an investigation, to provide that to grant funders. So that’s taking the step of accountability above the universities, holding them accountable in terms of whether they will receive research funding.

And that’s obviously been a huge factor in the conversations around Marcy and Katze, as they were bringing in tremendous amounts of money to their universities. And there were a lot of questions about whether there are incentives for universities to let these things slide, or look the other way, or keep them quiet.

IRA FLATOW: Got to say goodbye to Azeen Ghorayshi of BuzzFeed News and Michael Balter for the Verge. Thank you for taking time to be with us today.

AZEEN GHORAYSHI: Thanks for having me.

MICHAEL BALTER: Thanks for having us.

IRA FLATOW: We’re going to come back after the break and continue our discussion of extra hurdles women face in scientific careers. Stay with us. We’ll be right back after this break.

This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. We’re talking about sexual harassment and gender bias in the sciences. A conversation taped last December that we’d like to hear again. We were just talking about the new attention being drawn to sexual assault and harassment of female researchers and what it might take to ensure that women can embark on scientific careers free of unwanted attention from men who have control over their success.

But what about other inequities that might be holding back their careers? Women are getting a larger proportion of science PhDs than ever, yet they remain a minority of tenured faculty. What’s the problem? Is the glass ceiling any tougher in the glass laboratory? We’ve been talking with Meg Urry, professor of astronomy and physics at Yale, past president of the American Astronomical Society.

And I want to bring in two others who’ve been closely scrutinizing equity and opportunity for women in science. Cassidy Sugimoto is an associate professor of informatics at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana. And Kuheli Dutt is assistant director of Academic Affairs and Diversity at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. She’s also co-author of the book Women in the Geosciences. I want to welcome both of you to Science Friday.

KUHELI DUTT: Thank you.

CASSIDY SUGIMOTO: Thank you for having us on the show.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. Let me begin with you, Dr. Urry. How has the climate for women in science changed since you started. You say there was a lot worse. Feels like it’s getting better a little bit?

MEG URRY: Yes, there’s a big difference from when I was a student– I am quite old now. Things have clearly changed– there are many more women, there are more people of color. But I would also say the pace of change is maddeningly slow.

We used to have 10% of medical students were women, now it’s 50%, more than 50%. But women are not being hired anywhere near those numbers as faculty in medical schools. And you find the same thing in biology– parity at the undergraduate and graduate levels, but not parity at the assistant professor level. And physics– sorry, I didn’t even mention– physics and engineering are like way behind the life sciences. So we have a long way to go.

IRA FLATOW: Kuheli, you’re nodding your head a lot.

KUHELI DUTT: It’s very similar to the geosciences, where about 40% of the PhDs go to women, but at the full professor level, there’s less than 10% women. So it’s very similar to what Meg has just said about physics and engineering and the other sciences.

IRA FLATOW: So it doesn’t vary much by field?

KUHELI DUTT: Apparently not.

IRA FLATOW: Cassidy, your research looks at things like how often men and women are cited in their research. It turns out it’s kind of complicated, right?

CASSIDY SUGIMOTO: Well, I think it shows and repeats some of the things that we’ve heard before– these invariant gender disparities regardless of discipline. Our studies have reconfirmed that men’s voices matter more in science. They’re more likely to be in leading roles, they produce more, and their work is more highly cited.

And some of those complexities do come when we start to dig down into the places in which they’re putting their work. So we find that women, particularly those in heavily male-dominated fields– engineering and other fields like this– tend to publish in more prestigious journals, that is journals with higher journal impact factors. However, even when they place their work in these journals, their work receives fewer citations.

IRA FLATOW: And has that been constant and has not gone up or down at all?

CASSIDY SUGIMOTO: We’re starting to see better equality in these, but as was mentioned earlier, the progress is very, very slow. And there are still skeptics who argue that this is due to some inherent differences in the content or quality of women’s work. Recent studies have dispelled this myth. Modeling all the properties of articles and predicting citation rate, we find that the systematic biases still exist against work authored by women.

IRA FLATOW: Kuheli, when women want to go for another job and they need a letter of recommendation, are they getting those?

KUHELI DUTT: Well, that’s the study that my co-authors and I just finished. Other fields– such as medicine, psychology chemistry and biochemistry– they had already had these studies done on letters of recommendation. And there wasn’t such a study for the geosciences, and so we did this.

But what we found was that our results were very similar in that men consistently received more of these outstanding letters and women were much less likely to receive them. And when I say outstanding letters, I mean the ones that portray the applicant to be this top-notch scientist, this role model, this leader, this pioneer, this rising star. Those tend to go more to men than to women.

And the other surprising thing that we found was the gender of the letter writer didn’t seem to matter. Whether it was a male writing the letter or a female writing a letter, it was very similar. And also the sense is that some of these biases have probably more to do with widespread cultural stereotypes than any conscious intent to harm someone. But that’s something that’s a challenge that women face.

The other thing is that letters of recommendation is just one piece of this. Funding, publications, callback for interviews, race and gender– they’ve actually done studies on all of these things and found differences.

MEG URRY: If I could just simply add something. If you look at the major metrics that we consider when we’re hiring someone or when we’re trying to promote them or give them tenure, every single one of them has been shown to be biased by gender.

So we heard about citations and letters of recommendation. Funding and proposals– there are a number of astronomy studies that show that women have less chance of getting their proposals accepted. Whether people are invited speakers or win prizes, those are biased by gender teaching evaluations. Even the status of publications, as was mentioned earlier.

So all these things that are how we measure excellence are systematically biased against women. And some of your listeners may wonder whether it’s bias or the women just aren’t as good. And most of these experiments do careful things to check for that. And they don’t find any measures of women not being as good. Indeed, to do as well in a review they have to be many times better.

IRA FLATOW: You’re nodding again.

KUHELI DUTT: Yes, because there are actually studies that specifically tested for bias and found exactly that. So when faculty were asked to rate applicants for a lab manager position– this is a science faculty– they were given two identical applications. One had a male name and one had a female name. And both male and female faculty ended up rating the male applicant much higher, calling him more competent and more hireable. That was one study.

They did another study with CVs where they just changed the male name and the female name on the CV and they’ve got a very similar result. Same with funding. NIH did– well, they commissioned a study later for race, but prior to that, there was the study done that looked at funding. And they found that women received only about 60% or 2/3 of the funding that men received.

IRA FLATOW: I’ll throw this out to you. Let me ask Cassidy first. You would think that of all the professions in the world– whether you’re a lawyer or a doctor– if you’re a scientist, you depend on the facts, right? You should be listening more to the facts.

CASSIDY SUGIMOTO: Right. We would hope that in all fields we shouldn’t see the systematic discrimination against women in the knowledge economy, but we do. And we also see it in the distribution of labor roles. And I think a lot of it goes back to that– when we see women working in science in different ways.

So in one of the studies that we looked at, we saw what people were doing in order to contribute to the authorship of a paper. And we found that men were more likely to be granted authorship for conceptual tasks, like designing or writing the study, whereas women are granted authorship for technical tasks. So in short, women were at the hands of science, but men were choosing which questions to ask.

And I think that relates to a lot of these things– these letters of recommendation, these systematic biases– when women are perceived as a different kind of scientist doing different kinds of labor in science. So a lot of these discriminations are both implicit, but many explicit biases still happen in the knowledge economy.

IRA FLATOW: I also find it interesting that– you said, Kuheli, that sometimes it’s the women discriminating against women too. Is that because it’s just built in? Or Is it cultural over all these times?

KUHELI DUTT: Yes, I think it’s a widespread cultural stereotype rather than any conscious negativity. But the other thing that was very interesting is that there was a study that said that this was not just limited to science. For example, there were fields like the biological sciences and life sciences, where you have more numbers of women in those fields. And then, on the other hand, you have fields like philosophy– a non-scientific field, which is very, very male dominated.

And so there was a study and what they stated was that it wasn’t necessarily about women or science. It was about whether there was a perception that you needed raw innate talent to be successful in that field. And women were generally stereotyped as not having that sort of brilliance to be successful in that field. And it wasn’t just women, they found African-Americans as well were stereotyped as not being brilliant enough to be in those fields.

IRA FLATOW: Meg, you are on a committee approving proposals for time at the Hubble Space Telescope. And research has found that even that has been a process biased against women. And if you weren’t aware, how could anyone be aware?

MEG URRY: Exactly, I was running the proposal review when these biased results were happening. They were very small differences, so they weren’t visible in any one cycle. And the people at the Space Telescope Science Institute– I applaud them for what they’ve done in looking at 25 years of review data– they could actually see a significant signal.

It is very subtle. And we all do it. It’s not men doing it to women or white people doing it to black people. We all have biases which are formed by the society we grew up in. But I think in science, maybe, the problem is just a little bit more stubborn because objectivity is a core value for a scientist. As you said, this is how we do our work supposedly. And so people are very resistant to the idea that they’re not objective.

There’s a lovely piece of research that I won’t recite the whole thing for you, but basically, the people who thought they were objective were the ones most liable to make a biased decision, to actually switch criteria in midstream, to agree with the gender of applicants for a particular job. And it was the people who said they were not objective, who were self-aware that they have some biases, who were able to behave in a more objective way. So I think we really have a problem here where we need to get people to understand– they have biases that they don’t even realize.

IRA FLATOW: And women, as you pointed out, also aren’t the only group working for representation in science. Can people of color, women of color, others, all benefit about a conversation about women, Kuheli?

KUHELI DUTT: Yes, absolutely. And in fact, some of the research that shows that the challenges that women face in science are very similar for minorities, specifically under-represented minorities in science. They’re up against the same challenges.

And for example. going back to the gender thing an following on Meg’s point, there was a study where they showed that male faculty were very resistant to the idea, they were very skeptical that gender bias actually exists in science. Similarly, in a Pew Center study, they found that whites are much less likely to believe that there’s racial inequity in society than blacks are.

And there was an NIH study that NIH actually commissioned– and kudos to them for commissioning it and also making the results public– where they found that a black PhD scientist was far less likely to get funded than a white PhD scientist from a similar institution, with a similar scientific record. So these biases run very deep. And like I mentioned about the earlier study where they thought that African-Americans don’t have that sort of brilliance needed for these fields.

And another issue is that– following on this thing about people being very resistant to it– sometimes in searches we hear comments like, let’s not look at race or gender, let’s just look at merit. And not only does that show that this person really doesn’t know much about how implicit bias works, but these comments also give rise to a very damaging perspective that there is a trade-off between diversity and excellence, so that if you’re hiring a woman or a minority, you’re somehow compromising on the quality and the standards that you would expect in science.

IRA FLATOW: We’re talking about discrimination in science in especially women, minorities at this hour on Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International, and talking with Cassidy Sugimoto, Kuheli Dutt, and Meg Urry. In the few minutes that we have left, is there any optimism on my panel here about getting better? Cassidy, Meg, I’ll go around the table, my non-table there.

CASSIDY SUGIMOTO: Sure, I believe in optimism. And I think now is particularly a time for optimism. And we’ve truly seen advances in gender equity in both production and impact, and in a lot of these variables we’ve talked about. However, modeling our current rates of production and impact, it will still be decades before we reach parity. And frankly, as a mother of two daughters, I’m not content to wait that long.

I believe we need to do more to reduce this overwhelming skepticism about the bias, to train people have conversations about implicit bias, to look critically about how we run our labs and distribute our labor. And I think we need to continue to do research that brings light to these disparities, whether it’s about gender, race, social class, citizenship, or other variables that impede our progress in terms of a healthy scientific system.

MICHAEL BALTER: Anybody else want to add?

KUHELI DUTT: Yes, absolutely. For example, at Lamont-Doherty at Columbia where I work, about 8 to 10 years ago at the junior ranks, and I mean like at the assistant research professor ranks, we had less than 18% women, and now that figure is somewhere between 40% and 45% women. And that is a result of very conscious institutional efforts to address the problem.

The issue is very different with under-represented minorities. Because when you take African-Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans together, they account for about 5% of the PhDs in the geosciences. So that’s a different problem there. But yes, I definitely think that there has been progress. And more and more institutions are now becoming aware of the need to do something and taking steps to do it.

MEG URRY: Yes, I’ve seen the same. I have to say we see more talk about implicit bias. People are aware of what it means. And I’ve seen changes in department meetings and in the conversations in the hall. So I think it’s going forward. We really have to get this right because so many of the challenges facing the nation in the next decade are technical and scientific.

IRA FLATOW: Where’s the conversation not happening where it should be happening? If it’s happening in the halls and with your colleagues, where is it not happening? Do you think it’s happening in all places it should be?

MEG URRY: Well, I think it’s still a minority. I think there’s still a quite a few skeptics who don’t believe there’s anything wrong. Frankly, American science is extraordinarily successful. We typically get a couple of Nobel prizes every season and we have amazing discoveries that have fueled our economy. So people look at that and say, it’s as good as it could possibly be.

And what I hope people are thinking about is that the people you haven’t tapped in your profession– the white men are a shrinking fraction of the pie in this country– and if we’re not tapping all the talent that’s out there, we’re not doing as well as we could. This is exactly the point Kuheli was making, but let me make it explicit– that excellence and diversity are aligned. If we don’t get it right, we are not as good as we can be.

IRA FLATOW: Well, that’s a good place to end it. Let me thank all of you for a stimulating conversation. Cassidy Sugimoto, associated professor of informatics at Indiana University in Bloomington. Kuheli Dutt is assistant director of Academic Affairs and Diversity at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and co-author of Women in the Geosciences. Meg Urry, professor of physics and astronomy at Yale and past president of the American Astronomical Society. Thank you all for this great conversation.

MEG URRY: Thank you so much for bringing attention to it.

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