Persistent Sexual Harassment Is a Primary Reason Women Leave STEM

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Persistent Sexual Harassment Is a Primary Reason Women Leave STEM


“Indeed, despite programs designed to interest girls in STEM, GoldieBlox, and supermodels celebrating the virtues of coding, the fields are still overwhelmingly male and seem virtually resistant to change. Jahren, a geochemist and geobiologist, argues that the problem is hardly one of enthusiasm, but rather widespread sexual harassment in the fields that, unsurprisingly, goes unpunished.

The kind of sexual harassment Jahren describes is hardly that of a Mad Men episode: groping and outright dickishness are easier to label and condemn as sexual harassment (and it’s worth noting that STEM has a problem with that too).

Rather, it’s the kind that prioritizes men’s feelings, and their expression of them, over the simple act of treating a woman as a professional colleague. Jahren persuasively argues that the persistence of this kind of behavior—the constant demand from both male colleagues and academic advisors that their feelings be acknowledged and legitimized—is one of the reasons women leave STEM fields.

An email forwarded to Jahren by a former student asking her advice typifies the problem:

[The student] forwarded an email she had received from a senior colleague that opened, “Can I share something deeply personal with you?” Within the email, he detonates what he described as a “truth bomb”: “All I know is that from the first day I talked to you, there hadn’t been a single day or hour when you weren’t on my mind.” He tells her she is “incredibly attractive” and “adorably dorky.” He reminds her, in detail, of how he has helped her professionally: “I couldn’t believe the things I was compelled to do for you.” He describes being near her as “exhilarating and frustrating at the same time” and himself as “utterly unable to get a grip” as a result. He closes by assuring her, “That’s just the way things are and you’re gonna have to deal with me until one of us leaves.”

It’s hard to imagine that the sender of the email thought that it would earn him the romantic admiration of his female colleague, coupled as it is with a vague threat likely meant to convey the authentic intensity of his attraction. And yet, as Jahren writes, this behavior has “been encountered by every single woman I know.”

Read the full piece here