Not just a "pipeline" problem

Why efforts to encourage women’s STEM participation must address sexual harassment


In recent years, efforts have been strengthened to increase the number of women in fields related to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Special efforts and initiatives attempt to spark girls’ interest in STEM-related fields at an early age, while universities and industries work to actively recruit women into these fields. However, as stories of sexual harassment in Silicon Valley and academic institutions show, getting women into these fields is only half the battle—once they’ve landed the job, are we giving women the support they need to remain in the field and to be successful?

As researchers at RTI, we want to learn more about how sexual harassment experiences affect the careers of women faculty in science, engineering, and medicine; therefore, we conducted a study commissioned as part of a larger effort by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. To uncover the impact of sexual harassment in academia, we conducted in-depth interviews with 40 women faculty in these fields. The study focused specifically on women who had experienced some form of sexual harassment during the past 5 years.

Through the interviews, we discovered that women who had been sexually harassed experienced a decrease in scientific productivity and a shift in work habits because these women diverted energy into processing and responding to the incident. Additionally, these women often withdrew from departments, colleagues, and fields. Some women switched fields or avoided certain projects to prevent further contact with the perpetrator; furthermore, many women avoided nonrequired interactions with colleagues and professional conferences or events.

The study also revealed challenges women faced in responding to sexual harassment incidents. Rather than pursing formal action at the university level, most women we interviewed reported the incidents to their supervisors, who generally neglected to act despite often responding sympathetically. Women who did take formal action reported long-term negative impacts on their careers—some stepped down from positions of leadership or were fired, while others dropped out of important research projects or took positions at lower-tier institutions. Those who stayed in their positions often suffered from lack of advancement opportunities, such as tenure or full professorship.

Despite our efforts to attract more women into STEM careers and the progress we have made in increasing gender parity in many fields, this study highlights the importance of shifting workplace culture to improve the academic environment for women. The experiences of this study’s interviewees reflect the huge impact sexual harassment has on women’s career trajectories and potential contributions to science, engineering, and medicine.

Women faculty not only have the potential to impact research and knowledge in their fields, but also are well-positioned to serve as positive role models for female students entering those fields. If we want to retain these women and maximize their scientific accomplishments, we must focus on fighting the climate of complacency in university departments towards sexual harassment. We must engage the leadership of universities and scientific organizations to effect stronger, more transparent institutional responses to sexual harassment—with clear and appropriate consequences for perpetrators. By doing all of this, we can make academia a place in which women can remain, flourish, and lead.