Talk to my Face, Not to my Breasts: The Experience of Women in STEM
As a female scientist in a male-dominated field, I often have difficulty navigating my way through the mire of communication with male faculty. As a woman of color, entering into the predominately white male academic world is intimidating enough, but add on the layer of stress of having to deal with unwanted sexual advances and work life becomes almost unbearable.
For example, I can recall back when I was going on interviews for graduate programs I approached a faculty member I was interested in working with. I wanted to engage him in conversation, doing some basic networking to ensure he remembered me, as I and many others were taught to do. Things started off great; however, as our conversation continued this male faculty member began to speak directly to my breasts instead of my face, and his tone grew increasingly flirtatious. I became increasingly uncomfortable and ended our conversation. I spent the rest of the night doing my best to avoid him and convinced myself that I had ruined my chance to work in an amazing lab doing cutting-edge research all because I couldn’t handle some unwanted attention. I was a victim, but I could not see it that way.
This isn’t a unique event either. As a Hispanic woman, I have had faculty members make inappropriate comments about my curves, “exotic” look, hair, legs, or skin, and all with a flirty undertone. It is incredibly difficult to feel confident and respected when it is clear men are sizing you up and thinking illicit thoughts about you instead of listening to what you have to say. Standing confidently in front of a crowd of mostly male faculty becomes daunting because you aren’t sure if they are looking at you with or without sexual thoughts. For some, even walking into your advisor’s office can feel unsafe when you know you’ll have to endure his unwanted touches and advances.
I have heard from countless women who have been in similar situations:
“I hear this mentor touches female students inappropriately but he is really big in the field”
“My advisor rubs against me while teaching me techniques but I should just suck it up or I’ll be missing out on a great opportunity”
“My mentor told me to stop wearing tight jeans because he couldn’t concentrate on his work .”
“My old PI used to ask me deeply personal questions about my sex life”
“I dread going to conferences because that is when male faculty harasses you the most. I was so excited to meet a particular prominent researcher in my field but was so incredibly disappointed when he tried to get me into the hot tub with him”
“I had a PI tell me that I should tape my data to my breasts if I wanted to get his attention.”
“My advisor took the lab out drinking once and after a couple of drinks he became really touchy-feely and let me know how he always wondered what it would be like to be with a black woman.”
“My PI once said we could share a room during the conference to make it easier for us to fool around. When I expressed my shock, he said it was a joke and told me to lighten up.”
“My mentor constantly calls me sexy and says he has a ‘thing’ for Latinas.”
Conferences, in particular, are notorious for sexual encounters between attendees. After a full day of scientific talks and presentations, alcohol will typically flow freely at mixers and meet-ups to loosen people and promote networking. Sadly, this is also a time when many female researchers find themselves being preyed upon and taken advantage of by male colleagues or mentors. I recall attending a conference in New Orleans and having several male faculty ask me to lift my shirt. I also had one grab my butt and just laughed away my concerns when I turned around to confront him.
If women are experiencing situations like this, why would they want to continue in STEM? Why should we have to tolerate sexual harassment to further our careers? When I was sexually harassed by colleagues or faculty members I did not speak out because I was afraid. Making a complaint could make you the target of a professor’s wrath (as opposed to advances), which could potentially end your career. Mentors have a great deal of influence over a student’s future. We depend on our mentors to sign off on our dissertations or to write us great letters of recommendation, so when that is on the line female graduate students and post-docs can feel they have no option but to give in to whatever the adviser seeks from them. My personal experience as a woman if color, sexual harassment has added a devastating layer of insecurity to feelings I already struggle with coming into this field. I am a first-generation student pursuing my degree to lift myself and my family out of poverty. It took me years to advance this far in my career, and I approach the opportunity to be in my graduate program as a one-time shot. Because of this, I am more inclined to forgive the sexual harassment I experience because I don’t want to jeopardize the one chance I have to be successful. The complex experience of being a person of color, a woman, and a first-generation student means challenges get stacked on top of one another, and the injustices suffered from all angles can rout my ability to think solely about science.
Sexual harassment is pushing women away from pursuing STEM careers. It is disheartening to hear about sexual harassment cases from prominent universities like UCLA, UC Berkely, University of Chicago, and more. How do we fix this? How do we ensure that STEM is a field woman can feel empowered in? I don’t have the answers, but I do know that if sexual harassment is happening, perpetrators should be held responsible. They shouldn’t be allowed to continue working and definitely should not be allowed to be mentor students. For a mentor to sexually harass a student is morally reprehensible, and a violation of the trust crucial to guiding a student to success. Allowing men to continue to freely harass female students simply because he is published countless papers and is a big wig in his field is sending the wrong message to women looking to enter STEM. Plainly, it says that this guy is more important than your rights. Not until professors start to face serious consequences for their actions will things begin to shift. And that is just the first step.
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