Why Academia Needs Its #MeToo moment The Role of Power in Creating Hostile Environments in America’s Top Institutions

By Rebecca Burton

One night while attending a retirement party for a colleague, Julie Libarkin was sexually assaulted in the middle of the gathering.

An emeritus professor snuck behind her, bent his knee and humped her, she recalled. No one said a word.

Libarkin, an associate professor of geocognition and tectonics who now heads Michigan State University’s Geocognition Research Laboratory, wrote about the experience in the blog #MeTooStem, which she runs with another scientist, BethAnn McLaughlin, an associate professor of neurology at Vanderbilt.

“This happened in front of other people,” she wrote, “and the response was about what you would expect. No one jumped in to rescue me, and no one seemed to have realized that I had just been assaulted. I am privileged to be a professor and in a position where my anonymity isn’t a problem.”

Julie Libarkin keeps a database of sexual misconduct cases in academia.

And this wasn’t an isolated incident for Libarkin. Her experiences point to a need for the #MeToo movement in academic fields. A 2006 meta-analysis of work-related sexual harassment found that 58 percent of female faculty and staff in academic institutions have been sexually harassed, second only to the military at 69 percent.

Since the launch of the #MeTooSTEM blog in early June, dozens of women have,mostly anonymously, submitted stories documenting their worst moments, fears, fight songs and secret weapons.

But even before the launch of #MeTooSTEM, Libarkin had been tediously keeping tabs on sexual misconduct cases in academia, creating a database of cases housed on her lab’s website. In just over two years, her database has grown to more than 700 cases.

“Most women I know have been harassed,” she told The Marjorie, “so I decided to document what I could find.”

When reports first surfaced in the media about prominent professors’ bad behavior, she wanted to show the public that this wasn’t exactly news.

In just one day of sleuthing, she said she found 20 cases.

“How many more were never reported because, let’s be honest here, what’s the point if the crimes are barely punished and people are hired elsewhere anyway?” Libarkin wrote in a blog post on her lab’s website.

Indeed, most women don’t report sexual harassment, according to a new report by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine.

“If you look at the research, reporting is basically the least likely behavior that women exhibit — well, women or anyone who is sexually harassed,” said Ashley Bear, a program officer for NASEM and a co-principal investigator on the report.

Bear said women oftentimes don’t report because they fear retaliation or damage to their career and that encouraging them to report is maybe not the best approach. Instead, institutions should focus on creating environments that are not conducive to harassment, without placing the burden on victims.

Research for the report started in late 2016, before the #MeToo movement went viral in 2017, showcasing the prevalence of sexual harassment in society.

The release of the NASEM report in June 2018 revived hashtags like #MeTooSTEM and #sciencetoo.

But it’s publication in June revived the hashtags #MeTooSTEM and #ScienceToo, which give women and other underrepresented populations in STEM a voice in the fight against systemic gender inequality and sexual harassment.

Not All Harassment is Sexual in Nature

The report classifies three categories of sexual harassment: gender harassment, unwanted sexual attention and sexual coercion.

Gender harassment — the “verbal and nonverbal behaviors that include hostility, objectification, exclusion or second-class status about members of one gender” — is the most pervasive and is not necessarily sexual in nature, according to the report.

Career scientists like Pam Plotkin say this type of sexual harassment is so common, women often do not realize it’s harassment at all.

“It’s very subtle sort of demeaning behavior where you’re dismissed (and) people talk on top of you at meetings or in just one-on-one conversations,” said Plotkin, director of the Texas Sea Grant College Program. (Disclosure: The author of this article works for Florida Sea Grant but does not personally know Plotkin.)

Plotkin said she was an up-and-coming sea turtle biologist in the early ‘90s. In those days, professional meetings felt more like a “good ol’ boys” club than a valuable networking event for women in the field.

“Women who did discuss their concerns were dismissed and labeled as troublemakers,” she said. “There were very few opportunities for women to be in leadership positions back in those days.

”They were not represented on the editorial boards of journals. They were not represented on grant proposal review panels. Women were not represented in the societies.”

Sea turtle biologist Pam Plotkin sits with an olive ridley sea turtle, waiting for its satellite transmitter to dry. Photo by Christine Figgener

Describing herself as having a “thick shell,” Plotkin said she learned to skip the boozy social events to avoid bad situations.

She said she knows women who have been bullied even to the extent that they leave their field altogether.

The report defines the second type of harassment, unwanted sexual attention, as “verbal or physical unwelcome sexual advances, which can include assault.”

One anonymous post from a woman who called herself Sarah recounts when she attended her first conference as a graduate student. She was approached by a professor, and the two began making small talk about their research.

“I realized that he was moving closer to me and he suddenly interrupted with a question that I didn’t hear or understand properly,” Sarah writes in the #MeTooSTEM blog. “Slightly uncomfortable, I said something to indicate this. He then took a step closer to me and said, very close to my ear: ‘perhaps you’re not as horny as I am yet’ and immediately pushed his hand against my stomach and down inside the front of my jeans and inside my underwear.

“I don’t know why I didn’t cry out, but I didn’t. Instead, I wrenched away in horror and ran to the ladies’ bathrooms, acting purely on instinct.”

The final type of harassment in the report, which is the most rare, is sexual coercion, or “when favorable professional or educational treatment is conditioned on sexual activity.”

For this one, there is also a legal term: quid pro quo sexual harassment.

Examples include promises of a better grade or a letter of reference in exchange for sexual favors.

According to the NASEM report, “Victims of sexual harassment experience declines in their professional, psychological and physical well being.”

“I thought there was something I was doing to cause this behavior from men,” Meredith writes anonymously on the #MeTooSTEM blog. “And my career has been plagued by feelings of self doubt and a fear of how my behavior makes men in my field feel. This has changed the way I approach presentations, collaborations and interacting publicly in my field.”

The impacts of sexual harassment in the STEM fields can be far-reaching. It’s part of the reason why women in science are underrepresented in leadership roles.

Take the field of medicine. Women make up nearly 50 percent of medical school applicants, according to a report by the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, yet only 16 percent of deans, 15 percent of department chairs and 21 percent of full-time professors are women.

File Cabinet Compliance

Thanks to decades of hard work by feminists and allies, there are laws in place — especially at universities — to protect employees from discrimination.

These laws include Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title IX, which both prohibit discrimination and harassment based on sex. Title VII applies to faculty, staff and students, and Title IX applies to “any education program or activity receiving federal funds” — which is almost all academic institutions in the U.S.

But some say these laws aren’t fully working as intended.

“Too often, judicial interpretation of Title IX and Title VII has incentivized institutions to create policies and training on sexual harassment that focus on symbolic compliance with current law and avoiding liability, and not on preventing sexual harassment,” the NASEM report says.

In other words, policies are in place on paper, but research conducted by NASEM says they do not actually prevent sexual harassment.

“Legally, institutions are only required to show ‘file cabinet compliance’ — the existence of policies on paper,” reads a report by the 500 Women Scientists, a nonprofit dedicated to making science more inclusive and accessible.

Bear says it’s time to go back to the drawing board and look at what factors contribute to environments in which sexual harassment thrives.

These factors include a perceived tolerance for sexual harassment, male-dominated work settings, work settings with hierarchical power structures and uninformed leadership, according to the NASEM report.

For many in academia, these factors seem all too familiar.

Next Steps

The first step toward safe spaces free of sexual harassment in academia is to create diverse, inclusive and respectful environments, and to address gender harassment, which is the most common form of sexual harassment, according to the NASEM report.

The report also recommends that institutions stop relying solely on legal compliance to solve such problems.

“Basically all (legal compliance) incentivizes is the establishment of a policy that may or may not have any positive impact and could potentially have a negative impact,” Bear said.

The report also recommends that institutions improve transparency and accountability, diffuse hierarchical power structures, conduct more research and measure progress. A complete list of solutions is available on NASEM’s website.

“Science,” Bear said, “is not always a welcoming or supportive environment for women, people of color, persons with disabilities, sexual and gender minorities, and those with intersectional identities that cut across these demographic groups and others.

“But I believe we should not lose hope.”

Marjorie editor Anna Hamilton contributed audio production, and Michael Stone was a contributing copy editor for this story.


Marjorie editor Anna Hamilton contributed audio production, and Michael Stone was a contributing copy editor for this story.

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