Tech’s leaky pipeline: Sexual harassment in college forcing women out?

  • TECH
  • Wednesday, 20 Jun 2018

Supporters join the 2018 Women's March in downtown San Jose, California, on Saturday, January 20, 2018. (LiPo Ching/Bay Area News Group/TNS)

The friends we meet along the way may help us enjoy the journey, as they say, but for many college women travelling the educational pipeline toward careers in engineering, science and medicine, the awful men they meet along the way make them cut the journey short. 

That's the conclusion of a just-released report that said despite large amounts of money and energy spent to attract women into science, engineering and medicine jobs, and retain them, “it appears women are often bullied or harassed out of career pathways in these fields”. 

The report lands as the #MeToo movement against male mistreatment of women engulfs the nation, and Silicon Valley reels from case after case of sexual harassment and gender discrimination in the tech industry. 

In the report from the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, the researchers lay out three categories of sexual harassment: actions that “convey hostility, objectification, exclusion, or second-class status about members of one gender”; unwanted sexual attention; and “sexual coercion” that involves favourable treatment in exchange for sexual activity. 

Why is this a particular problem in engineering, science and medicine? Higher education is male-dominated, “with men in most positions of power and authority”, according to the report. And in post-secondary education, sexual harassment is tolerated, the report said. Also, higher ed is structured in a “patriarchal” fashion, with “very dependent” relationships between teachers and students. Finally, work and training in academia, especially in the fields in question, often takes place in “isolating environments”. 

The research targeted female college and university students, as well as academic researchers and faculty members. To compile the report, the researchers studied existing research and commissioned several studies, one of which included interviews with 40 female faculty members who had been sexually harassed, according to the report. 

An “overwhelming majority” of sexual harassment involves put-downs that may include “sexist hostility” and crude behaviour, according to the 290-page report. 

Unwanted sexual attention is the next most common type of sexual harassment, “and only a small minority of women experience sexual coercion”, the report said. 

Responses to sexual harassment in particular academic or working environments are the most important predictor of whether such behaviour will occur, the researchers reported. 

“Individual-level factors (e.g., sexist attitudes, beliefs that rationalise or justify harassment, etc.) that might make someone decide to harass a work colleague, student, or peer are surely important,” the report said. 

“However, a person that has proclivities for sexual harassment will have those behaviours greatly inhibited when exposed to role models who behave in a professional way as compared with role models who behave in a harassing way, or when in an environment that does not support harassing behaviours and/or has strong consequences for these behaviours.” 

The more women are sexually harassed, the more likely they will leave a field of study or work, the researchers reported. 

“Even when they remain, their ability to contribute and advance in their field can be limited as a consequence of sexual harassment – either from the harassment directed at them; the ambient harassment in the environment in their department, programme, or discipline; or the retaliation and betrayal they experience after formally reporting the harassment,” the report said. — The San Jose Mercury News/Tribune News Service

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