Women in science and the prevalence of sexual harassment

Quote from the article, title and link below, regarding the frequency with which the author/mentor is called upon to advise other women in science who are experiencing sexual harassment.

“IT’S not something I can put on my C.V., but I believe that one of my most important duties is to walk young women through emails like the one my former student received, and I am called upon to do it many times each year.”

She Wanted to Do Her Research. He Wanted to Talk ‘Feelings.’


What would you do if you received an email such as the one described in this opinion piece; would advise someone who received one?

The author suggests that this is a significant reason why women drop out of science careers. Is it?

If you were being harassed regularly about anything at your place of study or work and it began affecting your mental state, what would you do to protect yourself?

What do you tell your daughters?

So much depends on the company. It’s not perfect where I work but they’re pretty aggressive in letting people know this isn’t acceptable. It crosses all sorts of lines when reminding her how he helped her career.

If a colleague or junior college presented that to me and was worried about retribution from HR, I’d probably suggest getting a paraphrased copy of it to HR or legal, and do it anonymously. If the company is more reasonable, just forward it as is. All because of the implied obligation. Without that, especially if they were peers, just a simple no should do it. Even engineers date, after all, but this email was clearly wrong.

Edit, thankfully it’s in an email so he can’t weasel out of it.

I worked as an electrical engineer / systems engineer for many years beginning in the mid-80’s. There were very few female engineers, and we had to deal with significant sexual harassment and discrimination. I did have similar incidents happen to me, although always in person, never over e-mail. It is unfortunate that women are still having to deal with these issues, but I would advise the following:

  1. Tell the man in question (via e-mail as well as in person), "I am not interested in a personal relationship with you. I expect you to treat me professionally. If you can't do so, I will be forced to report you for sexual harassment. " Women are often inclined to try to spare the man's feelings when rejecting him. Resist the urge to do this! Women tend to say things like, "I'm sorry, but ..." or "I'm flattered, but...". This type of harasser will usually interpret attempts to spare his feelings as signs that he still has a shot or that the woman is "playing hard to get".
  2. Give him one chance to correct his behavior, but if the problem recurs, then go to HR. I would not recommend going to HR initially unless the harasser actually seems dangerous. It is an unfortunate reality that other men will not want to work with a woman who has a reputation for running to HR with problems. There were a few instances where I had to tell a man directly that if he did it again I would report him. Fortunately, I never had anyone repeat the behavior, so I never had to actually report anyone.

I found that the more pervasive problem was the discrimination that occurred because many men felt that women would not be able to do their jobs successfully. I remember discussing this with two other female engineers (the only other ones I knew at the company!), and we agreed that this was a major problem. If a male engineer was assigned to a new project, the other men would assume he was competent unless he did something to prove otherwise. If a female engineer was assigned to a new project, the men would assume she was incompetent until she proved otherwise. It made things very difficult until a woman had worked with enough men to build up a good reputation. I hope this problem goes away as more women enter the field, but I’m not very optimistic.

I agree with the approach expressed by @cmfl11 - “I am not interested and expect to be treated professionally.” Then if it continues you have to escalate.

I am just extremely surprised that any “senior colleague” would put something like that in writing. There is no mistaking the gist of the email, especially the last line. He must be living under a rock to put those thoughts in writing - he is giving her the noose with which to hang him. And then he continues to send similar emails and leave presents on her desk? I trust the reporting by the New York Times but this seems incredibly stupid, unless there is some sort of mental instability.

And if this email actually exists isn’t she jeopardizing her former student’s position by having it published in the New York Times? Good chance the “senior colleague” would see it given the headline.

Her path should be clear to her. If after confronting him it doesn’t stop, she escalates to HR and offers up the emails and presents to support her complaint. If the matter is still not resolved then she files a complaint with the EEOC where I think she might be entitled to compensatory and even punitive damages.

As a professor (male) in a STEM field, I agree completely with @cmfl11 on this. For many years I had a senior colleague who repeatedly made women students, staff, and faculty uncomfortable without being as explicit as the email in the article. Unfortunately, many did not file complaints and he kept on with his behavior. If this continues even after an explicit warning, the person in the article should definitely go to HR.

If a faculty member in my department had sent such an email to a colleague, he would immediately be in deep doo-doo. On personal level, I would question his sanity and intelligence – that he put such a thing in writing, and that it carried such a bald threat to her.

I very nearly threw my paper at someone after reading this yesterday morning. If, heaven forbid, I were in charge of a department at a university, the man behind this letter would be out a job in a nanosecond. Keeping him on would be ethically reprehensible, legally questionable, and certain to earn me the enmity of every female student or professor in the department. To that, add the fact that it’s a PR disaster in the making, and you’d hope anyone capable of graduating from college - to say nothing of heading a department - would see the argument in favor of canning the professor in question.

Then again, there are college graduates who’ve voted for Donald J. Trump, so perhaps I have too much faith in America’s universities.

I think the main story is greatly embellished, and the claim of helping “many times each year” to handle similar incidents is simply false.

A few legal points. There is no legal clause that indicates you can’t express love or interest in someone within your organization. Author doesn’t indicate whether this is a boss/subordinate situation. If this boss is responsible for promotions, raises, funding, then this is prohibited in all situations. If there is no boss/subordinate situation, he is free to express an interest. Can you fire him for the perceived threat at the end. No. You will send him to sexual harassment training, document this in his personnel record, and demand it never happen again. This is when the act is the first offense. Especially if the person sending the e-mail isn’t familiar with US or especially CA laws.

Now, he sends another one. As others have said, you document the receipt of such e-mails, take pictures of presents left on the desk, and you gather the evidence. First complaint is to your boss, and you document the complaint in writing. Ask for a reply e-mail, or send a followup. If your boss doesn’t respond, they are also in trouble as a manager. Your boss will involve HR in an official case. There can be no retribution, as this is very costly. CA has very specific rules about retribution that would cost a fortune if broken.

All you really have to do is complain to a manager. Yours or someone else. Doesn’t matter. That manager will by law have to report this to HR. Simple, but you have to trust the law.

Sorghum, what is your experience that you can write the author is lying about the number of times she helps handle similar incidences?

As a senior faculty member, it doesn’t strike me as false. I help young women with “similar incidences” regularly, and I am both in the humanities (lots of women to mitigate the need to work with a “difficult” man) and advising a limited number of graduate students. Even from my position on the edge of harassment, I don’t think a year ever goes by without some discussion of appropriate response to questionable behavior.

Obviously few men harass women, but the serial harassers are usually quite good at picking targets and just keeping on the right side of the line. The most adept make women uncomfortable without leaving much of a trail, often riding that line between mild flirtation and objectification. It would be rare to find one so arrogant as to send email.

“Can you fire him for the perceived threat at the end. No.”

This depends on both state law and the nature of the employment relationship. Mine is an employment-at-will state. A tenured professor will have contract rights preventing a summary firing for this kind of offense, but lots of professionals and executives do not, and can be fired for any reason or no reason. They could and would be shown the door the same day in a well-run operation,

It should be noted that the writer works at the University of Hawaii - which has close to 50,000 students - and has written on this topic before. It’s not hard to imagine a tenured STEM professor at a state U having hundreds or even thousands of former students, with perhaps a dozen reaching out each year to someone they know and trust - who also has experience in the relevant field. I would consider a dozen such cases a dozen too many - and, in my book, “many times each year” wouldn’t be an inaccurate description under such circumstances.

Not that I have any evidence to prove the story, but I don’t think I’d jump to the conclusion that the author is lying as quickly as you have.

I do wish the NYT wouldn’t publish op-eds by authors with books pending publication. This admittedly creates an incentive to find the worst outlier anecdotes - shock value sells books in a way facts never have.

I worked as a computer programmer in the 80’s. While the boss didn’t send emails he did do other things to a couple of us that would be considered sexual harassment including comments and hands where they shouldn’t go. Back then I just put up with it because I needed my job. I doubt that HR would have done anything. I hope that if someone was experiencing that sort of thing today that HR would fire the harasser. However I do not believe that women are dropping out of STEM fields because of it. Those type of men are not just in STEM fields they are everywhere.

I have experienced something like this once in my career. However, the man was not my thesis advisor, nor a member of my graduate committee. It did not discourage me from pursuing a career in science. There have been some widely publicized cases of very influential scientists who are known for this sort of interaction with women students and young professionals. So I know that it does happen. On the other hand, I think this is relatively rare, though it is obviously very difficult to handle when it does happen.

I think the email mentioned at the beginning of the article is totally out of line, because the man writes that he has helped the woman’s career and also there is a comment later in the article that she needs his signature on her thesis.

My suggestion would be that the woman should talk with the department chairperson, or if she is not comfortable doing that, with someone in the Women’s Resource Center or equivalent, or with the Ombudsman, if the university has one.

As I read the article, it appeared to me that some of the other over-the-top personal references were in emails sent by other faculty members to other students. Assuming that these are separate emails from different people, then the rest of my advice follows:

At my university, something that is an expression of interest, but that is not overly personal, is actually allowed, if the faculty member does not have the student in a class and is not a member of the student’s thesis committee. In that case, an expression of interest that is not sexual, or even a couple of expressions of interest, does not in itself constitute harassment. In this case, a polite declination of interest is totally fine, and should shut the comments/emails down. If it does not, then continued expressions of interest do constitute sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment occurs regularly in all academic fields and professions. What is being implied by A. Hope Jahren? Does this occur more frequently in STEM fields? The focus may be due to the effort, which began decades ago, to attract more women into these fields, to make these environments less hostile to new female recruits. It also could occur more frequently because women are still a minority in many offices and labs.

I remember a lecture three decades ago given at my university by a woman who was a NASA ceramics engineer. It was quite inspiring. I remember thinking … wow I could be an engineer if I wanted … that hadn’t occurred to me before. I wonder what her experience was in the workplace?

At the community college I first attended before transferring to university, the professors in math and science were horrible. I was good and the only woman in the physics class. The professor acted like he hated me. The professor who taught the pre-architecture class made it clear he thought I didn’t belong … and it goes on. I know from personal experience how important it is to create a supportive environment for ALL students who are exploring their options. I admire the women who toughed it out during that time.

So here we are three decades later with increasing numbers of women training in the STEM professions and still having to deal with men who are threatened by women competing for the same jobs and willing to do anything to intimidate them. The good old boy system!

Women belong in any workplace they are qualified for and have a right to a supportive work environment. The situation is improving, but we’ve much work to do yet.

According to the American Society of Engineering Education:

% of bachelor degrees earned by women:
2001 19.1%
2002 20.9%
2003 20.4%
2004 20.3%
2005 19.5%
2006 19.3%
2007 18.1%
2008 18.0%
2009 17.8%
2010 18.1%
2011 18.4%
2012 18.9%
2013 19.1%

So, the same percentage of women in 2001 as 2013. Twelve years of attempting to create a more gender balanced workforce in engineering? The links below will provide you with the data for masters and doctorate degrees as well.


I totally agree @MichiganGeorgia, these type of men are not just in STEM fields, they are everywhere. I think it would depend on how bad it is as to whether or not a woman would leave a STEM field or any other for that matter.

Many moons ago when I went to college at a small branch of the state university I was asked out by two different professors (psychology and math) my very first semester. Now I am a quiet person, and in those days as an 18 year old I was not outgoing at all and quite shy in addition to being quiet. I am not totally unfortunate looking, but am no model either. I have no idea what kind of vibe I put out that made these men feel like I would be open to the proposition of going out with men who were older than my father. Needless to say I did not go out with these men, I felt really uncomfortable and shared these experiences with my girlfriends, but did nothing else but go to class and avoid these men otherwise. I was an undeclared major, and when it was time to declare my major I realized that I would have to work with these two men again due to it being a small school and small department. I elected to transfer to the state flagship. The prospect of having to interact with these two men again did factor into that decision. I did not, however, change my career goals.

I also had another situation later on that was much more subtle and ongoing with a clinical supervisor while working on my graduate internship. Again pre-email/internet, I did not change my career goals, but did choose to leave the community where I had just been establishing career connections because I did not want to have to continue to cross paths with this person anymore.

I am not sure there was a way to report the harassment in those days, and even if there was I doubt it would have made any difference.

I think one problem with this kind of harassment described in the article is that it may have started out in far subtler forms before it was recorded in emails. Often at the level of subtle that the one being harassed feels a queasy uncomfortable sense but then kind of blows it off, that they are the one being silly. It is often not a one time thing but a gradual progression until the person being harassed realizes that things are going too far. It can be very confusing.

And @mreapoe we tell our daughters what sexual harassment is, that it can come in very subtle forms, and to be aware of it. It is a reportable offense now too.

I wonder if there are any women in STEM fields who have never experienced harassment in an academic or other professional environment? What percentage of women do? I did a bit of research and here’s what I’ve found thus far: the majority of women in STEM fields experience a hostile work environment.



Well if the guy is married, it should be pretty easy to shut him down. Tell him in no uncertain terms you are not interested and then tell him if he continues you will not hesitate to call his wife. My dad taught me that one.