Tech Fields Are Not Immune From #MeToo Moments

by Nancy Ordman

A report commissioned by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine and released in October reveals women in academia experience significant levels of sexual harassment. The study found that 50 percent of women faculty members and 20 to 50 percent of women students experienced some form of harassing behavior.

This study, “Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering and ​Medicine,” provides additional evidence that women in scientific and technical fields are still fighting an uphill battle to be accepted and treated as equals to their male colleagues. Earlier research, published in 2015 by the Society of Women Engineers, revealed persistent workplace discrimination driven by gender bias. This bias often begins in the college classroom, where female students are relegated to less-interesting roles in team projects or are expected to handle housekeeping chores. 

Both studies reinforce a disheartening situation for women pursuing technical education and careers. The National Academies research points to four factors that create conditions favorable to sexual harassment: male-dominated workplaces; hierarchies where power resides in individuals who control resource allocation without outside control; name-only adherence to anti-discrimination laws and regulations; and uninformed leadership that lacks the will to make meaningful changes. Working in an environment typified by these conditions can be exhausting and discouraging. A respondent to the SWE survey described the difficulty of constantly fighting gender roles and establishing herself as an equal colleague as “exhausting on the good days, soul-crushing on the bad days.”

Unsurprisingly, classrooms and workplaces that are hostile to women contribute to the exodus of women from STEM careers. This persistent hostility has spillover beyond the effects on women. Dr. Alice M. Agogino, a professor of mechanical engineering at UC Berkeley and a strong advocate for gender equality, pointed out that society loses when talented women leave technical fields.

Dr. Agonino proposed four actions that institutions can take to redress the current situation and create a level playing field for the future.

  1. Integrate diversity, inclusion and respect into institutional policies and procedures.
  2. Reform power dynamics to eliminate unequal advisor-advisee or trainer-trainee relationships.
  3. Provide retaliation-free procedures for reporting sexual harassment and support those who make reports.
  4. Improve transparency and accountability and demonstrate that individuals will be held accountable for their actions. 

An earlier Engineering360 article, “Women Still Aren’t Going into Engineering,” provides some historical context for discrimination and a discussion of engineering culture.