Women and People Of Color Still Face Elevated Harassment In Science

A study in Journal of Geophysical Sciences was just published last week that illustrated that women (especially women of color) are still harassed in astronomy and planetary science work environments. The study was carried out over the internet with 474 astronomers and planetary science researchers between 2011 and 2015. Women tended to feel more unsafe than men in work environments, an effect that was elevated when the people surveyed were women of color, leading to higher levels of harassment and even assault.

Diverse race women in labcoats in a lab environment.
Image from Wikimedia Commons.

An excerpt from the abstract stated

In this sample, in nearly every significant finding, women of color experienced the highest rates of negative workplace experiences, including harassment and assault. Further, 40% of women of color reported feeling unsafe in the workplace as a result of their gender or sex, and 28% of women of color reported feeling unsafe as a result of their race. Finally, 18% of women of color, and 12% of white women, skipped professional events because they did not feel safe attending, identifying a significant loss of career opportunities due to a hostile climate.

When women were polled about feeling unsafe in their work environment, 30% of women polled stated that they felt unsafe in their work environment, while a mere 2% of men stated that they felt unsafe. When people of color were polled about feeling unsafe in their work environment, 24% felt unsafe in their work environment compared to the 1% of white workers who felt unsafe in their environment. According to the study, women of color experienced “double jeopardy”, as they reported the highest rate of hearing sexist or racist remarks.

Despite hard science environments being filled with wonderful, bright, logical thinkers that lead the way on the enterprise of scientific discovery and revolutionary technologies, they are still comprised of humans with their blind spots and harmful worldviews. While there is no good reason to treat coworkers different on the basis of their race and gender, it still occurs in these work environments. We are not post-racial as a broad society, and even the cool, logical halls of rational discovery cannot claim to be colorblind.

It’s common in discussions about civil rights and social justice to talk about all the strides we have made in the past decade, and pretend that we have everything mostly fixed. Many things are equal on paper, such as the right to vote and equal pay in the work environment. However, institutional racism and sexism still plays out in behaviors such as workplace treatment and hiring practices. This study illustrates just one part of this. It’s easy to point out that women and people of color have the same opportunities as everyone else out due to the presence of things such as nondiscrimination laws. However, when we think about disproportionate treatment in certain environments, that still applies selective pressure against certain identities. When we discuss where women or people of color end up spending their careers, is it really entirely reducible to individual choice?

Another institutional barrier that is raised is how women and people of color have reported skipping class or workplace activity out of fear of harassment in the study. While it’s a small percentage and may not seem like much, this is important to bring up. The system of ostensible meritocracy often relies on workplace engagement and camaraderie between coworkers. Workplace promotion often, for better or worse, relies on behavior beyond simple job performance, such as engaging with superiors and showing that everyone involved is willing to be a “team player”. This is one reason why people were upset that current Vice President of America Mike Pence would not meet privately with women other than his wife, since it excludes women from interactions that could potentially elevate them alongside men. Missing out on class obviously has a negative effect on performance in school, and likewise so will coworker events affect workplace interactions, so skipping out on certain events can have a large effect on social equality.

I think this also illustrates the focus on intersectionality within social justice based activism. Recently, intersectionality has been strawmanned as groups of college students ranking each other in oppression-olympics level discussions to determine who has the most and least privilege. Such discussions would largely be unhelpful, and my experiences talking about intersectionality have been nothing like this. Rather, it recognizes that certain identities are impacted or compounded by the presence of additional identities. In this instance, both women and people of color see elevated rates of harassment in the workplace. However, when these identities are combined, the rates of workplace harassment increase. This is like recognizing that gay people experience harassment or bullying, but this behavior manifests differently in communities of color. Another example is Ex-Muslims, who are often ostracized from Muslim communities for speaking out and leaving their beliefs, yet still are subject to anti-Muslim bigotry and racism for “appearing” Muslim to the ignorant masses.

Ultimately, the endeavors of science require diversity and equitable workplaces. When we are invested in the endeavor of science, it is all about rigorously doing as many experiments and criticizing every study and hypothesis from as many perspectives as possible. When we leave qualified people out of the discussion, we all lose out, especially those who would otherwise be able to participate. Currently, we are dis-incentivizing women and people of color from the conversation. Hopefully this helps shine a spotlight on part of the problem so we can move forward.

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