Print

(Photo via @All_Womankind)

#MeToo and a Call for Intersectionality in STEM

January 04, 2018
Dr. Kathryn Clancy (Photo by L. Brian Stauffer for Illinois New Bureau)

Written by: Danika Wong

If the recent cases in the news and the stories that underlie the hashtag #MeToo have taught us anything, it's that there is not enough in place to keep women safe. Women are still harassed out of their field and their industry. Women are still forced to be silent about their experiences. And women are still victims of everyday harassment, and their contributions to society, whether that be artistic or academic, are still not valued. While there is more and more attention being brought to these issues, is it enough to create change?

In 2014, Dr. Kathryn Clancy, anthropologist at the University of Illinois, and her team published a study on harassment in science fields, which revealed that women at the early stages of their research careers disproportionately experienced harassment from senior male academics. In a survey of over 600 participants, 3 out of 5 researchers stated that they had personally experienced sexual harassment. These results were particularly saddening because they were meant to be relatively conservative. Clancy explains that they had conducted the survey specifically about "harassment," rather than "insults" or "negative remarks," as previous research found that people were less likely to identify with such a harsh term. Nonetheless, their data revealed the disappointing realities of the environment in STEM.

Three years later, in the summer of 2017, Clancy published another study entitled, "Double jeopardy in astronomy and planetary science: Women of color face greater risks of gendered and racial harassment." This time, adopting an intersectional approach, it revealed not only the sexism but also racism that persisted in the academic workplace. Intersectionality is a theory that understands that different identities (race, class, sexuality, dis/ability, religion, etc.) combine and intersect to create "multiple levels of injustice." This means that women of colour, who are marginalized because they are people of colour and because they are women, experience "double jeopardy" due to the harassment and discrimination they experience on multiple fronts. In a survey of 474 astronomers, almost 90% said they had witnessed sexist, racist, or other negative remarks in their workplace, 40% of women of colour said they felt unsafe because of their gender, and 28% of women of colour said they felt unsafe because of their race. In addition, nearly 1 in 5 women of colour said they skipped professional events because they didn't feel safe attending, adding to the long list of inclusivity issues in STEM and revealing how this harassment seriously inhibits their careers and results in a loss of career opportunities.

Photo via @All_Womankind
Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein (Photo via cprescodweinstein.com)

Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, a dark matter expert and advocate for black women and non-binary people in STEM, has spoken time and time again about the lack of diversity in STEM. In an interview with Gizmodo, she remembers the isolation she experienced as a graduate student, stating: "I have never worked with another black woman on a research project and until fairly recently, I didn't even have the opportunity to. Until last March, I had never been supervised by a woman. My current postdoc advisor is the first woman research advisor that I've ever had. I'm six years out from my PhD and that's how long it took for me to work with another woman, and she's white." 

As the only black woman in her field, Prescod-Weinstein experienced racism and sexism, and had to take on the burden of explaining why intersectionality was so important. In STEM, the conversation around diversity was rarely intersectional and primarily focused on white women. Because of this, Prescod-Weinstein was frequently denied the space to speak about race, and recalls people saying, "I don't see why race matters," whenever she mentioned how few black women were earning PhDs in physics. As the 63rd black American woman to ever earn a PhD in physics, this mattered. When there wasn't a single person who shared the same experiences as her, she didn't have the privilege to ignore the issue of race and have it "not matter." Not only was gender diversity a major problem, but the lack of racial diversity caused her to feel invisible.

Hidden Figures (Photo via 20th Century Fox)

But Prescod-Weinstein isn't alone in her experiences of isolation. The Oscar-nominated film Hidden Figures, released in December 2016, highlighted the environment in STEM that still persists today. Following three black mathematicians who worked at NASA in the 1960s, Hidden Figures focuses on the discrimination they faced by their colleagues—gender inequality as well as racial segregation during that period. Drawing parallels to the experiences of women of colour in sciences today, Prescod-Weinstein comments, "one of my anxieties about [Hidden Figures] is that people will walk away from it and situate it in the 1960s, not 2017. They won't realize that the last black American woman to get a PhD in theoretical cosmology left the field immediately upon graduation from her PhD program."

Although it is only in the past few years that the harassment and discrimination in STEM has reached mainstream media, we know that this lack of diversity and equality has gone on for decades, just like what Hidden Figures, Clancy's studies, and #MeToo stories have revealed about today's workplace environment. As such, it is necessary that workplaces diversify the recruitment process but also the workplace culture, so women aren't still held back by the gender or racial barriers that have existed in the 1960s and the years before. Clancy urges universities to take action and revise their policies on an institutional level, adding, "[R]aising awareness is not sufficient. [...] we're going to keep publishing these papers, but what are these disciplines going to do with this information?"

Until then, The Conversation outlines seven ways we can help reboot the culture of harassment. Here's our favourite: 

We need to speak up: "When you hear or see a colleague being made to feel uncomfortable due to gender and sexual issues, a few simple words calling out this behaviour can make a big difference. Inappropriate sexual and gender-based jokes or sexual comments are not benign. They plant a seed for sexual harassment, making women uncomfortable and unwelcome, and setting the tone for future abuse."

If you have ideas on how we can reduce gender and racial bias in STEM, don't forget to share them with us on Twitter or Facebook.