Science’s sexual assault problem: How a field with too few women in the workplace also fails to keep them safe

Dr. A. Hope Jahren is a self-described lover of rocks, a respected geochemist and geobiologist, and a professor at the University of Hawaii. She is also a sexual assault survivor, as she recounts in this inspirational and powerfully-written op-ed for the New York Times.

As Jahren explains, what happened to her while she was a graduate student conducting fieldwork in Antalya, Turkey, occurs all too often to women working in scientific fields, especially to those women who travel abroad to foreign and often unfamiliar countries. A survey published in the journal PLoS One reported that, out of 666 female scientists who work primarily in the field, 26 percent of them have been victims of sexual assault. And, though Jahren was unknown to her attacker, most women in science who become victims of sexual assault are attacked by their own co-workers, not by strangers.

A work environment where sexism is tolerated, combined with an institutional lack of care for, and reporting of incidents of sexual assault is by no means an isolated problem, exclusive to the field of science. That does not, however, mean that its continued, unchecked occurrence should be in any way tolerated by the community involved in this case. As Jahren recounts: “It was no one’s job at my university to hear or care what had happened to me and I did not conceptualize it as a workplace issue, but rather as a personal one cloaked in fear, shame and silence.” This pattern, where victims internalize the pain of their experiences, find no remedy, no avenues for treatment, and no course of justice for their abusers, stems from institutional inadequacies in her company’s understanding of the systemic issue at hand. There may be, in certain situations, a willfully negligent urge in play, where those in power desire not to know or see that there are problems.

Jahren’s story reminds us that although male-dominated fields such as the STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) may be seen, outwardly, as trying to recruit more women into the field, their failure to address the gender inequities intrinsic to the culture of their work environments may result in a workplace experience that is inhospitable, dangerous, or even life-threatening to women. “Sexual assault is a pernicious and formidable barrier to women in science, partly because we have consistently gifted to it our silence,” Jahren writes. “I have given it 18 years of my silence and I will not give it one day more.”

Her courage in speaking up, and giving a strong voice to the message she’s delivering, deserves our time and contemplation. But, more than that, the violence she endured, and that many other women of science endure while on the job, deserves the sustained attention of the scientific community, and the determined action of those in charge to stop the epidemic of sexual violence in the workplace by eliminating the source, whatever and wherever that source may be.