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Dealing with sexual harassment is difficult for women in science

A recent scandal at the University of California-Berkeley may have exposed the issue of sexual harassment in academia, especially in the sciences, for many people. An astronomy professor was not fired after it came to light that he routinely harassed and sexually assaulted female students for years. He did eventually resign, but many observers criticized UC Berkeley’s administration for not doing more than issuing him a warning.

A piece in the Los Angeles Times notes that, unfortunately, women in science routinely face sexual harassment from male supervisors, instructors and peers. One likely reason is the huge gender imbalance in most scientific fields.

For instance, the Times notes that only 8 percent of faculty members in U.S. college physics departments are female. In some departments, there are no female professors at all. When women are in the faculty, particularly junior faculty, they are often treated as outsiders with little influence.

This can make it difficult for a harassment victim to step forward, especially if all the people she would report the harassment to are all male. Often, the Times reports, such reports are not taken seriously. Retaliation is a possibility, which can seriously hamper the victim’s career. Even one claim a harassment victim is a “troublemaker” can be devastating in the highly competitive world of academia.

Even if an investigation takes place and proves that a professor harassed the victim, there are not always consequences, as the UC Berkeley case shows. This is due in part to rules of academic tenure.

These obstacles are not unique to the sciences, but all female workers are legally entitled not to be subject to inappropriately sexual behavior on the job.