Sexual Harassment in Advanced Education — by LMS

Education is the foundation upon which country, community, and personal improvement is built.  It is one of the United National Millennium goals – universal primary education.  Initial access was improved simply building schools, employing teachers, and removing fees. However, the number of children out of school is actually increasing; these initial solutions did not help all regions–such as places with armed conflict or rapidly growing youth populations–or specific communities–such as disabled children. Problems accessing education disproportionately affect girls and young women who have additional barriers to access education.  Among primary school aged children, 59 million have not been enrolled, 30.9 million of those are girls [1].  Even if women are legally able to enroll in and attend school, they may be still be de facto barred from education.  These may range from simple lack of schools, to a social preference for male education (worsened when there are fees required to attend school), to girls being in physical danger for attending school.  One danger, pervasive among all societies, and at all levels of education, is sexual harassment.

Over the past several years sexual harassment of women in advanced education, especially in graduate school, especially in science, has cropped up in popular and academic publications.  As a scientific-focused female Ph.D. student, these news stories caught my interest.  In western societies, focus on getting women into STEM fields has meant that studies of sexual harassment have been focused on science education – however, the concern of this blog post is for all fields of study.  One study of the field experiences researchers, published in 2014, showed that 64% of respondents had experienced sexual harassment and 22% had experienced sexual assault.  The bulk of these were female trainees – students at any level to post-doctoral researchers; while women tended to experience harassment from supervisors, men were more likely to receive it from colleagues.  Women were 3.5 times more likely to have been harassed than men.  In most cases, the harassment was never reported.  (

While the field is a prime location for potential harassers – you are isolated with a small team and are reliant on them for not only as a research team but for general living purposes – it also occurs in the lab.  While (to my knowledge) there hasn’t been a similar study for non-field researchers, there are several anecdotal cases of senior researchers taking advantage of their position.  It is only after years of inappropriate behavior and long, secretive investigations that behavior is brought to light.   One such example is that of Geoffrey Marcy, an astronomer who has, among other things, been reported to have groped at least four students between 2001 and 2010 [2].

Part of the problem is a culture in academia where supervisors may be given a pass on inappropriate behavior-not just sexual harassment, but a variety of behaviors that make finishing a degree difficult if not impossible (for an example of problems many students encounter, see this article for what makes a good supervisor [3]).  Worse, many people still have a problem with women in certain fields of study (see, for example, the statements of Nobel laureate Tim Hunt, who said he preferred to keep women researchers separate in the lab because they were more likely to be emotional or fall in love).  That mindset – that supervisors may be able to get away with things, and that women should not be doing certain types of work anyway – is rife for sexual harassment.  Yet, a survey of 239 colleges showed that 40% have not conducted a sexual harassment investigation in the past five years, 20% provide no sexual assault training for all faculty and staff, and 30% do not provide such training for students [4].  

I decided to do a quick analysis of the WomanStats database, to see what it says about sexual harassment in relation to girls’ access to education.  I downloaded all the data we have since 2000 for the AFE-PRACTICE-2 variable, which tracks what kinds of impediments and assistance girls receive in pursuing formal education.  Since it mixes both positive and negative, this presents only a rough picture – these can be thought of as terms that are of concern to girls’ access to education.  There were 2010 total data points from 176 countries.  To get an idea of what to expect, I used the countif function to search for the common, neutral terms “girl” and “teacher” – girl shows up in roughly 60% of the data points, and 164 (or 93%) of the countries, while teacher shows up in 20% of the data points and in 135 (or 77%) of the countries.  

In contrast “sex” and “sexual” show up 16% and 10% of the time, and in 135 (77%) and 95 (54%) of the countries.  Since “sex” may appear when discussing sex/gender segregation, “sexual” is probably a better proxy for concerns about girls’ sexual activity.  This is comparable to what I found when searching for “pregnan*” (the asterisk is wild card to include both pregnant and pregnancy) – it shows up 14% of the time, and in 98 (56%) of the countries.  Concerns about pregnancy include not only child care, but perceptions of girl children needing to remain pure – many countries will suspend the girl until the child is born, if not expel her entirely, while boys who impregnate girls have no such punishment.

General terms related to violence “violence”, “harass”, and “abuse” show up 7%, 4%, 5% of the time, respectively, and 80 (45%), 63 (36%), and 55 (31%) of the countries.  As for specific sexual violence, either “sexual harassment” or “sexual violence” shows up in 4% of the data points, but in 53 (30%) of the countries; “rape” shows up 3% of the time in 31 (18%) of the countries.  These numbers are comparable to general violence terms.  This means girls all over the world, in addition to all other issues they must face, must be concerned about guarding perceptions of their sexual purity and the threat of sexual assault.

What is a major concern, or a source of worry/anxiety, for women in advanced education, is also a concern for little girls attending grade school.  This is something women need to take into account when determining which projects to work on, which supervisors to work under, or even which fields of study to pursue. If fear of sexual harassment from colleagues and supervisors turns adult women off of pursuing their education, imagine what it can do to children.  Sexual violence is a concern in 30% of the countries, general violence is a concern in up to 45% of the countries, and girls’ sexual activity is a concern in over 50% of the countries when discussing girl’s access to education.  Even when girls are legally granted access to education, even if they are registered for school, they need to be free to be able to attend classes without the threat of violence.

—by LMS






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