Chemistry matters. Join us to get the news you need.

If you have an ACS member number, please enter it here so we can link this account to your membership. (optional)

ACS values your privacy. By submitting your information, you are gaining access to C&EN and subscribing to our weekly newsletter. We use the information you provide to make your reading experience better, and we will never sell your data to third party members.


ACS Meeting News

Confronting sexual harassment in chemistry

Awareness is growing among academic departments and scientific societies about the potential damage to individuals and the discipline

by Linda Wang , Andrea Widener
September 18, 2017 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 95, ISSUE 37

“The shame of being involved in a harassment situation is quite overwhelming. You don't want anyone to know because you think they will wonder how a smart woman could ever get into a situation like that.”

“The shame of being involved in a harassment situation is quite overwhelming. You don't want anyone to know because you think they will wonder how a smart woman could ever get into a situation like that.”



It started innocently enough. He was a prominent chemistry professor at a major research university, and she was eager to make a good impression. “I was a pretty insecure grad student in my early years, and the fact that he was paying attention to me and interested in my work and how I was doing in his class was kind of flattering,” says Tara (not her real name).

In brief

Chemistry has the same discouraging sexual harassment problem as the larger science community and the nation, where surveys show at least 25% of women have been harassed at work. Despite that, most women don’t report their experiences, in some cases for fear of damaging their careers. Read on to discover the stories of chemists who experienced sexual harassment and to learn what individual chemists, universities, and associations—including ACS—are doing about the issue.

The professor was not her adviser. Nevertheless, “He invited me to lunch a few times and just sought me out quite a bit. And then he invited me over to his house to watch a movie. He didn’t do anything inappropriate. But after that night, I was like, ‘Something’s weird here; he has a family.’ And his family was away for the weekend.”

Those seemingly innocent actions became increasingly inappropriate. “The culmination was when he wrote me a love note. It was a proposition note, I guess. It basically said he wanted to have an affair with me. I stormed into his office and said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. This is offensive. I thought you were hanging out with me because I was talented.’ ”

After that incident, Tara went out of her way to avoid the professor. “It was really hard,” she says, in part because his office was along the hallway she traversed between her lab and desk. Yet she didn’t report the situation to anyone. “I felt guilty, like I had somehow done something to have brought this on,” she says.

Tara’s story is a common one in university chemistry departments nationwide, echoing the problems of sexual harassment in the larger science community and the nation. While chemistry hasn’t had a sexual harassment case come to national prominence yet, most female chemists can tell stories of harassment or discrimination of themselves or their colleagues. It may be among the reasons women aren’t reaching parity in chemistry Ph.D. programs and faculty positions.

“It was one of the many factors why I ultimately was unsatisfied and uncomfortable in science,” says Tara, who completed her Ph.D. but decided to leave chemistry and is now working in an unrelated field.

The culture that allows harassment within male-dominated academic chemistry departments has been slow to change. But increased attention to sexual harassment in the larger science community—spurred by public harassment investigations into academic scientists, including former University of Chicago molecular biologist Jason Lieb and former University of California, Berkeley, astronomer Geoff Marcy—is shining a brighter light on the problem.

Many U.S. universities are now paying attention to the discriminatory behavior for the first time, forced in part by new interpretations of Title IX, the 1972 law that prevents discrimination based on sex. Scientific societies are also exploring ways to address sexual harassment, and women are publicly banding together to support each other. The National Academy of Sciences has launched a study of the issue. At the same time, some advocates caution that common practices intended to root out harassers may at best be neutral and at worst could backfire.

As discussion of sexual harassment becomes more prominent in the scientific community, survivors are slowly starting to speak out. C&EN is telling the stories of many female chemists who contacted us about their harassment experiences, but we are protecting their identities because they fear further discrimination if their experiences are revealed. Studies show that just 6% of sexual harassment survivors report it, for reasons that include fear for their safety, fear for their future career, and belief that it’s their fault.

“It’s just astonishing to me how the problem persists,” says Cynthia Lewis, an English professor at Davidson College who is writing a book about sexual harassment by faculty. “We are in a transitional period, when the situation is becoming more and more acknowledged. But there is a long way to go.”

“People look at my CV, and they say, ’Why did you just get a master’s? Why didn’t you get a Ph.D.?’ I can't say in a job interview, ‘Oh, this is why,’ because it's a totally uncomfortable situation.”

“People look at my CV, and they say, ’Why did you just get a master’s? Why didn’t you get a Ph.D.?’ I can't say in a job interview, ‘Oh, this is why,’ because it's a totally uncomfortable situation.”

Listen to a faculty member at a western university tell her story of sexual assault. She and other sexual misconduct survivors spoke to C&EN on the condition of anonymity because they fear retribution, so their stories are read by C&EN staff members. Listener discretion is advised. The stories have been edited for length and clarity. All of the stories come from chemists who currently work in North America.

Credit: C&EN


Learning the facts

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission definition of sexual harassment

Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.

Sexual harassment is certainly not unique to academia. Surveys show that 25% of women in the workplace—and 10% of men—experience sexual harassment. But unlike companies, universities are particularly prone to overlook harassment because of their faculty members’ independence, says Billie Dziech, coauthor of the 1984 book “The Lecherous Professor,” one of the first to call attention to sexual harassment by faculty.

Lacking a manager looking over their shoulders, faculty members have almost total freedom. “Then, even if we transgress, there’s so much diffusion of authority. Nobody is willing to take responsibility,” says Dziech, an English professor at the University of Cincinnati.

But universities also have a special responsibility to students, Davidson College’s Lewis says. “Education is built on trust between a faculty member and a student,” she explains. “It strikes me that the very last place where this should happen is in a school, except for maybe the church.”

“I felt guilty, like I had somehow done something to have brought this on.”

“Tara,” sexual harassment survivor

“I felt guilty, like I had somehow done something to have brought this on.”

“Tara,” sexual harassment survivor

Lewis started writing her book after decades of seeing overlooked or tacitly condoned faculty-student relationships that later ruined the careers of promising female students. “To me there’s a special heinousness, a moral objectionability about it happening in a place” that is founded on trust between a teacher and a student, she says.

And it’s clear that sexual harassment is common in academia. A 2015 survey by the Association of American Universities of 27 research universities showed that 62% of female undergraduate and 44% of female graduate students experienced sexual harassment. For graduate students, the perpetrator was most likely to be a faculty member or adviser, while for undergraduates the perpetrator was most likely to be a fellow student.

Another recent survey by the National Postdoctoral Association demonstrates the problem is also extensive in that population. It showed that around 700 women and men were harassed out of more than 2,700 who responded. It also confirmed that the majority of postdocs who were harassed did not report it, either because they didn’t think it was serious enough to report or because they thought it would make the workplace even more uncomfortable.

A 2014 survey of field scientists, led by University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, (UIUC) anthropologist Kathryn B. H. Clancy, was one of the first to show pervasive sexual misconduct against scientists doing fieldwork. More than 60% of women reported being harassed, and over 20% reported being assaulted. Clancy was surprised by the widespread denial among academic scientists, who seem to think that decades of data from the broader workforce—or even the field science survey results—don’t apply to them.

“Every professional society and department is contacting me saying, ‘We want to do your study in our department.’ Or you can just trust my data, and say ‘It’s probably like this here,’ ” says Clancy, who is a member of the National Academy of Sciences panel investigating sexual harassment. “Just because they haven’t had a Geoff Marcy doesn’t mean they don’t have some soul-searching to do.”

Natia Frank, a chemistry professor at the University of Victoria, was sitting at a table full of female chemists at a recent Gordon Research Conference when her colleagues began sharing their harassment experiences. “The stories I heard were horrifying and heartbreaking. Every single one of us had stories about retribution from senior members of the faculty,” says Frank, who is chairing a panel on harassment in her department after issues surfaced there.

Frank has heard chemistry called “the Marines of the sciences,” and she thinks that a historically male-dominated environment has helped chemists overlook harassing behavior by their faculty colleagues. Few women report it because the attitude within chemistry is “ ‘Oh, don’t cause problems, that’s just the way it is,’ ” Frank says. Graduate students or postdocs who are sexually harassed must then decide whether they want to fight their way through it or pursue another career path.

“I've been diagnosed with PTSD because of it. It literally made my life a living hell for three-and-a-half years.”

“I've been diagnosed with PTSD because of it. It literally made my life a living hell for three-and-a-half years.”

Listen to a graduate student at a western university tell her story of sexual harassment.

Credit: C&EN


An unwanted experience


of sexual harassment survivors report it.


of women in the workplace experience sexual harassment.


of men in the workplace experience sexual harassment.


of university students report they have been sexually harassed.


of female graduate and professional students report they have been harassed by a teacher, adviser, coworker, boss, or supervisor, compared with 11% of undergraduates.


Sources: Psychology of Women Quarterly 2016, DOI: 10.1177/0361684316644838; 2011 ABC News/Washington Post poll; 2015 Association of American Universities Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault & Sexual Misconduct

The emotional trauma of being sexually harassed, especially over an extended period, can take a toll on a person’s physical health and even derail a chemist’s career, potentially causing or exacerbating depression and other mental health issues that are particularly prevalent among grad students (C&EN, Aug. 7, page 28).

Sanda Sun, who is a chemistry instructor now at Irvine Valley College, says the sexual harassment she endured as a graduate student in the late 1970s by her research adviser elicited such significant mental and physical distress that she ended up in her school’s infirmary for two weeks. She also saw a psychiatrist to cope with her stress and anxiety.

Like it often does, the harassment Sun experienced began subtly. “I was under his wing on a research project, and he was explaining things,” she says of her adviser. “He would keep touching my hand with his hand, and that’s how it started. His home was far away, and he was even willing to miss the train to explain things for me. At first, I thought, ‘Wow, he’s so devoted.’ ”

But the attention from the married professor soon became uncomfortable and unwanted. “He always said, ‘Good morning.’ Then it led to a good morning hug, and then a good morning kiss.” One time, while Sun was in his office, he waited for his postdoc and another graduate student to leave so that he could be alone with her. “He started to kiss me, and I said, ‘Are you crazy?’ And I took off,” Sun says.

Sun says she reached out to other faculty members for help, but nobody was willing to get involved. She decided that she needed to leave her Ph.D. program. After she told her adviser of her plans, he showed up at her home bearing a gift and asking for her forgiveness. Before Sun realized what was happening, the professor removed his pants and exposed himself to her. “He said, ‘I’m in love with you. I want to make love to you.’ I puked. It was really so disgusting. I said, ‘Get out. Get out. You need to leave,’ ” Sun recounts.

Sun moved across the country to get as far away from the professor as possible. For years, she blamed herself for the harassment, wondering what she did to make him think she wanted an intimate relationship with him. “I wore tennis shorts to play tennis, very innocently. Nothing very sexy, just tennis shorts. I was wearing tennis shorts in and out of the lab, so I blamed myself.”

Chemist Mary K. Boyd, who recently became provost of Berry College, says that when there’s a power differential, it can be almost impossible for a student to say no. “The professor is writing a letter for them or serving as their research adviser or deciding who will receive travel funding to conferences. It’s really hard,” she says.

Boyd, who herself has experienced varying degrees of sexual harassment during her career, says female graduate students have told her that they are going into industry instead of academia because they believe sexual harassment will be taken more seriously in industry.

Credit: Jenny Liu
Sun, now a chemistry instructor at Irvine Valley College, says the sexual harassment she endured as a graduate student led her to leave her graduate program without completing her Ph.D.

“I’m saddened to think that women may choose not to pursue a brilliant career in academia because of their experiences with sexual harassment,” Boyd says. “What is the potential loss in what they may have brought to the discipline if only they had felt they would be taken seriously?”

He would keep touching my hand with his hand, and that’s how it started.”

Sanda Sun chemistry instructor, Irvine Valley College

He would keep touching my hand with his hand, and that’s how it started.”

Sanda Sun chemistry instructor, Irvine Valley College

Feeling invalidated is among the reasons why a large majority of sexual harassment survivors never report the perpetrator. In one study that looked at sexual harassment of graduate students, of those who were harassed by professors, “we had 6% who reported it to any university source at all. Which means 94% did not,” says Jennifer J. Freyd, a University of Oregon psychology professor who is one of the coauthors of the research.


Another reason harassment survivors don’t report is embarrassment. “The shame of being involved in a harassment situation is quite overwhelming,” says “Nancy,” who was sexually harassed by a department administrator when she was a graduate student. “You don’t want anyone to know because you think they will wonder how a smart woman could ever get into a situation like that.”

Then there’s the fact that reporting may not make anything better—and may in fact make things worse. “There doesn’t appear to be a huge reason for me to step up and put myself out there when I don’t feel like there’s anything that’s going to happen as a result,” says “Lisa,” who was sexually harassed by a more senior colleague when she was a new assistant professor.

Lisa says she felt alone and vulnerable as her harassment intensified. “The professor became increasingly powerful within the department as years went by, and he actively made an effort to make my life hell,” she says. “Although many of my colleagues acknowledged his bad behavior, nobody seemed inclined to stand up to a tenured faculty member. One senior faculty member finally tried to stand up on my behalf, telling both the chair and the dean what was happening, but nothing appeared to be done. Or, at least, nothing changed.”

She considered leaving academia. “For about three years, that was a very serious thought in my head every day,” Lisa says. “The thing that kept me there was my students. I would walk into the lab, and I would see my students, and I would say, ‘Okay, this is the good part of my life.’ I realized I would be hurting their careers if I suddenly walked away, so that kept me going, especially through the toughest periods.”

For international students or postdocs, reporting sexual harassment could mean losing even the choice to continue because they could wind up deported. More than 70% of postdocs in the U.S. are in the country on work visas, notes Kate Sleeth, chair of the National Postdoctoral Association’s board of directors and associate dean of administration and student development at City of Hope medical center. “If someone wants to behave inappropriately, then they will say ‘You can’t tell anyone because I’ll send you home or you’ll lose your job,’ ” explains Sleeth, who was harassed as an international graduate student.

Bystanders can also be affected by sexual harassment. “Elizabeth,” who now works in industry, says that when she was a graduate student, she witnessed one of her classmates being sexually harassed by a professor during a recruitment weekend outing: “I was sitting in a booth with three other students and one professor. I felt something moving along my right thigh. I looked down and saw that the professor was running his hand along my fellow student’s left thigh. I made eye contact with the student, and she said, ‘Help me’ into my ear. The professor was drunk. He started pulling her toward him and whispering in her ear. I pulled her out of the booth with me on the premise of dancing. She told me that the professor was promising to help her get her Ph.D. if she put him on her committee.”

Elizabeth says that she and her other friends pressured the student to say something. Elizabeth considered reporting the incident herself but was torn. “You’re not sure if it’s going to be taken seriously if the person you’re reporting it for won’t back it up,” she says. “I didn’t want to say something if she was not going to speak up.”

Someone else reported the incident, Elizabeth recalls, and the chemistry department chair called each student into his office to talk about what happened. “The chair downplayed everything,” Elizabeth says. “He talked about the amount of money that was brought to the university by this person. I never filed a complaint or a report with anyone. It was all handled within the department, and it disgusts me to this day.

“When I saw what happened to [my colleague] and how I felt like we all just got railroaded into silence, I thought, ‘I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to be in this environment. It’s disgusting,’ ” Elizabeth says. She dropped out of the Ph.D. program and pursued a career in industry instead. “Some people think industry is where the harassment happens,” Elizabeth says. “But in industry, creeps get fired. In academia, they get funding.”

“I thought nobody wants to work with me and I'm not doing well. It was a long time before I figured out it was not me.”

“I thought nobody wants to work with me and I'm not doing well. It was a long time before I figured out it was not me.”

Listen to a staff scientist at a research center tell her story of sexual harassment.

Credit: C&EN


Struggle to confront

Callisto connects sexual assault survivors

Designed to empower survivors of sexual assault, Callisto is an online sexual assault reporting system that allows students to document and report their sexual assault. If they choose to, survivors can electronically send the record they have created to their school.

“With Callisto, we’re really trying to meet survivors where they’re at,” says Jessica Ladd, founder of Project Callisto, who was sexually assaulted as an undergrad. “We are here to help you understand and create a framework for what happened to you. Keep your options open, make the reporting choice that’s right for you, and increase the probability that if you do decide to come forward you’ll get the outcomes that you care about.”

The tool also has a matching function that enables survivors to report the perpetrator to the school only if another student has reported the same perpetrator. “People are just much more likely to be believed if there are two people saying that he did it,” says Jennifer Freyd, a psychology professor at the University of Oregon. “And once you know there are at least two victims, you realize there’s probably going to be three, four, five, et cetera. And most survivors, while they might not want to report for themselves, will often want to be socially proactive and stop it from happening to anyone else.”

“Throughout this process, we’re really trying to put control back in the hands of the survivor and let them make a choice about what they want,” Ladd says. The service is free for students, and partner schools pay a setup fee of $5,000 to $10,000, along with an annual fee of $14,000 to $40,000.

Many universities are getting tougher on harassers. But in most cases, the changes are not by choice.

Departments are unlikely to root out problem faculty on their own, just like families may protect an abuser in their midst for decades, says Heidi Lockwood, a Southern Connecticut State University philosophy professor who is an advocate for sexual harassment survivors at universities.

“Universities absolutely must step in,” Lockwood says. But “unless universities have a financial incentive to step in—meaning unless there are really stiff, tangible consequences for failing to step in—it’s not going to happen.”

A 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter from former president Barack Obama’s Education Department has been that lever for most universities. The letter pointed out that under Title IX, universities are responsible for having a system of tracking and responding to sexual harassment. The letter also emphasized universities’ legal liability if they neglect that obligation. (In a Sept. 7 speech, President Donald J. Trump’s secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, said that the department will review its approach to Title IX compliance and campus sexual misconduct.)

“Although they are historically a bastion of great creative ideas and high intellectual thought, universities are very reactionary when it comes to changing their own ways. Administrators are not bold, and it takes a crisis,” or fear of a crisis, to initiate change, says James Sears Bryant, a lawyer who has worked on several high-profile Title IX investigations at universities. “It’s good that they’re reacting now. The key is to continue the momentum and to continue to refine it and create a safe environment.”

At many schools, the Dear Colleague letter prompted reexamination of how they dealt with sexual assault and harassment, says Dana Scaduto, general counsel at Dickinson College and a member of the National Association of College & University Attorneys. Colleges and universities started paying attention to the issues, “and a lot of good has come out of it,” she says.

The Dear Colleague letter laid out some guidelines for how universities should deal with harassment but didn’t dictate a plan. Theoretically, that approach gave universities freedom to set up a sexual harassment reporting system that works for them. “The objective has to be to effectively address the issue,” Scaduto says. But every school is different, and “there’s not one answer that’s going to work on every campus.”

In practice, however, many schools don’t seem to be taking advantage of that flexibility. “Everyone wants to kind of be a copycat,” attorney Bryant says. “They want to adopt the practices of someone that’s just a little bit more famous or higher in the U.S. News & World Report [rankings].” That means many schools end up with similar policies surrounding harassment, such as rules regarding relationships between faculty and students and mandatory reporting of harassment by faculty.

Most schools “discourage” but don’t prohibit relationships between faculty and students, or schools allow such relationships if the professor does not directly supervise the student. However, a small but increasing number of universities—especially those that have had major harassment cases, like Yale, Stanford, and Northwestern—prohibit any relationship between a faculty member and a student, no matter the age or level of supervision.

“Some people think industry is where the harassment happens. But in industry, creeps get fired. In academia, they get funding.”

“Elizabeth,” colleague of a sexual harassment survivor

“Some people think industry is where the harassment happens. But in industry, creeps get fired. In academia, they get funding.”

“Elizabeth,” colleague of a sexual harassment survivor

Many faculty members are against these rules, citing cases of “true love” found between, for example, a graduate student and adviser. “But none of us knows anything about all of the flameouts that have ruined people’s careers,” UIUC’s Clancy says.

She is even more hesitant to allow these relationships because often the faculty member is a man and the graduate student is a woman, she says. “The woman does get her Ph.D. but then becomes a stay-at-home mom, and it just enables the career of the man,” Clancy says.

Davidson College’s Lewis sympathizes with faculty who believe they might not meet a partner off campus, but she also gives this advice: “Look elsewhere. Have you heard of”

Even more contentious is the issue of mandatory reporting of sexual harassment. Many schools interpreted the Dear Colleague letter as a directive that every faculty member become a mandatory reporter of harassment.

Mandatory reporting is part of creating a well-understood process for how universities handle sexual harassment, says Kathleen Salvaty, formerly a Title IX officer at the University of California, Los Angeles, and now the first person in a new position overseeing sexual misconduct policies at all 10 UC campuses. “Ultimately, having a transparent and clear process for how we respond to reports is really important because it’s going to encourage people to report,” Salvaty says.


But advocates say mandatory reporting may actually hurt survivors by giving them no one to turn to after they are harassed. Lockwood, the Southern Connecticut professor and advocate, says faculty shouldn’t have to say to a hurting harassment victim, “ ‘Hey, anything you say can and will be used against you, can and will be reported to the administration,’ ” she says. “For very fragile victims, that can be something that pushes them over the edge into a downward spiral if they feel betrayed by a faculty member they trusted.”

Freyd, the University of Oregon psychologist, says that “any kind of sexual violence in the first place takes away control. When the response is to take away more control, even if it’s well intentioned, I think of it like a second concussion” that just adds to the damage.

She believes that Obama-era guidelines on mandatory reporting have been overinterpreted. “It doesn’t say everybody has to be a mandatory reporter. It says that some employees have to be designated that way,” she says. “Students tell us they’re much more willing to report if they believe that they’ll have control over what happens to the information.”

To that end, the University of Oregon is implementing student-directed reporting, which allows students to say what they want to have happen with the information they provide, Freyd says. Only high-level administrators are mandatory reporters, while regular professors and staff follow the student’s lead. The university is also one of roughly a dozen schools that have begun subscribing to Callisto, an online sexual harassment reporting system that launched two years ago (see box on page 33).

Whatever policies universities have, they often haven’t filtered down to faculty on the ground, such as chemistry department chairs. “I’ve been chair for four years. No information [on sexual harassment] has come to me in either a formal way or an informal way, so it’s just not been directly on my radar screen,” says Robert J. McMahon, immediate past chair of the chemistry department at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. The lack of information is changing, though. New department chairs at UW Madison now get training on sexual harassment policies and procedures.

Unfortunately, training department chairs or even faculty more broadly might not help address sexual harassment because current training approaches at most universities don’t seem to work. For example, in 2005 California began requiring two hours of sexual harassment training for state employees every two years, explains University of California, Irvine, classics professor Maria C. Pantelia, who was a member of a UC system-wide task force on sexual harassment. The task force found that even after biannual training, faculty, students, and postdocs still didn’t know how to report harassment. “The question is, ‘What are we doing wrong?’ ” Pantelia says. UC’s solution to the training problem right now is to add more training; for undergrads, it occurs three times in their first six to eight weeks, says Salvaty, the UC-wide Title IX officer.

UIUC’s Clancy believes one problem with training as it’s practiced now is that examples in video or online training never feel real or applicable to the viewer. She thinks the best training is when people get together and talk about the culture they want to create—ideally one that treats all faculty, staff, and students as professionals deserving of respect. “When you tie respect to workplace culture, then you’re not going to see as much sexual harassment,” she says.

Talking to colleagues, discussing sexual harassment data, and looking at real cases of harassment is the best way to get across the reality that harassment happens and causes harm, UCI’s Pantelia agrees. “What is lacking is a focus on awareness and a focus on the consequences that this kind of behavior has on others,” she says.

“He would not take no for an answer and became increasingly insistent that I join him at his house, offering additional alcohol and dessert as incentives.”

“He would not take no for an answer and became increasingly insistent that I join him at his house, offering additional alcohol and dessert as incentives.”

Listen to a faculty member at a public university tell her story of sexual harassment.

Credit: C&EN


Changing culture

Judith N. Burstyn, chair of UW Madison’s chemistry department, is no stranger to issues of sexual harassment. When she was a graduate student, someone left sexually explicit messages in her books.

“Every woman experiences a certain level of sexual harassment, be it people groping them, be it people making sexually explicit remarks, be it whatever. Some of them are more intrusive and violent than others,” she says.

She has a porcupine sculpture in her office that she says represents her feelings about what it’s like to be a woman in science. “There are times when I would like to be a porcupine. I don’t like people who pat me, for example. I don’t think that’s ever appropriate, but I can tell you that happens all the time,” she says.

Burstyn believes that harassment will disappear only when chemistry department cultures change, which is something she intends to prioritize as chair. “Every work environment has power structures and power inequities, and these power inequities can be taken advantage of in ways that are gendered and ways that involve sexual harassment,” Burstyn says. Protecting students from harassment is especially important because they are “more vulnerable, less savvy, and less experienced, so they are particularly susceptible to being taken advantage of. That actually means that we as the power-holding people in academia should have a greater awareness and responsibility,” Burstyn says.

Credit: Libby Dowdall
A porcupine on Burstyn’s desk represents her feelings about what it’s like to be a woman in science, frequently needing to put up her guard.

Others are also looking at what they can do to change their organization’s culture. After seeing high-profile cases of sexual harassment in the news, Nicholas J. Giordano, dean of the College of Sciences & Mathematics at Auburn University, began requiring sexual harassment training for new graduate students three years ago. At the 90-minute training session, which takes place in the fall when the school year begins, the university’s Title IX officer gives a presentation about sexual harassment, leads the group through role-playing activities, and discusses cases she has handled, Giordano says.

Curtis Shannon, chair of Auburn’s chemistry department, says the training “helps to clarify what the reporting channels should be, so if you’re a graduate student and you are the victim of sexual harassment, you understand the broad outlines of the Title IX requirements.”

“Every woman experiences a certain level of sexual harassment, be it people groping them, be it people making sexually explicit remarks, be it whatever.”

Judith N. Burstyn, chemistry professor, University of Wisconsin, Madison

“Every woman experiences a certain level of sexual harassment, be it people groping them, be it people making sexually explicit remarks, be it whatever.”

Judith N. Burstyn, chemistry professor, University of Wisconsin, Madison

A similar training session for faculty was particularly eye-opening, Shannon says. “The aha moment for me was when I realized that I am compelled to report this,” he says. “It changes your idea of what it means to be a faculty member. It reminds you that there’s a well-defined border between the faculty and the students. We’re not there to be friends with the students.”

Giordano doesn’t think training will stop harassers from harassing. But he hopes training will provide victims and bystanders with information on how to recognize and report sexual harassment.

Yale’s chemistry department was prompted to provide additional sexual harassment training after chair Gary Brudvig saw the results of the Association of American Universities report, which showed the majority of graduate student harassment comes from professors. Brudvig first invited the school’s Title IX officer to lead a discussion about harassment with the department’s faculty.

The faculty’s tendency before the session might have been “not only to smooth things over, but sort of keep it under wraps” if they heard about harassment, Brudvig says. Now, faculty know how to handle a problem confidentially but still take appropriate action, such as by reporting to Yale’s Title IX office, Brudvig says.

The faculty discussion in turn inspired the department’s director of graduate studies, Patrick L. Holland, to hold a mandatory sexual harassment education session for the department’s graduate students last year. The students looked at the survey data—which included disturbing results from Yale—and then broke into small groups to talk about different harassment scenarios.

“Once you have seen those graphs you’re aware, ‘Oh, this is actually happening, and it’s not a myth,’ ” says Yale graduate student Jaylissa Torres Robles.

A year after the session, Torres Robles remembers well the scenarios they discussed, including obvious examples like a professor asking for sexual favors to less obvious ones like a professor suggesting a student not have a baby while in graduate school. But she also remembers being surprised that some of her fellow students saw the same scenario in a different way than she did.

Although Torres Robles now knows what steps to take if she is harassed, she still isn’t sure how she would respond if it happens. “If you’re not in the situation, you’re like, ‘Yeah, I would [report] it, definitely.’ Because it’s my life and it’s my right,” she says. “But sometimes when people are in the situation they think about other things, like ‘Is this going to affect my career?’ ”

One important way to change the culture of departments would be to stop hiring new faculty who are harassers. Brudvig says the Yale human resources department conducts a background check, but otherwise there isn’t a way for the chemistry department to find out whether someone has been accused of harassment.

“People who have done things that I think are wrong will get hired again because they’ll bring in funding.”

Richard N. Zare, chemistry professor, Stanford University

“People who have done things that I think are wrong will get hired again because they’ll bring in funding.”

Richard N. Zare, chemistry professor, Stanford University

In harassment cases in which faculty are forced out of a school, often both sides sign a confidentiality agreement that prevents word from getting out publicly. But even when hiring institutions know about past complaints, it can be difficult to decide how much consideration to give to them. “There has to be some balancing of interests. If someone harassed another person and appropriate measures were taken to stop the harassment and restore the environment, does that make the person who was responsible unemployable for life?” asks Scaduto, the Dickinson lawyer.

At the same time, “Hiring committees can be very naive about the signs and a sort of profile of somebody who would repeat this kind of behavior,” says Davidson College’s Lewis. “If they hire someone who they suspect might repeat the behavior—or they don’t even bother to think about it—then they’re putting their students in danger.”


Money in particular can be a powerful incentive to downplay past bad actions. Stanford chemistry professor Richard N. Zare says he knows of cases when chemistry departments have turned a blind eye to behaviors that are otherwise unacceptable because the professor brings in a lot of money. “People who have done things that I think are wrong will get hired again because they’ll bring in funding. It happens when a university has the wrong priorities, when the priority is on funding,” he says.

That’s what U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Cal­if.) wants to stop with a bill she introduced last year that would require universities to report all substantiated findings of harassment to federal agencies that have awarded the harasser money within the past 10 years. The agency would then decide what to do with that information, but Speier hopes they would hold that person accountable. “My bill would be a first step to ending rampant sexual abuse and harassment in academia,” she says.

UIUC’s Clancy supports the bill because it has the potential to stop what some people call “Pass the Harasser,” she says. Also, “If people are going to be paying taxes for scientific research, should it really be going towards sexual harassers? I think it’s a pretty reasonable question to ask.”

Female chemistry professors are also tackling harassment on their own by doing things such as organizing support groups. Georgia Institute of Technology’s Elsa Reich­manis and another female faculty member started a monthly all-woman lunch group of several faculty and graduate students. “Basically, we’re trying to create a safe environment where students just feel comfortable talking,” says Reichmanis, who was harassed as a graduate student.

Reichmanis notes that the academic culture around harassment stands in stark contrast to her years at Bell Labs, where harassment training involved days-long workshops by trained facilitators rather than a one-hour video that no one takes seriously. “The corporate culture says, ‘This is our expectation for your behavior, and if you don’t conform to the expectation, you’re out the door,’ ” she says.

At the University of Victoria, Frank is leading a group to help address harassment in her department after reports surfaced from many women there, primarily undergraduates. “It was a cultural problem, and the cultural problem was that disrespectful things were being said,” Frank says. “Disrespectful behaviors were being tolerated by the faculty and staff.”

For example, “If a student reports that someone makes sexual advances toward her while she’s giving her poster at a meeting, the appropriate response is not, ‘Let it go, don’t make a big deal about it,’ ” Frank says. “The appropriate response is, ‘This is unprofessional, and I will speak to that individual.’ ”

Frank says about her male colleagues that “I think the desire is to do the right thing, but there is a sense of confusion and frustration—and a little bit of fear, now—around these issues.” Her aim is to make her fellow faculty members really understand what their goal should be: “to make the environment professional, where every individual is respected.”

“While we were driving, at some point he started touching me inappropriately. His hand was on my leg. What do you do, do you jump out of the car? You can’t do that.”

“While we were driving, at some point he started touching me inappropriately. His hand was on my leg. What do you do, do you jump out of the car? You can’t do that.”

Listen to a faculty member at an eastern university tell her story of sexual harassment.

Credit: C&EN


Societies take action

While attending her first conference as an assistant professor, “Nicole” says that a senior faculty member from another institution came up to her and said he was a reviewer on one of her research proposals. “Later that night, we were alone, and then he grabbed me and kissed me and tried to—you know. It was pretty awful,” Nicole says.

“It never occurred to me that I wouldn't be safe at a conference with other chemists.”

“Nicole,” sexual harassment survivor

“It never occurred to me that I wouldn't be safe at a conference with other chemists.”

“Nicole,” sexual harassment survivor

“I’m thinking, ‘What do I do? Do I shove him? Do I do anything? He’s got my proposal.’ I learned right then and there to never be alone at a meeting. What a lesson to learn. It never occurred to me that I wouldn’t be safe at a conference with other chemists,” she says.

A growing number of scientific societies are recognizing that sexual harassment is a real problem at conferences, and organizations are taking tougher stands against it. “We haven’t looked very closely at what the consequences of sexual misconduct could be on our members, and that’s something I think that all societies should explore,” says Joanne Carney, director of the Office of Government Relations at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, noting that its code of conduct for its annual meeting addresses sexual harassment specifically.

The American Geophysical Union (AGU) has begun classifying sexual misconduct as scientific misconduct, and it is revising its code-of-conduct policy for meetings to reflect this change. “It’s a pretty big move, and I think it’s an important statement,” says AGU President Eric Davidson. “Historically, scientific misconduct has primarily been looked at through such things as plagiarism and falsification of data. As the scientific workforce has evolved, the issues have evolved, and so now it’s time to look at scientific misconduct through another lens.”

Credit: Jana Asenbrennerova/
AGU staff such as Williams (left) wore green SafeAGU pins at AGU's annual meeting in December 2016 to signal that attendees could go to them to report harassment or other safety concerns.

“This is about culture change, and what the ethics policy update does is it establishes our expectations for members of our society,” says AGU science director Billy Williams, who manages the organization’s ethics-related programs. He says the AGU Board of Directors is reviewing the revised policy this month. If approved, it will be made available to the public.

Changes in meeting policies are leading to more reports of sexual harassment. In 2014, after the Entomological Society of America (ESA) incorporated language about sexual misconduct into its code of conduct, it received its first report of sexual harassment at ESA’s annual conference. The number of reported cases grew to four in 2015. In 2016, a report came in about the same perpetrator as in 2014. “After our initial review of the complaints, we notified the member that if they did something similar at a future meeting, we would ask them to leave and not return to future meetings. In another meeting, we had to take that step after receiving a new complaint,” says Rosina Romano, ESA’s director of meetings. The organization has also stripped offenders of their ESA membership.

Romano says that ESA takes active steps to communicate its code of conduct to its members. All meeting registrants must agree to the code of conduct before they can complete their registration. In addition, the code of conduct is on the website, the program book, and a sign at registration, “and then our executive director reminds everybody during the opening plenary,” says Romano. The code of conduct is also communicated at meetings of the society’s branches.

“I don’t want women to feel like they can’t come to our meeting and share their research [because of an] unsafe atmosphere or feel like they need to go straight to their room at night because they don’t feel safe around other colleagues,” Romano says.

More societies should be following the lead of AGU and ESA, says Sherry Marts, a consultant who has worked for several societies. She says it is societies’ responsibility to tackle harassment at meetings.

“One of the things I like to remind associations of is that membership in a professional society—particularly membership in a scholarly society—is a privilege. It’s not a right,” Marts says. “When harassers do this at the meetings, it’s not just the targets they’re affecting. They’re infecting the entire atmosphere around them.”

The American Chemical Society, which publishes C&EN, developed its Volunteer/National Meeting Attendee Conduct Policy in 2013. The policy includes language about sexual harassment: “Harassment of any kind, including but not limited to unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment will not be tolerated.”

ACS General Counsel Flint Lewis says that since this revision, there have been “a handful” of reported incidents that required an investigation. “In one extreme case, we barred somebody from a national meeting for a year,” he says. “We take it very seriously. We want to ensure that our attendees and volunteers who are interacting with ACS have a very positive experience.”


He says the code of conduct is available to all members in the online program book, but he acknowledges that many people may not read it or be aware of it. He says that ACS has not yet placed any signs at the meeting about the code of conduct but that it should be considered. Lewis personally handles reports of harassment. If someone experiences harassment at an ACS meeting, they should report it to a staff member or to ACS’s operations office, he says.

In addition to updating its code of conduct for national meetings, in 2015, ACS streamlined its member expulsion provision in the ACS bylaws. That provision states that members whose conduct injures the society or adversely affects its reputation may have their membership revoked. Lewis says that to his knowledge no member has ever been expelled from the society, but that the sanction is intended to discourage misconduct. Also in the past couple of years, the society has added new procedures to rescind a national award or ACS Fellow designation for reasons including “misconduct.”

The ACS Women Chemists Committee (WCC) is considering adding sexual harassment to its areas of advocacy, which currently include awards and non-tenure-track faculty issues, says Laura S. Sremaniak, WCC chair and a chemistry professor at North Carolina State University. “WCC is concerned about the leaky pipeline,” Sremaniak says, referring to women dropping out of science careers. People debate how directly sexual harassment leads to the leaky pipeline, Sremaniak says, “but I think everybody suspects that sexual harassment is one major contributor towards the leaks. Neither women nor men should have to accept that sexual harassment is part of the price of admission into a promising career in the chemical sciences.”

Among the ideas that WCC is exploring is to have an anonymous reporting hotline at ACS national meetings. That idea was suggested by Stephanie Hare, a graduate student in chemistry at the University of California, Davis, and copresident of the nonprofit Alliance for Diversity in Science & Engineering.

“He would rub my back and make comments about how I looked. The more I said no, the worse it got.”

“He would rub my back and make comments about how I looked. The more I said no, the worse it got.”

Listen to a researcher at a western university tell her story of sexual harassment.

Credit: C&EN

Hare says the issue is very important to her because she has been sexually harassed at scientific conferences. Several times at poster sessions she has wound up talking to someone about her research for a long time. “I think it’s a really nice conversation, and then the poster session will end and basically I’ll be asked out on a date,” she says. “Or the next day, it will be clear that the person who was talking to me initially about my research at this poster session was expecting something more from me.

“When something like that has happened, and you have an awkward relationship with someone that you’re going to see at conferences in the future, it makes you less likely to even want to go to conferences,” she says.


Moving forward

“Neither women nor men should have to accept that sexual harassment is part of the price of admission into a promising career in the chemical sciences."

Laura Sremaniak, a chemistry professor at North Carolina State University and chair of the ACS Women Chemists Committee

“Neither women nor men should have to accept that sexual harassment is part of the price of admission into a promising career in the chemical sciences."

Laura Sremaniak, a chemistry professor at North Carolina State University and chair of the ACS Women Chemists Committee

The cost of sexual harassment to the sciences isn’t limited to loss of talent. Add to that the “businesses that are not established, the discoveries that are not made, the advancements that are not made for societal well-being,” says Rita R. Colwell, chair of the National Academy of Sciences’ Committee on Women in Science, Engineering & Medicine.

The committee is currently examining the scope of sexual misconduct in the sciences and how best to address it at all levels. “It’s timely because of the greater willingness to speak out, the greater willingness to resist and not tolerate sexual harassment,” she says. Additionally, “The studies that have been done over the years can be brought together and rational conclusions drawn and recommendations offered.”

The increased dialogue about sexual harassment is forcing changes. “The key is to take negative history and turn it into better futures,” says Bryant, the lawyer who has worked with universities on harassment. “We’ve had a real rash of bad stuff going on at major universities. I think the systems are better because of the bad things that have happened. I think there’s heightened awareness, and there are more progressive procedures. I think people are taking it seriously, and the sector will be better in the future than it has been in the past.”

And survivors of sexual harassment are feeling more empowered to speak out. Tara, who was propositioned by a professor, says that looking back, she wishes she had said something about the harassment she faced. “My actions could have helped someone else if I had reported this,” she says. “Who knows who came after me that I could have done something about?” .

For additional coverage, hear C&EN’s Linda Wang discuss sexual harassment in academia on WNPR’s “Where We Live” program.
Note: Jump to 22:35 to hear this segment.




This article has been sent to the following recipient:

Jimmy Brancho (September 18, 2017 3:55 PM)
This is such important work. Thank you to everyone who came forward to share stories, thank you to the reporters for doing such a thorough job on a sensitive subject, thank you to everyone who sat down for an interview for this.
DLC (September 18, 2017 8:32 PM)
Fantastic article. I love the way the reporters have comments from all sectors. Great ideas for improvement here and I'm left feeling hopeful that readers will feel compelled to take action if they observe/encounter harassment.

I had not thought about the national conference behavior experience, but I'm definitely having flashbacks to being a 20 yr old woman at a poster session. And the behavior I encountered changed my future choices without me even realizing it.

Thank you C&E News for publishing this.
Triton (September 20, 2017 3:19 PM)
Me too...looking back at some (mild compared to some of what is noted in this article, but still) stuff I encountered in my first research group in the early '90s...moved to another group at an affiliated institution, eventually decided not to finish PhD...I had other reasons, but looking back I wonder how much those experiences played a role...was fellow grad students, but (young) male research advisor knew and downplayed it/suggested I somehow brought on their behavior (leaving sexually explicit cartoons lying around on my assigned lab bench, etc.)
Noah (September 19, 2017 6:47 AM)
I truly appreciate you compiling this article and am thankful for the women who shared their personal accounts. That could not have been easy. This is an incredibly pervasive problem and putting a spotlight on it, discussing it, and raising awareness of it is the first step towards changing a culture that allows and fosters this kind of sexual hostility towards women in STEM and other disciplines.
Fearfully and finally broken (September 19, 2017 9:40 AM)
Thank you C&E News so much for publishing this and bringing light to the truth! And thank you Sanda for being courageous to speak out! Harassment for me started early. As an undergraduate at my first ACS meeting a creepy guy asked me at my poster "what would it take to get that ring off your finger ?". At my first Gordon conference, I was invited by some dirty old men who could make or break my career to go to a topless beach with them. As a new tenure track faculty member, I threw a fit when my department knowingly hired a convicted sex offender who was on parole to teach our undergraduate labs. I was told by a colleague, my department chair, and the secretary that if I didn't keep my mouth shut, I wouldn't get tenure. My department chair and a staff member would make fun of the women who won title IX lawsuits against my university. During the tenure process, I wrote a paper with a colleague that made the cover of an ACS journal (I was first author). The promotion committee which consisted of all men, voted and deemed the paper acceptable for my male colleague's promotion while simultaneously voted that the paper was unacceptable for me (I'm female). I was told more was expected from me. A student came to me because she was afraid of retribution, so I reported a title IX violation by a staff member on her behalf. It has been a very long time since I reported the offence; the university has yet to give a report of the outcome. There have been many other instances of harassment and discrimination. The final straw has been that I was sexually assaulted and had my identity stolen by a colleague in my department. My abuser was able to make good on his threat to ruin my career because my colleagues and university officials did nothing to protect me. The university kept prolonging the investigation, I had to work near my rapist until I started having such severe health problems that I spent 3 weeks in the hospital. The university's response was to take away my well funded NSF research (part of it was given to one of the male colleagues without my consent) and to increase my workload by giving me new courses to teach. I thought the university would protect me especially with all my evidence, but a year and a half later the university investigation team and the university police have failed to question my witnesses. I love teaching, but I have been driven off (and denied promotion to full professor) because I didn't just "lie on my back and take it". I write this fearful that I will recieve more retaliation.
lana (September 21, 2017 9:39 AM)
I am so sorry, all of that should never have happened. Keep talking, keep reporting. If not for people like you this crap will just continue and get worse. Think about that next professor, those next students. Keep talking, please, if nothing else than to remind yourself that this is not something you did to yourself. Please also consider contacting an attorney to help document the title IX and EEOC violations you mention, because even if you are not ready to go public or initiate a fight, having your ducks in a row gives you that option and the power to be confident if you get pushed into it anyway...consider it an insurance policy for your career. Its sucks, its wrong and you should never have to, but I think you know more than most that doesn't mean it won't.
Neo (September 19, 2017 12:57 PM)
I am sorry to hear about all these cases, although I feel that this is not a balanced portrait of academia. I have personally witnessed how attractive young female (AYF) scientists benefit from more career opportunities than less attractive female or male scientists (and it is clear from their CV that they shouldn't have). Also, some old male scientists are emotionally played by some AYF scientists, who know well what they are doing. Positive discrimination is rampant and for me anything that it is not merit-based is simply discrimination (like many other male colleagues, I actually afraid of the negative consequences that expressing this opinion might have for me). It is a jungle out there and all early-career scientists are in a precarious position, not only women. Ps: the term "sexual harassment survivor" is excessive in some of the described cases.
Patrick (September 20, 2017 12:25 PM)
Sexual harassment is a yes or no situation; either it occurred or it didn't. And that is not determined by the intent of the perpetrator, but by the victim. The second the victim says "no", it's sexual harassment. End of story. And if the victim feels threatened enough that they can't say "no", that too is sexual harassment. Anyone who undergoes sexual harassment can validly be defined as a survivor. It's extremely insensitive to downplay other people's experiences out of hand.

Lastly, the point of this article is not to say that other types of sexual harassment don't exist, but that this is a common and filthy problem that needs to be solved in the most humane manner: Actions of the perpetrators need to stop, and departments need to take responsibility and punish the acts of what is a criminal situation.

The workplace is no place for fear, whether from sexual harassment, racial discrimination, etc.
No name given (September 22, 2017 1:20 PM)
Sorry, but that really makes no sense. In that situation, anyone at anytime can call anything a crime. That is just not workable. If that really were the case, I would be an idiot to have females in my research group or serve on their committees. It would be professional suicide to ever fail a female student. Your attitude, although I'm sure you think you are enlightened, would end most opportunities for women. We would be forced to segregate into male groups run by a male and female groups run by a female. Giving anyone that sort of unbridled power would be a disaster.
Anon (September 23, 2017 10:10 AM)
I failed an important academic milestone in my younger days. I'm female (and doing better these days). Not once did I falsely accuse my male advisor or any of the men involved of sexually harrassing me. It is sheer nonsense to suggest I might have "if I'd have been allowed".
No name given (February 13, 2018 7:00 PM)
I've had plenty of opportunities to harass female students. Not once have I done so. It's sheer nonsense to suggest I might have "if I'd been allowed".

The double standards and willful ignorance of logic are embarrassing for what is supposed to be a scientific publication.
Dr. Jennifer J Archer (September 20, 2017 7:52 PM)
Neo, I don't really like the way you communicated some of this but I understand your point. There is a major bias of older male faculty making sexual advances on female students. However it does work in both ways. In my experience most females including myself do not want this attention and it harms their career. However there are definitely some female students that do take advantage of the situation or are the ones who are the sexual harassers themselves. In one of my cases, a female chemistry graduate student sexually harassed a junior faculty member- one of my PIs. I witnessed it myself so I know it is true. The professor did not react positively to it but being a junior faculty member was to afraid to report it to his supervisor. She then pressured him into a relationship (he confessed that it happened) when he was vulnerable due to his wife threatening divorce but later broke it off when he came to his senses. She then blackmailed him into graduation and made a false rape accusation and he resigned because she also threatened to kill him and other male faculty members. The odd thing was that most of the male students, myself and his lawyer all did not consider her to be attractive so its not just "attractive" female students taking advantage. She was extremely overweight (She would steal my food from my drawer) and she had no friends. Her personality was abysmal and she also sexually harassed the male technician. This cost me my career as a researcher, my school- the University of Central Florida did nothing about it and I was emotionally scarred for life and I still see a therapist even though this was more than 3 years ago now. Another student told me she was getting less than preferential treatment because she was not having an affair with the professor while two of the other female grad students were. She said she would consider them fairly attractive and I feel that she is reasonably attractive female. So yes male professors giving preferential treatment to some females negatively hurts the other females in the group too and of course in my situation I barely graduated and I lost my R21 funding that I worked so hard to earn, as well as becoming an "untouchable" where no one wanted to associate with me as a result of this situation.

Moderator note: C&EN has not verified the allegations made in this comment.
lana (September 21, 2017 9:30 AM)
How can you even begin to call a phrase "sexual harassment survivor" excessive?
Did you not actually read the multiple accounts (account after account) about the PTSD and thoughts of suicide that came about BECAUSE of harassment?
I am sorry man, but grow your brain a bit and THINK about how these things might be for other people. Just because you don't feel like someone could threaten you around sex (as a male) doesn't mean it isn't a reality for lots of folks.
Also its totally naive. What if a large aggressive and politically powerful committee chairman, advisor, chair, dean physically threatened you? Do you really think you wouldn't have some these same problems?
If you cant see that, then please go be a rape/harrassment apologist elsewhere. Victim blaming will not be tolerated in ACS.
not given (September 22, 2017 1:34 PM)
The problem that administrators and department heads have to deal with that most of the commentators here don't seem to want to recognize is that sometimes claims of harassment are false. Even if only 5 % are false, there still has to be some way to protect people from false accusations. This problem is not as simple to address as most of the heated replies seem to imply. I don't know how to solve the problem, but recognizing it to be a problem is first step. Angry responses about evil harassers only makes the writers feel a little better. It does nothing to solve the problem.
lana (September 27, 2017 2:20 PM)
Yes, please mansplain what the REAL problem is...cuz obviously it isn't the 40-60% of the population who has been harrassed or assaulted and suffered everything from extreme distress to physical bruising, to missed opportunities to career death to contemplated, the real problem is obviously the poor adminstrators who have to deal with the liars....except, oh wait, the non-report rates combined with best measures of false report rates suggest false reports probably represent somewhere between 0.4% to 1.4% of rapes assaults and harrassments.
Considering this article is the FIRST and ONLY public examination of sexual assault and harrassment within Chemistry community in the pages of C&ENews, I do think we can cut the commentors some slack for taking some time to grasp the size, shape, and nature of the problem outlined in the article before they offer their solutions. However, given the numerous stories above about how different people in positions of authority did NOT take harassment victims (or their harrassment) seriously (because they could agree it was harrassment), forgive us if we attempt to collectively set some norms on what is and isnt okay behavior by discussing what is and isnt ok.
Whothehell (September 28, 2017 7:36 PM)
@Iana : Your sexist comment about mansplaining was reason enough not to bother reading the rest of your diatribe.
lana (October 4, 2017 9:33 AM)
please explain what was sexist
not given (February 13, 2018 7:04 PM)
The term "mansplaining" is sexist. If it isn't, then the term sexist has no meaning. It's the definition of sexist.
John Healey, MD (September 19, 2017 8:21 PM)
I am very sad and angry that there is such a persistent destructive element in academia. While I have not witnessed examples of sexual harassment such as those you itemize, there are certainly strong discriminatory practices that are pervasive and impede the academic careers of women in science and medicine. Sexual harassment is perhaps the most egregious. It is upsetting that my wife and daughters still have to encounter such threats to themselves and their careers. Thank you for continuing to focus attention on the issue. Men in academia need to take a leadership role in rectifying this situation: for the benefit of our professions and our families.
John Healey, MD
Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery, Weill Cornell College of Medicine
Joanna Hinton (September 19, 2017 9:37 PM)
Thank you for this article. Very thorough and thought provoking. I'm one of the silent and non reporters; thinking back I believe I handled myself and the situations well; but I also wonder now how many other young women were more seriously harassed than I because my silence encouraged the perpetrator's behavior whereas if I had reported it, it may have discouraged it. It's in the past. I've matured and am likely to handle things differently than when I was younger. Callisto sounds like a promising tool for reporting and protecting victims of harassment. I hope you'll follow up in a year as to progress made within chemistry departments and use of Callisto. I support the idea of sharing, distributing the Chemists Code of Conduct at meetings and reinforcing/promoting it. Thank you again.
Michelle Vogelsang (September 20, 2017 3:05 PM)
Thank you for publishing a feature article on this difficult subject. Sexual discrimination goes hand-in-hand with sexual harassment. And yes, it is absolutely one of the top reasons that women leave STEM for other careers. I left the lab 20 years ago to work in construction. I have not been harassed or discriminated against here, unlike my previous workplace. I miss chemistry research everyday, but I really love being taken seriously and being a valued team member on the construction site.
Dr. Jennifer J Archer (September 20, 2017 7:29 PM)
I'm so glad someone wrote a fantastic article. I have mentioned my own story to ACS and I am glad so many students and former students have spoken up. I am not sure how effective reporting to the Universities will be because as this article mentions they still will hire guilty faculty as long as they bring in funding. The administration just doesn't care. I was victim blamed by the dean of the college of medicine and she is a woman but still had no sympathy whatsoever. I really think we need an external neutral party like ACS to be involved. I also think that this is a portion of the general abuse of power issues that tenured professors and administrators have over students, post docs, and even junior faculty.
lana (September 21, 2017 9:57 AM)
I think the modern mixed undergrad-gradschool university just has some of the worst aspects for promoting/allowing a harrassment/rape culture.
The continuum of ages and positions of heirarchy (17yo-70) make it hard to write and administratively enforce some policies and make it difficult to get to a consensus from all those students staff and faculty as to what is and isn't permissible behavior. Add to that a mix of teaching responsibility and follow/need the money research motivation, toss in some academic silo-ing and fifedoms and a more than significant dash of egoism, to be honest its a total recipe for disaster. Even if a vast majority of people behave well the system is ripe for sexual abusers/harrassers and may even attract them.
The point is now that we have evidence that the way we organize our scientific endeavor is actively hurting people and driving other away, isnt it time to change our structure? I mean, whats it going to take? Do people have to die before we realize its the way we organize ourselves that's the problem?
no name given (September 22, 2017 1:25 PM)
And your solution is? It's easy to point out the problems, how would you suggest changing it? Single gender schools? These are human endeavors, and will never be free of problems, no matter how they're organized. All we can do is minimize as much as we can. There are no absolutes.
lana (September 27, 2017 1:46 PM)
Mutli-advisor theses projects, larger grad committees with more out of department members, more frequent committee meetings, standardized, extensive, audited and annual anti-harrasssment training, with examples for staff vs faculty vs grads vs undergrads, culminating in a yearly department wide physically attended training; stricter behavior codes, outside of department investigations, audits of all of these things. Grad funding independent of primary advisor (departmentally or school based funding). Stricter guidelines directly and proportionally tying federal funds (& ACS awards) to audited title iX and assault investigations. Cross department administrative rotations. Very clear behavior guidelines and TRAINING for national/regional meeting participants (cant participate without undergoing the training). Clearly defined investigation/enforcement process for ACS/meetings with investigators independent of the parties for enforcing. Multiple pathways for outside of ACS meeting harassment/assault cases being co-enforced by ACS.
me (September 29, 2017 11:03 AM)
Most of those sound reasonable and worthwhile. Many of those changes are underway, thankfully.

I don't see how they relate to your first comment. Your first comment seems to suggest that there is something fundamentally wrong with the structure of universities, specifically that universities are too desegregated.
lana (October 4, 2017 9:37 AM)
I mentioned the 'mixed' undergrad-grad university only because with undergrad only or research only institutions there often isn't a continuum (or mix) of ages making role-specific (professor, student, supervisor, employee etc) behavior codes easier for all parties to swallow and a natural age gap be in place to help make behavior norms easier to enforce.
'The way we organize' means just that, all the apparently-little ways we do things that play a role in allowing harassment & assault to occur, the dependency of students, the off-site conference travel and hotel arrangements being dependent on advisers, the mixing of assault/harassment reporting/investigation and career defining appointment responsibilities for department faculty, the webs of conflicts of interests between advisers, committee members, and departmental heads, the incredible lack of certainty, clarity, or respect for harassment or assault investigations, the inappropriate isolation of some investigations, the lack of cross-talk between the funding mechanisms, the universities, and the research sharing platforms of conferences and journals (aka ACS and other societies). These are some of the problems in the way we organize ourselves that create an environment ripe for harassment and assault to occur and/or go unpunished.
anon (September 22, 2017 3:50 PM)
This also happens between grad students. While a grad student I had a male grad student (from another group) do something completely inappropriate to me in front of my entire undergraduate analytical lab that I was TA-ing that semester. At the time I laughed it off in front of them, but it was out of line. (Actually I remember thinking how fortunately I had just eaten a sub sandwich with many onions in it). Fortunately, when I told his girlfriend (another grad student) she "tore him a new one" and then he wouldn't dare go near me. I heard though that it wasn't an isolated incident, so I think he didn't finish eventually. Guess I was lucky he didn't have 'connections'. I'm not sure my advisor really would have known what to do if I had told him.
Ron (September 24, 2017 10:36 AM)
How about an article on thesis advisors who do not give credit to the work done by their graduate students? I mean omitting the student's name on patents and publications. This happens frequently when the student is a foreigner.
Ron (September 24, 2017 10:40 AM)
In industry some women voluntarily sleep with male bosses in order to get promoted or get out of the lab. When they do not get what was promised to them they cry rape.
lana (September 27, 2017 1:50 PM)
And somewhere a man in a black jacket throws a brick through a window. And thats bad. I have no way of proving it, but you have no way of disproving it, and all things being equal its not outside the realm of it really helps me sleep at night to repeat this narrative. So yeah.
postdoc (September 25, 2017 12:13 AM)
And yet, many real relationships have arisen out of interactions between professors and their grad students or postdocs. Are you suggesting that these marriages are based on harassment? One size does not fit all, as this article suggests. You have to give two consenting adults a bit of credit for making their own decisions about who to have a relationship with. This article paints all women as victims, instead of the strong and capable women chemists that most of us are. In fact, in many of the examples given, the women DID actually reject the advances they weren't interested in. THAT's the behavior we should be training people for, as well as making sure that the person making the advance knows to lay off if their advance is not well received. It's certainly a better strategy than filing a complaint with a bureaucracy. Save that one for repeated, unwanted advances where you've told the person you're not interested and he/she persists. Which, BTW, is what the law defines as sexual harassment.
Hugh (September 26, 2017 10:45 AM)
While there are undoubtedly situations in which women are sexually harassed, there are many instances where men are harassed, and men are less likely than women to report it. The fact that this article does not address men being harassed weakens its argument.

As a control group, look at the community of female K-12 teachers. There is an alarming number of female teachers being arrested for the sexual abuse of their male K-12 students.
Jyllian Kemsley (September 26, 2017 7:34 PM)
@Hugh--When we had information about men, we included it:
* "Surveys show that 25% of women in the workplace—and 10% of men—experience sexual harassment."
* "Another recent survey by the National Postdoctoral Association demonstrates the problem is also extensive in that population. It showed that around 700 women and men were harassed out of more than 2,700 who responded."
* "Neither women nor men should have to accept that sexual harassment is part of the price of admission into a promising career in the chemical sciences."

We asked through social media and C&EN's newsletter for people who had experienced sexual harassment to contact us. No men did, otherwise we would have shared their stories as well. (We did hear from one man who experienced retaliation for reporting harassment of a female colleague.)
afraid to give name (February 13, 2018 7:12 PM)
Wait a minute. 700 out of 2,700 who replied is barely 25%. That number also includes men, and since one would expect that people who felt they were harassed would be much more likely to respond, this argues that number of women who are harassed is much lower than 25%. Yet your article says at least 25% of women are harassed. What gives? Cherry picking statistics?
Lawrence (September 26, 2017 11:06 AM)
In the 90's the motto was "dress for success" but today the motto must be "undress for success" - so that one can win a lawsuit.

Some women will wear low cut tops to work, walk up to a man's desk, and while turning in a paper, bend over to reveal her breasts, while saying with a smile, "will you please look at this." Some will stay bent over.

Other women will wear bright bold tops, probably designed to attract a male's attention, so that they can report that a male ogled them.

I have seen women walk in wearing fishnet nylons, wearing lingerie tops, and carrying Victoria Secret's gear - attire all designed to bring sexual empowerment into the workplace.

lana (September 27, 2017 2:25 PM)
Yes and I have seen blue fish, so all fish are blue until proven otherwise. Please could you generalize more and more innapproriately and on other barely peripheral topics?
no name (February 13, 2018 7:07 PM)
Really? Can you really not see that your reply could just as easily be used to defend men from this witch hunt? I simply don't see how someone who calls themselves a scientist can be so blind.
Dave (September 27, 2017 3:08 PM)
It is surprising to see an article like this with emphasis on harassment in academe. Not that it doesn't occur, but the issue has been an issue for many years now and well-publicized by university administrations and human relations office, what with the potential liability a university incurs should it tolerate any form of harassment whatsoever. Students as well as staff and faculty have multiple recourse under published and publicized university and board policies and federal laws that address harassment, prevention of sexual assault, domestic violence, stalking, and human rights compliant procedures. Supervisors and administrators have the responsibility to take any such complaints with utmost seriousness.
Anon (October 13, 2017 12:37 PM)
Can we start a conversation about racism in academia, namely chemistry? I feel that minorities' voices are not being heard or projected. There are female minorities that have to deal with both sides of harassment.
Jyllian Kemsley (October 13, 2017 3:58 PM)
@Anon--We'd welcome your thoughts about what C&EN might be able to do. Please feel free to contact one of us directly to discuss further.
Ken (January 9, 2018 11:46 PM)
At some point in all our lives we learn what behaior is morally right from what behavior is morally wrong. At what point in our lives do we just begin to ignore what we learned and let emotions take over and shelve common sense and morality? Selfishness takes over in whatever form and becomes the #1 objective.Every one needs to put in perspective that people are someone’s loved one . How would we feel if that was our loved one being subjected to this. Just think before you act! There are consequences for every action like this and can be life changing with a drastically negative outcome.
Susan Hagadorn, Ph.D. (MIT) (January 18, 2018 1:39 PM)
As chemistry undergraduate, graduate student, summer employee, postdoc, and researcher, I worked for six chemistry professors, all male, at four different universities. One was gay; the other five were all married. Of those five, only one behaved professionally toward his female employees. My undergraduate advisor's research group was openly misogynistic; I literally could not turn my back on my lab partner. My postdoc professor offered to take me to Europe in exchange for an affair; when I refused, he "forgot" to relay information and cost me at least two job offers.

I now work in a non-STEM field and have so little contact with chemistry that I only just learned of this article. I miss chemistry, but the price was too high.

Leave A Comment

*Required to comment