Not an easy topic | September 18, 2017 Issue - Vol. 95 Issue 37 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 95 Issue 37 | p. 2 | Editor's Page
Issue Date: September 18, 2017

Not an easy topic

Department: Editor's Page
Keywords: Opinion, diversity

The topic of our cover story this week is sexual harassment in the chemical sciences. It’s not an easy topic and not one that we report on frequently. But it is important to maintain awareness of how prevalent this problem is and, more important, how it is being dealt with by the chemical enterprise.

Sexual harassment is a topic that unfortunately continues to grab headlines, perhaps more so recently as an increasing number of victims are willing to speak out from a variety of sectors, including the high-tech industry. The media have done a good job of documenting the toxic culture of inequality, discrimination, and harassment that appears to be quite widespread in that sector. Typing “sexual harassment in Silicon Valley” into Google reveals thousands of articles about past and present lawsuits and complaints. In recent months, for example, revelations have surfaced of venture capitalists mistreating women entrepreneurs seeking funding for their start-ups. People have reported sexist comments, touching, unwanted advances, and more. Uber, Social Finance, and Binary Capital are some of the names that will appear on your screen.

The tech industry has been extremely successful and created enormous wealth. Many cite this success as the reason that its leaders remain immune to criticism and outsiders turn a blind eye. As a sector it is predominantly male, as are the start-up and venture capital worlds. Although in the past these issues have been, for the most part, swept under the carpet, the tide is changing and the offending behaviors are less tolerated.

The chemical sciences are not different from other sciences or industrial sectors in that the incidence of sexual harassment is on par with the incidence in other parts of the workforce. This means that nothing particular about our science encourages or supports this kind of behavior more than in any other area. But it also means that chemists have just as much work to do to address a culture that tolerates harassment.

If you read the article on page 28—and I recommend you do—there are many facts and angles that may be interesting to you. I was surprised to read, for example, a comment early on that suggests that academia is more “prone to overlook harassment because of their faculty members’ independence.” The “diffusion of authority” at academic institutions, in contrast with industry’s typically more hierarchical environment, means that those who have been harrassed don’t know whom to direct their complaint to. This blurs the paths and mechanisms to get to the bottom of these situations.

Other information that surprised me from this article was the percentages of students alleging harassment: 62% of female undergraduates and 44% of female graduates admit to having experienced it. The more shocking part of this is that undergraduates more often report having been harassed by a colleague—one of their own peers—while graduates more often report being harassed by their adviser or supervisor—a person in a position of authority. Of course all forms of harassment are unacceptable, but the latter is particularly difficult to digest. A graduat student-supervisor relationship should be that of a mentee and mentor, a long-lasting partnership built on trust that will determine a person’s career and livelihood. When that trust is broken, we as a community lose something very precious.

I have never been the subject of or witnessed inappropriate behavior such as the examples described in the cover story at scientific conferences. And I hope I never do. Harassment of any kind, to any individual, is unacceptable.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.

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