They’re hassled with demeaning remarks. Unwanted advances. Bribes — or threats — to coerce sexual favors.
And they may not realize how many other women in science are facing similar harassment.
A study published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that two-thirds of female biomedical researchers reported having personally experienced “gender bias in professional advancement.” And one-third reported experiencing sexual harassment, overwhelmingly in the form of sexist remarks and coercive behavior.
The study was based on a 2014 survey of more than than 1,000 biomedical researchers, both men and women, who had received prestigious career development grants from the National Institutes of Health between 2006 and 2009.
“The survey shows that gender-based harassment is not yet rare,” said Dr. Reshma Jagsi, a radiation oncologist at the University of Michigan and lead author of the new study. “And the misperception that it is rare can hinder women from speaking out or getting help.”
Nearly half the women who had been sexually harassed said it negatively affected their career advancement, and nearly 60 percent said it negatively affected their confidence as professionals. “And these are women who have won this prestigious, competitive award,” Jagsi said.
The level of harassment and gender bias, she said, may contribute to the low numbers of women on the faculty and in the leadership at medical schools. Nationwide, just 21 percent of full professors on medical school faculty were women in 2014. At some schools, including Dartmouth and Texas A&M, fewer than 15 percent of full professors were women, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.
“Any challenge in the workplace can make promotion difficult,” Jagsi said. “But a young woman who doesn’t give in to harassment is in the awkward position of upsetting someone who is supposed to be opening doors for her.”
“And there is a stigma to being a victim of harassment,” Jagsi added. “Many women want to be recognized for their work. But instead of attention being on her as a scholar, it will be on her as a victim. And being the complainer can have adverse effects on her career.”
Biomedical computer scientist Colleen Crangle is well-aware of how speaking out can backfire. In 1997, she was fired from her position at Stanford University’s School of Medicine after complaining about discrimination and sexual harassment.
Crangle sued, and in 2000, a jury found that Stanford had retaliated against her for complaining about gender bias and awarded her more than $500,000. Stanford appealed, but later settled the case with Crangle, who is now an associate professor at the University of Louisville School of Public Health and Information Sciences.
“When you speak out, there are consequences,” she said. “But there is such a high cost of not speaking out. I have seen women give up their careers altogether, or become internally convinced that they’re not up to scratch.”
“I’m continuing the work I was doing (at Stanford),” Crangle said. “I’m competing against large institutions and it is harder, because they get a lot of support and I do everything myself. But I don’t regret what I did.”
She said that the amount of discrimination and harassment reported in the survey is “nothing short of alarming,” but she also said she knows why it happens.
“No one wants to suspect their colleagues of bias,” Crangle said. “Everybody thinks, ‘It’s not really happening here, in my university.’ And women who are not experiencing harassment think, ‘I’m doing fine, so everyone else must be.’”
The bottom line, she said: “Not enough people speak out.”