Kathryn Clancy has spent years studying the many ways sexual harassment pervades science, from university research labs to field biology sites. This week, she’s taking those findings to Congress.

The University of Illinois anthropology professor has found that harassment against women — and in particular, women of color — runs rampant in the space sciences. She’s surveyed researchers about the pervasiveness of sexual harassment and assault during scientific field work. She’s called out universities — which she says haven’t done enough to create change in research labs — to her thousands of Twitter followers.

And on Tuesday, Clancy will call attention to the issue again at a House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology hearing.


STAT spoke with Clancy about the toll that harassment takes on scientists, the shortcomings of the federal Title IX law that’s supposed to prevent sex discrimination in universities, and her ideas on how to tackle the issue. This conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

What impact does sexual harassment have on the careers of scientists?

Our research has shown that there are three main things that happen to women who are sexually harassed. One is that their career stalls in some way. One is that they take lateral moves to avoid their aggressor. They might try to stay in science, but they don’t necessarily get to advance in their careers. And the third is that they leave altogether.

Your research has shown that, often, it’s a senior person or principal investigator in a lab who harasses a junior employee. How can that harm a scientist who is early in her career?

We go to certain universities so that the we can have a particular degree but also work in a particular lab or for a particular person. So if there’s vertical abuse happening, or if the abuse is horizontal but is condoned by the [principal investigator], the person above you in the hierarchy is not a safe person to report to. And also if you are not playing along with the harassment, or if you are fighting back or disagreeing with any of it, that puts you at risk of not having career success.

“We seem to have decided as a country to abdicate responsibility for healthy workplaces to the court system.”

Kathryn Clancy, University of Illinois

Having one person that your entire career depends on creates a kind of susceptibility. It doesn’t mean that every PI is like this. But it means that there’s room for PIs to choose to be this way.

What’s getting in the way of changing the climate around sexual harassment in science?

One big part of it is legal. We seem to have decided as a country to abdicate responsibility for healthy workplaces to the court system. So instead of saying how we want workplaces to look, we look at the law and interpret it very narrowly, and that’s how we define sexual harassment. Because the court system is what does the adjudicating, only the most extreme cases ever really make it there. Which means all the other nasty stuff basically falls under the bar of what is considered, legally at least, acceptable behavior. So we’re allowing all these things to be legally acceptable when we shouldn’t think they are personally acceptable.

What can create change?

The first thing universities can do is honestly decide that they care. And that it’s better to act with integrity and risk lawsuits than continue to silence and harm women. … Universities are still incredibly averse to creating positive change.

Sexual harassment training itself is a great example. There are so many papers that show that the type of sexual harassment training that most universities offer, which is often online with really extreme examples, can backfire. That they reinforce gendered beliefs, that they develop resentment, that they increase the risk of retaliation. At best, what they do is increase the knowledge base of the people taking them so they know what the worst types of sexual harassment are. But it doesn’t ever seem to change the climate.

The Title IX rule is that you have to have training, so they say, ‘What’s the fastest, crappiest training we can slap on to be compliant?’ instead of, ‘What would be the best training that would actually reduce sexual harassment?’ And there is data on how to do great training. But the problem is it costs money, and it takes time.

“We don’t need more unfunded mandates.”

Kathryn Clancy, University of Illinois

And there’s a huge disincentive to evaluate methods. Because the law requires you make a good-faith effort to stop sexual harassment, but if you actually evaluate it, [it might] turn out your training or your policies are bad. So you appear to be following the law and you’re definitely not, which then opens you up to lawsuits. [That’s] why universities are so reticent to actually do anything about this.

What are you hoping to accomplish in testifying before lawmakers?

I have some thoughts I’m sharing in terms of things that I think we need more funding for and mandates that Congress could think about to improve the situation. We don’t need more unfunded mandates. Universities, if they’re going to start doing things right, they need money to do it right. If Congress really wants to eliminate sexual harassment, they have to figure out how to fund science better. [That] means creating some targeted funding initiatives toward empirically looking at how to reduce sexual harassment in the workplace. That would allow us to do a better job thinking about designing interventions.

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  • Why is government funding needed to do what is right? We all know what is right and what is wrong. These men know what they are doing is wrong, they don’t need to be taught, they need to be disciplined. I learned not to harass women at my mother’s knee and by my father’s stern voice.

    • Money talks and established systems won’t change their patterns without incentives (carrot and/or sticks).

      Just because someone knows what they are doing is wrong, doesn’t mean they won’t keep doing it if they won’t be held accountable. A lot of University departments have chronic sexual harassers and attackers in them. Few of these people get more than a slap on the wrist. The more grant money these toxic individuals bring in, the less likely they will ever be held accountable. If grant money was tied to not harming those working for and with you, then there would be more incentives to not harm people.

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