Wakeup Call: Pervasiveness of Sexual Harassment and its Effect on Female Physics Students

COLLEGE PARK, MD, April 18, 2019 — A survey of 471 undergraduate women who attended the 2017 American Physical Society’s Conferences for Undergraduate Women in Physics (CUWiP) revealed that sexual harassment in physics is insidious and experienced at a significantly higher rate than is generally acknowledged. Nearly three-quarters of respondents had experienced sexual harassment in their physics programs in the last two years.

The study also found that gender harassment, one type of sexual harassment, is correlated with two harmful psychological patterns: a diminished sense of belonging and the imposter phenomenon (a persistent, unjustified feeling of being someone who is undeserving of their accomplishments). These patterns, according to earlier research, negatively influence students’ persistence in STEM fields.

Because sexual harassment occurs more frequently in male-dominated fields and physics is a more male-dominated field than most other STEM fields, the researchers found it important to examine the occurrence and impact of sexual harassment on women in physics.

“I wanted to quantify the scope of sexual harassment in physics to enable productive discussions that extend beyond personal anecdotes,” explains author Lauren Aycock. “This study increases the visibility of the problem without relying on women who have experienced sexual harassment to tell their stories.“

The study considers sexual harassment as encompassing three distinct but related dimensions: sexual coercion, unwanted sexual attention, and gender harassment. The survey found that 73% of respondents had experienced gender harassment. These “put downs” are frequent and often dismissed as not “real” sexual harassment yet they can have significant professional and personal consequences for the victim.

The researchers suggest that the findings of this study should be a wakeup call for all physicists. They propose a variety of approaches to improve the culture of physics, reduce the pervasiveness of sexual harassment, and mitigate its effects. These include increasing the number of women in physics, creating and using mechanisms for swift justice, and having leaders who take these issues seriously.

“If physics departments are to continue investing time and effort into making physics more diverse and inclusive, it is their duty to also make sure they work hard towards a cultural shift from within,” says Miriam Deutsch, Professor of Physics at the University of Oregon and Chair of the American Physical Society’s Committee on the Status of Women in Physics. “I hope every physics department head in the country reads this article, distributes it to their faculty, and works to come up with a plan of action.”

The work was carried out by an interdisciplinary collaboration involving the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Florida International University, Drexel University, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and the American Physical Society.

The findings are published on April 22 in the article “Sexual Harassment Reported by Undergraduate Female Physicists” in Physical Review Physics Education Research, a journal of the American Physical Society.

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