Is sexual harassment less common in biology than in astronomy?

Lenny Teytelman Jan 14, 2016

Recent news is full of headlines such as Congresswoman Proposes Bill to Fight Astronomy’s Sexual Harassment ProblemAstronomy’s snowballing sexual harassment scandal picks up even more casesAstronomy’s sexual harassment problem gets Congressional attentionAstronomers Are Finally Doing Something About Sexual Harassment and countless others. Painful and powerful stories are being shared under #AstroSH. This creates an impression that as an academic field, astronomy may be an outlier in sexual harassment. I am not sure this is true.

A professor wrote to me yesterday, "Lenny, I'm hoping things are not so bad on the bio/biomed side of research. I've not seen any examples this bad, also there are better safeguards in the med schools that I've worked in. Hoping that is not unusual." I really want her to be right. I want to think that sexual harassment in biology is infinitely less common than in other fields. But I think the same structural issues that plague astronomy are present across all research disciplines. 

I looked up two molecular biology professors that were accused of sexual harassment [see correction below]. Both were pushed out of their schools (one a medical school and one a university). Where are they now? One is a full professor at Columbia U. and the other at U. of Chicago. And when Arnold Levine, president of Rockefeller U., stepped down due to inappropriate sexual contact with a student, he transferred to Rutgers. 

I don't have any statistics about the frequency of sexual harassment, by academic field of study. Not sure such stats exist. But it's pretty clear that the same things are going on in biology - it's the abusers rather than the victims who are protected. I'm glad that Buzzfeed's Azeen Ghorayshi, Cat Ferguson, and Virginia Hughes are dedicated to investigating these cases (see here and here). Glad that Representative Jackie Speier is focusing on this. And I hope none of us file this into the "it's not in our field" mental drawer.


[Correction 1/15/15]

In the original post, I wrote, "I looked up two molecular biology professors that were found guilty of sexual harassment in the last ten years. Both were pushed out of their schools (one a medical school and one a university)." I had wrong information about one of them, and the details are complicated. I corrected the wording to, "I looked up two molecular biology professors that were accused of sexual harassment."

[Update, 1/14/15]

Several people reminded me about this study on sexual harassment in field work:

Clancy KBH, Nelson RG, Rutherford JN, Hinde K (2014) Survey of Academic Field Experiences (SAFE): Trainees Report Harassment and Assault. PLoS ONE 9(7): e102172. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0102172

Of the 658 survey respondents, 64% reported being targets of sexual harassment, and over 20% of sexual assault. So it's very possible, given frequent field work in biology, that sexual harassment is even more frequent than in astronomy.