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Time’s Up for Harassers in Academia
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Erika Marín-Spiotta and Blair Schneider


Marín-Spiotta heads the Biogeography and Biogeochemistry (BiogeoLab) Research Group at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Photo courtesy of Erika Marín-Spiotta

Beyond the chilling effect of discrimination and bias on career satisfaction of women and other historically underrepresented groups in STEM, harassment results in outright hostile climates contributing to low retention rates. Academia is having a slow but consistent #MeToo movement, with stories of sexual harassment increasingly coming to light. These stories have highlighted the failure of institutions to sanction repeat offenders. Multiple factors contribute to a permissive culture of harassment in academic institutions, including power imbalances created by their archaic hierarchical structures; the master-apprentice model of training whereby one faculty member can exert inordinate control over the careers of their graduate students and postdoctoral scholars; intense competition for funding and resources; and the supremacy of publications and awards over personal relationships. As in Hollywood, principal investigators, treated like superstars, are enabled by communities and institutions benefiting from this culture, who don’t think it’s their business to get involved, or who feel powerless to speak up due to fear of retaliation. To make science and academia more inclusive, equitable, and just requires a long-lasting culture change.


Schneider is a postdoctoral scholar at Kansas University and also program manager for TRESTLE project designed to improve student learning in STEM. Photo courtesy of Blair Schneider.

In an effort to transform the workplace, Erika Marín-Spiotta, Ph.D. and Blair Schneider, Ph.D., along with five other colleagues, are leading ADVANCEGeo. This national collaborative project, funded by the National Science Foundation, proposes to improve the work climate in the geosciences, and more broadly, to empower community members at different levels of the academic hierarchy to stop and prevent harassment. They are doing this through development of bystander intervention and research ethics trainings that provide participants with practical strategies for responding to harassing and discriminating behaviors.


One unique aspect of the project is its partnership model. The AGVANCEGeo organizers recognized that the problem of harassment would never be solved by individual institutions who are by nature reactionary to change – to really transform the culture in academia, professional societies must step up. ADVANCEGeo developed from a partnership among three societies: the American Geophysical Union (AGU), the Association for Women Geoscientists (AWG) and the Earth Science Women's Network (ESWN). ADVANCEGeo team leaders represent not only their home institutions, they also are leaders of these societies, which combined reach over 60,000 earth scientists worldwide and include two major women’s professional networks in the field. This partnership allows for national dissemination, implementation, and sustainability of their initiatives to transform workplace climate.


Geoscience is one of the least diverse STEM fields, and this inequality is the inspiration for initiatives like ADVANCEGeo. There are few data on the prevalence of sexual and other types of harassment and of how intersectionality affects individual experiences in the geosciences. This lack of awareness of the unique challenges faced by women of color, for example, results in no appropriate institutional response. Research and training at off-campus and remote field sites can create additionally unsafe conditions. ADVANCEGeo is creating a survey for their partner society membership to better understand the problem and inform specific intervention curricula. Despite its core geoscience focus, ADVANCEGeo’s work is already being applied to disciplines in the social sciences, and Marín-Spiotta and Schneider hope their partnership can serve as a model for other scholarly disciplines.


NPA Impacts of Sexual Harassment Survey

In June 2017, the National Postdoctoral Association (NPA) conducted a comprehensive survey of workplace sexual harassment among postdoctoral scholars, which included 2,734 responses. One unique feature of the survey’s demographic is that of the 28% who indicated being the subject of sexual harassment, the vast majority were trainees during the time of the sexual harassment incident(s) (53 percent as graduate students and 35 percent as postdocs). Preliminary results were shared at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering Committee on the Impacts of Sexual Harassment in Academia Meeting on October 4, 2017. Results will also be reported on at the 2018 NPA Annual Conference, and findings are in the process of being published.

Projects like ADVANCEGeo and public awareness are beginning to bring pressure on professional societies to stop harassment. With considerable progress still to be made, it is heartening to see changes already happening in response to the #MeToo movement in science. AGU, the world’s largest professional association in the earth and space sciences, revised their ethics policy to define harassment, bullying and discrimination as research misconduct, with appropriate sanctions. An increasing number of geoscience societies are adopting similar statements in response to a national workshop co-sponsored in 2016 by AGU, AWG and ESWN. In February 2018, the National Science Foundation announced a new policy requiring grantee organizations to report findings of harassment and other conduct violations by awardees. Although this is a huge step forward, more needs to be done to protect students and postdocs.


Using personal empowerment to improve your workplace

While professional societies are moving forward to protect postdoctoral scholars, there are things postdocs can do to protect themselves, and to improve their workplaces for themselves and others. “Educate yourself on resources available at your institution, request that your supervisor discuss these with your group, model professional behavior, mentor your junior colleagues, participate in conversations about inclusivity, diversity, and equity,” suggests Marín-Spiotta. “You can contribute to change at the national stage through your professional society.”


”Projects like ADVANCEGeo and public awareness are beginning to bring pressure on professional societies to stop harassment. With considerable progress still to be made, it is heartening to see changes already happening in science in response to the #MeToo movement.”


Marín-Spiotta and Schneider are influencing how professional societies redefine their role through leadership work on AGU committees and through their own organizations. The role of professional networks and societies is to serve their members. As a member you have the power to catalyze cultural change and transform your discipline. It is never too early to be a part of the movement.


Blair Schneider, PhD, a co-PI on the ADVANCEGeo team, currently works as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Kansas. She became involved with AWG as a graduate student, serving on the national board before accepting a three-year term as President for the national organization. Erika Marín-Spiotta, PhD, Associate Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and lead PI for ADVANCEGeo, joined the ESWN Board as a postdoc.