Women as Scientists, Professors, and Students

Cheyenne Dorsagno, Copy Editor

In a study of 666 scientists, 64 percent of respondents—the majority of which were female—reported that they were sexually harassed during field work.

Dr. Robin Nelson, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Skidmore College, co-authored a book in 2014 about sexism and related violence in scientific fieldwork entitled “Survey of Academic Field Experiences (SAFE): Trainees Report Harassment and Assault”. This study is the first to catalogue scientists’ interactions in field work.

On March 21, amidst Women’s History Month, Nelson led a discussion enti- tled Women in the Social and Natural Sciences at Lee Hall. A panel of SUNY professors and students—Dr. Sallie Han, Dr. Leigh Fall, Kelley Murphey, Kaela Mitchell, and Beth Freer—helped conduct the conversation.

Nelson explained that she was inspired to research this issue after hearing about multiple female peers being raped, harassed, and discriminated against at work. Subsequent interviews revealed that this was a more common experience among trainees; those lower in rank are purposefully targeted in work environments with little to no rules.

Nelson hopes to inspire better working conditions for women in science so that they can practice safely. Otherwise, young women may be discouraged to pursue their dreams to study science, which would leave the world absent of the important, impactful data they would discover. Her work has created more awareness, which Murphy agreed, is the starting point to solving these problems. However, many still sympathize with predators who are also successful, prominent scientists; those responsible for reprimanding them expressed con- cern for their reputation and worry for losing a good scientist.

While rape culture is an obvious example of sexism, Fall made the point that it mostly manifests itself in microaggressions and subtle comments. America is more socially aware than ever; therefore, much of discrimination may arise subconsciously with no ill will. Dealing with this can cause the victim to question themselves and feel demeaned. Fall encouraged people to communicate more and verify their interpretation of each others’ words and actions so that they could move forward together.

The subtlety of this issue, however, can make it hard to validate.
Mitchell agreed that even in a classroom setting, expressing one’s self can be especially difficult for women, who are stereotyped as overthinking everything, in contrast to men, who are more likely to have their feelings automatically respected.

For this purpose, the panel got together to share their research and personal experiences in a judgement-free, productive manner. Mitchell said that she sometimes witnesses a teacher pointing out some students as being the only minority in the class and asking them to give an opinion representative of an entire group of people. Nelson revealed that men are more often asked to do the physical, interactive work in science while women are encouraged to do lab work and cook or clean for the field workers.

Fall said that she felt under more scrutiny as a female professor. She expressed frequent questioning of her authority, sometimes by students who used opinions from male professors to combat her. Han similarly said that her syllabi go into extreme detail to make clear her expectations and related consequences. Han said that students expect her to explain herself while her husband said that he never felt the need to do so in his syllabi.

An audience member chimed in, explaining that she reads students’ teacher evaluations. Her and her colleagues realized that the remarks are gendered, often criticizing women for attributes that men are praised for. This is not a small matter considering these evaluations can, for example, determine promotion opportunities. Fall added that the gender wage gap is the biggest workplace problem.

“Feminization of a field makes it less valuable,” Nelson said.

Many have heard that sexism affects men too but probably in more ways than most people realize. When more women start entering a field, the average pay for all employees decreases, not just for women.

Mitchell similarly shared that there are hardly any men in her Women and Gender Studies classes, which is mistakenly viewed as a women’s only issue concerning “crazy feminists.” Han, who studies reproduction, explained that the audiences at her lectures are mostly female and the discussions don’t seem to generate much attention despite the fact that reproduction involves men as well.

After sharing, an audience member warned that, “We should be careful of how we say things and not make generalizations about men.”

The panel assured that they do not intend to make generalizations as well as that they have had supportive men in their lives who are receptive to their feedback about sexism. Mitchell also encouraged men to follow her advice for women and not be afraid to enter female-dominated fields.

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