Sexual harassment is hurting women’s career ambitions and driving them away from the areas where they’re most needed—science, technology, engineering, and math—the STEM fields, as they’ve come to be called.
That’s the conclusion of a report from the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine. The problem is pervasive at colleges and universities, the bureaucracies of which are set up to protect the institution rather than the people most in need of help.
A University of Texas survey included in the report showed that 20 percent of female undergraduate and graduate science students, more than a quarter of female engineering students, and more than 40 percent of female medical students had experienced sexual harassment on the part of faculty and staff they work with.
Two programs in Chicago have been established to combat the problem. The STEM Innovation Leadership Academy, in partnership with the Exelon Foundation and the U.N. Women’s HeForShe program, and the F.H. Paschen Engineering Scholars, a partnership between Chicago construction and contracting firm F.H. Paschen and George Westinghouse College Prep, are aimed at helping scholars gain technical skills and problem-solving experience.
We spoke to teenage girls participating in these programs about the possibility that their careers could be empowered instead of imperiled.
The students understand that they’ll have to stand up for themselves—and they intend to, even as technological solutions, such as apps to call for emergency help, start to flourish. As 17-year-old Emma M. Mendez, a senior at the all-girls’ Mother McAuley Liberal Arts High School, said, “I think now, due to the awareness and society’s support, we can finally end this harassment.”
She said if she were confronted with a harasser, she’d say, “This isn’t how I should be treated,” and immediately talk with someone in charge about the situation.
Mendez, who aims to major in forensic science and minor in biology and theater, noted that she was heartened to see an episode of a favorite TV show of hers, The Good Doctor, portray a young female resident stand up to a male surgeon who behaved inappropriately.
Another student, 15-year-old Walter Payton College Prep High School junior Carollyn C. Bailey, said she’s already accustomed to having a “call in/call out” program at school. Students can get help figuring out if a peer’s potentially objectionable comments are made out of ignorance or with the intent to cause harm, and act accordingly.
Bailey, an Afro-Latina who wants to be a pilot, says she’s glad to know the nuances of when to call someone out. She also says she trusts her mother and a school principal to support her.
Both Bailey and Mendez are quick to cite strong women role models in their families. For Mendez, her paternal grandmother was a doctor who ran a clinic in Mexico with her husband, Mendez’s grandfather. Her maternal grandmother was a nurse in a Chicago-area hospital’s operating room.
Though she’s progressed from airplane copilot to glider training, Bailey still has designs on possibly becoming a doctor. “Diversity and inclusion matter,” she said. “There needs to always be a place where women can feel included and inspired.”
Bailey and Mendez, alongside Jade Nolden, a 16-year-old native of the Austin neighborhood on the city’s west side, were selected to be part of the STEM Innovation Leadership Academy.
Since the ninth grade Nolden has attended a private boarding school in Pebble Beach, California, where she’s on the student council and works on electrical setups and construction props for theater productions. “I hadn’t heard of women of color being in the STEM field until [this],” she says.
The weeklong event this summer brought 50 girls from throughout Chicago to the Illinois Institute of Technology to see STEM professionals in action and to get hands-on learning experiences on a university campus.
The second program, the F.H. Paschen Engineering Scholars, is made up of six students—four young women and two young men—chosen from among applicants who attend high schools where at least 81 percent of the students come from low-income families. This year marked the first time young women made up the majority of the scholars.
The activities are part of a three-year STEM program, which includes a special curriculum, summer internships, exposure to college engineering programs, construction-site visits, classroom-to-site applications, and one-on-one support. The aim is to ensure that engineering students have the opportunity to seek STEM careers with confidence. Scholars talked to a variety of engineers at O’Hare International Airport about their jobs, learned design and fabrication techniques, and applied their newfound skills by working with laser cutters and 3-D printers.
One of the students, Shayla Turnbough, gained experience in coding and 3-D printing a drone and a computer.
Turnbough wants to be an entrepreneur. “We have to step forward and say, ‘It’s time,'” says Turnbough, who’s active in sports and participates in the After School Matters Peacemakers initiative.
The African-American woman in charge of the Paschen scholars’ program—herself a native of Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood on the west side—knows only too well the everyday realities the STEM students will face.
Even today, Antonia Winfrey, a project manager at Paschen, says she can be at a meeting with a subcontractor on a job, and the subcontractor will start asking questions of the young white male intern who happens to be sitting in.
Yet Winfrey says she remains amazed at today’s young people and what they can achieve.
“The future looks very bright,” she said. “I cannot stop talking about how great these kids are.”
Researchers say widespread change necessary in science, technology, engineering, and math
A National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine report describes pervasive and damaging gender harassment—behaviors that demean women and isolate them with sexist remarks and degrading jokes.
The 311-page document—two years in the making, and the national academies’ first report addressing sexual harassment—also urged legislators to pass laws so people can file harassment lawsuits against individual faculty members, and so accused employees who settle harassment complaints cannot hide them from another prospective academic employer.
Yet one coauthor of the report, Kate Clancy, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, says the emergent goal is a complete cultural change for STEM fields.
Other concurrent research supports such a broad agenda. One separate, peer- reviewed article says that exposure to demeaning and insulting behaviors—known as microaggressions—that are constant, continual, and cumulative caused a high degree of depression in undergraduate engineering students at a large midwestern research university, particularly among women of color. The paper, “Intersecting Identities of Women in Engineering,” presented June 23 in Salt Lake City at the American Society for Engineering Education’s annual conference, found that engineering students and academics who are female, African-American, or of other underrepresented groups experience pervasive insults, boorish behavior, and sexual harassment.
“The results are serious and profound. I learned from my coauthor (and colleague) Professor Princess Imoukhuede that there are associations between anxiety and depression and cardiovascular diseases such as high blood pressure,” said Kelly J. Cross, an assistant professor in bioengineering, and one of the article’s six coauthors, all from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
“An African-American student who has been told, ‘You’re only here because of affirmative action,’ or a female student who hears, ‘Don’t worry that you don’t understand that programming concept, you won’t need to,’ are experiencing these things multiple times,” Cross said. “That builds.”
Despite the incivilities they endured, a majority of the students surveyed expressed a high level of identification with engineering or said that being an engineer is important to their identity and sense of self.
“This result rebuffs the long-held stereotypes that females are less interested in engineering,” concluded the article. v